A few weeks ago I published a review of the book The Violence of Scripture (Fortress, 2012) by Eric Seibert, Professor of Old Testament at Messiah College. After reviewing the book I invited Dr. Seibert to submit to the rigors of an interview and he kindly obliged. What follows is an interview conducted by way of emailed questions and responses over the period of a couple weeks.
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RR: Eric, thanks for agreeing to do this interview. The topic of violence in scripture is one that Christians can no longer afford to avoid so I really appreciate your willingness to address this difficult topic. And I guess I’d like to start our discussion by outlining the nature of the problem. So can you provide an overview of the problem of divine violence in scripture? What exactly is it that we’re talking about here?
ES: Thanks, Randal, for providing this opportunity to give focused attention to the very serious problem of violence in Scripture. It is a topic with huge ramifications for the way we conceive of God, not to mention the way we view the Bible and the way we form our opinions about violence.
It might be helpful to say at the outset that not every portrayal of violence in the Bible is problematic, or at least not problematic in the same kind of way. A number of Old Testament stories clearly condemn certain acts of violence such as Cain murdering Abel (Genesis 4) and David’s deadly order to have Uriah killed in battle (2 Samuel 11). In these instances, it is clear that violence is undesirable and displeasing to God.
The violent verses that cause the most problems are those that contain divine violence and divinely sanctioned violence. Passages that portray God engaging in acts of violence are problematic because they often depict God behaving in ways that are difficult—if not impossible—to justify. This is particularly true when God engages in massive acts of destruction that involve the slaughter of infants and toddlers such as the worldwide flood (Genesis 6-8), the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 19), and the death of every firstborn Egyptian (Exodus 12). Not only is such behavior immoral, it is completely inconsistent with some of the other images of God we find elsewhere in both the Old Testament and the New Testament. This is particularly true when these stories are compared to the God revealed in and through the person of Jesus. Divine violence in Scripture complicates our efforts to discern the true nature and character of God, the One who has created and sustains our world.
Divinely sanctioned violence in the Bible, violence that God ostensibly condones and approves, is also very troublesome. It implies that God sometimes commands and blesses the violent actions of one group of people against another. Some of the most striking examples of this are the Canaanite (Joshua 6-11) and Amalekite genocides (1 Samuel 15). As the biblical text presents it, in both instances the Israelites have a divine directive to completely and utterly annihilate their enemies. What makes passages containing divinely sanctioned violence particularly problematic is that people have sometimes appealed to them to justify further acts of violence.
Whenever the Bible portrays violence positively, as something sanctioned, acceptable, or even praiseworthy (what I call “virtuous” violence), we need to proceed with extreme caution. Far too often people have looked to these texts as justification for acts of violence against women, gays and lesbians, children, indigenous people, and many others. Some of the worst atrocities ever committed have been perpetrated by those who appealed to violent verses in the Bible to support their cause. This is extremely dangerous. Whenever the Bible is used to harm others, something has gone terribly wrong. Unfortunately, the presence of so many violent verses in Scripture has led to the (mis)use of the Bible in this way time and time again.
RR: Your overview reminds me of an illustration I once heard from theologian Nicholas Lash. He observed that he was at a dinner party when a lady observed, “I could never believe in a God who…” and then she went on to describe some particular divinely sanctioned atrocity from the Bible. Lash’s response was brief and to the point: “Madame, who gave you a choice?” I take it that Lash was suggesting this lady was merely creating God in her own image, according to her own moral intuitions. I imagine that Lash would say the same thing to you. You have a particular set of fallible intuitions about who God is and how he should behave. But shouldn’t you be submitting your fallible intuitions to the authority of scripture? And if that means accepting a God who is more violent than we might like then, well too bad. How would you respond?
ES: Great question! I have no interest in creating a God in my own image. I want to conceive of God as God really is, insofar as that is possible. What’s interesting about Lash’s response is that it appears to be governed by certain presuppositions about the nature of Scripture. He seems to assume that everything the Bible says about God is trustworthy and reliable, that God actually said and did what the Bible claims. This would explain his terse response to the lady at the dinner party.
