| |

SIDIC Periodical XXI - 1988/1
Violence and Peace (Pages 18 - 20)

Other articles from this issue | Version in English | Version in French

Violence in the Bible - An Interview with Gian Luigi Prato
Carmine Di Sante


Carmine Di Sante (C.D.S.): In our day violence is at the very heart of sociological and philosophical reflection. The problem arises as to whether the Bible, instead of helping to eliminate or control violence, approves and even fosters it. What would you say to that?
Gian Luigi Prato(G.L.P.):
Every time a new problem arises either in systematic or biblical theology, there is the temptation to run to the Bible for a solution, or at least to discover if the question is asked there. Certainly, when we think about the problem of violence in general, what strikes us is that there is scarcely any affinity between the content of the Bible as a whole and the problem that is ours. Today violence confronts us dramatically and we tend to want to deal with it in a absolute way —by eliminating it completely from our society, and indeed there are urgent contemporary reasons why we should do so. Nevertheless to want an immediate answer of this kind, by which I mean a straightforward "Yes" or "No", is not consistent with the correct methodology for biblical research. Naturally what the Bible has to say about a subject like this is an expression of the culture in which it originated. It can even make use of violence, which is an historical cultural phenomenon of its own time, to express its message and its vision of reality.

C.D.S. If it is true that the Bible cannot be expected to provide an answer to this problem, the fact remains that there are expressions in it about the God of war, a God who intervenes in battles and leads armies, that can seem shocking. How should these expressions be interpreted today? Do they not encourage a culture of violence rather than one of peace?
In my opinion, it has little meaning in the context of the Old Testament, the world of the Middle East, to pose the question in these terms. The phenomenon of violence expressed itself on different levels and was part of the very substance of life. There was absolutely no concept of a nonviolent world. There was not even an abstract idea of pacifism to set over against that of violence. In other words in the ancient Middle East the very concept of history is theological by nature. Every group, every people, felt itself linked to its own divinity, a divinity which revealed itself to and fought for its own people. The victory of the people was the victory of its god. On the historical plane, therefore, it could be said that the emergence of a group, its victory, its self-determination as distinct from other groups, are all seen as a result of divine intervention. It is the god that has conquered, liberated, etc. The same goes for continuing history, for defeats and other disasters. The reality of war is attested to by history and is then transferred to the theological level. Reciprocally, theological principles are used to explain history. We are dealing with a synthesised culture.

C.D.S. But can this type of culture help us in any way today given our sensitivity to the need for peace? it is a real problem for the believer because we constantly refer to these texts which are the foundation for our faith. Have they a message for us today?
I do not think that these texts can respond directly and clearly to such demands. They were formulated to answer the needs of a specific people which questioned its God about a historical problem in its own categories, which are not ours. One would have to see if this historical culture could be transposed and analysed according to the categories of our own culture. The theological question arises only after that. Another point is relevant. For the ancient world, to write history meant for the most part to tell the stories of wars: think of the Peloponnesian and the Punic wars: this tendency continues down to our own day. This phenomenon gives the impression that the ancient world was essentially based on violence, whereas there the problem concerns the nature of historiography.

C.D.S. Some modern exegetes have begun to take an explicit interest in the question of violence in the Old Testament, among them N. Lohfink (1) What is your opinion of his work?
Lohfink's book is primarily concerned to question the Bible in terms of the modern problem and that on two levels: that of exegesis in general and that of the particular theory of the French ethnologist, Rene Girard (2). However, this study leaves me somewhat perplexed. Lohfink remarks that few exegetes have interested themselves in the question of violence . but what kind of violence is meant? His bibliography refers to studies on the holy war, curses and kindred topics. What is missing is the subject of violence in modern categories. The interest of this book is to try to cover precisely that, but it is also limited by this very fact. The ensuing biblical-exegetical research is conditioned by the author's initial interest. He tries to deduce from the Old Testament ) (which is itself conditioned by a particular culture) a teaching which will be either in or out of harmony with the modern problem.
Moreover Lohfink adopts a methodology which is often considered outdated today, that of literary criticism (or historical criticism). He studies the Old Testament according to different "traditions". analysing what each strand of the text has to say about violence or war; then he takes up the question of the final redaction of the text in order to make a judgment as to which of the diverse traditions continues to be valid in the definitive text.

