Violent Psalms and “Biblical” criticism of the Bible

What do you do with all those violent psalms?

Most people ignore them completely, without even giving a reason. Throughout my entire childhood and religious education, these were never dealt with. It’s like they weren’t even there.

On the flip side, some insist on integrating all of them, verbatim, into the worship service.

May his children be fatherless
and his wife a widow!
May his children wander about and beg,
seeking food far from the ruins they inhabit!
May the creditor seize all that he has;
may strangers plunder the fruits of his toil!
Let there be none to extend kindness to him,
nor any to pity his fatherless children!

-Psalm 109:9-12

How about following that up with another rousing chorus of “Jesus Loves the Little Children”, right?

The possible reasons they are in there are many and some are rather complicated. I’m not going to get into that here. There is a decent outline here.

Atheists and antagonists love to point out how much bloody violence is in the Bible. We shouldn’t hum and haw and make excuses for this though. If there is something confusing in the scriptures, our first reaction shouldn’t be to apologize for it (slavery anyone?), but to seek to understand what God is trying to tell us by keeping it preserved throughout the years.

I’ve acquired a few killer points from reading a (relatively) recent essay on the subject by the great sage of violence himself, Rene Girard. He uncovers a fascinating clue by contrasting it with ancient pagan literature. If the Bible is nasty violent, it’s violent compared to what exactly? And when did we become so worried about this?

Many commentators today want to show that far from being nonviolent, the Bible is really full of violence. In a sense, they are right. The representation of violence in the Bible is enormous and more vivid, more evocative, than in mythology and even Greek tragedy. If we compare Judaic texts to pagan ones, we find that the amount of represented violence is greater in the first than in the second.

He goes on to provide more examples of how the psalms of malediction are, surprisingly, worse than nearly anything that shows up elsewhere. C.S. Lewis, who knew the classics inside out, also noted the same thing.

There are other texts in the Bible that forbid human beings to pray to God for the destruction of their enemies, and this is precisely what these psalms do. C. S. Lewis in his Reflections on the Psalms finds them shocking and does not hesitate to say so: “In some of the Psalms the spirit of hatred which strikes us in the face is like the heat from a furnace mouth. In others the same spirit ceases to be frightful only by becoming (to a modern mind) almost comic in its naïveté.” 1 Lewis finds these texts especially problematic in view of the fact that this intensity of hatred is not found in pagan writing:

Here he quotes Lewis again:

If we are to excuse the poets of the Psalms on the grounds that they were not Christians, we ought to be able to point to the same sort of thing, and worse, in pagan authors. . . . I can find in them lasciviousness, much brutal insensibility, cold cruelties taken for granted, but not this fury or luxury of hatred. . . . One’s first impression is that the Jews were much more vindictive and vitriolic than the pagans.

Now what’s up with that? Girard argues that the nastiness is in the pagan mythology too, but it’s sanitized. It’s from the viewpoint of the victors. The “winners” wrote history. They glamorized, and softened their own deeds.

Once we realize that we must be dealing with the same social phenomenon in the Bible and in mythology, namely the hysterical mob that will not calm down until it has lynched a victim, we cannot fail to become aware of the fact of a great biblical singularity, even a uniqueness.

In mythology, the collective violence is always represented from the standpoint of the victimizers and therefore the victims themselves are never heard. We never hear them bemoaning their sad fate and cursing their persecutors as they do in the psalms. Everything is recounted from the standpoint of the persecutors.

I know I’m pasting large chunks here, but in this case Girard’s writing is so concise (unusual) it’s difficult to summarize. Read on though. It’s loaded with goodies.

No wonder the Greek myths, the Greek epics and the Greek tragedies are all serene, harmonious, and undisturbed. In pagan cultures, the persecutors are in charge. We never hear the victims. We only hear the persecutors who always have the last word, and who are unaware of their own arbitrary violence.

The psalms, in my view, tell the same basic story as many myths but turned inside out, so to speak.

The psalms of execration or malediction are the first texts in history that enable victims, forever silenced in mythology, to have a voice of their own. These spontaneous scapegoats understandably feel horribly betrayed by their friends, their neighbors, even their relatives. And no wonder. They are victimized by everybody without exception inside their own community.

These victims feel exactly the way Job does. The Book of Job must be defined, I believe, as an enormously enlarged psalm of malediction. If Job were a myth, we would only have the viewpoint of the friends.

And finally bringing it back to face the original criticism:

The current critique of violence in the Bible does not suspect that the violence represented in the Bible might also be there in the events behind mythology, although invisible because it is unrepresented. The Bible is the first text to represent victimization from the standpoint of the victim and it is this representation which is responsible, ultimately, for our own superior sensibility to violence. It is not our superior intelligence or sensitivity. The fact that today we can sit in judgment over these texts for their violence is a mystery. No one else has ever done that in the past. It is for biblical reasons, paradoxically, that we criticize the Bible.

-Rene Girard, Violence in Biblical Narrative, Philosophy, Vol. 22, No. 2, October 1999

Now isn’t that ironic? Post-Christian morality bites again! We criticize the bible for being too violent and yet the root of our being appalled at this sort of violence in the first place is… you guesed it – the Bible. Secular humanism is Biblical morality sanitized of diety and metaphysics. Liberal social values were UNTHINKABLE in antiquity because they were only lately derived from the shell of Christianity.

Back to Girard’s essay for a sec. Doesn’t that just lay the smack down hard? So someone comes to trash the word of God and demand some answers. Now you could give them good answers (which exist), or you can kick the table over and show how the very motivation behind their question is sourced in how deeply the Bible has already shaped their ethics and thoughts.

I think this happens all the time. The kinds of questions we care about every day come from Christianity itself and its 2000+ year shaping of our western minds. We find that even when we curse God, we still do so on his own turf.

Update: You can read the full text of Girard’s essay here.