Reading Violence in the Bible

The answer is no.

To explore how this can be so, I would like to take a brief moment to describe the nature of God with the classical theology of St. Thomas. I think this is an important starting point for anchoring our hermeneutic towards these texts, and will give us reason to believe that whenever one understands Scripture to reveal a God who causes evil to any degree, that they have already interpreted these texts incorrectly. To discover what in fact these difficult passages do reveal to us about God, the Israelite people, and ourselves,  I think a good approach to doing so is to consider together the general hermeneutic of both the Alexandrian and Antiochian schools of Biblical exegesis. While this approach is not a comprehensive study of modern Biblical criticism, for the purposes of this discussion, these two ancient generalities aid us in understanding these passages in a both a literal and spiritual sense that allow us to rightly affirm the goodness of God consistently revealed throughout the whole of Scripture.

For the author of John’s Gospel, St. Thomas, and most contemporary theologians, God is understood as synonymous with love. Love is classically defined as “willing the good of the other.”  From the Genesis account of creation we see this love portrayed when God brought forth everything from nothing, and ordained it as good. God’s nature is the pure creative act that brings forth all existence, both “in the beginning” and perpetually, which is united with His essence as existence itself.  Evil then, as we understand it, is an act which is contrary to existence, contrary to love, and contrary to the reality of God. All evil acts goad against existence definitively or in gradience, from murder to insult. God is necessarily incapable of this. So when we come to passages such as Deuteronomy 20: 16-18, where God speaks to Israel, “…the cities of these people, which the Lord thy God doth give thee for an inheritance, thou shalt save alive nothing that breatheth: But thou shalt utterly destroy them…as the Lord thy God hath commanded thee:” (NRSVCE) we should hold this logical proof in mind, that affirms the perfectly loving nature of God, from which the rest of our exegesis will expand.

So expand from here we will, into the general interpretative methods from two early schools of thought within the Church. Alexandria was a hub of Jewish, Greek, and Christian scholarship in the 1st century and beyond. As a result of this synchronous study, many of the interpretations Christians derived tended towards an allegorical understanding of the texts; an allegory that revealed the Christological center of the entire canon of Scripture. Complementing, and not contrasting, this school was the Antiochian approach that produced a more “literal” interpretation of these texts, that emphasized the facts derived from particular diegetic and historical contexts. Literal should be understood as “that which has been expressed directly by the inspired human authors,”[1] and does not mean that all exegetes should assume a positive historical accuracy, but rather takes into account the human and divine element that went into the texts, along with a consideration of genre and form. The Church holds both of these aspects of ‘spiritual’ and ‘literal’ interpretation as necessary, but by nature relies more heavily on the grounding of the literal interpretation for doctrinal clarification.

The reason for this grounding is that void of this understanding the intentionality of the text (in both human and divine terms) is dissolved to where the symbols and typology have no grounding in the facts of the historical narrative. So to make sure we keep this grounding in our particular exploration, let us begin by examining the literal (Antiochian/Historical) contexts of the Joshua account.


The Purpose of the Ban:

The narrative describes that the ban, or harem, was to be carried out in these texts to prevent Israel from being spiritually polluted by the belief and practice of the Canaanites. Moses was originally instructed to rid the Promised Land of any factors that might lead to separating Israel from God in apostasy. Understanding rightly that it is a good thing not to be separated from God and to not entertain concepts of His existence from pagan religions, could God here be seen as protecting His people and doing a greater good by ensuring their well being? In other words, could God have been completing a sort of providential self-defense of His people? No. This would render God as a consequentialist, who performs small acts of evil to accomplish a greater good, which goes contrary to His nature as described earlier.

The Historical Record:

The history of the conquests are contradicted within the actual narrative of the texts themselves.  In Jos 11:23 we are told that Joshua did complete the ban and took the whole land for Israel, but later in Jos 13:1 God tells Joshua that there is more of the land to be possesed. The book of Judges also relays that many of the tribes failed to drive out the Canaanites completely. So if we do suppose that we are to put maximum weight in the fact that “God said” to kill all the people of Canna, how do we hold this confidence against the false report of its completion, where Joshua “left no one remaining, but utterly destroyed all that breathed, as the Lord God of Israel commanded.” (Jos 10:40, NRSVCE)  It is clear that the linear plot of the text is not accurate.