But is this assumption warranted? Should we believe God said and did everything we read in the Bible? I think not. In fact, I would argue that the evidence leads us in precisely the opposite direction. There are many different portrayals of God in the Bible, and they are not all compatible. For example, one passage claims God punishes people for the sins of others (Exodus 34:7), while another passages says people are only punished for their own sins (Ezekiel 18:20). Some verses claim God’s mind can change (Jonah 3:10), while another says it cannot (1 Samuel 15:29). There are texts that emphasize God’s mercy (Exodus 34:6), and others that depict God commanding people to kill without showing mercy (Deuteronomy 7:2). Since it is logically inconsistent to say all these verses accurately represent what God is like and how God behaves, these diverse depictions of God require us to make choices.
How we make these choices is a very important question, and something we may want to visit later in this conversation. But my point here is simply this: when we attempt to use the Bible to think about God, choices must be made. While some portrayals of God help us see what God is really like, others do not.
ES: There are certainly aspects of God that are paradoxical and extremely difficult to comprehend, like the Trinity (how can God be three and one?) and the incarnation (how can Jesus be both divine and human?). But these paradoxes have more to do with God’s essential being (ontology) rather than with God’s character (morality). Or, to put it another way, they are related to who God is rather than how God behaves. While I am willing to accept the inherent tensions that are part and parcel of believing in the Trinity and the incarnation, I am not inclined to believe God’s moral character is equally fraught with irreconcilable tensions, contradictions, and paradoxes.
If one were to say that God is both nonviolent and violent, merciful and unmerciful, compassionate and abusive, deceptive and truthful, it becomes exceedingly difficult to speak about the character of God in any consistent or coherent way. If God is really all these things, some of which are mutually contradictory, how can we know what God is really like? And if we cannot know what God is really like, how can we place our trust in such a God?
Those who believe we should embrace everything the Bible says about God make two fundamental mistakes, in my estimation. First, they fail to take seriously enough the very human dimensions of the biblical text. Particularly, they fail to acknowledge the fact that these texts were produced in a particular historical and cultural context that significantly influenced how these ancient writers conceived of God and wrote about God. Specifically, their theological worldview determined the way they described God’s behavior. Yet this worldview is one that many Christians today would regard as inadequate in many respects. Do we believe natural disasters represent acts of divine judgment upon people? I would hope not! Yet this is precisely how people in the ancient world frequently viewed such events. Likewise, do we believe God kills people or brings devastating calamity upon them as punishment for their sins? Again, hopefully not. Yet this is clearly how people in the ancient world thought God operated. If we wish to read the Bible responsibly, we need to recognize that some of what the Bible says about God reflects historically and culturally conditioned beliefs about God that we no longer accept as accurate reflections of God’s character.
Additionally, I think those who believe we should accept these tensions minimize the significance of the revelation of God in Jesus. One of the primary reasons Jesus came to earth was to help us better understand what God is like. Whatever else we might say about the incarnation, it is a profound act of divine self-revelation. We receive great clarity into the character of God by looking at Jesus. The life and teachings of Jesus help us perceive God’s moral character and provide guidance for sorting through the various portrayals of God we find in Scripture. In many respects, Jesus resolves certain tensions about God’s character in the biblical text by showing us clearly and unmistakably what God is really like.
Ultimately, to say we should embrace everything the Bible claims about God is to treat the Bible as a flat book. It assumes that all parts are equally revelatory and authoritative. But that simply is not the case. Some parts clearly reveal God’s character, while others portray God in ways that do not reflect what God is like. Our task, as discerning readers, is to develop principled ways to evaluate the Bible’s depictions of God so that we might come to see and know God as God really is.
RR: There are a lot of points you make that I’d like to respond to. But let me focus on two. First, you made an interesting statement about reading the Bible “responsibly”. In your estimation, what constitutes a responsible reading of the Bible? And what criteria do you use to identify such readings? Second, your denial that all of scripture is equally authoritative seems to constitute a denial of plenary inspiration. Is that correct? And if so, do you think we should get rid of the less authoritative bits?
