God and Violence: A Selected and Annotated Bibliography
The literature of what is coming to be called “ethical criticism” of the Bible has been growing exponentially over the last sixty years or so. Jewish writers have struggled to come to grips with the absence of the covenantal God in the Holocaust; Christian feminist writers have protested against oppressive patriarchal forces that justify themselves by citing biblical models; Third World writers have objected to imperialistic undercurrents in the Bible that have leant support to exploitative colonial practices by the West; and, more recently, environmentalists have criticized the Bible for encouraging the cavalier exploitation of natural resources that scientists claim have brought us to the brink of catastrophe. All find examples enough of biblical stories, injunctions, prophecies, laments, and psalms that appear to confirm Bible believers in their worst mental and behavioral habits. Religiously-inspired terrorism has only heightened popular concerns that sacred texts, particularly those of the Abrahamic religions, produce an especially virulent kind of violence and brutality.
Contemporary writers who address the problem of “disturbing divine behavior” in the Bible of course do so from various perspectives. But they could all be classified according to whether they offer critiques internal to a tradition of Bible reading that recognizes its special spiritual and moral authority or instead submit critiques that are leveled from outside such a tradition. Most of the items listed below fall into the first category, but a few from the latter are included here in the belief that important insights can come from these sources. But even with the bias toward works from authors with a religious commitment, the variety of responses to the Bible and its unsettling depictions of God is interesting. The books and articles in this short bibliography document just a small portion of that multiplicity of approaches.
Blumenthal, David R. Facing the Abusing God: A Theology of Protest. Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1993. — A controversial book by a Jewish scholar who wrestles fiercely with his God. Blumenthal argues that Holocaust survivors and other “victims of divine abuse” must confront God with their rage and protest furiously against his mistreatment before their spiritual healing can begin.
Brett, Mark G. Decolonizing God: The Bible in the Tides of Empire. Sheffield, England: Sheffield Phoenix, 2008. — Brett investigates land rights in Ancient Near Eastern traditions, the genocide in Deuteronomy, and other topics in both Old and New Testaments that protest or promote imperialism and colonialism. He then outlines what an anti-imperial theology might look like.
Brueggemann, Walter. Divine Presence amid Violence: Contextualizing the Book of Joshua. Milton Keynes; Carlisle; Eugene, OR: Paternoster; Cascade, 2009. — Time spent with Brueggemann is never wasted. Here is his attempt to put Joshua 11 (one of the bloodiest chapters in the Bible) in a broader biblical and sociological context in order to extract positive truths about the character of Yahweh.
———. “Some Aspects of Theodicy in Old Testament Faith.” Perspectives in Religious Studies 26 (1999): 253–68. — In this article, Brueggemann brilliantly identifies important features of Old Testament confrontations between faithful followers and a God who sometimes takes a leave of absence.
———. Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1997. — The aim of this highly praised and provocative volume is to provide an answer to the question of how the Israelites spoke about God. It is thus far wider in its concerns than just theodicy, but Brueggemann’s striking insights on that subject are scattered throughout.
Carroll, Robert P. The Bible as a Problem for Christianity. Philadelphia: Trinity Press International, 1991. — “The world is overflowing with books praising the Bible. There is room for a book about its more negative aspects—hence this one,” says Carroll. His critical but intelligent treatment of the relationship between the Bible and many Christian readers is especially sensitive to ideological abuses, which the Scriptures sometimes make all too easy.
Chilton, Bruce. Abraham’s Curse: The Roots of Violence in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. New York: Doubleday, 2008. — Chilton does not blame the story of the binding of Isaac for the violence of Judaism, Christianity, or Islam but looks at how each of these has developed interpretations of the story that support violence. Genesis 22, however, does not encourage violence in any straightforward way (in fact, speaks against it). It must be forced to assume a shape that conforms to the desires of its readers, perhaps illustrating that a sacred text is no match for a heart bent on having its own way.
Copan, Paul. Is God a Moral Monster? Making Sense of the Old Testament God. Grand Rapids, MI: BakerBooks, 2011. — A philosopher takes a stab at justifying the ways of the Old Testament God. See the book review by Ken Esau in this issue.
