Eric Seibert on the Violence of Scripture and David and Goliath … and Biblical Criticism Lite

Eric A. Seibert - The Violence of ScriptureEric A. Seibert examines the ways in which the Old Testament supports and advocates certain forms of violence in The Violence of Scripture: Overcoming the Old Testament’s Troubling Legacy (Fortress Press, August 2012). Seibert points to examples in which violence is given approval in the Old Testament, even given divine sanction, and declared to be a virtuous activity for people to take part in.

One of Seibert’s examples of what the Bible considers virtuous violence concerns the story of David and Goliath. He quotes David’s justification for fighting against Goliath, in 1 Samuel 17.45-47:

45 David said to the Philistine, “You come against me with sword and spear and javelin, but I come against you in the name of the Lord Almighty, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied. 46 This day the Lord will deliver you into my hands, and I’ll strike you down and cut off your head. This very day I will give the carcasses of the Philistine army to the birds and the wild animals, and the whole world will know that there is a God in Israel. 47 All those gathered here will know that it is not by sword or spear that the Lord saves; for the battle is the Lord’s, and he will give all of you into our hands.”

Seibert comments:

The literary context of this story suggests we are to view David’s actions as being pleasing to, and empowered by, God. Prior to his encounter with Goliath, David had been anointed by the prophet Samuel at which point we are told, “the spirit of the LORD came mightily upon David from that day forward” (1 Sam. 16.13). Then, when David confronts Goliath, he claims that God will give him the victory when he boldly declares” “This very day the LORD will deliver you into my hand (1 Sam. 17.46). The text suggests God stands behind David’s victory over Goliath, and most readers  tend to agree. Most people believe God wanted to kill Goliath, and enabled him to do so, and most interpreter’s describe David’s actions as admirable, indicating no discomfort with his behavior. By doing so, they reinforce a key ideological assumption undergirding this captivating story, namely, that violence can be “virtuous.”

Eric Seibert also raises specific problems with telling the story of David and Goliath to children:

What are children to think if one week we tell them to love their enemies, and the next week praise David for killing his? And why should they believe our bold proclamation that God loves all people when, in the same breath, we also insist that God wanted the Israelites to kill every last Canaanite?

Seibert suggests that we still tell these stories to children, but miss out the questionable bits, like David’s justification for his actions in 1 Sam. 17.45-47, and perhaps pose questions that get children to question the Bible’s conception of virtuous violence rather than to merely accept it. Seibert’s ultimate aim is to achieve readings of the Old Testament which conform to his commitment to nonviolence. Which is fine and, well, virtuous in itself. But does it go far enough? For isn’t violence integral to the ethics of the God of the Old Testament who destroys entire rival nations and integral to the ethics of the God of the New Testament who consigns outsiders to Hell for all eternity? Surely an ethical commitment to nonviolence should also involve a fundamental rejection of the Bible’s conception of this God, not just an attempt to eek out the nice bits?

For all of Seibert’s legitimate points about the ethical problems in the Bible, his book suffers from a condition which infects the vast majority of contemporary biblical scholarship, what James Kugel has termed “Biblical Criticism Lite”:

I have a premonition that some readers … – especially my fellow academics, as well as some divinity school students, ministers, and perhaps a few educated laymen – will react … with a yawn. Such people have grown used to the idea that the Bible really wasn’t written by those figures long claimed to be its authors, that it is full of contradictions and editorial overlays, etiological narratives and invented history. “Yes, Virginia, there is no Santa Claus,” they will say. “We are all a little older and wiser now, and some of our old illusions have fallen away. But really, that’s not so bad – in fact, it’s not bad at all. We embrace the truth about the Bible as we now know it.”

 I understand this reaction, but I don’t think it tells the whole story. I have noticed that these same people, especially when it comes to talking about actual texts – in biblical commentaries or introductions to the Old Testament – are often not nearly as blasé as their yawn might indicate (nor as committed to the “truth about the Bible as we now know it”). On the contrary, what they have to say often has an unmistakably apologetic tone: “Yes, it’s true, modern scholars have shown X, but still…” Indeed, this “Yes, but still…” way of talking about the Bible is so common nowadays it might practically be described as a reflex, a built-in or automatic way of trying to downplay the results of modern scholarship (yielding what might be called “Biblical Criticism Lite”) and thereby minimizing its implications….

