How should we handle biblical bloodshed?

The Bible can shock us by the violence in its pages. Mark Woods talks to Rev Dr Helen Paynter about the topic and her new book, God of Violence Yesterday, God of Love Today? 

The Bible can shock us by the violence in its pages. As well as deep wisdom and profound expositions of God's love and mercy, there are stories of people doing terrible things to each other. Sometimes, to make things even harder, the violence in the Bible actually seems to be commanded by God.

Many of us, if we're honest, tend to skip over this kind of writing and not think too much about it. Others are deeply troubled, but put it in the 'too difficult' box. For some, it makes it hard to believe that the Bible really is the word of a good God.

It's these issues that Helen Paynter, Director of the Centre for the Study of Bible and Violence, takes on in her book God of Violence Yesterday, God of Love Today? In the book, subtitled 'Wrestling honestly with the Old Testament', Helen – one of the contributors to Bible Society's #SheToo podcast series – asks deep questions about violence in the Bible and how terrible stories can still speak to us of God. Starting with guidance on how to read the Bible well, she addresses the different kinds of violence in its pages – whether it's just described, or implored as vengeance on enemies, or is portrayed as divine judgment, or is commanded by God. In each case she offers ways of understanding it in the light of the whole story of Scripture.

Mark Woods: You're refreshingly honest about how hard this undertaking is and you admit you don't have all the answers. Is the issue of violence in the Bible just particularly hard, or is this an approach you'd recommend more generally?

Helen Paynter: Both, I think. I do believe the issue of biblical violence is one of the thorniest questions, but I believe that humility before Scripture, and an acknowledgment of its glorious but mystifying diversity, is the only appropriate stance.

MW: You warn against treating the Old Testament in a way that's flat and literal, saying we need to pay attention to the 'larger narrative'. How do we guard against just picking and choosing the bits that are convenient to believe and ignoring the rest?

HP: Well, the first thing is to read the bits we don't like! And then we need to learn to try to see the Bible's big pictures - the little pictures only really make sense when they're located in the whole.

'If we didn't encounter violence in the Bible we might reasonably question its authenticity.'

MW: Why is there so much violence in the Bible?

HP: Because it wasn't written in the garden of Eden! The Bible is written in a great diversity of situations, but in one way or another they are all situations that relate to violence - whether it's a society that still has slavery, a country that knows war on a regular basis, or a church that is persecuted. If we didn't encounter violence in the Bible we might reasonably question its authenticity.

MW: Are there any stories of violence in the Bible that make you wish they hadn't been included?

HP: Yes – the ones where God appears to command it, particularly those that affect the 'innocent'. I struggle to understand these, and I am also concerned by the way that these sometimes seem to be used to endorse modern violence.

MW: What do churches lose if they don't think about the Bible stories that feature violence?

HP: I believe that they silence the victims, particularly the victims of sexual violence. The #MeToo movement has taught us that the cries of the abused must be heard. We should take this seriously, in our reading of the Bible as well as our reading of our newspapers.

MW: What are the worst mistakes people can make when they're thinking about these stories?

HP: I have a little list! I think the two worst mistakes are losing confidence in the goodness of God, and using the text to endorse violence in our world today. Both of these make me weep.

MW: Do you have any advice for churches wanting to consider stories of violence, say in a Sunday service?

HP: We must be sensitive to the pastoral situations in our congregations, and aware of the triggers that we might be touching. We should read the stories in their broadest possible setting, to ensure that they don't form the basis for jingoism or narrow nationalism. And we should try reading the stories from the perspective of the victim. God is always on the side of the victim.

God of Violence Yesterday, God of Love Today? is published by BRF, price £9.99.

Rev Dr Helen Paynter is a Baptist minister, Director of the Centre for the Study of Bible and Violence at Bristol Baptist College and Editor of BRF’s Guidelines Bible reading notes.

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