Crenshaw, James L., ed. Theodicy in the Old Testament. Philadelphia: Fortress; London: SPCK, 1983. — A collection of eight illuminating essays by such heavy-weights as Walter Eichrodt, Gerhard von Rad, A.S. Peake, and Martin Buber on various aspects of Old Testament theodicy.
Davies, Eryl W. The Immoral Bible: Approaches to Biblical Ethics. London: T&T Clark International, 2010. — Inspired by the events of 9/11, Davies subjects Josh. 6–11 to evolutionary, cultural relativistic, canonical, paradigmatic, and reader-response approaches, and points out the strengths and weaknesses of each. In the end he prefers reader-response for its potential to resist interpretations that lend themselves to self-serving conclusions and immoral deeds.
Dell, Katharine, ed. Ethical and Unethical in the Old Testament: God and Humans in Dialogue. Library of Hebrew Bible/Old Testament Studies 528. New York: T&T Clark, 2010. — A collection of papers read by Bible scholars at the Cambridge Old Testament Seminar between 2005 and 2008. Many essays address the “dark side” of the Old Testament God, but such issues as truth-telling, war, and the environment are also given close scholarly attention.
Dietrich, Walter and Christian Link. Die dunklen Seiten Gottes. 2 vols. Vol. 1: Willkür und Gewalt (1995). Vol. 2: Allmacht und Ohnmacht (2000). Neukirchen-Vluyn, Germany: Neukirchener Verlagsgesellschaft. — Dietrich and Link carefully examine the “dark sides” of God but give a fair hearing to plausible explanations for God’s apparently questionable deeds. Reviewed favorably, with some reservations, in the Dell collection above.
Fretheim, Terence E. “God and Violence in the Old Testament.” Word & World 24, no. 1 (2004): 18–28. — Fretheim capably defends the view that in the Old Testament “God’s use of violence . . . is intended to subvert human violence in order to bring the creation along to a point where violence is no more . . . In everything, including violence, God seeks to accomplish loving purposes.”
Gilbert, Pierre. “The Violence of God: Investigations in the Book of Isaiah.” [6 parts] Mennonite Brethren Herald 44, nos. 12–17 (2005). — A defense of the violence of God depicted by Isaiah as revelation of God’s passionate love for, and willingness to involve himself in redeeming, his people. Written for a general audience by a popular Mennonite Brethren Old Testament scholar.
Habel, Norman C. An Inconvenient Text: Is a Green Reading of the Bible Possible? Adelaide, Australia: ATF, 2009. — The human lust to dominate nature gets encouragement from the Old Testament God, but can the Bible be read in ways that keep it in check? Habel offers a critique of “domination,” “mighty acts of God,” and “promised land” texts, and proposes “green” readings of the same.
Heschel, Abraham Joshua. The Prophets. New York: Harper & Row, 1962. — Full of insight and Jewish mystical wisdom, Heschel’s book is a classic. His discussion of God’s wrath will provoke reverent reflection, even if it does not answer all the questions: “Divine anger is not the antithesis of love, but its counterpart, a help to justice as demanded by true love.”
Jones, Gareth Lloyd. “Sacred Violence: The Dark Side of God.” Journal of Beliefs & Values: Studies in Religion & Education 20, no. 2 (October 1999): 184–99. — Written before 9/11, Jones sounds the alarm over scripture-inspired Jewish and Christian violence. His recommendation to Christians is very much like Eric Seibert’s: “If a biblical concept corresponds with what we know of God in Christ, it is acceptable, if not, it is invalid.”
Kent, Grenville J.R. et al., eds. Reclaiming the Old Testament for Christian Preaching. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2010. — Includes essays by evangelical scholars Daniel I. Block, Alison Lo, Tremper Longman III, Laurence A. Turner, Gordon Wenham, H.G. M. Williamson, and Christopher J. H. Wright and others. Wenham’s essay, “Preaching from Difficult Texts,” is especially relevant.
Lamb, David T. God Behaving Badly: Is the God of the Old Testament Angry, Sexist, and Racist? Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2011. — Lamb (DPhil, Oxford) offers thoughtful arguments that attempt to soften some of the harder edges of the Old Testament God without denying tensions in the descriptions of his character. Lamb’s efforts are not consistently successful, but he doesn’t claim to have all the answers and encourages readers to keep an open mind, read feminist theologians, and engage in prayerful conversation.