In the light of all that modern scholarship has discovered, the Bible necessarily looks very different from the way it looked only a century or so ago. Yet … commentators still want it to be the Bible in the old sense – divinely inspired (at least in some attenuated way), a guide to proper conduct and proper beliefs, a book of truth and not falsehood, as free of error and internal contradiction as possible, in short, despite everything they know, a book still worthy of being called the Word of God. Their repeatedly apologetic remarks give the lie, I think, to the claim that people schooled in modern scholarship, even those at the forefront of biblical research, have entirely made their peace with its implications. They may sometimes sound blasé, but the truth, it seems to me, is that most of them are simply doing the best they can to have it both ways, to have their Bible and criticize it too.

Time to put away the decaffeinated biblical criticism, with its not-so-secret theological commitments, for a criticism that is worthy of the term.

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7 thoughts on “Eric Seibert on the Violence of Scripture and David and Goliath … and Biblical Criticism Lite

  1. So, if they were to be ethically acceptable, biblical narratives would have to shun violence in all circumstances? This sounds similar to the work of Avalos and Collins on violence. I’m not advocating random acts of violence, but maybe a blanket assumption that all violence is reprehensible (what about an oppressed people rebelling?) is as ridiculous as a blanket assumption that all violence is acceptable.

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    • Biblical narratives have to shun violence in all circumstances to be ethically acceptable to whom? To Eric Seibert? Well, maybe. To me? No, I don’t think so.

      But this post does not so much raise the ethical issue concerning violence as it raises a methodological issue and also a metaethical issue: is the hegemonic position of biblical studies – shared by conservatives and liberals alike – of mixing a degree of biblical criticism with a fundamental commitment to the Bible – a betrayal of criticism in its fullest sense? I agree with James Kugel: what you get is a sort of Biblical Criticism Lite, a decaffeinated criticism of biblical literature which systematically sacrifices criticism to apologetics.

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      • Yes, I was referring to Seibert’s claims.

        About your point, I agree that mixing biblical criticism with religious commitments creates a certain field of serious problems. But I think that any set of committments — even a committment to the ethos of the Enlightenment (which I love dearly!) — carries with it a potential to create a certain field of serious problems. This idea of “biblical criticism lite,” however, supposes that there is some unproblematic “real biblical criticism” that is alloyed with religious ideology. But won’t biblical criticism always be alloyed with some set of prior commitments? Perhaps instead of condemning biblical criticism lite, we should keep a critical eye on every act of biblical criticism, as they will all be freighted with assumptions of one sort or another. I am keen to stay away from the idea of a singular pure criticism, because the one selected to be “pure” will doubtless reflect the ideology of the dominant class.

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      • I completely agree that we should be critical about the inherent biases and limitations in any approach to the text, not just the confessional biases. Yet, when a field of study is so overwhelmingly dominated by one bias (in biblical studies, the confession bias), I think that there is a good reason to focus on it in particular. The ideology of the ruling class is, after all, refracted into some strange sub-ideologies within the various ideological apparatuses – and there is no apparatus as odd as the study of the Bible within ‘the academy’. And I agree that the ever-present danger in identifying another person’s bias is in imagining (falsely) that we’re standing in a neutral position. Yet I think criticism has a more limited goal than that. It is never neutral, but it doesn’t need to devolve into apologetics, either.

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  2. Hi, I just want to comment this passage:

    ” For isn’t violence integral to the ethics of the God of the Old Testament who destroys entire rival nations and integral to the ethics of the God of the New Testament who consigns outsiders to Hell for all eternity? Surely an ethical commitment to non-violence should also involve a fundamental rejection of the Bible’s conception of this God, not just an attempt to seek out the nice bits?”

    Rhetorically, it’s very effective to shock and embarrass Christian (especially evangelical) readers. The problem is that such a statement is extremely ambiguous and seems to reflect a fundamentalist understanding of Scripture and I’d not be stunned if I were to learn now that the author of this post grew up in an evangelical church.

    The most obvious meaning of the sentences above is that violence plays a crucial, central role in the ENTIRETY of both new and old testaments.

    I think that the main wrong assumption is that we can meaningfully speak in general of the God of the old or new testaments because they give us a coherent picture of him. Fundamentalists say it’s a nice, beautiful picture whereas militant atheists say it’s an ugly one.