ES: I think it is really important to read the Bible responsibly, so I’m glad to say more about this. From an ethical perspective, reading the Bible responsibly means reading it in ways that do not harm others. Anyone who appeals to Scripture to oppress or dominate others, or to justify acts of violence, misuses the Bible. The Bible should never be used to dehumanize or destroy others.
While there is no simple formula to ensure we are reading responsibly, three guidelines can help us in this effort. First, we should read in ways that increase our love of God and others. Second, we should read in ways that promote justice. And finally, we should read in ways that value all people. If our readings pass these three “tests,” it is likely they are ethically responsible. If they do not, we do well to go back and read again.
If we are committed to reading the Bible in an ethically responsible manner, we need to read it actively rather than passively. We must be willing to question what we read and to critique values and perspectives in the Bible that are problematic or oppressive. Reading responsibly means being prepared to challenge views and assumptions in the Bible that are ethically problematic or morally offensive. For example, it means recognizing that slavery is unacceptable, patriarchy is oppressive, and violence is not praiseworthy despite the fact that numerous biblical texts suggest otherwise. When we read responsibly, we refuse to sanitize these troubling texts or the violence sanctioned in them. Instead, we are honest about the Bible’s limitations and recognize that some things in the Bible are ethically and morally problematic.
Reading the Bible responsibly also means reading it in ways that help us think accurately about God. This involves making distinctions between the way God is portrayed in the Bible and the way God really is. While there are certainly various points of correspondence between literary representations of God and the living God, one cannot simplistically draw a straight line between them. Since some texts reveal God’s character with striking clarity and others do not, responsible readers are those who make serious efforts to discern the extent to which various portrayals of God they encounter in the Bible reflect what God is actually like.
In response to your second question, you are right to interpret my denial that all scripture is equally authoritative as a denial of plenary inspiration which, as I understand it, claims that the exact words of Scripture were in some way determined by God. I regard such a position as untenable given the Bible we have and what we know about its formation. However, lest I be misunderstood on this point, I would hasten to add that I do affirm the inspiration and authority of Scripture, and discuss my particular views on these topics in an appendix in my book, Disturbing Divine Behavior.
Although the idea of getting rid of “the less authoritative bits” holds certain appeal (who hasn’t at some point wished this or that verse was not in the Bible!), I don’t regard it as a desirable—or even very workable—solution. From a practical standpoint, there would be the challenge of coming to some kind of consensus as to what exactly constitutes the “less authoritative” parts. Even if these could all be identified with some degree of certainly, removing them would inflict serious trauma upon the text. Many of these problematic passages are integrated into larger narratives and removing them would irreparably harm the literary integrity of the text. Too much would be lost in such a radical move. Since the Church has found this particular collection of texts helpful and authoritative for nearly two thousand years, it seems more prudent to read and interpret them carefully, in ways that are constructive and life-affirming. Thus, rather than removing certain problem passages, we need to learn how to handle these texts responsibly, in ways that minimize their potential damage while maximizing the value they might continue to have as Scripture for us today.
RR: Once again I’d like to pose two questions. In fact, let me revise that. I’d like to ask a bunch of questions in two areas.
First, where do you get your three regulative principles from? Do you glean them from a moral intuition? From your culture? From the Bible? All of the above? In other words, how do you avoid the charge that you’ve introduced a procrustean bed to your reading of scripture in which you force the text to fit into your presuppositions?
Second, I’d like you to say a bit more on the issue of plenary inspiration. You’ve said you don’t think we should cut and snip the Bible. What would you think of something like a red-letter edition in which all the parts you believe are not inspired are rendered in a different colored font? That would maintain the integrity of the text while also flagging for the reader the parts you believe are not inspired.
