when the Bible corrects itself—more on violence in the Bible

Posted by PeteEnns on January 5, 2017 in nature of the Bible violence of God 39 Comments

jehus-coupIn his book Being Christian, Rowan Williams discusses what to do with problematic stories in the Bible—like those parts where people are dropping like flies (see here).

Williams raises the example of Jehu’s coup in 2 Kings 9, where Jehu slaughters, with great fanfare, the royal house of Ahab, who was a member of the “house of Omri,” a powerful dynasty of the northern kingdom of Israel that reigned for much of the 9th c. BCE. Here is what Williams has to say about that:

In the first and second books of Kings we read about the regular struggles that took place between the prophets and the kings of Israel. One of the most dramatic stories there is of the massacre by Jehu of the royal house of Ahab at Jezreel. This story is presented in the second book of Kings as a triumph of God’s righteousness. The appalling Jehu, who is a mass murder on a spectacular scale, obliterates not only the immediate and extended family of King Ahab and Queen Jezebel, but pretty well anyone who has ever exchanged a polite word with them. And he is anointed specifically to do this job by the prophet Elijah.

Now that, clearly, is a rather problematic story because of all the random bloodshed in it. But it did not take twenty Christian centuries for people to notice that. For in the book of the prophet Hosea (1.4) you will find, just a few generations later, a prophet of Israel looking back on that very story and saying that Jezreel is a name of shame in history, not of triumph, and that Jehu’s atrocities deserve to be punished.

[Hosea 1:4: And the Lord said to him, “Name him Jezreel; for in a little while I will punish the house of Jehu for the blood of Jezreel, and I will put an end to the kingdom of the house of Israel.”]

Somethings has happened to shift the perspective.

And I imagine that if asked what he meant, Hosea would have said, ‘I’m sure my prophetic forebears were absolutely certatin they were doing the will of God. And I’m sure the tyranny and idolatry of the royal house of Ahab was a scandal that needed to be ended. But, human beings being what they are, the clear word of God calling Israel to faithfulness and to resistence was so easily turned into an excuse for yet another turn of the screw in human atrocity and violence. And we’re right to shed tears for that memory.’

That to me is a very powerful moment in the Old Testament: a recognition that it is possible to grow in understanding and to think again about the past.

Something in the world of the prophet Hosea—who wrote so movingly about the helpless love of God for God’s people, thebeing-christian divine commitment to a love that cannot be given up even when it looks like the sort of love that humiliates the lover—had already opened up the heart to seeing something more of God.

And for the Christian, there is in this a sort of foretaste of the terrifying compassion of God that we see in Jesus Christ breaking through.

Rowan Williams, Being Christian: Baptism, Bible, Eucharist, Prayer, pp. 38-39
(slightly reformatted; my emphasis in bold)

An inner-biblical critique of violence. What was praised by one author is denounced and mourned by another.


And as we read this exchange between the “Deuteronomistic Historian” (as the author of the history of the kings is often called in modern scholarship) and Hosea, we see illustrated something very important for all Bible readers to come to terms with:

the Bible is not a book that in all its parts reveals what we must believe about God, the world, and our place in it. Rather, the Bible is itself a dynamic tradition that reflects different theological points of view.

To smooth over this debate between Hosea and our historian in the name of preserving a error-free Bible is to mishandle and therefore disrespect the sacred text. And, as Williams hints at the end, we miss something of the Gospel when we miss theological dynamics like the one we see here.

The text is a dialogue, a movement—something you’ve likely heard me say before many times here on this blog and elsewhere, and that dynamic has been far better understood in Judaism and in iterations of Christianity that are not rooted in biblicism.

At the end of the day, examples like this illustrate that collapsing into prooftexting is not an option. The Bible is not field guide to the Christian life, complete with a handy index to turn to the right verse. We are never going to get a free pass to avoid the hard work of discerning what God is saying.

“The answer” is not always laid out before us in print. Rather, the process of theological engagement is modeled for us. And like the biblical writers, for that process we are dependent on the Spirit and discerning the Spirit’s movement.

