I was recently asked on Twitter how I deal with the problem of biblical violence, that is, the problem of God appearing to command and commend violent actions that appear to be evil. I responded with four points and while regular readers of this blog will likely recognize all four in my past writing, I thought it might be helpful to summarize them here.
The first point is to follow Augustine’s principle that Scripture must always be read so as to increase one’s love of God and neighbor. As a result, if a particular reading leads a person to dehumanize members of the human population, that’s a good reason to reconsider your reading.
Second, make sure that your hermeneutical lodestar is the Christ revealed in the Gospels, the one who declared, “If you’ve seen me, you’ve seen the Father,” the one who called us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us.
Third, recognize that your most deep-seated moral intuitions are an important guide in exegetical, hermeneutical, and theological reflection. Are those intuitions fallible? Yes, of course. But then, all of our reasoning is fallible: we are human, after all. The fact remains, however, that our moral intuitions provide important guides as we weight the viability of particular readings. Thus, the visceral recoil from some hermeneutical and ethical proposals provides us, at the very least, with a prima facie reason to reconsider those proposals.
Finally, remember that while all Scripture is useful for teaching, reproof, correction, and training in righteousness, not every text achieves that end in the same way. Some texts may do so in a straightforward manner by showing us how to live and be in the world. Other texts may function very differently, by showing us what not to do, by inviting us to learn from the mistakes of others, and by finding their same errant impulses lodged within our own hearts.
One more thing: you should also keep in mind that it is okay not to know what to do with a particular text. Better to be left without a clear resolution of a problem than to adopt a clearly faulty resolution.
Follow those four (plus one) principles and you will be well on your way to making sense of the violence in Scripture in a way that is biblically faithful, theologically orthodox, and true to the ethical formation that should be wrought in each disciple of Jesus.