So much violence in the bible
By Amba Ewudziwa
I am not sure if I should thank you for asking me to do this. I am not a biblical scholar. My Hebrew and Greek have rusted away with disuse, but I do read the Bible in several English versions and also those in the dialects of the Akan language I speak in Ghana.
I never cease to have misgivings about labelling some of what I read as "the word of God". Returning home to Ghana, I discovered a vigorous religious fervour, which makes quotations from the Bible the final arbiter in all arguments. It makes me shudder. Once I listened for about 30 minutes to the conversation of four young men on what is decent dressing for women. Trousers were taboo because the "Bible says: cursed is the woman who wears men’s clothes."
Working on gender sensitivity with religious bodies and educational institutions is an uphill task. The Bible has so much that goes in the direction of overcoming violence... but that is not what I hear around me! It was this frustration that I needed to share. I am not raising the ‘Problem of Evil’ nor ‘Original Sin’ nor ‘Vicarious Suffering’ nor theodicy. I am simply saying there is "so much violence in the Bible!"
In 1984, Phyllis Trible of the Union Theological Seminary (N.Y.) published a book entitled Texts of Terror (Fortress Press). Her texts were from the Bible, the book we Christians accept as the word of God. The Bible is in the public domain; it is a book on which all can sundry and pontificate. It is the Bible of people, and it is this Bible whose violence terrifies. The murder and dismembering of a woman horrifies us, but we easily accept a father’s execution of a daughter to fulfil a vow if it is in the Bible.
We do not read very far before we meet the creator God sending a flood to destroy all that exists saving one human family and pairs of animals. If you have witnessed a flood on TV, you know the suffering of trees, plants, animals, desperately clinging to branches... Imagine how the humans who were not saved died. It is in the Bible that human beings were turned into pillars of salt. It is in the Bible that God caused the sea to open and swallow up human beings and horses. When ‘natural’ disasters happen today, do we attribute them to God? Should we attribute them to God? Is the violence in nature a sign of the violence in us - the human beings who are part of nature? Does this violence justify the violence in our style of life?
Have you ever thought of how Isaac felt when he was bound, put on the firewood he had carried and saw his father’s raised hand above him holding a gleaming knife? Would you ever trust such a father again? Yes, the event allowed Abraham to demonstrate his faith. But what effect does the story have on a young boy in a Sunday school class? It is in the Bible that God waited for human beings to raise a tower and then sent angels to destroy it. Well, one interpretation of that story is that it was God’s way of saying that living with diversity is more challenging, if not more fun. But you have seen buildings erased to the ground by bombs? Have you seen people trapped under the debris of blasted buildings? Did God warn the builders of the tower before the implosion? The simple fact I am left with is the use of violence to teach lessons.
Abraham and Isaac
|There are texts of cheating siblings, of cheating employers, conniving women, war-lords, mass des-truction of prisoners-of-war and their property at the command of God. There are unpunished rapes and rapes that bring punishment achieved through deceit. The promised land was peopled, but the Indigenous people had to be massacred, displaced or absorbed. All this was said to be the will of God, depicted as a tribal deity whose concern is only for the chosen people. Of course, other parts of the same Hebrew Scriptures give a contrary view. Our aim here, however, is to show how human beings have claimed that the violence they do to other human beings and the rest of nature is sanctioned by God.|
Why do we say nothing of the psychological violence done to the raped Dinah? What do we say about the mental torture that drove Tamar to trick her father in-law into sleeping with her? These are random flashes from the Hebrew Scriptures, but the New Testament is not free of this wanton destruction. We have Herod’s massacre of children under two years old, the destruction of a herd of a cattle and a tree by Jesus, the driving away of traders from the Gentile court of the Temple at Jerusalem. All these have perfectly satisfactory theological explanations. It is about violence in a violent world, yes. But how do we overcome the negative effects of this scriptural violence? How do we stop the psychological violence done to women as a result of biblical language about women?
We do not give enough background to Biblical texts, and treat all as a mandate for what we do. How can we prevent the Bible from being used as the source and reason for all human history and behaviour? I am struggling with a view of God that includes God’s command that the other should be destroyed. I am looking for a way of saying that the Bible is the one-sided view of the happenings of particular periods of time and places, and that the book as we have it even has an internal critique of this violent God who commands, condones or blesses violence. We should ask ‘Is this the word of God?’ By what criteria do we distil the word of God from the historic experiences of a people?
As an African sensitive to the violent displacement of Africans to make room for Europeans on this continent, the stories of the conquest of Canaan and the massacres of Indigenous peoples are not my favourites. They have been used against us, and Africans are still suffering from the misappropriation of these biblical texts to the benefit of peoples of European origin.
As a woman, I shudder at the rape of women in the Bible. Current ritual murders of women in Ghana bring images of Jephtah’s sacrifice of his unnamed daughter to mind. The many women thrown out of marriages to care single-handedly for children recall Hagar.
When I evoke violence in the Bible, I am thinking mostly about the bloody violence done in the name of God. But just see how much violence has been done, from Genesis to Revelation, to the image of woman and how men and women, caring nothing for hermeneutics, historicity and the continually changing cultural understandings of God have caused so much physical and psychological battering of women and children!
How do we overcome the use of violence in the Bible as the justification and legitimization of the violence we do today? If this question is not considered people will continue to take the Bible seriously and will continue to say that to be head is to be boss, and that culture and Bible agree that a woman cannot be boss. Men will continue to discard the Hagars in their lives even without instructions from the Sarahs because Abraham, the father of the faith, began the tradition and because early missionaries to Africa destroyed African families. In favour of monogamy, polygamous men had to send away the "extra wives". The church did not ask what happened to those wives and their children. People will continue to seek their own comfort even if they have to sacrifice other human beings to achieve that end and they will quote you fitting biblical passages. I am simply stating a fact and a concern that there is so much violence in the Bible and hoping we can work on it together.
Amba Ewudziwa, better known to us as Mercy Amba Oduyoye, was a staff member of the WCC from 1987 to 1994, the last three years as deputy general secretary. She is currently director of the Institute of African Women in Religion and Culture.