  • mhelbert

    This is something that I’ve been considering for some time. If the scriptures are considered ‘living words,’ why do we hang on to the interpretations of 500 yr. old white guys? Why aren’t we engaging the text in our own cultural milieu? Yes, we should look back to the interpretations and traditions as sources of wisdom. But, to etch them into stone and somehow make a so-called ‘plain reading’ of the text into something that is true and binding on all people, in all cultures, for all times is hardly that.

    • http://jewishchristianintersections.com/ Larry Behrendt

      There are 500 year old white guys? Wow. What do they eat for breakfast?

      • Darrin Hunter

        Each other, if their writings indicate anything.

        • Pete E.
    • Adam Gadomski

      That’s called “Making myself the authority”. The Scriptures are supposed to change us, not we the Scriptures.

    • Wayfaring Michael

      I think you’re right on here. You simply can’t have a “plain reading” of texts that began as oral traditions, were written down centuries later, and for many of which we only have translations, not from closely-related languages–like French to Spanish, say–the oldest copies of which may come from hundreds of years after they were first written down. And yes, depending on men who lived five hundred years ago to understand texts that originated from 1400 to 3000 years before their own day, under any circumstances, is a bit problematic.

  • DonaldByronJohnson

    Here is my take, let’s look a little closer at the details to try to see better what is going on.

    2Ki 9:6 So he arose and went into the house. And the young man poured the oil on his [Jehu’s] head, saying to him, “Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel, I anoint you king over the people of the LORD, over Israel.
    2Ki 9:7 And you shall strike down the house of Ahab your master, so that I may avenge on Jezebel the blood of my servants the prophets, and the blood of all the servants of the LORD.
    2Ki 9:8 For the whole house of Ahab shall perish, and I will cut off from Ahab every male, bond or free, in Israel.
    2Ki 9:9 And I will make the house of Ahab like the house of Jeroboam the son of Nebat, and like the house of Baasha the son of Ahijah.
    2Ki 9:10 And the dogs shall eat Jezebel in the territory of Jezreel, and none shall bury her.”

    So in summary the prohecy was: Jehu will become king and is to kill Ahab’s house and dogs will eat Jezebel in Jezreel.

    In 2 Kings 9:16-28 Jehu finds Joram (king of Israel, son of Ahab) and Ahaziah (king of Judah) at Jezreel and kills them both.

    So Jehu went too far, he did accomplish one aspect of the prophecy, but also did something else that was not a part of the prophecy. So Hosea’s point can be understood in this way.

    • Pete E.

      You mean the killing of Ahaziah is “too far”? But he was in cahoots with Joram against Jehu (v. 21)

      • DonaldByronJohnson

        2Ki 8:26 Ahaziah was twenty-two years old when he began to reign, and he reigned one year in Jerusalem. His mother’s name was Athaliah; she was a granddaughter of Omri king of Israel.
        2Ki 8:27 He also walked in the way of the house of Ahab and did what was evil in the sight of the LORD, as the house of Ahab had done, for he was son-in-law to the house of Ahab.
        2Ki 8:28 He went with Joram the son of Ahab to make war against Hazael king of Syria at Ramoth-gilead, and the Syrians wounded Joram.

        So Ahaziah was a brother-in-law to Joram by marriage. He was also a bad king of Judah. It can help to know that Ahab is seen as the worst of the bad kings of Israel, hence the prophecy to wipe out his house.

        But after Jehu killed Joram, there was no need for Jehu to kill Ahaziah, as he was fleeing, could no longer act to protect Joram (now dead), and was not a part of the prophecy against Ahab’s house.

        • Pete E.

          And you’re saying that Hosea’s rebuke pertains only to Ahaziah?

          A better explanation is that Ahaziah’s alliance with Omride dynasty was his undoing. He fled, yes, to save his neck, but that hardly would have had a political changer of heart. He got mixed up and had to pay the price, so to speak.

          • DonaldByronJohnson

            Hos 1:4 And the LORD said to him, “Call his name Jezreel, for in just a little while I will punish the house of Jehu for the blood of Jezreel, and I will put an end to the kingdom of the house of Israel.