The archaeological record has also proved inconsistent with the accounts as well. It was thought that the text could be related to scientific findings, but the cities of Jericho, Ai, and Gibeon were found to have be uninhabited at the end of 13th century BCE, which is when Joshua  is commonly thought to have taken place. There were other cities that were discovered to have been destroyed around this time as well (Shechem, Hazar, Lachish), but their conquered ruins span a period of centuries and are more in line chronologically with when the events in the book of Judges were thought to have taken place.

The Genre of Joshua and Deuteronomy:

This begs us to ask how we should understand the narrative of Joshua as it relates to the actual history of Israel. One way that it can be interpreted is by considering it as an etiology that aims to answer the question of “How did we get here?” for the Israelite people. The story could have been crafted using the known genealogy and theological tradition available to the group at the time. It could have even contained a precise historical record of actual known conflict and conquest, with what would be now considered modern scientific and geographical inaccuracies. Understanding that this is a theological text, a large portion of the causation assigned to Israel’s existence would be attributed to God, but to say that “God loved Israel, and has maintained them in existence up until now” is an altogether different theological statement than “God ordered Israel to kill the Canaanites, and carried out the annihilation of Cana for them.”

However, I think we could also consider the cultural milieu of the world of the time for yet another approach towards these passages. If there is any ethnographic information we can derive from the books of Joshua and Judges, it is that these people were a warring people, in a time and place where differences were settled by brute force and little diplomacy. For a people who lived such an unstable and immediate existence, to have the emotional assurance of a God who guided the paths of their swords would be psychologically rewarding. This is very much different than the peace of Christ, but this attitude would provide a sort of peace at night and when at arms nonetheless. Likewise, the champion types of Joshua and Judges, would provide  a model for moral behavior with the assurance of divine aid. These  types are found in many other examples of ancient literature as well, such as David and Samson in other Old Testament texts, and Achilles and Hercules in Greek literature. These archetypes could hold a base significance to the ancient human experience at large.

The Biblical and Theological Consequences of the Literal Interpretation:

While we have discussed the theological consequences of assuming that God did infact order the execution the Canaanite people, there are also  exegetical consequences of assuming that He did not. If God did not order this genocide, how much trust can we put in the claims of other Old Testament utterances from Him? Does this render every word of God as suspect, including the Covenant with Israel, including  Mount Sinai, and including God’s promise of a coming Messiah? Where our theological sensibilities say ‘no’ to the diegetic accuracies of a text, where do we draw the line, and where do we find basis for saying ‘yes’ in holding these sensibilities themselves? To transcend this stall in literal interpretation,  we must draw from a  revelation that transcends the individual books of the Bible; one that considers the wider data field of the Scriptural canon; and one that even beholds a spectrum of revelation outside of the Scriptural texts themselves.


And so we turn to the allegorical/canonical school of Alexandria, and the spiritual significance of the books of the Old Testament when considered as part of a whole. The Pontifical Biblical Commission defines this spiritual sense as “the meaning expressed by the texts when read, under the influence of the Holy Spirit, in the context of the paschal mystery of Christ and of the new life that flows from it.”[2]  This does not suggest that we embark on a symbolic reading of the Scripture that assigns meaning arbitrarily and at will, but rather requires the absorption of the objective content held in the entire canon of Scripture, as revealed by the Holy Spirit Himself, Whose principal revelation is that of Jesus Christ  in His passion, death, and resurrection. Here, we as Church can see the Old Testament revealed in the New, and the New revealed in the Old. Whereby assuming this Christocentric hermeneutic the passages at hand take on a greater meaning; one that lifts us up from the Levant and places us at a heavenly vantage where we witness the expanse of the human experience in relation to divine realities. It is important for us to consider from this vantage the limits of our humanity, though, and to employ the council of others in the Catholic Tradition to assure that any possible errors in our discernment do not lead to dangerous conclusions. This is why Dei Verbum states, that the fullest sense of revelation entails that  “Sacred tradition and Sacred Scripture together form a single deposit of the Word of God, which is entrusted to the Church.”[3]  By drawing from both of these deposit veins, we can conclude that both our original assertion that God did not order this genocide is correct, and at the same time can affirm that in fact God did order a genocide of sorts that does not contradict His nature.

The Purpose

First and foremost within this interpretive method, as we have said, the entire canon of Scripture is seen as a revelation of Christ and His Paschal Mystery. This is its purpose, and the sum total of the Christian claim. This expansive view of Scripture can be maintained  from within its individual books that reveal a consistent relationship between the Old and the New Testaments; where a fuller sense of truth is revealed in the prefigurements of the Old as enlightened by the New. For example, the Tree of Life placed in the center of the Garden of Eden in Gen 2:9, which God implored Adam to eat from,  is understood to be Christ as later described in the Gospel of John, being the true vine and true body that He Himself again implores all to partake in. (Jn 1:4,13:1-23,15:5).

