Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 15 (2015) - Review

Zehnder, Markus and Hallvard Hagelia (eds.), Encountering Violence in the Bible (Bible in the Modern World, 55; Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix, 2013). Pp. xii + 309. Hardcover. US$100. ISBN 978-1-909697-01-0.

These 18 essays from biblical scholars from several countries arise out of the first international meeting of the Norwegian Summer Academy for Biblical Studies. The Academy's selected topic of Violence and Ethics in the Bible (p. vii) was only heightened as the Academy met the summer after the tragic bombing in Oslo and the related shooting of young people at a nearby political youth camp.

One of the Academy's stated aims is to break through the “often too rigid boundaries between research in the Hebrew Bible and research in the New Testament.”[1] The anthology reflects this aim: of 18 essays, 13 focus on Hebrew Bible, three on the New Testament (with varying degrees of interaction with the Hebrew Bible), two on Second Temple texts, and one from an Islamic perspective. The latter contribution, the editors indicate, must be included in the current debate on violence in the modern world (p. 11), but, as a sole offering, it feels somewhat out of place in the collection.

Essays are collated alphabetically by the author's name rather than thematically or according to the textual corpus treated. The editors' introduction takes this random shaping and, beyond briefly summarizing each article, provides some thematic shape to the volume as a whole. It draws out thematic connections and shared critical questions and notes the many ways the essays work together toward the volume's goals. Those goals are not to speak to all aspects of the topic nor give definitive answers, but to make a contribution to the debate about the “theme of violence in the Bible and the potential it has to shed new light on problems in the biblical texts themselves and their significance in addressing historical and present experiences of violence” (p. 12).

Tracing the order presented in the introduction, Karl William Weyde's essay is the volume's entry point. In addition to providing an overview of recent research on the question of the so-called holy war in the Hebrew Bible and ancient Near Eastern sources, Weyde also explores the growing presence of ethics in this research. He thus contextualizes a key question of the volume: how can biblical texts of violence and warfare contribute to the promotion of peace in our world today?

Kirsten Nielsen's contribution challenges any necessary correlation between monotheism and violence. A proposed reading strategy attends to both historical contexts and the context of the whole canon. Thus, no one stream (such as that of violence) is isolated and made normative. This reading strategy discovers the many faces of God through both the Old and New Testaments.

Terence E. Fretheim addresses the particular problem of violence that is attributed to God in the Hebrew Bible. Fretheim argues that God's relationship with Israel and the world commits him to self-limitation of his omnipotence. God works through his creatures, who might choose to act violently. Such violence does not overthrow God's promises, for he paradoxically enters the world to suffer violence so that violence might be ended.

Dana M. Harris takes up images of violence in the book of Revelation, demonstrating that they culminate God's long narrative of shalom. Similar to Nielsen's reading strategy Harris attends to the narrative of the whole canon. Throughout, she argues, an essential characteristic of God is not violence but divine judgment, God's redemptive response to human violence and sin.

Peter Wick considers the commandments of the Sermon on the Mount and the multiple levels of obedience to which Jesus calls his disciples. Ultimately, Jesus affirms the law of love as the highest obedience. Wick argues that it is only this obedience, when freely adopted, which is able to overcome violence.

The offerings of Gordon McConville, Robert L. Hubbard, Jr., and Joshua Berman stand together as three thematic investigations of aspects of human violence in the Hebrew Bible. McConville traces in traditions about Pharaoh, Assyria, and the rule of the Davidic scion the misappropriation of the dominion granted to humans in the creation narrative. He creatively pairs the question of how dominion might be exercised justly and righteously with a discussion of Dietrich Bonhoeffer's analysis of state power and the church's role amidst such power. Hubbard posits a clan-based system and a corporate desire for wholeness, or shalom, as the roots motivating the provision for cities of refuge. This investigation is rounded out by reflecting on how the system for refuge speaks to modern realities of violence and the character of God. Berman studies the laws of Deuteronomy and discovers four benefits to engagement in warfare—a conclusion which, he notes, repudiates to some degree the basic premise of the conference goals (p. 14).