            I see “blood of Jezreel” as a poetic/symbolic way of referring to Jehu’s killing around Jezreel. As you point out, in 1 Sam 9, some of that killing was commanded by God. There is also more about Jezreel, but I am declining to get into that backstory.

            I think there are 2 things going on. Was it wise for Ahaziah to join with Ahab’s kin? No. Did that mean that God wanted Ahaziah dead along with Joram? I think the answer is no also. But it is also true that because he was with Joram, he was killed.

            I do not think it is a big insight that someone can start to do something in God’s will and then continue in his own will, which is outside of God’s will.

    • Norma Hunt

      when ever one takes Gods commands/instruction and goes too far there is consequences and we see it with this as well

      • Pete E.

        Only, Hosea not saying, “Gee, Jehu, great job killing everyone but I need to denounce you because you went a tad too far by killing a king in alliance with the house of Ahab.”

        • DonaldByronJohnson

          The point is to assume continuity, not discontinuity, when reading Scripture.

          • Pete E.

            Why? That seems simplistic given the degree of discontinuity.

          • DonaldByronJohnson

            I assume continuity because I accept that the 66 books of Scripture are inspired by God and God is a God of order. This does not mean that there cannot be discontinuity, there can be; but first I look for how the text can be understood in continuity with previous revelation. This is similar to Occam’s razor, looking for the simplest explanation for what we find in the text.

            In this case, I ask myself how can BOTH Kings and Hosea be true, as I agree that at first this does not seem to be the case. So I use the seemingly different take to motivate me to go back and carefully study what is going on in both books. I see these puzzling things as similar to the “cracks” in Newtonian physics that were being discovered in the 1900s and which led to a deeper understanding of reality via Relativity and Quantum Mechanics. Paul once used the lack of a plural (seed versus seeds) to make an argument, so differences can matter.

          • Pete E.

            Your arguments rests on the presumption that “God is a God of order.” Assuming for the sake of discussion that this claim is meaningful when talking of Scripture (I don’t think it is), why then there be ANY discontinuity?

          • DonaldByronJohnson

            1Co 14:33a for God is not a God of disorder but of peace.

            In this case, I think peace means shalom, which includes things being ordered as God intends.

            There can be discontinuity because of progressive revelation. Just as God deals with you and me as individuals and starts where each of us are at leading us step by step into the Kingdom as we each let Him, so God deals with societies and cultures and leads them as a group step by step into the Kingdom as they let Him.

            For example, Jesus adds a new commandment “Love one another as I have loved you.” Such a commandment is not possible to exist in an understandable way until Jesus has shown us how to love. Joh 13:34 “I am giving you a new commandment to love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”

            I think another discontinuity example is Heb 7:12 “When a change in the priesthood takes place, there must also be a change in the Law.” This is in a section comparing Jesus as high priest with the Levitical high priest.

            One challenge is that many Scripture interpretation frameworks teach that Scripture is chock full of discontinuities. God is understood to say this and then say the opposite. In such a framework, why would anyone think God would not change what He said yet again and again and again? It seems to me that ONE point of Scripture is that God is trustworthy and can be trusted, for example, the God of Israel keeps His covenant vows.

          • Reuben Anderson

            I think that’s confusing the text with the person of God.
            God is in the text, but not precisely and completely defined by ALL the text.
            The continuity is THE Word, Jesus, of which all scripture speaks.

  • kylev

    Hi Pete, I was just wondering if Rowan Williams’ book includes a more formal discussion of his hermeneutic method for approaching “problematic” texts such as these? I’m working on a project for my MDiv regarding applying non-violent hermeneutic methods to the Ananias and Sapphira narrative and I wonder if Williams’ approach might be suitable. (Whether he is or is not committed to God’s non-violence isn’t hugely important; his approach may be applicable regardless.)

  • Teresa Pople

    Oh how this does my heart good . . . .

