The following is a paper I wrote as an assignment for the Old Testament studies in our deacon aspirant classes last Spring. The assignment was to write a fictional dialogue addressing the question of violence in the Bible, paying special attention to chapter 19 in the Book of Judges, the story of the Levite, his concubine and the horrors they encountered at the hands of the men of Gibeah. This is what I came up with. Let me know what you think.
VIOLENCE IN THE BIBLE and JUDGES 19: A DIALOGUE
Last Tuesday, a friend called and asked me to meet him at West Town Mall. He had some important questions to ask. It wasn’t urgent, he said, but it was important. So, we arranged to meet for lunch at the food court Tuesday morning during his lunch break. He got Chick Fil-A and I got a sub sandwich. We found a place to sit that was a bit off from the crowd, and we began our conversation. I saw that he had brought a Bible with him. I asked, “So, what’s on your mind?”
He said, “I’ve been thinking a lot about my faith. I’m not giving up on God or the Church. Not by a long shot. But, I have some thoughts that’ve been bothering me, and I was hoping you might help me make sense of them. There’s a guy I work with at the office. He’s not religious at all. Says he gave it up in high school and thinks it’s all rubbish. He knows that I’m Catholic and practice the faith, though I’ve never pretended to be an expert or even especially devout. Still, he knows it’s important to me and to my family. Sometimes he takes a cheap jab, but nothing serious, or really hurtful or mean. But, he did make a point that I wasn’t sure how to respond to. He said, ‘Your God sure has caused a lot of suffering for people, for being so loving. How can you say that your Christian God is a God of love when He’s responsible for so much violence, death, and destruction against innocent people? Look at the Old Testament. God demanding that Moses, Joshua, and all those so-called holy people kill everybody when they took over a town or city. Even women and children weren’t spared!’ So, anyway, like I said, I wasn’t sure how to respond to that. Maybe I wasn’t sure how to respond because I’m not so sure myself how to make sense of it. If God is loving, and if the God of the New Testament is the same God as the Old, how can we claim that God is loving and good in the face of all that killing?”
“Ah,” I said. “Yeah, that’s a question a lot of people have. I suppose it’s a question everyone gets around to, eventually. How do you make sense of a loving God being responsible for all that violence in the Old Testament wars? There was a Christian in the early Church named Marcion who was so vexed by the matter that he claimed that the Old Testament God and the New Testament God were two different Gods! He rejected the Old Testament as the story of a vengeful, angry God. He embraced the New Testament God as the God of a loving Savior, Jesus. The Church condemned him as a heretic, insisting that there’s only one God, of course, and that the Old Testament God and the New Testament God are the same God, and that the Old Testament was still the Word of God and part of the Bible. But, while it affirmed the reverence Christians owe the Old Testament as part of God’s revelation, it didn’t solve the problem of what to do about all that violence. First, I think it’s important not to sugar-coat the matter. The fact is, the Bible records a lot of violence carried out against people, especially the enemies of Israel. The Bible also makes it clear that Israel’s actions were taken in response to God’s command. Can I borrow your Bible?”
“Of course,” he said. “I brought it because I thought it might come in handy, and because there’s a particular chapter I want to discuss. But, go on.”
“Sure. Thanks. Joshua 6:20-21 says, ‘As the horns blew, the people began to shout. When they heard the signal horn, they raised a tremendous shout. The wall collapsed, and the people stormed the city in a frontal attack and took it. They observed the ban by putting to the sword all living creatures in the city: men and women, young and old, as well as oxen, sheep and asses.’ So, here’s an example of what we’re talking about. Joshua conquers Jericho and ‘observed the ban,’ killing everybody, young and old, even the animals. Then, when you turn to Deuteronomy 20, the Bible makes it clear that the command to observe the ban came from God. ‘But in the cities of those nations which the Lord, your God, is giving you as your heritage, you shall not leave a single soul alive. You must doom them all … as the Lord, your God, has commanded you, lest they teach you to make any such abominable offerings as they make to their gods, and you thus sin against the Lord, your God.’ So, to be clear, there’s no skirting the issue that the ban meant killing everybody, and that the command to observe the ban came from God. Okay. So, how can that be justified? I mean, God’s supposed to love everybody, even Israel’s enemies. How can He command that they be killed, even the children? Why did God institute the ban? The same verses in Deuteronomy explain that. God is concerned that the sin of these people will infect the people of Israel, and they will turn to worship false gods and believe false teachings. These people practiced idol worship, temple prostitution (that is, they turned prostitution into a form of worship of their god), and even sacrificed children to their gods, among other horrible sins. Sin is infectious. The sins of people have a way of infecting those around them, so that soon everyone in the community is accepting behaviors that the Lord finds abominable, or everyone starts worshipping gods other than the one, true God. We can see this throughout the history of Israel. God’s people often turned from Him to worship false gods when they came into contact with other people who worshipped other gods. Even Solomon was tempted by his foreign wives to turn to foreign gods. The reason for the ban was to protect God’s people from the infection of sin. Also, while we believe that God is loving, we know that He’s just, too. Sin is nothing to fool around with. Justice demands that sin be punished. Incidentally, this doesn’t change with the revelation of Jesus. Remember, Jesus will be our Judge, and He will separate the faithful from the unfaithful. God being a loving God doesn’t mean everyone can do as they wish without consequence.”
