Little Rock Scripture Connections Newsletter
September 2022
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Little Rock Connections September 2022

Grappling with Violence in the Bible

by Amy Ekeh

The violence we encounter in Scripture can confuse and even scandalize us. How might we better understand it? Amy Ekeh offers a few tips.

In the first chapters of the book of Genesis, God creates a beautiful, harmonious world. In Genesis 4, a man kills his brother. And in Genesis 6, God floods the earth, having determined that it is the only way to stop the overwhelmingly violent tendencies of the human race.

The violence of these early chapters of Genesis bleeds throughout the Bible, a book we read and pray with, a book we proclaim in our sanctuaries, a book we revere as an authoritative missive of human and divine love. This violence can confuse and even scandalize us. Didn’t God call for an end to killing (Gen 9:6)? Didn’t Jesus command that we love our enemies (Luke 6:27)? Isn’t peace the ultimate promise of God (Isa 25:25)?

Here are a few things to keep in mind when we encounter violent imagery in the Bible:

  1. Ancient living was tough. Really tough. Many violent stories in Scripture that cause us to recoil in horror are reflections of the time and place in which they were told and written. Violence was a harsh reality in ancient cultures, where food was scarce and neighboring tribes clashed on a regular basis. Depictions of Israel wiping out entire tribes at God’s command (e.g., Deut 2:34; certainly exaggerated accounts, see below) or Judith beheading Holofernes (Jdt 13:8) are not simply examples of gratuitous violence. They are reflections of a time when people resorted to violence in order to survive.

  2. People aren’t perfect. Even people of faith. Only one person in Scripture is called “a man after [God’s] own heart” (1 Sam 13:14), and that is David—the same David who had a man killed so he could marry his wife. Two of Jesus’ disciples—in fact, two of his inner circle—asked Jesus if they should “call down fire from heaven” to “consume” some Samaritans who were not welcoming to them (Luke 9:54). The Bible reflects life: all people, not just bad ones, are capable of violence.

  3. Know what kind of text you’re reading. One of the most famous examples of violence in Scripture is Psalm 137, a prayer that ends with a call for revenge upon Israel’s enemy Babylon, even going so far as to say, “Blessed the one who seizes your [Babylon’s] children / and smashes them against the rock” (v. 9). That certainly doesn’t sound like the appropriate response of a person of faith! And it isn’t. But it is a fully human response, one that expresses the pain of an exiled people who themselves have experienced violence and death at the hands of their enemies. After all, this is not a treatise on how to act or how to forgive. It is a psalm—a prayer, a poem, a cry of the heart. Keeping this in mind helps us understand that the Bible is not endorsing this attitude, but neither is it shying away from the human reality of pain and the natural desire for revenge.

    There are other examples of violence in the Bible where knowing the genre, or the type of text we are reading, is helpful, whether we are reading an epic biblical history (where violent escapades were often greatly embellished) or hyperbole (purposeful exaggeration, e.g., Jesus’ suggestion that we cut off our hands or feet, or pluck out our eyes, in order to stop ourselves from sinning; Mark 9:43-47).

  4. It’s in both testaments. When reading the Bible, it’s important to avoid the misconception that violence is found in the Old Testament but not in the New. The book of Revelation is one of the most violent books in the Bible! And some of its violence is wrought by none other than the Lamb of God, the risen Christ. This is symbolic language, to be sure, but its author intentionally chose it, and we are left to reckon with it.

  5. Give it to God. Gut-wrenching pleas in Scripture like the psalmist’s bitter cry for revenge (137:9) or the martyrs’ cry for vengeance in Revelation (6:10) may upset us, but they also have an important lesson to share. Those who cry out—who have themselves been treated violently—are not seeking vengeance on their own. They have not taken matters into their own hands. They may wish violence upon their enemies, but they place those wishes into God’s hands. This is what faith does. It doesn’t necessarily change the way we feel, but it does change the way we respond. God can handle our honesty, our emotions, even our hate. We can give these things to God and be free.

The Bible is not always easy to read. But we never need to ignore parts of Scripture or be embarrassed by them. They have the power—raw as it may be—to shine light on the complexities of human life and relationships. They remind us that we are a people in need of a saving God. They are part of the story of our salvation.

Image: Engraving of Jael preparing to drive a tent peg through the temple of Sisera with a mallet (Judges 4–5)


Amy Ekeh is the director of Little Rock Scripture Study at Liturgical Press. She is the author of several books in Little Rock Scripture Study’s Alive in the Word series, including Advent: Season of Divine Encounter. She is also a contributor to The Bible Today and Give Us This Day. Amy lives in Milford, Connecticut with her husband and four children.



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