Do you have to believe in God to be a moral person? According to a new study by Pew’s Global Attitudes Project, 53 percent of Americans say yes. The ironic fact of the Bible, however, is that it is full of individuals who believe in God, who act immorally and violently, and whose God appears to bless their actions. Many Christians today are critical of the violence they see in other religions — especially Islam — but there’s an inescapable cognitive dissonance if you are appalled by the violence done in the name of one religion but not by the violence done in the name of your own.
It is hard to miss the passage where Moses slaughters 3,000 Israelites for worshipping a golden calf (Exodus 32) — a death toll comparable to September 11. Or the passage telling of Moses’ anger upon discovering that his army had spared enemy women and children (Numbers 31), later commanding them to kill the males and older women, but keep the virgin girls for themselves.
This disturbing side of the Bible has some Christian academics calling for a more discriminate reading of it. Venturing into territory often reserved for Richard Dawkins — who, in The Virus of Faith, compared Moses to Hitler — these Christians offer strong criticisms of the same book they hold sacred.
I asked a few of them to explain how they read the Bible’s violent passages.
Sunday school Samson
The Bible contains many moments where immoral actions are condemned, like King David’s murder of Bathsheba’s husband, Uriah, to cover up their affair (2 Samuel 11). But there are also many passages where immorality is not only not denounced, but celebrated.
Take, for example, Judges 13-16. If you went to Sunday school, you may remember the story in which God restores the blinded Samson’s super-strength while his Philistine enemies are tying him up during a worship service at the temple of Dagon. Samson pulls down the entire structure, killing everyone present, including himself.
Did your Sunday school teacher present Samson as a hero? He was not so, says James McGrath, the Clarence L. Goodwin Chair in New Testament Language and Literature at Butler University. This act is “almost a ‘suicide bombing,’” he told me. And yet, the New Testament book of Hebrews (11:32-34), in what many ministers refer to as the “hall of faith,” portrays Samon’s act as redemptive.
Similarly, Joshua’s armies engage in a God-commanded systematic genocide (see Joshua 6:20-21) of the Canaanite men, women and children. Though some scholars question the historicity of this passage (along with many others), the fact that many Christians see Joshua, Samson, and Moses as “godly” role models is troubling to some of their fellow believers.
“I don’t think that we have in the Bible revealed truths not produced by or mediated through human minds,” said McGrath, who identifies himself as a liberal Christian. “To treat commands to commit genocide as though they originated from God is to empty of all meaning any claims we make about God being loving or interested in redemption.”
McGrath’s comments might not surprise conservatives, coming as he does from the mainline Protestant left. But his position has support from some academic contrarians in the evangelical world, too.
Do evangelicals give God’s violence a pass?
The slaughter of Moses’ enemies in the Old Testament rivals that which “opponents of Islam have depicted for Muslim extremists,” says J. Denny Weaver, professor emeritus at Bluffton University and author of The Nonviolent God. “Christians who accuse Muslims and fail to recognize the violence in the Old Testament are giving Moses, the Israelite kings, and God a pass.”
Weaver told me, “As a Christian, my answer to divine violence in the Old Testament starts with the story of Jesus.” But this is in no way intended as “a simple assertion that the nonviolence of Jesus . . . supersedes the Old Testament.”
The Old Testament portrait of God is not “uniform,” he said. One must embrace “the entire Old Testament” to see that “the Old Testament in fact does not present a uniform picture of a violent and immoral God.”
In rejecting Bible-sanctioned violence, some Christian scholars have found themselves under fire from conservative evangelicals.
According to Weaver, the Old Testament includes portrayals of God and his people that stress nonviolence. The prophet Daniel’s refusal to end his praying (Daniel 6) — a violation of the Babylonian law — was an example of “nonviolent cultural resistance of God’s people in a strange land.” He adds that Jesus’ work is to say that this nonviolence “most truly reflects the character of God.”
Peter Enns, a professor of biblical studies at the progressively evangelical Eastern University, also finds the Bible’s violence disturbing.
“Biblical portrayals of . . . God-sanctioned violence are typically given a free pass by Christian communities that look to scripture to give accurate and absolutely authoritative information about God,” Enns said in an email.
“For Christians, the tectonic shift away from tribal thinking and killing enemies is certainly driven home by Jesus and the apostle Paul,” said Enns. “It is in the teachings and actions of Jesus — culminating in his death and resurrection — where we see the truly authoritative presentation of God.”
Calling out heretics?
These evangelical voices are far from unanimous. In rejecting Bible-sanctioned violence, some Christian scholars have found themselves under fire from conservative evangelicals.
In 2013, for example, Messiah College’s professor of Old Testament, Eric Seibert (author of The Violence of Scripture: Overcoming the Old Testament’s Troubling Legacy), drew significant controversy for guest-writing a three-part series on the Bible’s portrayal of God’s violence at Peter Enns’ Patheos blog.
“To put it bluntly, not everything in the ‘good book’ is either good, or good for us,” Seibert wrote. “At times the Bible endorses values we should reject, praises acts we must condemn, and portrays God in ways we cannot accept.”
While some might see this as blasphemy, Seibert wrote on the blog that an engagement “in an ethical and theological critique” of the Bible — like Jesus did — is “an act of profound faithfulness.”
Aren’t these academics cherry picking which parts of the Bible they accept?
But in a blog post of his own, Owen Strachan, assistant professor of Christian theology and church history at Boyce College, called Seibert’s views “shameful,” offering this evangelical critique: “God is the one who ordains all things, and God is the one who sets our moral standards. We do not judge God.”
Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, compared Seibert’s views to those of Richard Dawkins.
Another controversy arose when Christopher Rollston, a formerly tenured professor of Old Testament and Semitic studies at Emmanuel Christian Seminary, published “The Marginalization of Women: A Biblical Value We Don’t Like to Talk About” at The Huffington Post.
Rollston’s article takes issue with the Ten Commandments treating women as property (Deuteronomy 5:21), and the requirement for women to marry their rapists (Deuteronomy 22:28-29), refusing to look past the Bible’s ancient misogyny as a tool for promoting violence against women.
Rollston says that the net effect of his article was a strong backlash from conservative donors to the seminary and the eventual loss of his teaching position.
Conservative evangelicals — and, in an unusual alliance, many atheists — might fairly ask: given their refusals to sanction the Bible’s violence, what keeps these contrarians Christian? Aren’t these academics cherry picking which parts of the Bible they accept?
Weaver, Enns, Rollston, or Seibert might offer this challenge to their conservative evangelical friends: simply believing in God — contrary to the Pew study — does not make one moral. Being a Christian requires “an act of profound faithfulness”: the courage to challenge a sacred book.
What seems clear to me is that if it’s appropriate (and I believe it is) to challenge violence in sacred books, then it’s a challenge that applies equally to any sacred book, be it the Bible or Qur’an.
Image of Anthony van Dyck’s “Samson and Delilah,” 1630, via Wikimedia.