Lüdemann, Gerd. The Unholy in Holy Scripture: The Dark Side of the Bible. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 1997. — A controversial German Bible scholar, Lüdemann sometimes seems to take it as a fundamental hermeneutical principle that, in historical and biblical research, the most radical conclusions will always be closest to the truth. This book is included here not so much as a “recommendation” as an example of the kind of aggressive skepticism currently in vogue and which some academics abet.
Madsen, Catherine. “Notes on God’s Violence.” Cross Currents 51, no. 2 (June 1, 2001): 229–56. — This atypical defense of the Old Testament God defies easy categorization. Madsen, a literature professor, is critical of any feminist theology that seeks to strip God of all hint of violence. Among her basic premises are that “humanity can accept only a God against whom we can protest; [and] that it can be both a moral and a psychological need to trade accusations with God.” An innocuous, feminized God, she argues, precludes therapeutic protest.
Middleton, J. Richard. “Created in the Image of a Violent God? The Ethical Problem of the Conquest of Chaos in Biblical Creation Texts.” Interpretation 58, no. 4 (2004): 341–55. —Middleton disputes both that biblical creation texts always refer to a violent creation and that texts that do so are plentiful. The combat-story of creation, moreover, is often linked to an offensive ethnocentricity and militarism. He argues that the God of Gen. 1 who speaks the world into being excludes the idea that wielding violent power is part of what it means to be made in the image of God.
Rad, Gerhard von. Holy War in Ancient Israel. Tr. Marva Dawn. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1991. — This remarkable piece of scholarship dispels some cruder notions of what war actually involved for the ancient Israelites. It is a reminder that hasty condemnations of ancient practices can easily be mistaken.
Schwartz, Regina M. The Curse of Cain: The Violent Legacy of Monotheism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997. — This professor of English literature argues that a “myth of scarcity” is deeply rooted in the belief in a single God who therefore legitimates disdain for the claims and values of “the other.” Hence, monotheism is the source of much brutal violence in the world. Schwartz’s simple equation of monotheism with scarcity and plenitude with some other mode of God has been criticized, but her critique applies well to narrow construals of what following “the one God” entails.
Seibert, Eric A. Disturbing Divine Behavior: Troubling Old Testament Images of God. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2009. — An Anabaptist Bible scholar’s effort to address the issues raised by biblical depictions of a God who can be disturbingly violent. For scholarly responses to Seibert’s proposals, see essays in this issue.
Sweeney, Marvin A. Reading the Hebrew Bible After the Shoah: Engaging Holocaust Theology. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2008. — Sweeney, professor of Hebrew Bible at Claremont, examines the Scriptures for indications of “G-d’s” fidelity and finds his absence equally well attested. The Shoah (Holocaust) is only the most recent example of the Divine’s failure to show up. Sweeney ends by encouraging his Jewish readers to choose to remain faithful to “the ideals learned from G-d of power, righteousness, fidelity, and engagement in our own lives” despite their sense of divine abandonment. For “perhaps G-d needs us just as much as we need G-d.”
Trible, Phyllis. Texts of Terror: Literary-Feminist Readings of Biblical Narratives. Overtures to Biblical Theology. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1985. — A classic of feminist biblical scholarship delivered in the form of lectures, Trible’s book consist of a brilliant re-telling of the stories of Hagar, Tamar, an unnamed woman, and the daughter of Jephtha from their point of view as mere props in a larger narrative.
Weems, Renita J. Battered Love: Marriage, Sex, and Violence in the Hebrew Prophets. Overtures to Biblical Theology. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1995. — In this well-reviewed work, Weems sensitively examines the violent sexual metaphors in the prophetic writings. While her judgments can be sharp, she tries to respect both the prophetic language that has empowered the oppressed and the effects of the metaphors on readers who actually suffer sexual violence or abuse from their husbands.
Wright, Christopher J.H. The God I Don’t Understand: Reflections on Tough Questions of Faith. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2008. — The reflections of a pastorally-minded Bible scholar on difficult issues raised by evangelical faith and the Scriptures. Wright, a conservative evangelical, is perhaps predictable on some questions (e.g., evil entered the world through fallen angels). But his confession that there is much in the Bible and the Christian walk itself that eludes understanding and his appreciation for the need to offer seekers and believers intelligent answers helps to compensate.