Eric 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.”
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.