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How can we explain violence in the Bible?

Aleteia - published on 01/21/13

If it's true that God is love, then how come there is so much violence in the Bible?

The history of Israel is the story of an education. Violence does not come from God, but from sin. God is not violent, but he does protect his people and fight back against sin with justice. Little by little, God teaches his people to not use violence in the name of God, and finally in the New Testament Jesus proclaims, "Blessed are the meek!"

The writing of the Bible extends to the last centuries before Christ. But the history to which it bears witness spans two millennia. When talking about the Bible, one must know at what point in Revelation a particular passage is situated. At the beginning of the Bible, the first chapters of Genesis speak of the creation and the origins of mankind: violence did not come from God.

It's a fact: many pages of the Bible are extremely violent: "With fierce hatred I hate them," says Psalm 139, which is, of course, a very beautiful Psalm. This violence is one of the obstacles to reading the Old Testament. It also contributes to the rejection of religions, especially monotheistic religions: some see the Bible as a manual of fanaticism that Christianity and Islam inherited to a greater or lesser degree.
Where does Scripture say violence comes from? It does not come from God. Creation is an act of power, not of violence. Man's mission involves bringing order to this unfinished, imperfect world. His dominion over the created world is supposed to make peace reign. But the serpent, the Devil, suggests to man that eating the forbidden fruit will make him capable of rivaling God. Husband and wife do not help each other to resist the temptation; on the contrary, they drag each other down. They let themselves be fooled: it is sin.
The first consequence of sin is violence. Against a backdrop of rivalry, Cain kills Abel. God wants to stop the infernal cycle of violence so he protects Cain. But violence nonetheless remains alive and active.
And it gets to the point that the Scripture says God regretted having created man. "The earth is filled with violence because of men," says Noah. Let us give humanity a new beginning, starting with the only righteous man God found: Noah and his family! The flood engulfed both sinners and sins. God did not take revenge but he could not let evil, injustice, violence, and sin spread indefinitely.
In the end, as a sign of the new covenant with humanity, God hung a rainbow in the sky, gathering humanity from one end of the earth to the other. The bow, a weapon of war, became a symbol of peace. It announced an even more radical inversion: the death of Jesus on the cross as the source of salvation.
Of course, these early chapters of the Bible used the language of images. But only superficial minds would take those images lightly. They clarify the situation of man, all men, before the history of Israel began with Abraham.

In order to make himself known to men, God chose a man, Abraham, and his descendants. When the Israelites became numerous in Egypt, Pharaoh was violent to them, especially by killing all male babies. God stood up for his people: this is justice.

Israel was not born in violence. It was born of a call: God called Abraham and made him leave his country to move, as a nomad, with his family and livestock. He himself was a man of peace. He interceded with God for Sodom, a gravely sinful city. When there was a conflict over the use of a well in Beersheba, he reached an agreement with his rival and even made an alliance with him. He was greeted by Melchizedek, king of Salem (Jerusalem), which means "peace."
But if Abraham was quite peaceful, what about God? God prevented Abraham from offering up his son as a sacrifice and this prohibition would remain firm. In Jerusalem, the valley of Gehenna was cursed because wicked kings believed they could attract divine favor by sacrificing their sons and daughters. God condemned this practice through the prophet Jeremiah, saying that He "did not command" it (Jeremiah 7.31).
But God was also the one who rained fire on Sodom and destroyed the city and its inhabitants. The Christian recalls that in the Gospel, two disciples once wanted to call down fire on a town that rejected Jesus, and the Lord rebuked them. Some versions add that he said, "You know not of what spirit you are."
As we compare these two scenes, there may be a great temptation to oppose the Old and New Testaments and reject the Old becuase it may seem to present a face of God that is more odious than desirable. However, even when he destroys Sodom, God does not act in an arbitrary or disproportionate way: it is the entire city of Sodom that sinned by failing in a basic human duty: hospitality. God is not violent: he is just and he protects.
A few centuries later in Egypt, Abraham and his descendants suffer violence: they are enslaved and threatened with extermination. This begins another phase of sacred history as God saves Israel "with a mighty hand and outstretched arm." Under Moses' leadership, he brings them out of Egypt. He defends them when they are attacked and brings them into the Promised Land.

In a world of violence, the people of Israel were very often at war. Their national and religious independence was at stake.Therefore God chose a people who would never be a very powerful empire but that would have to enter into competition with the surrounding powers. We are accustomed, at least on our soil, to long periods of peace with our neighbors. But this was not so at that time: war was a regular activity. Think of the Middle Ages. To the extent that God entrusted himself to this people, Israel's wars had a sacred goal. "God Almighty" is the Lord of the heavenly host—that is, of the countless stars—but he is also Lord of the armies of Israel who defend their religious independence.

Israel also mixes with other peoples, running the risk of adopting their gods as well. In some cases, the desire for religious purity may have led to the annihilation of either population. But it seems that this kind of behavior, which was rare, had much more mundane causes. It was the loot above all that was dedicated to anathema, that is, offered to God so that Israel would not fall prey to greed for material goods.
Israel's institutions provide for the death penalty for a number of faults, both social offenses such as murder or adultery, and strictly religious offenses such as, for example, when someone sacrificed their children to idols. But everything had be done according to the law, on the basis of many witnesses, and the defendant had to be able to defend himself. The "law of retaliation," an "eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth" is not a call for revenge, but a limitation of the punishment.

In the end, violence only creates victims. It will not be conquered with violent opposition. If violence comes from the human heart, it is the human heart that needs to be healed. The violence that people suffer must be turned into an offering. This is what Christ did. But even after 20 centuries of being taught by God, none of Jesus' contemporaries understood it. What about us? Have we understood?

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