Can the Biblical God be violent?

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Fr Mario Attard OFM Cap 

Usually people rightly object: “How come that God, who is so merciful, kills people in the bible?”

If one carefully reads the thorny texts of, for instance, the Flood (Gn 6); the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (Gn 19); the death of the firstborn in Egypt, the complete destruction of Egypt’s army (Ex 7-13); the command to kill full armies and cities during the conquest (Nm 21:1-13; Jos 6:21; 8:22-25; 1 Sm 15:3); as well as human sacrifices (Lv 20:2-5; 2 Kgs 16: 3; 21:6) one naturally gets the impression that these texts seem to portray a God who is behaving against his own nature by executing men, women, and children, and directing others to do likewise.

In its 2014 document entitled: God, the Trinity, and the Unity of Humanity: Christian Monotheism and its Opposition to Violence, the International Theological Commission (ITC) promoted three criteria for harmonizing thedifficult dark texts in the Old Testament. The first criterion is that ITC urges Christians to accept that the Bible portraysthe picture of a God who works violent deeds and directs violence. The ITC acknowledges the existence of “tensions, conflicts, even violent excesses” that occur in the history of Israel as written in the Old Testament (no 24). The second criterion proposed by ITC recognizes that violence goes against God’s nature the way we comprehend it via reason and revelation. In his address at the University of Regensburg on September 12 2006 Pope Benedict XVI said: “Violence is incompatible with the nature of God and the nature of the soul. ‘God’, he (Byzantine emperor Manuel II Paleologus) says, ‘is not pleased by blood – and not acting reasonably (σὺν λόγω) is contrary to God’s nature’”. The third ITC criterion is that of highlighting the importance of interpreting the whole Old Testament as a gradual advancement towards Jesus Christ.

On the other hand, in its document The Inspiration and Truth of Sacred Scripture, which was published in 2014 bythe Pontifical Biblical Commission (PBC) it was said that when encountering “contradictions of a geographical, historical, and scientific nature, which are rather frequent in the Bible” (nos.  163, 167) one has to confront them directly. “(W)e cannot eliminate any passage from the narrative; the exegete must strive to find the significance of every phrase inthe context of the narrative as a whole” (no. 124). Moreover great care needs to be put into practice so as to identifythe author’s true intention of the text. Besides advocating the importance of interpreters to discover the author’s intention hidden in thorny biblical passages the PBC urges interpreters to follow the main theme of the texts, particularly God and his salvific plan for humanity. The PBC document rightly says that “the other definitions of God in the biblical writings are oriented toward the Word of God made man in Jesus Christ. This incarnate word becomes the key to their interpretation” (no 124). Finally the commission also accentuated the relevance of Scripture’s multiform truth. This means that the principle of unity within multiplicity has consistently been endorsed by the Church. Thus, as the document aptly states, “the duty of the interpreter is to avoid a fundamentalist reading of Scripture so as to situate the various formulations of the sacred text in their historical context, according to the literary genres then in vogue” (nos. 164-65).

In Psalm 137 violence seems to be praised. Israelites are praised if they would crush their children’s enemies against a rock. The document comments:

“The primary way to explain and accept the difficult expressions in the Psalms is that of understanding their literary genre. … The expressions used by the person who prays seem to dictate to God the way to act; but understood correctly, they speak only of the desire that evil may be destroyed, so that the humble may have life. … Progress is made in identifying the enemy when it is discovered that the enemy is, not merely the one who threatens the physical life or dignity of the person praying, but rather the one who threatens the person’s spiritual life” (nos 148-150). Is this psalm not anticipating the prayer Jesus taught us: “Deliver us from evil?”

Lets take the Bible and read it!

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