Violence in the Hebrew Bible by Pekka Pitkänen

Violence is found throughout the Hebrew Bible. It can occur at both individual and collective (groups of people and societies) levels. Contemporary readers, who may otherwise feel that it is easy to identify with the ancient Israelites, might attempt to relate these acts of violence to their own experiences. However, it is important to keep in mind that the violence portrayed in the Hebrew Bible is written from the perspective of the ancient Israelites (or later Jews) and reflects how they may have reacted to it. In contrast, postcolonial analysis has analyzed violence in the texts from the perspective of non-Israelites, and feminist analysis from that of women who generally did not write the texts. This provides us with a more nuanced understanding of violence in the Hebrew Bible.

In what ways does violence appear in the Hebrew Bible, and what is the role of people and God in that?

It is significant to be aware that the ancient Israelites in the Hebrew Bible saw themselves as a people who had a special relationship with their god whom they called Yahweh. Importantly, Yahweh also gave them instructions about how to behave at both individual and collective levels. Modern studies of societies have shown that they are kept together through a combination of influencing people’s thinking (ideologisation) and violence or the threat of it (coercion). To shape the thinking of the Israelites, authors included stories of their ancestors being liberated from Egypt and recorded legal instructions that told people how to act (esp. Exodus-Deuteronomy, including the Ten Commandments). They stipulated or threatened violence, for example, by injunctions to cut off individuals from the people (e.g., Lev 17:4; Lev 18:29; Num 15:30), commanding to destroy towns that do not follow Yahweh (e.g., Deut 13), and by threats of exile (e.g., Lev 26; Deut 28). Such violence is generally portrayed as a punishment for wrongdoings, and the related threats are also aimed at motivating people towards desired behavior (see also Exod 20:5, Exod 20:7; Deut 5:9, Deut 5:11). The sacrificial system, which compensates (atones) for unintentional sins (see Num 15:30-31), is itself based on violence towards animals (see esp. Lev 1-7).

Not every violent act directly relates to the Mosaic legal system (see, e.g., actions in the book of Genesis). And, there are wrongdoings that may be punished outside the legal system (e.g., Amnon and Tamar, 2Sam 13) or appear to be left completely unpunished (e.g., Eccl 7:16). However, Yahweh ultimately threatens to mete out a punishment on any wrongdoers, whether within the Israelite society or outside it (e.g., Amos 1-2; Lev 18:25-30). In practice, even when Yahweh is the ultimate source of everything (see also Gen 1-2), violence is actually carried out by people, even if animals and natural phenomena can also feature (e.g., 1Kgs 13; Deut 28; Josh 10:11-14; Amos 7:1-6). At times the Israelites are the executors of violence; at others they are targets of it. The conquest of Canaan at Yahweh’s behest (Numbers, Joshua–Judges) is an example of the former, even if academics are divided on to what extent the events portrayed are historical. The Assyrian (2Kgs 17) and Babylonian (2Kgs 25) invasions are examples of the latter. War as a significant form of collective violence is attested in both of these cases. Overall, the scale of violence portrayed can range from simple admonishment and perhaps associated physical measures (e.g., Prov 4:1; Prov 13:24) to genocidal proportions (e.g., Deut 7).

A good amount of violence depicted in the Hebrew Bible can be deemed undeserved and sometimes even unexplainable (e.g., Jeremiah; Job; a number of psalms). Violence can also be associated with both individual and collective trauma, both implicitly and explicitly. This mostly really is the case when the ancient Israelites themselves have been targets of violence (e.g., the Babylonian exile, 2Kgs 25; Lamentations; see also, e.g., Ps 69; Ps 88). All in all, the texts show how thinking about the divine was an integral factor for the ancient Israelites when dealing with violence in their world.

Pekka Pitkänen, "Violence in the Hebrew Bible", n.p. [cited 19 Oct 2018]. Online: http://bibleodyssey.org/en/passages/related-articles/violence-in-the-hebrew-bible

Contributors

pitkanen-pekka

Pekka Pitkänen
Senior Lecturer, School of Liberal and Performing Arts at the University of Gloucestershire

Pekka Pitkänen is Senior Lecturer in the School of Liberal and Performing Arts at the University of Gloucestershire, UK. He is the author of Joshua (2010) and A Commentary on Numbers: Narrative, Ritual and Colonialism (2017). His current interest remains in the study of Genesis–Joshua, together with the study of migration and colonialism in the ancient Near East, ritual studies and other sociological and anthropological approaches to the study of the ancient world.

A West Semitic language, in which most of the Hebrew Bible is written except for parts of Daniel and Ezra. Hebrew is regarded as the spoken language of ancient Israel but is largely replaced by Aramaic in the Persian period.

Of or relating to ancient lower Mesopotamia and its empire centered in Babylon.

The period between 586 and 539 B.C.E., when the leaders and elite of Judea were exiled to Babylon. The exile ended when Cyrus of Persia defeated Babylon and allowed the Judeans to return home.