ES: The three principles I have suggested for reading the Bible responsibly are derived from the Bible itself, and each one has certain connections to Jesus. Jesus said thegreatest commandment was to love God with all of one’s heart, soul, and mind and the second was like it, to love one’s neighbor as oneself (Matthew 22:37-39). Therefore, it seems quite appropriate to say that a responsible reading of Scripture is one that increases our love for God and others. Second, reading the Bible in ways that promote justice is congruent with the major emphasis on justice we find throughout Scripture (e.g., Micah 6:8) and in the life and ministry of Jesus. Jesus was very concerned about issues of justice and spoke frequently about the kingdom of God, God’s reign of peace and justice. Third, reading the Bible in ways that value all people fits theologically with the belief that all people have been created in God’s image (Genesis 1:27) and, therefore, are of infinite worth. Jesus reflects this kind of care for others by the way he treats people, especially those regarded as outcasts, second-class citizens, and sinners. The very people others shunned, Jesus embraced. We should do likewise, and we are better equipped to do so when we read the Bible in ways that value all people. Because these three guidelines for reading ethically are not arbitrary, but are consistent with major concerns in the Bible and the life and teachings of Jesus, they serve as a reliable guide to reading the Bible responsibly.
Regarding the question of inspiration, I would not say some parts of the Bible are inspired while others are not. I believe God was involved in the formation, transmission, preservation, and canonization of the Bible. While I think it is extremely difficult to say just how God was involved in this rather complex process, God’s involvement makes it possible to speak generally of the inspiration of Scripture. Whatever we might say about God’s involvement in the process, it appears that human authors had considerable freedom in determining what they wrote and how they wrote it. They wrote in ways that reflected their own cultural and historical context, and God clearly did not always intervene to “correct” certain assumptions, beliefs, and ideas we now regard as problematic. Consequently, some parts of the Bible prove to be a less reliable guide than others when it comes to thinking about what God is like or how we should behave.
While your idea of a color coded Bible is interesting, I would not advocate for it. I am not sure the gains would outweigh the losses. For example, while I donot believe God drowns people (despite the flood narrative in Genesis and the destruction of the Egyptian army in Exodus), color coding these passages to warn readers that they contain unreliable portrayals of God might cause some people to disregard these texts altogether as theologically worthless. That would be unfortunate. Even though I find the violent portrayals of God in these texts problematic—and would argue they should be critiqued in light of the revelation of God in Jesus—I remain convinced there are aspects of these stories that are still instructive and worth our time and careful attention. Rather than color coding passages like these, I would prefer to see a few pages at the beginning of the Bible (and/or in notes at strategic places throughout the Bible) designed to help readers understand what kind of book they are reading and to encourage them to proceed with caution as they read and apply biblical texts today. People need to read carefullyand be reminded that even problematic passages can be used constructively when read responsibly.
RR: Eric, as you know your interpretation of the violent texts of the Bible represents a significant deviation from the way many Christians have read them. As a result, your readings involve risk. To defend such readings in churches, small groups and Bible studies brings with it the risk of social stigma and even censure as one could be flagged as “undermining the authority of scripture” or “rejecting God’s revelation”. And that leads into an even deeper fear. What if adopting your readings is tantamount to undermining the authority of scripture or rejecting God’s revelation? To put it bluntly, how can you assure people that you’re not just rejecting the scandal of particularity based on idolatrous Enlightenment sensibilities?
ES: It is true. Reading the Bible nonviolently involves certain risks. Some people will undoubtedly conclude that this approach undermines the authority of Scripture (an accusation I would strongly dispute). As I see it, the problem is not the way of reading the Bible I have described, but rather lies in certain ways biblical authority is sometimes construed. Too often, biblical authority is tethered to a belief in the historical accuracy and theological veracity of the Bible in its entirety. When this happens, questioning whether certain events actually happened, or critiquing problematic portrayals of God, is seen as being tantamount to denying the authority of Scripture. This is unfortunate, especially in the face of compelling evidence that invites us to ask these very questions.
So what can I say to reassure those who have concerns about reading the Bible this way and who fear where this approach might lead? I would say that my proposal to read the Bible ethically and nonviolently is in no way antithetical to having a vibrant and robust Christian faith. On the contrary, reading the Bible responsibly and ethically can have many salutatory effects and can encourage faithful living. I have devoted a significant portion of my life to studying Scripture and am committed to following Jesus, being actively involved in the life of the church, and working for peace and justice. Moreover, I have seen the positive impact my approach to Scripture has had on other Christians, like the retired professor in my Sunday School class who, on more than one occasion, has publically testified about how my book (along with a book written by one of my colleagues) saved his faith. My approach provided him with answers to questions that had plagued him and had threatened to dismantle his faith.