    I believe that both camps are wrong because what we call nowadays the new or the old testaments are actually collections of books from various authors with very different agenda and conceptions of God’s nature and personality. Consequently sentences which begin with “the God of the old testament…” are most of the time either wrong, meaningless or at least very ambiguous since there are not so many things the different writers agreed about.

    Yes you’ll find in the Bible ugly texts and repugnant moral ideas. But at the same time you’ll find texts, which (when considered in their historical context) show moral progress, good behaviour as well as description of God’s character which seem right and noble to both ancients and modern readers.

    Now a more sophisticate militant atheist might come up and tell me: “well you’re right there are some texts in the Bible concerning God’s moral nature and commands which are quite compatible with our enlightenment ideals but more than 90% of the texts are ignoble and repugnant so that we ought to reject and even combat Christianity.”

    Even if this number turned out to be correct (and I believe it’s much lower) I would not buy this argument because Christianity is not primarily based on the Bible but first and foremost on the person of Jesus Christ who is the true revelation of God’s nature.

    Now, did he teach us that for God violence is central, integral to its very nature?

    My response would be first that the different books of the new testament fail to give us a fully coherent account about Jesus views on that. Like in the old testament the different authors wrote their reports according to their own theological opinions and ended up with descriptions of Jesus personality which can only be partially harmonized.

    Let’s consider the favourite verse of angry atheists:

    “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil them”

    It is very often used by anti-theists as a proof that believers in Jesus are obliged to consider the whole Torah (or if they are ignorant of History even the entire old testament) as inerrant and that therefore one can show that Jesus is not the son of God by just showing that small things in the Torah are morally wrong.
    An huge problem for this argument lies in the fact that the historical Jesus might very well have never pronounced this sentence. As many critical scholars have realized, this very sentence fit so nicely the theological needs of both the Hebrew and gentile churches that it might be an invention.

    “ God of the New Testament who consigns outsiders to Hell”.

    The problem here is that in a general sense the God of the NT does not consign OUTSIDERS to hell, there are a few passages which might seem (only implicitly) to some people to involve this but there are theologically much more important, probably historical texts which strongly militate against that.
    When asked what is the greatest commandment, Jesus didn’t answer “kill all adultery women” or “all are equally important” but “love your neighbour as yourself” and even say it is equivalent to the commandment of loving God with all our heart, mind and passion.

    Furthermore by telling us that we ought to even love our enemies he shows us that with “neighbour” he meant every other human beings.
    In a nice parable, he tell us that by loving, feeding and clothing poor people we are loving him, but that selfish folks who refused to do that will ultimately end up in hell.

    But as the writer of the Timothy letters emphasized, God wants every human being to be saved which means that their trip to hell can only be a consequence of their own free choices and certainly not of the fact they are “outsiders”. Moreover the second chapter of Romans seems clearly to go in that direction since Paul emphasized the fact that some gentile Greek “outsiders” do what is good because the law of God is written in their heart even if they don’t know the Torah.

    Is the picture of God’s nature we can deduce from all these biblical verses horrible and repugnant for our moral intuitions?
    While it is certainly not free of problems and apparent contradictions, I don’t believe this is the case because many secular people with whom I’ve discussed in France find that such an ethic is right or at the very least not apparently wrong or absurd.

    Yes the vision of an never-ending hell is certainly horrendous (but the possibility of a limited amount of suffering before getting annihilated is far from having been ruled out) however it seems to most people even in European secular societies to be quite the appropriate fate for folks like Stalin, Hitler, Mussolini or the current Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad if they don’t repent and regret their actions.
    Furthermore quite a few French secular folks would like rapists or sexual exploiters (especially in extreme cases) to be put to death and they would certainly not be too upset to learn that God exists and that all these bad guys are rotting in Hell.

    Readers might certainly disagree with me on many points, like the Bible I’m far from being inerrant but I am almost sure that the sentence:
    “ integral to the ethics of the God of the New Testament who consigns outsiders to Hell for all eternity” is wrong because it implies that the WHOLE New Testament teaches us that doctrine but as I have shown here are many important passages which are at odds with this teaching.