The Biblical Metanarrative

The cannon can also reveal an understanding of ourselves, however, where God reveals to us the arch of our human experience within  spiritual realities. Here we can see that in the beginning God creates each one of us good, but with the inheritance of original sin as a fallen nature. The accounts of the Old Testament can be read as an exodus from this sin, that while departing from it, is unable to achieve true freedom from its defilement.  This struggle is eclipsed by the Incarnation of Christ, who frees us from this paradigm as we cross the waters of baptism and arrive in the mystical Body of His Promised Land. But the imperfection of the world, and our own free will, makes it possible for us to defile ourselves again, as Israel did repeatedly after its establishment as a nation, and as the early churches did to the threat of heresy and sin. The New Testament prophets ring out the same warning of the Old, and urge us to stay faithful to this Heavenly state, where outside the sin that scattered the nation of Israel is still a real threat that can draw us too into exile, and away from our joy. So like Israel, and the Church, we again faithfully wait for the coming Messiah to free us from corruption forever- in our worldly struggles, as we travel to God through death to receive our perfection, and when He returns to us in Glory to gather all willing kin and creation to Himself at the Parousia.


From these two perspectives that reveal to us both Christ and our own grand journey towards Him, exegetes have garnered instruction from these passages to how we should live our lives in light of both of these caveats.  St Augustine of Hippo proclaims a military attitude towards evil, that echos the story of Jericho, ”God taught me how to be clever in fighting against the adversaries (the demons), who intended to create a wall between the kingdom of heaven and me.” (On Ps 17(18))  And St. Evagrius of Pontus offers  further instruction in how we should approach the spiritual ‘nations’ of evil in our own lives:

When you pray against your suffering (your evil lusts), and the demons that attack you, remember that man saying: “I have pursued my enemies and overtaken them, neither did I turn back again till they are destroyed. I have wounded them, so that they were not able to rise; they have fallen under my feet” (Psalm 18:37, 38). Say this at the right moment, as you arm yourself against your adversary, with humility. (Chapters on Prayer, 135)[4]

Drawing from passages that allude to the bans of the Deuteronomistic History, both of these saints suggest that we should understand the genocides of these texts as our military agenda when approaching sin in our daily lives.  Fr. Robert Barron offers that most of us tend to deal with sin halfway, we quarantine little private areas of rebel forces for ourselves, when these are in fact the very things that stand to thwart God’s purposes.  But he asks the question, insted, “How should we fight them?” He answers with the same militaristic answer that both Sts. Augustine, Evagrius and God Himself propose in these passages…”We should fight them all the way down.”[5]


So with this multivalent understanding that includes the spiritual and literal sense of Scripture, weighed together with the continuity of revelation collected and alive in the Catholic Tradition,  we can indeed hold the absolute goodness of God in our theological understanding when approaching these text. Whereby we can reject the assertion that God commanded the genocide of the people of Canna directly, in that it contradicts His unchanging loving nature, but still then affirm  that God commands the genocide of sin and evil among us that prevents us from fully participating in His Kingdom established within ourselves and His Body, the Church. The former literal rejection can be held by understanding the genre of these texts, the typology of the characters involved, and the etiologies crafted by the ancient Israelites. The latter affirmation of God’s perpetual ban on the  corruption of sin  is gained from the complete revelation in Christ, that professes the still extant spiritual struggle and our proper approach of merciless vigilance towards evil until His return. Until then we, as Israel, are prone to defilement despite our most valiant efforts, but with Christ as our hero, where Joshua once led, we now have already crossed the Jordan and look forward to our complete establishment within His Beatific Promised Land.


[6] Works Referenced

[1] “The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church”. Presented by the Pontifical Biblical Commission. to Pope John Paul II on April 23, 1993

[2] “The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church” Presented by the Pontifical Biblical Commission to Pope John Paul II on April 23, 1993

[3]  Dei Verbum: “De Divina Revelatione: the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation of Vatican Council, Promulgated by Pope Paul VI, November 18, 1965.”

[4]  Father Tadros Yacoub Malaty. A Patristic Commentary on the Book of Deuteronomy. OrthodoxEbooks

[5] Fr. Robert Barron. “Violence in the Bible”. Word on Fire Ministries. Lecture. Video/Web. 2013

[6] Daniel J., S.J. Harrington. “How Do Catholics Read the Bible?”. The Come & See Series.Sheed & Ward 2012

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