“Alright,” my friend said. “I can see how that makes some sense. But, what about the children? Surely, they weren’t practicing these horrible sins or worshipping false gods. Why kill them, too?”
“Ancient peoples didn’t have much of a sense of the rights or privileges of the individual. Everyone was part of a tribe, a people, young and old. The young were simply caught up in the sins of the people to whom they belonged. It wasn’t until centuries later, really, that the idea that people were personally responsible for their actions evolved. In these ancient cultures, every person who was part of the tribe that committed these sins was infected, even their animals. In Exodus 34:5-7, God says to Moses on Mount Sinai, ‘The Lord, the Lord, a merciful and gracious God, slow to anger and rich in kindness and fidelity, continuing his kindness for a thousand generations, and forgiving wickedness and crime and sin; yet not declaring the guilty guiltless, but punishing children and grandchildren to the third and fourth generation for their fathers’ wickedness!’ Certainly, our understanding of justice doesn’t include punishing children for the sins of their fathers. But, we can’t make judgments on ancient peoples and their understanding of what God expected of them based on our modern standards. (By the way, we moderns are pretty good at killing innocent children, by war, by abortion, and even by poverty. And, too often, we do it in God’s name. So, let’s not pretend we have something over these poor primitives!) Later, God revealed through the prophet Ezekiel that He was abandoning the idea that children should die for the sins of their parents. Ezekiel 18:20 says, ‘Only the one who sins shall die. The son shall not be charged with the guilt of his father, nor shall the father be charged with the guilt of his son. The virtuous man’s virtue shall be his own, and the wicked man’s wickedness shall be his.’ And, one final point on the kids. Just because they were subject to physical death under the ban, as their parents were, doesn’t mean that they were subject to eternal punishment for sins they didn’t commit. God’s promise is for eternal life. Life in this temporal realm is a good thing. But, it can’t be compared to eternal life. The Bible doesn’t give us any reason to conclude that the children killed under the ban were subject to eternal punishment.”
“Ah,” my friend replied. “Okay. It helps a bit seeing it from that perspective.”
“Good,” I said. “The ban, too, was temporary. In the time of the divided kingdom, God commanded a different tact for dealing with Israel’s enemies. When the Arameans intended to attack Israel, the Lord blinded them, putting them at the mercy of Israel. But, Elisha told the king not to kill the Arameans, but to feed them. Their bellies filled, the Arameans never attacked God’s people again.”
“So, let me get this straight,” my friend said. “God commanded the ban be observed during the conquest of Canaan to protect His people from idolatry and other sins, and to punish sinners, as a matter of justice. But, it was temporary, and now we live under what you might call a fuller revelation, especially now that we have Jesus.”
“I guess you could put it that way,” I said. “As Christians, we turn to Jesus for guidance on matters of respect for human life. Jesus is the One Who gives life, and Jesus is the One Who has authority over judgment. St. Paul said that, rather than responding to evil with evil, or with killing the evildoer, we should overcome evil by doing good. Jesus’ promise of salvation extends to all who repent of their sins and follow Him. Perhaps we should be less surprised that God punishes those who sin and refuse to repent, and more surprised, and thankful, that God proves so merciful to those who sin and do repent.”