While I realize that some Christians disapprove of my approach and regard my proposals as misguided (if not downright heretical!), I believe these concerns are misplaced. My way of handling these troubling texts should not cause alarm. Instead, what should really bother Christians is the way the Church has read these texts violently over the years and has used them to justify all sorts of oppression, injustice, violence, and killing. Similarly, we should be deeply disturbed by the way the Church has uncritically accepted violent visions of God from the Old Testament as determinative of God’s nature, when Jesus clearly shows us otherwise. God is not in the business of slaying, slaughtering, and smiting, regardless of the fact that God is often portrayed this way in the Old Testament. Thus, in my humble opinion, it would seem that those who insist that God is violent, even when Jesus shows us otherwise, are the ones who run the risk of “rejecting God’s revelation,” as you put it.
Ultimately, the real measure of our commitment to biblical authority has less to do with what we say about the Bible and more to do with how e live in light of its key concerns. We will be known as followers of Jesus by the love we have for one another (John 13:35), not by adhering to this or that view of biblical authority. As Christians, I hope we can extend grace to those whose views of the Bible differ from our own as we encourage each other to follow Jesus fully and faithfully.
RR: Your reference to the impact your book had on the retired professor provides a nice segue for us to talk about Disturbing Divine Behavior and The Violence of Scripture. Can you give us a thumbnail sketch of these two books, briefly summarizing their arguments and noting how they differ?
ES: Many people are bothered by various portrayals of God in the Old Testament, particularly those which depict God harming or killing others. My earlier book,Disturbing Divine Behavior, focuses specifically on the difficulties raised by these kinds of problematic portrayals of God in the Old Testament. I argue that we should not uncritically assume that all these portrayals are trustworthy representations of God. Instead, we should make distinctions between the way God is portrayed in the Bible and the way God actually is. This is necessary given the contrasting views of God in Scripture and the compelling archaeological, historiographical, and cultural reasons suggesting God did not say and do everything the Old Testament claims.
When we attempt to use the Bible to think about God’s character, we need to utilize a principled approach to help us determine which portrayals reflect God’s character and to what extent they do so. To make this determination, I propose using a Christocentric hermeneutic (Christ-centered method of interpretation). This is based on the premise that Jesus is the clearest and fullest revelation of themoral character of God. By using the God Jesus reveals as a standard, other portrayals of God in the Bible can be evaluated to determine the extent to which they reflect God’s character. This process of evaluation makes it clear that some Old Testament portrayals of God, like those portraying God commanding genocide, do not reveal what God is really like. We should freely acknowledge this even as we attempt to find ways to use these troubling images—and the texts in which they reside—more positively.
In The Violence of Scripture, I am more broadly concerned with the problem of “virtuous” violence in the Old Testament. Whenever the Old Testament portrays violence positively, as something that is necessary and approved of, this is a cause for concern. Tragically, many people throughout history have used certain positive portrayals of violence in the Old Testament to justify further acts of violence against others. This should not be. The Bible should never be used to harm others. Yet, as I argue in this book, the problem is not just that people have misinterpreted or misapplied these passages. Rather, the texts themselves are often quite problematic. They sometimes condone, sanction, and even celebrate violent acts and attitudes. This is even true of some of the most beloved Bible stories, like the story of David and Goliath. This creates a real dilemma for individuals who look to the Bible for moral guidance, or who wish to use the Bible to promote Christian values.
In an effort to counter the negative impact these violent verses can have, I propose reading the Biblenonviolently. Among other things, this entails a willingness to engage in a critique of “virtuous” violence while still attempting to find ways to use these texts constructively. I offer numerous ways one can engage in this kind of critique (e.g., reading with the victims) and also suggest various possibilities for using even some of the most troublesome texts in ways that help rather than hurt.
In both books, I urge readers to begin addressing the problems certain Old Testament texts raise for us. Unfortunately, the Church often avoids these texts and fails to help people deal with them responsibly. When this happens, much harm can be done. I want Christians (and others) to read these texts ethically and nonviolently, in ways that promote justice, value all people, and enhance our understanding of God’s true nature and character. To the extent that these books help readers do that, their purpose is well served.
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