  • James C. Higgs

    God’s methods of judgment are often subject to Judgment for what they have been ordained by God to accomplish. You need look no farther than Judas Iscariot and the Cross. We have no reason to doubt that God would punish those who punish others for disobeying Him. Look at Babylon, Assyria, Egypt (Pharoah), God uses human mechanisms to bring justice, but those mechanisms are not exempt from the punishment of the sin they are committing.

    • Paul D.

      So, in your opinion, when Yahweh commands king Jehu, “You shall strike down the house of your master Ahab, so that I may avenge on Jezebel the blood of my servants the prophets” (2 Kgs 9:7), Yahweh is actually so abhorred to see his own command obeyed that he has to punish the house of Ahab? (Not even Ahab himself mind you — Ahab’s descendants.) That’s quite a perverted notion of morality if you ask me.

      • Reuben Anderson

        Errr… except that God did NOT say that. Elisha did. There is no record of God commanding it. Verse 1, where you would expect to find something like “And God spoke to Elisha in a dream saying.. “Go tell Jehu to get rid of Ahab and all his house..”..” … doesn’t. There’s no indication that God instructed this, Elisha just goes ahead and then says “God has commanded..”.

        So much of the time, I think we just infer things into the text. Well, I do constantly.

        • Paul D.

          But you were referring to punishment that they were “ordained by God to accomplish” (your words). Just to be clear, you now argue the prophet was lying and God did not command that punishment?

          I agree that we often read things into the Bible that aren’t there. It is also a mistake, though, to avoid the implications or subtext of a passage on flimsy technical grounds. 2 Kings 9 does seem to portray Jehu’s coup as the fulfillment of God’s will as expressed through both Elisha and Elijah (see v. 36 for the latter).

          (Personally, I am willing to doubt the claims the narrator makes about Yahweh just as much as claims made by Elisha and other characters in the story. In this case, I think the narrator approves of the violence carried out by Jehu.)

          • Reuben Anderson

            No that wasn’t me.
            I’m finding that the OT is more a mixed voice than I used to think.
            The true nature of God is there, but it’s not there CLEARLY.
            For example it’s perfectly possible that God was utterly opposed to Ahab, AND ALSO, did not approve of his summary execution, but would have provided some alternative path of transformation if He was asked and obeyed.

    • Teresa Pople

      Hi James, I’ve grown deeply uneasy over the years with the idea of God as a judge. I don’t really know what people think He is judging. Why would He judge people who by His own statement He regards us as lost and in need of a saviour?

    • Reuben Anderson

      The text makes a point of saying that Judas killed himself. God did not “punish” him. God’s judgement on unrepentant sin is simply to remove himself from the situation… whatever gets left behind follows naturally. God’s judgement on repentant sin is to involve himself IN the situation.

  • Preston Garrison

    Dr. Enns, you have created a moral dilemma for me. I know a number of people who need to read this. But if i give them the link and they read it, what happens next will be sort of like what happened to the Nazis at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark. What am I supposed to do?

    I’m joking, but there is a serious question in there that is rather simple. Scholars and pseudo-scholars like me can do close reading (scholars in the Hebrew) and contemplate what progressive revelation means and what God wants us to see here, but if seems pretty obvious that folks in the pew aren’t going to do that, and will just be upset by having the thing pointed out. I seem to recall a lecture that C.S. Lewis gave to some divinity students or similar, and he pointed out that there’s no way to preach what you are learning here. So what will happen is that you will hold two versions of the truth in your head, our (the scholars’) truth and their (the parishoners’) truth. This seems rather obviously to be unsatisfactory. (My father asked a relative of his who was a preacher and had been to Yale Divinity how he liked Reinhold Niebuhr. His response was that he had never learned anything from him that he could preach on Sunday.)

    I have seen you say we need to read the Bible like grownups. I think what you really meant was that we need to read the Bible like grownup scholars. I don’t see any indication that that can happen for most people. Your thoughts, or point me to one of your books if you like.

    • Pete E.

      A common dilemma, Preston. My basic approach is that I don’t think it’s always a good idea to bring these ideas TO people but to continue modeling something for them and when they are ready to talk, they will.