Characteristic of a deity (a god or goddess).

general condition of living away from ones homeland or specifically the Babylonian captivity

migration of the ancient Israelites from Egypt into Canaan

Of or related to a social conviction in the equality of women.

The set of Biblical books shared by Jews and Christians. A more neutral alternative to "Old Testament."

Relating to or associated with people living in the territory of the northern kingdom of Israel during the divided monarchy, or more broadly describing the biblical descendants of Jacob.

of or relating to Moses or the writings attributed to him.

of or relating to Moses or the writings attributed to him.

Of or related to history after a colony is declared independent; also: of or related to postcolonialism, an academic orientation that critiques colonialism and impoerialism.

Relating to the system of ritual slaughter and offering to a deity, often performed on an altar in a temple.

Lev 17:4

4and does not bring it to the entrance of the tent of meeting, to present it as an offering to the Lord before the tabernacle of the Lord, he shall be held guil ... View more

Lev 18:29

29For whoever commits any of these abominations shall be cut off from their people.

Num 15:30

30But whoever acts high-handedly, whether a native or an alien, affronts the Lord, and shall be cut off from among the people.

Deut 13

1 If prophets or those who divine by dreams appear among you and promise you omens or portents,2and the omens or the portents declared by them take place, and t ... View more

Lev 26

Rewards for Obedience
1You shall make for yourselves no idols and erect no carved images or pillars, and you shall not place figured stones in your land, to wor ... View more

Deut 28

Blessings for Obedience
1If you will only obey the Lord your God, by diligently observing all his commandments that I am commanding you today, the Lord your God ... View more

Exod 20:5

5You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the ... View more

Exod 20:7

7You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses his name.

Deut 5:9

9You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and four ... View more

Deut 5:11

11You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses his name.

Num 15:30-31

30But whoever acts high-handedly, whether a native or an alien, affronts the Lord, and shall be cut off from among the people.31Because of having despised the w ... View more

Lev 1-7

The Burnt Offering
1The Lord summoned Moses and spoke to him from the tent of meeting, saying:2Speak to the people of Israel and say to them: When any of you br ... View more

2Sam 13

Amnon and Tamar
1Some time passed. David's son Absalom had a beautiful sister whose name was Tamar; and David's son Amnon fell in love with her.2Amnon was so to ... View more

Eccl 7:16

16Do not be too righteous, and do not act too wise; why should you destroy yourself?

Amos 1-2

1The words of Amos, who was among the shepherds of Tekoa, which he saw concerning Israel in the days of King Uzziah of Judah and in the days of King Jeroboam so ... View more

Lev 18:25-30

25Thus the land became defiled; and I punished it for its iniquity, and the land vomited out its inhabitants.26But you shall keep my statutes and my ordinances ... View more

Gen 1-2

Six Days of Creation and the Sabbath
1In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth,2the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face o ... View more

1Kgs 13

A Man of God from Judah
1While Jeroboam was standing by the altar to offer incense, a man of God came out of Judah by the word of the Lord to Bethel2and proclai ... View more

Deut 28

Blessings for Obedience
1If you will only obey the Lord your God, by diligently observing all his commandments that I am commanding you today, the Lord your God ... View more

Josh 10:11-14

11As they fled before Israel, while they were going down the slope of Beth-horon, the Lord threw down huge stones from heaven on them as far as Azekah, and they ... View more

Amos 7:1-6

Locusts, Fire, and a Plumb Line
1This is what the Lord GOD showed me: he was forming locusts at the time the latter growth began to sprout (it was the latter gr ... View more

2Kgs 17

Hoshea Reigns over Israel
1In the twelfth year of King Ahaz of Judah, Hoshea son of Elah began to reign in Samaria over Israel; he reigned nine years.2He did wh ... View more

2Kgs 25

1And in the ninth year of his reign, in the tenth month, on the tenth day of the month, King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon came with all his army against Jerusalem, ... View more

Prov 4:1

Parental Advice
1Listen, children, to a father's instruction,
and be attentive, that you may gain insight;

Prov 13:24

24Those who spare the rod hate their children,
but those who love them are diligent to discipline them.

Deut 7

A Chosen People
1When the Lord your God brings you into the land that you are about to enter and occupy, and he clears away many nations before you—the Hittites ... View more

2Kgs 25

1And in the ninth year of his reign, in the tenth month, on the tenth day of the month, King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon came with all his army against Jerusalem, ... View more

Ps 69

Prayer for Deliverance from Persecution
To the leader: according to Lilies. Of David.
1Save me, O God,
for the waters have come up to my neck.2I sink in deep mi ... View more

Ps 88

Prayer for Help in Despondency
A Song. A Psalm of the Korahites. To the leader: according to Mahalath Leannoth. A Maskil of Heman the Ezrahite.
1O Lord, God of ... View more

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