    In fact the second sentence from the quotation at the beginning of my post even seems self-contradictory because it grants there are “nice bits” in the Bible but still speaks in very general terms that the ENTIRE Bible shows us consistently and coherently the picture of an unrighteously violent God.

    So I would reformulate the sentences of the author as followed:

    “For isn’t violence considered by CERTAIN authors of the Old Testament to be a part of the nature of a God who (according to a literal interpretation of the concerned texts) destroys entire rival nations and also suggested in CERTAIN texts of the New Testament which seem to consign outsiders to Hell for all eternity? Surely an ethical commitment to non-violence should also involve a fundamental rejection of SOME biblical conceptions of this God, not just an attempt to seek out the nice bits or even worse to salvage the guilty and ugly parts?”

    I would completely agree with this version of your statement. Now of course you could try to argue that “certain” and “some” in the reformulated sentences above should be replaced by “most” and that this provides strong evidences that Christianity is wrong. This would be, however, quite another debate.

    For your information I’m an agnostic Christian like Thom Stark who wrote “the human faces of God”
    https://remnantofgiants.wordpress.com/2011/04/07/thom-stark-versus-matt-flannagan/
    and did not try to prove that Christianity is true.
    My only concern was to show that your rhetorical argument against Christianity does not hold water. This is not a personal critic, many of my arguments are also pretty bad and more driven by emotions than by reason, I think it’s a widespread human fact as evolutionary psychologist Jonathan Haidt empirically showed.

    I believe there are quite a few very challenging arguments against the truth of Christianity which I cannot well answer.

    They concern for example biology, obvious examples of cruelty and gratuitous evils in nature, the poor design of living things, neurology and challenges against the notion of free will.

    At the moment I don’t feel that these objections are compelling but if certain new evidences showed up I could very well give up my Christian faith.

    Now I’d like to learn more about you.
    Are you American and did you have bad experiences with Christians and Christendom there?
    What is your world-view, do you believe that everything which is real can be reduced to impersonal particles and energies in space and time?
    How do you ground an objective morality?
    How would like God to be and look like if you had the power to choose that?
    And more importantly: are you male or female? :-)

    OK, I was a little bit digressing for the last question but it’s really late in Germany 2:40 a.m or more and I have to get into my bed now :-)

    Anyway I’m really looking forward to reading your answer and your objections to what I’ve written.
    I apologize for the length of this post and perhaps also for my poor English, if you wish we could also correspond through emails so that you don’t have to answer such personal questions in the public sphere.

    Kind regards.

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    • Heilige Scheiße, Hubert, that was one long and wide-ranging comment. In fact, it may well be the longest comment I’ve ever received on Remnant of Giants.

      In the post, I was taking issue with Eric Seibert’s approach to violence in the Bible, which I’d categorise as a sort of liberal-evangelical point of view. It’s the kind of thing you might expect from an emerging/emergent Christian. As such, my comments were entering into that type of discourse, and should be read as responding to a typically bible-centric yet slightly liberal attempt to select nice texts from bad texts.

      I’m sure your more qualified statement about hell in “certain” New Testament texts is more accurate. And I was pointing out the limitations of Seibert’s method, not making a more general criticism of every form of Christianity.

      But as you spent some time in commenting, here’s my replies to your questions:

      Are you American and did you have bad experiences with Christians and Christendom there?

      No, I am not American – although i guess Eric Seibert does seem to be from those parts. Some of my best friends are Christians.

      What is your world-view, do you believe that everything which is real can be reduced to impersonal particles and energies in space and time?

      I’m not sure. On a day-by-day basis, I assume that “everything which is real can be reduced to impersonal particles and energies in space and time”. But perhaps not. Yet, how to know such things? Tthe leading reason I can think of is the strange fact that there is something rather than nothing. And when I say nothing, I don’t mean just a void, but no existence. It all seems very odd to me.

      How do you ground an objective morality?

      I don’t. I consider morality to be grounded purely on subjective opinion. Hitler, Stalin, and Mussolini are bad only from certain points of view.

      How would like God to be and look like if you had the power to choose that?

      I’d quite like God to be a bit more communicative. He or she has been far too hands off for my liking. I mean: what is the story?

      What should God look like? I’m not too concerned on that count.

      And more importantly: are you male or female? :-)

      I refuse your gender binary.

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