Search the Site


Violence in the Hebrew Bible

The Hebrew Bible has its share of violence committed by both people and God

Abraham and the Binding of Ishmael
Abraham and the Binding of Ishmael

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.

  • pitkanen-pekka

    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.