Georg Fischer, like McConville, works with texts in Exodus. Fischer traces human violence perpetrated unduly and repeatedly by Pharaoh against Israel. It is only God's final act of power which ends such violence. Through detailed philological study, narrative contextualization, and thematic investigation, Fischer argues that Exod 1–15 is a model for God's response to persistent human violence.

Markus Zehnder contributes the longest study, reassessing the biblical witness to the annihilation of the Canaanites and the charge of genocide that many bring against Israel. Working with the few texts that deal with the Israelites' attitudes towards the Canaanites (p. 268), Zehnder explores both the lethal and non-lethal actions that Israel is to execute. He concludes that “genocide” cannot be rightly applied to Israel's actions.

Lennart Boström, like Fretheim and Fischer, engages the question of violence perpetrated by God, using 2 Sam 6 as a test case. Noting the various ways modern interpreters have spoken to this violence, Boström highlights the importance of genre for interpreting the troubling tale. Furthermore, he argues, the story's emphasis on the ark's holiness demonstrates that God can indeed be dangerous to human beings.

Karin Finsterbusch works with Jer 1–6, arguing that there is a marked increase in the rhetoric of destruction within the section. She seeks to hear the rhetoric functioning as warning to the prophet's narrative audience, and as explanation to the post-exilic audience. Attention is given to the rhetoric's role in identity-formation as the post-exilic audience integrates the reality of destruction.

Hallvard Hagelia examines human violence within the book of Amos. Hagelia particularly notes places where similar violence is elsewhere condoned or a different standard of judgment is meted out. Hagelia argues that the ethical and judicial bases for the judgments are not always explicitly stated but rest upon ancient realities such as lex talionis. Concluding comments ponder similar human acts of violence today, and how God's justice might be enacted in our modern context.

Lars Olov Eriksson works with Ps 119, positing a genre of prayer and delineating the primary characteristic of the psalmist's enemies as consisting in the notion that they do not obey the Lord's commandments. Brief attention is given to recent research on this psalm and to the psalm's placement within the Psalter. The article makes several interesting observations and suggestions, but its brevity leaves them undeveloped.

Torleif Elgvin and Årstein Justnes each work with Second Temple texts. Elgvin examines Old Testament texts in Hasmonean state propaganda, tracing eschatological and messianic themes. Touching lightly on similar themes in writings from the first Jewish revolt, early Christian writings, rabbinic writings, and in our own times, Elgvin notes the danger of Hasmonean-style state theology that too closely ties nationalism and state religion. Justnes explores the literary and fictional character of the violence in the Qumran writings, arguing against the notion that a monolithic and violent worldview would characterize the community and its writings.

Tommy Wasserman examines several Old and New Testament passages that scribes, translators, and interpreters have found problematic. Attempts to soften problematic texts are often uncovered through textual criticism. Wasserman proposes and applies a subcategory to the lectio difficilior rule for variant readings: lectio vehementior potior—the more violent reading might be the original reading.

Finally, Friedmann Eissler calls for critical reflection on modernist and jihadist interpretations of Islam, arguing that Islam is not opposed to an integrated life of belief and ethics. Exploring Islamist theology and anthropology, Eissler argues the key issue in various streams of Islamic interpretation is the relationship of God's power and human dominion.

Abstracts appear at the head of each entry; indices of references and authors round out the volume.

Some minor editorial issues appear (e.g., enumerations do not match the style of the volume and the references are thus ambiguous [p. 105], some notes are apparently incorrectly numbered or misordered [pp. 115–16], typeset notes are in a different font [p. 13]), but these do not detract from the thrust of the argumentation.

The authors found in this volume are varied in their assumptions, methods, and conclusions, and represent a spectrum of denominational and academic affiliations. Contributions vary widely in length and a few are too short to adequately argue their premise. But overall the volume is commended for its generally thoughtful contributions and has appeal and value for all biblical scholars and theologians working on questions of violence in the biblical text.

Lissa M. Wray Beal, Providence Theological Seminary

[1] Gleaned from the Academy's website, see (accessed August 23, 2014). reference