“Okay,” my friend said. “You’ve given me a lot to think about. It does make sense that God would want to protect His people from sin, and that He would punish those who sin, especially by worshipping false gods. I’m still not keen on the idea of kids being caught up in all of that, but I suppose I can give God the benefit of the doubt. I’m certainly not going to abandon the faith because I don’t understand how all this works. And, the distinction between suffering temporal punishment because they’re part of a sinful tribe, while not necessarily suffering eternal punishment for sins they didn’t personally commit helps somewhat. But, I want to discuss an example of violence that has nothing to do with the ban, or with punishment for sins. Maybe that’s why it’s especially hard to swallow or make sense of. I’m talking about Judges, chapter 19. Again, I brought my Bible so you could read through it. I didn’t know if you were familiar with the story.”
“I’m familiar with it, yes” I replied.
“Then you know it tells of what can only be described as a senseless act of rape and murder, both on the part of the men of the town, but also of the husband, who threw his concubine out to the men, who raped her and tortured her so badly she died. Now, that has nothing to do with punishing anyone for sin. It has nothing to do with protecting God’s people from the sins of foreign tribes. It’s completely senseless. I certainly can’t make sense of it, and I doubt anyone can. How could God allow such a thing?”
“I can’t make sense of it, either,” I replied. “I think that’s the point. The story of the Levite and his concubine was written by an author who favors Israel’s monarchy. Whether it’s historical or not, it’s a story that’s an argument in favor of Israel’s need for a king. The story starts out, ‘At that time, when there was no king in Israel …’ See, the author argues that Israel needs a king because, in the years ‘when there was no king in Israel,’ the Israelites had fallen to a shocking level of moral corruption. There’s infidelity on the part of the concubine, inhospitality on the part of the people of Gibeah (none of whom offered shelter to the travelers), homosexuality, rape to the point of torture and death, and a lack of loving concern on the part of the old Ephraimite and the Levite for the safety of their women and of the Levite toward his abused wife and, finally, disrespect toward the dead. It’s a litany of moral horrors; a polemic against the moral depravity of the people. The actions of the men of Gibeah, of the Ephraimite, and of the Levite are so depraved because they’ve fallen so far from God. The Book of Judges ends with the ominous verse, ‘In those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did what he thought best.’ In other words: moral chaos! A king would bring them back to God, back to morality. Some other things I would point out: First, unlike the ban commanded by God, God doesn’t command the people of Gibeah to rape anyone. He doesn’t command the Ephraimite to offer the women as a substitute for the Levite. He doesn’t command the Levite to throw out his concubine. He doesn’t command the Levite to cut up his wife’s body. None of this is done under God’s command, and there’s nothing in the story to suggest that anyone’s appalling actions here are blessed or favored by God. In fact, the next two chapters make it clear that the horrors of Gibeah were the cause of a civil war between the other tribes of Israel and the Benjaminites. So, let’s be clear about this. God didn’t ask for this or bless this. The actions of the Gibeahites were understood to be depraved. The other tribes demanded that the guilty be brought to justice. When the Benjaminites refused, it led to civil war — not a thing God would want for His people.”
“Okay. I get all that,” my friend said. “But, I still have trouble with the fact that God would allow it all in the first place. I mean, He’s God. These are His people. Why do they need a king to be moral? Can’t they just follow the Law God had given them?”
“Again, though,” I said, “that’s the point of the story, I think. Israel had been given the Law, but they turned from God and from the Law. The author of Judges is trying to communicate what happened, how depraved the people had become after turning from God. A king, he argued, would bring them back to greater faithfulness. Whether finally getting a king did that or not is a good question. Even still, that’s the point the author is making.”
“But, can’t God stop people from doing evil things?” my friend asked. “Can’t he inspire them to do only good? Since He’s God, and all powerful, no one would be able to resist His inspiration to do good, and we wouldn’t have evil acts like this, or like we have today all over the place.”
“Well, sure,” I answered. “But, you’ve just surrendered free will. For good or ill, God desired that people love Him and follow Him freely. Since He’s God, and He’s all good, we can safely presume that He knows what He’s doing and His plan is the best plan, the one that brings about the most genuine good, and genuine love. I would argue that good deeds done by force of God’s will aren’t genuinely good, at least on our part. And, certainly love isn’t genuine love unless freely given. I suppose it’s the risk God took when He made us free. We take the same risk, of course, with our children when they reach adulthood. We don’t make their choices for them, and we don’t want to. We don’t force them to love us. We know, deep down, that if our children are to be healthy and genuine, they need to make their own decisions. We also know that some of those decisions are going to be poor ones. We also want our children to love us and know, deep down, that if they feel forced to love, well, that really isn’t love at all. With the freedom to choose good comes the risk that some will choose evil. With the freedom to choose to love comes the risk that some might choose to not love. But, good not freely chosen is no virtue. And, love not freely given is no love at all.”
