IN A YouTube video filmed in the Netherlands, members of the public are presented with a copy of the Qur’an and asked to react to the divine commands to violence which it contains. They duly express their horror, alert to the danger of using ancient texts to guide modern behaviour.
The Bible, generally, has positive views in it, they go on to say; it is less harsh, more peaceful. The interviewer removes the book’s cover to reveal that it is in fact the Bible.
“I went to a Christian school, but I had no idea this was in there,” one person who was interviewed says. “You really got me. I didn’t see that coming,” says another.
That the biblical God is violent is — of course — not news to some. In The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins describes God as “the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.”
IT IS a desire to help Christians think through such statements which has led the Revd Dr Helen Paynter to set up the Centre for the Study of Bible and Violence at Bristol Baptist College. The centre, already present on social media, will open officially in June, and is now enrolling students for the next academic year. It offers a Master’s programme through Durham University, and doctorates through the University of Aberdeen.
Besides having an academic arm, the centre also has a practical remit: its launch will include a workshop for people who work alongside victims of trafficking and domestic or sexual abuse.
After a career in medicine, Dr Paynter was ordained a Baptist minister in 2012. She grew up devouring the Bible, she says, reading it all the way through twice while still in her teens. But it was not until much later that she became conscious of the need to address violence in the Bible.
“The youth worker at my church phoned me up, asking how she should reply to a young person who was very disturbed by some of the stories she was encountering in the Old Testament,” she recalls. “It was before I’d done any formal theological training, and I had no considered reply; I hadn’t ever really thought about it.
“I see a genuine problem in that people are reading these stories and saying that this isn’t a God they can worship. Maybe other people are failing to come to faith altogether because of this stumbling-block. So, part of what we want the centre to do is to provide the resources to help churches respond pastorally to this problem.”
BRISTOL Baptist college opened in 1720 to train ministers. It was made possible by a gift from Edward Terrill, a member of Broadmead Baptist Church. The church would later became known for its vocal opposition to slavery, but Terrill’s fortune was built on it, and many other members of the Church were involved in the sugar trade. It is possible, therefore, that the college’s first students were reading in their Bibles the justifications for slavery on which their founder’s fortune depended.
“I am continually finding examples of people reading their Bibles to attempt to justify the unjustifiable,” Dr Paynter observes. “There are many historical examples, but many people still misappropriate the Bible to evil ends. Bad theology can make people kill each other.”
There is perhaps no clearer example of the horrors to which bad theology might lead than the use that has been made of the story of the Amalekites. They were the first enemy to meet the Israelites after they had crossed the Red Sea out of Egypt
“When you were weary and worn out, they met you on your journey and attacked all who were lagging behind; they had no fear of God,” Deuteronomy 25 recounts.
The Revd Dr Helen Paynter
The Amalekites came to function in the Bible as the archetypal enemy of God’s people, deserving of endless retribution. Dr Paynter recalls how God’s command to Saul through Samuel to exterminate the Amalkites, “both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey” (1 Samuel 15.1-3), was used by Christian ministers in Rwanda to urge on the Hutus genocide of the Tutsis.
The Bible has also been used to argue for gun ownership and President Trump’s border wall.
“Last year, a prominent Christian minister in the USA, Chuck Baldwin, said in a Facebook post that it’s a ‘biblical requirement’ for every American adult to own an assault rifle,” Dr Paynter says. “He was referencing 1 Timothy 5.8, which says that anyone who doesn’t provide for his family is worse than an unbeliever.
“Then there’s the former US Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, who quoted Romans 13 in defence of an immigration policy which separated children from their parents and denied asylum to victims of gang violence.”
DR PAYNTER is a contributor to a podcast series which the Bible Society launches today, in which I talk to feminist scholars about the different approaches that they take to biblical narratives thatdescribe the rape and abuse of women.
A seminal text is Phyllis Trible’s Texts of Terror, which quickly became required reading on university feminist-theology courses after its publication in 1984. But, Dr Paynter observes, “I think there is something around in the #MeToo movement which means that these texts are now reaching a wider audience. It’s important that Christians are equipped to deal with them.”
“I wouldn’t recommend doing a hit-and-run sermon on these stories, but I think it’s important that they are aired in the Church,” she says. “They may allow people who have been abused to express their experience. It allows us, as congregations, to lament these situations, and it sensitises us as Church to these issues. If we silence the ancient victims, we shut down the modern victims, too.”
Dr Paynter’s 2018 Whitley Lecture, “Dead and Buried? Attending to the voices of the victim in the Old Testament and today”, focused on the story in Judges 19, in which a Levite’s concubine (or wife) was gang-raped on the say-so of her husband. She was then murdered, and her body was dismembered. In addition to questions about the provenance of the text and its historical context, Dr Paynter wants to ask where is God in the story (he is not mentioned); who speaks, and who is silent (the woman does not speak); and who approves the violence, and who condemns it.
The story and its aftermath end with a familiar refrain: “In those days there was no king in Israel; every man did what was right in his own eyes.” This is a clear indication, she says, that the narrator is outraged by the tale that he is telling, and intends his readers to be, too. There are times when biblical horror stories contain their own critique. Sometimes, they may even leave room for a “redemptive reading”.
I PUT it to Dr Paynter that such readings could be in danger of letting God or biblical writers off the hook. There is no such thing as a neutral interpretation, she counters: the best that we can hope for is that readers acknowledge the hermeneutical stance and precommitments that they bring to the texts. For herself, “I am reading to discern what God is saying, and to discover God’s goodness. I start from a belief that the ultimate revelation of God is in the person of Jesus. That shapes my understanding of who God is, and I’m reading back from that understanding to find how can I reconcile what I know of God with these texts.
“One of the most significant ways the Bible speaks to us is when it understands and then challenges the expectations we have based on our prevailing worldview.” She therefore reads the Bible looking for the moments when something unexpected occurs. She calls this “the hermeneutic of surprise”.
As an example, she points to the work of Scott Nikaido and the parallels that he has found between the stories of Abraham and his Egyptian slave Hagar. Sarah requires Hagar to bear Abraham a son, Ishmael, but later banishes them after she gives birth to Isaac. Both Abraham and Hagar are “sent out” to lonely places with their son, both hear an angel call to them from heaven, both see something (a well of water in the case of Hagar, a ram in the Abraham story), which causes their son to be saved.
Recognising these similarities does not minimise the abuse and suffering of Hagar, or exonerate Abraham for the part that he played in that. But Dr Paynter believes that the reader is supposed to be caught off-guard by them, and to ask what that might tell us about God.
“There are lots of places where deviations from what we might expect in the text reveal to us its main communicative purpose. And communication always happens when we are surprised.”
God of violence yesterday; God of love today? by Dr Helen Paynter will be published in May by the Bible Reading Fellowship. Find out more abut the study centre: www.bristol-baptist.ac.uk/study-centres/csbv
The Bible Society’s #SheToo podcast can be found at biblesociety.org.uk/shetoo