Holding Violence in the Bible

Growing up my family read the Bible regularly.  From a very young age I remember hearing the stories full of violence – and it’s not always violence done by the bad guys.  Some stories felt horrible and tragically heavy – like all the boy babies of the Children of Israel being killed when they were enslaved in Egypt.  But they kind of made sense to me because the actions are ordered or done by selfish, evil people.  But sometimes the violence is done by the “good” people.

There are many stories as the Children of Israel go out and conquer the lands that involve them being told to kill whole towns, cities, and even whole groups of people.  And it’s often quite specific that they not even leave one infant or woman alive.  As a kid a part of me loved hearing the stories of the Word, and I took pride in knowing the facts and the progression of many of these stories.  But along with that I also really hated the violence.  And I couldn’t make sense of why so many people were entirely wiped out.  It felt unsettling how cruel and angry it all seemed.

As an adult I have benefitted hugely from Bible studies, journey groups and sermons that dig into spiritual meanings of some of these more violent stories.  I remember one class in particular talking about one of those stories where the whole group of people was to be wiped out – not any tiny remnant left.  But how when you understand it from a spiritual level it is about the fact that to “conquer” an evil within our own individual selves we really have to stamp out every speck of that evil.  We can’t pick and choose and think that some parts of it are okay to leave alive.  In order to actually do the work of repentance the whole kit and caboodle needs to be wiped out.  

For a number of years now I have loved learning more and being more awake to the inner meanings.  But I still somehow felt that my experience of these stories as a child was somehow negative, or wrong.  I had felt such deep sorrow at all the people killed – surely it would have been better for those reactions to be bypassed. I had also, though, thought about the fact that because I had had that sense of pain around the violence, maybe that did lend itself to the depth of understanding I felt I had about the difficulty of actually living out some of these ideas – like for example completely wiping out an entire evil.  It’s hard, heavy work.  Not exactly joyful to go cutting parts of yourself out, even if you can see the ways that it is going to make you a happier, healthier, better person. So while I could see the added nuance I still sort of wished that I could have been spared that reaction as a child.

But recently between a Bible study and a few related sermons I had a new thought. If I had been introduced to the internal meaning first I wouldn’t now have the depth of understanding I have gained. By ONLY hearing the literal meaning I HAD to have those reactions.  I had to wrestle with disliking that everyone got killed.  I had to work out if following the Lord but being very violent and wiping out whole nations could be reconciled.  I had to think through how you could be good and also have no apparent mercy.  And by needing to wrestle with those things with only the natural story I really did connect to many layers of it in a very concrete way.  And now learning about the spiritual sense of these passages as an adult I both feel relief about the pain of that conflict I felt as a child AND I already connect to how difficult these spiritual principles are.  It DOES hurt to change.  It IS huge amounts of work to see something in yourself, recognise it for the false thing that it is and work to cut all those things out. It isn’t easy.  It isn’t clean. My reactions as a child were correct!  But when I hold them on the spiritual level I see the ways that they do fit with a loving, caring, and supportive God who understands me rather than the vengeful, hard and wrathful God I once saw.

As I was looking for the passage from the class about the meaning of wiping out a whole nation (which I didn’t find – sorry!) I DID find this passage about the power of the literal sense being held in correspondences:

The Word is not understandable without a body of teaching. This is because in its literal meaning the Word is entirely made up of correspondences, to allow spiritual and heavenly matters to be gathered within it in such a way that each word can be their container and support. That is why in many passages the literal meaning is not made up of bare truths but of clothed truths, which we may call semblances of truth. Many of them are adapted to the comprehension of ordinary people who do not raise their thoughts above what they can see with their eyes. There are other passages where there seem to be contradictions, though there are no contradictions in the Word when it is seen in its own light. (Doctrine of the Sacred Scripture 51)

The passage goes on to list some wonderful examples of apparent contradictions, and I found it really useful to ponder some of those.

It continues to amaze me the many levels of power a word can hold, and I’m grateful to be learning how to hold and build on my own reactions and feelings as I continue to understand the beautiful and painful stories in the Bible.

About Abby Smith

Abby is a person. She works at being an emotionally intelligent person whose main focus currently is being a happy and loving mother to four kids and wife to Malcolm. Born and raised in a General church minister's family, she has been exposed to the Bible and the Writings since childhood but is enjoying reading and understanding these books as an adult more and more. The amazing knowledge about love and wisdom and all of the emotions that follow have truly made her a happier and more self-assured person. Her husband serves as the head pastor of New Church Westville near Durban, South Africa. While leaving family behind is a challenge, she quite enjoys living in Africa.

1 thought on “Holding Violence in the Bible

  1. Yes, I have often felt some of what you describe: I was just reading a very unpleasant story in Judges and I told Erik that if I didn’t know what I do about the Lord and His Word, that sort of story would put me off reading the Bible entirely. It had to do with violence to women and it just made me mad. (But part of my brain says, Hmmm. That’s an interesting reaction, Ann. Maybe some thought needed about why you could feel anger toward the Lord: what’s that about?)
    Erik and I have talked a great deal on this general topic of the way the literal sense comes across: sometimes so ugly, sometimes so uplifting. One thing I have learned to do is when I get a reaction of distaste toward a story to consciously bring to mind what I know and can ascert about foundational truth: things like I know the Lord is love itself and loves everyone, even if this story seems to call that in question; or I remember that there’s so much more here that I cannot see and it is all beautiful, the ugliness has to do with the ugly states of we humans or our ancestors for whom this book was also written.
    But still I do wrestle with some of the literal content in the Word and wonder why the Lord couldn’t have made it easier for me! I know I have a lot of growth to do.
    I love the quote you found in Doctrine of SS. Perfect.
    Thanks,
    Abby

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