“It seems a high price to pay for freedom,” my friend suggested. “The immorality and violence of this world, the numbers of innocents killed, or starved, or deprived basic needs and human rights. And, that’s only at the hands of people. Nature is the cause of plenty of suffering, too, and there’s little people can do to hold back nature. We can’t stop a tornado from ripping through a school building, or a landslide taking out an entire village. It seems to me that, even given our freedom, and even given that a lot of people, maybe most, choose to do good, or as best as they can, there’s still a lot of suffering in this world. It’s not unreasonable, in my mind, that a good God would relieve us of much of it.”
“Now you’re getting into matters of faith and philosophy,” I said. “Our faith is that evil, even the horrors of nature, was introduced into the world as a result of the Fall of Adam. We rejected God, though we knew the consequences. The consequence is sin, and the wages of sin is death, St. Paul wrote. The whole world was caught up in the consequences of our rejecting God.”
“I didn’t reject God!” my friend barked. “I wasn’t in the garden. I didn’t eat any apple. Don’t lay that on me!”
“Of course, you’ve rejected God,” I said. “You reject Him every time you sin. If you don’t want to be held responsible for the Fall of Adam, at least take responsibility for your own fall into sin. Unless you want to foolishly claim that you don’t sin.”
“No, I certainly don’t make that claim.”
“And,” I went on, “philosophically speaking, we don’t know how much suffering God relieves us of. God’s presence permeates the world, so I can imagine that it would be a whole lot worse if God wasn’t around. A woman once asked Evelyn Waugh how he could be a Christian and still be so insufferable. He assured her that he would be a whole lot worse if he weren’t a Christian! I suspect it’s the same for all of us, and for the whole world. Thank God that God is present among us, and that the life of God is within us through Baptism. Imagine how much more horrible it would be if He weren’t. Also, as far as the existence of suffering in the presence of a good God goes, I can imagine all kinds of reasons why a good and loving God would tolerate the existence of evil, especially if He’s going to allow for freedom. But, I can’t imagine that an evil God would ever tolerate the existence of goodness, or of love. Yet, only the darkest cynic would deny that there’s goodness and love in the world. You said that suffering is a high price to pay for freedom. Well, God could take away our suffering. But, at what price? At the price of freedom, and of genuine goodness and genuine love. That’s too high a price, if you ask me. Instead of taking away our suffering, God entered into our suffering. He entered into the human experience. He took on suffering and, in a sense, redeemed it. He gave suffering the power to be more than just horror, but to be the means of redemption. Our sufferings, too, united with His, can be the means of redemption. Let me see your Bible, again. … Look here, St. Paul, in his Letter to the Colossians, writes, ‘Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ on behalf of his body, which is the church.’ Now, we can’t get into all of what that means now. That would be another ten-page dialogue! But, certainly it means that our own suffering can be united to that of Christ for the sake of His body, the Church. Maybe that’s not entirely helpful. Maybe that doesn’t make up for all the suffering. But, it sure beats senseless, purposeless, hopeless suffering. The idea that we can transform our own suffering into a means to participate in the saving mission of Christ gives me something to think about and, frankly, to rejoice in with St. Paul.”
“Well,” he said, “you’ve certainly given me some things to think about. I don’t know if I agree with all of it, but I know you’re sincere and, like I said, it’s something to think about. Now, I have to get back to work. But, I do appreciate your meeting me and taking my questions. It means a lot.”
“Anytime,” I said. “I wouldn’t mind if these lunches became a regular thing.”
“Hey,” he said, “that’s a thought. Maybe so. God bless you!”
“God bless you!”
Catholic Study Bible, The, D. Senior and J. J. Collins, editors, Oxford University Press, 2006.
Didache Bible, J. Cole, editor, Midwest Theological Forum, Inc., 2015.
Faley, Roland J., “The Book of Judges,” pp 241-253 of New Collegeville Bible Commentary,
- Durken, editor, Liturgical Press, 2017.
O’Connor, M., “Judges” pp 132-144 of The New Jerome Biblical Commentary, R. Brown, J.
- Fitzmyer, and R. Murphy, editors, Prentiss Hall, 1990.
Be Christ for all. Bring Christ to all. See Christ in all.