(Here G.L. Prato gives a rapid overview of the different literary strands as identified by Lohfink:
The Yehovist (an amalgam of the Yahvist and the Elohist traditions) which dates back to a period when violence and war were etched in bold relief and presented no problem because they seemed quite natural;
The Deuteronomist (sub-divided into secondary traditions) which is that of the conquest and settlement, a period when the ideology of war was fully accepted and justified in the name of the divinity;
The Priestly which ignored war because social violence was, as it were, transferred to another plane, that of the sacrificial cult (Girard's theory can be recognised here);
Finally the period when the different strands were woven together in the definitive text. At this point the "bellicose" attitude of the Deuteronomist prevails leaving its mark on the whole of the first part of the Old Testament.)

C.D.S. What is your opinion of this analysis of the five strands in the text?
In my opinion the author starts with some presuppositions (those found in Girard's thesis) in his analysis of the third (priestly) strand. The outcome must seem questionable when the text is examined with a view to finding these presuppostions confirmed there.
However the problem is more serious at another level, e.g. that of the fourth strand in the text, the one immediately preceding the final editing, where the different strands elaborating the theme of war are woven together. At the level of partial compostion the author affirms that the Yehovist text has been incorporated into the Priestly one, but when the Deuteronomist, which in a sense is parallel with the Priestly one, is incorporated with the latter it is the Deuteronomist point of view which prevails. Thus the whole text is coloured by the most violent tradition; this would explain its predominantly negative attitude. The Deuteronomist ideal of war takes over, war not only considered as belonging to the past, as part of myth, but also envisaged in the future, even to be expected at the time of the Eschaton.
Finally the conclusions of 'Lohfink are limiting: relations between the Old and New Testaments are reduced to a law regulating the life of a society and no more; or the Old and New Testaments are read according to an allegorising hermeneutic, the Old Testament would then exist simply as a reminder that we live in a violent world, that we are human (but in that case the New Testament would make angels of us!). This gives the impression that the Old Testament is now obsolete. It exists only to remind us of a negative reality, namely that violence is an integral part of our world even if we aspire to peace.
What sense is there in this? Is the Bible there only to help us solve the problem of all utopias? Ideally we do not want violence to exist ... nevertheless, it is there. How can we combine these two facts? There is the danger of finding in the text simply a confirmation of the problem, a problem which they present in their own way, in the terminology of the prevailing culture.

C.D.S. Jewish-Christian tradition is a monotheistic tradition. The problem arises from seeing violence actually affirmed from within the tradition itself. Is there then a relationship between violence and monotheism?
We should not generalise too much about the "Jewish-Christian" tradition. It holds good only up to a certain point; today it is agreed that in the most ancient traditions reflected in the Old Testament we do not find monotheism as we understand it. There is a people linked to its God, then this God becomes unique, a uniqueness which is deepened and universalised.
We have to put ourselves in the place of those who lived in this world and produced the text. According to that mentality our notion of universal peace would probably seem like weakness, powerlessness. We think of violence as something negative, but it can also be positive and creative. It has existed from the beginning of the world; it contributes to the reordering of the universe; it must remedy something that has not been quite right since the beginning. In fact, the equilibrium of the world is always unstable ... If the texts express violence, it is not NI order to eliminate it but to offer an explanation for it.

Gian Luigi Prato is professor of Old Testament exegesis at the Pontifical Gregorian University; he is vice-president of the Italian Biblical Associaion (ABI). Carmine Di Sante is a theologian and a member of the SIDIC staff. The interview has been translated from the Italian and slightly abridged.
1. Norbert Lohfink, "Gewalt und Gewaltlosigkeit im Alten Testament", O. Disp. 96, ed. Herder, Freiburg 1983 (pp. 15110).
2. Rene Girard, La Violence et le Sacrè, ed. Grasset. Paris 1972, English translation: Violence and the Sacred, John Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 1977.


Home | Who we are | What we do | Resources | Join us | News | Contact us | Site map

Copyright Sisters of Our Lady of Sion - General House, Rome - 2011