      • Joe Deutsch

        I get you on this Pete, but, in the mean time, until they’re ready, who do I talk to about all this stuff NOW, because I HAVE to talk to someone or sometimes I think I’ll explode, or implode. By the way, my son is in your class this semester (intro to NT) so I’m hoping I can talk to him about this stuff soon and he gets where I’m coming from :)

        • Pete E.

          I just met Hans today!

          I guess you need to find a community of like-minded people (explorers). That is always the toughest part esp. if it means leaving a church or denomination.

          • Joe Deutsch

            Well, I already left. And I have like 2 other guys. but it is tough

          • Pete E.

            I hear ya. . . . Being an ecclesiastical cycle-breaker is not easy. it involves creating a new community.

      • Andy

        Pete, would you mind expanding on what you mean exactly by “modeling something for them”. What does that look like exactly? Thanks

    • Reuben Anderson

      I think this hermeneutic helps us shape a picture of God – which is what is preached – that is more like Jesus. So while the technicalities & exegesis may be too deep for many believers, the God that we preach as a result is loving and merciful, faithful and consistent.

  • Greg

    I think you are muddying the waters by not further explaining what you mean by:
    “the Bible is not a book that in all its parts reveals what we must believe about God, the world, and our place in it. Rather, the Bible is itself a dynamic tradition that reflects different theological points of view.”

    I do not have trouble with this remark on the very surface level, but if you’re implying that later writers thought the earlier writers may have been mistaken, then you are going far beyond the Biblical evidence.
    Firstly, the Biblical writers were not really worried about “inconsistency” in behaviour. “For he wounds, but he also binds up; he injures, but his hands also heal.” Job 5:18.

    Neither do they split people up into the goodies and the baddies. Very often it is the enemies of God (Israel) who carry out God’s judgement on Israel.
    Listen to Habakkuk’s impassioned plea in chapter 2 against God’s plan to use the Babylonians to carry out judgement against His people. “You, Lord, have appointed them to execute judgment you, my Rock, have ordained them to punish. Your eyes are too pure to look on evil; you cannot tolerate wrongdoing. Why then do you tolerate the treacherous? Why are you silent while the wicked swallow up those more righteous than themselves? You have made people like the fish in the sea, like the sea creatures that have no ruler. The wicked foe pulls all of them up with hooks, he catches them in his net, he gathers them up in his dragnet; and so he rejoices and is glad. Therefore he sacrifices to his net and burns incense to his dragnet, for by his net he lives in luxury and enjoys the choicest food.”
    Contrast this to the later chapters of Isaiah and then do we ask “Has the prophet seen the “error” of God’s ways and revised Judah’s prognosis?”
    I would suggest that this is not a revision of former approval for acts of God, nor is it simply a later development of theological thought.

    The shift in God’s attitude comes in relation to Messiah only, rather than a refinement of human theologizing.

    The fact that God no longer encourages wholesale slaughter and genocide is a result of Messiah taking that punishment upon himself, rather than an evolutionary progression of our ethical sensibilities.
    (Tom Wright – The day the revolution began is an excellent treatment of this, and will keep us away from the abysmal quagmires of penal substitution theories.)
    Yes, our theological points of view have changed – but only because of Messiah. There was nothing wrong with what was expressed previously, apart from the fact that not all the pieces of the picture were clearly seen. Jesus the Messiah has completed the picture now.

    God makes no apology for what he does – he fully accepts the blame – but he also provides the remedy. He wounds, but he heals.
    “Will not the judge of all the earth do right?”

    • Reuben Anderson

      In Job 5, that’s Eliphaz speaking. The point of the Job is that it’s NOT God who wounds. People claim that the fact that God allowed Job’s suffering, makes God responsible for it. It doesn’t. Satan caused Job’s suffering.

      I think God can be on our side and use our action for good – even AS we sin while obeying him. We judge an outcome and wonder “How could God be ok with that?”. but outcomes are mixed. God used the Babylonians to punish Israel, and then destroyed Babylon as a result.