Stay informed: Sign up for eNews Subscribe
Read Chapter 1


Exegesis and Violence

Texts, Contexts, and Hermeneutical Concerns

John Renard

Thomas Hobbes famously observed in his Leviathan that human life is "nasty, brutish, and short." He and other influential philosophers have identified violence as virtually a "state of nature" that humankind has struggled endlessly to ameliorate, and with precious little success. Religious authors in every age and culture have likewise filled libraries with their analyses of the roots and remedies of this scourge, this "mark of Cain." Every credible religious or ethical system condemns murder, yet sacred texts claimed by adherents of most (if not all) religious traditions describe in often grisly detail how believers have had recourse to divinely sanctioned violent means in defense of a "people" or to spread the sacred message. For millennia, preachers and teachers of religious values have discerned in their scriptures a divine logic both for and against engaging in large-scale violence, yet confusion among religious believers remains pervasive.

Many people across the globe find themselves asking whether "religion" is not in fact more of a catalyst than a cure for much of the violence in our world. Unfortunately, when the scale tilts toward blaming religion as a major (or even the chief) contributing cause of mayhem, the blame is too often ladled out exclusively against "them." Religionists are too seldom willing to entertain the possibility that their own faith tradition is as much a contributor to the problem as a counterforce. Adherents of a given tradition often insist on how it could scarcely be more obvious that someone else's sacred text and historical record are rife with a divine mandate for the indiscriminate slaughter of unbelievers and all they hold dear, while claiming that their own revealed patrimony sanctions only self-defense. The present collection of essays invites readers to explore these vexing questions by mining the sacred texts and exegetical traditions for important examples of scriptured communities of faith.

Background and Methodological Issues

Comparative studies of the world's religious traditions take countless different forms, depending on their guiding purpose. Many books survey the full range of aspects of multiple traditions, including sacred texts, basic beliefs and rituals, schools of thought or "denominations," organizational features, and paradigmatic figures. Narrower in scope, a number of studies have dedicated themselves to a general comparison of the sacred texts of many traditions in a single volume. Work in the relatively new subdiscipline bridging religious studies and theology known as Comparative Theology typically focuses on explicitly "theological" themes across two, or occasionally three or more, traditions. Several recent comparative works have focused on violence in the name of religion. But general studies of the vast topics of scripture as a category or of violence as a theme seldom assist the reader in understanding the logic behind marshaling sacred texts in support of or against resorting to violent action, the widespread practice of decontextualizing those texts in service of extremist interpretations, or the range of exegetical methods evidenced in the history of a given text's interpretation.

Why Exegesis and Violence?

One of the critical issues in interreligious relations today is the connection, both actual and perceived, between sacred sources and the justification of violent acts. Unfortunately the connection has been relatively little studied in a way that makes solid text-based scholarship accessible to the general public. The present volume begins with the premise that a balanced approach to religious pluralism in our world must build on a measured, well-informed response to the increasingly publicized and, sadly, sensationalized association of terrorism and other forms of large-scale violence with religion.

Such a measured response must begin with the sacred texts so often cited as inspiration and justification for every kind of violence, from individual assassination to mass murder to the total obliteration of a society. In pursuing a balanced approach to this complex topic, this book is not merely about the religious sanction of violence. It is fundamentally about the diverse ways in which interpreters of the various sacred sources have handled texts that appear either to prescribe or to describe violence, including interpretations that militate against violence. The desired result is a representative overview of the virtually universal phenomenon of variant methods of interpreting sacred texts that sanction, mandate, or explicitly rule out violent means. "Scripturally sanctioned [or forbidden] violence" is clearly an expansive and ideologically loaded term. The present collection uses the category as a general organizing concept that embraces a wide range of scriptural traditions, exegetical methods, and hermeneutical concerns.

Two major underlying assumptions motivated the development of this project, and though they are background issues, it is essential to state them up front. First, concern with issues of violence, vengeance, war and peace, and claims to religiously legitimate wrath is a demonstrable current running through parts of the texts and commentaries of many of the world's faith communities. Secondly, however, persons of faith are not to be held accountable for violence committed by those who claim, without warrant, to speak for them.

Scope and Method of the Volume

A widespread assumption seems to be that religiously sanctioned violence is characteristic of, perhaps even unique to, the so-called Abrahamic traditions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. An important goal of this volume is to demonstrate that, however a tradition's "core" teachings concerning violence are perceived, interpreters from many major traditions have had to deal with references to violence in those sources. Whether prescriptive or descriptive, such references are by no means monopolized by Abrahamic or West Asian traditions.

Essays by eight specialists in the scriptural and exegetical sources of seven scriptured faith traditions explore a wide variety of approaches to the complex subject. They address three broad areas of concern: key relationships between sacred text and context, major strands of exegesis within and among the traditions represented, and historically significant examples of exegesis in practice.

The essays focus on one or more texts from their respective tradition's sacred scriptures that relate in some important way (whether by sanction or repudiation) to the use of violent means by divine mandate, considering both the immediate and broader context of the scripture(s) in question. Most of these texts have been cited throughout the centuries as justification for the violent actions of members of the tradition in question. The essays also examine major exegetical trends, underscoring the historical fact of alternative readings within each faith tradition. Thus, an important function of the collection is to highlight alternative interpretations or methods of exegesis evidenced in the various traditions. Overarching questions include: What exegetical resources have been espoused-even if only by a historical minority-for advancing a moderating approach to the use of violent means? And how, precisely, have interpreters read particular texts as justification for recourse to violence?

An Overview of the Major Scriptural Traditions

A brief general introduction to the sacred texts and the remarkable variety of exegesis manifest in each of the faith communities treated in these essays will offer students and other nonspecialist readers essential general background.

Judaism and the Hebrew Bible

According to a traditional Jewish reckoning, the Hebrew Bible is a collection of twenty-four "books" divided into three main groupings: Torah, Prophets, and Writings. Jews, as well as Christians generally, identify five books of Torah: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. These books are also known as the Pentateuch, from the Greek meaning "five vessels" or "scrolls." In the category of "Prophets" (Nevi'im), Jewish tradition includes eight books. Joshua, Judges, 1 and 2 Samuel as one book, and 1 and 2 Kings as another together comprise the four "former prophets." The four "latter" prophets are Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the collection of the twelve "minor prophets" (trei-assar in Jewish [Aramaic] parlance, including Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi-"minor" because they are shorter texts). Under the heading of "Writings" (Khetuvim) are a total of eleven books, with Ezra and Nehemiah considered as one, as well as 1 and 2 Chronicles. The "Five Scrolls" (megillot) include the Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, and Esther. Psalms, Proverbs, Job, and Daniel complete the Writings. Taken together the Torah, Nevi'im, and Khetuvim are designated by the acronym TaNaKh.

An important theme in Jewish thought is the complex relationship between the "written" and "oral" Torah. Torah is a Hebrew word generally translated as "teaching," "instruction," or "custom." It is sometimes used to refer to the first five books, Genesis through Deuteronomy. According to tradition, Moses himself composed the whole of the Torah under divine inspiration. This ancient attribution lends maximum authority to these sacred texts by association with the man most identified with the divine revelation that shaped Judaism. But Torah also has a broader meaning. In its larger sense, Torah means revealed or divine Law, that is, all that God requires of Jews, and this meaning applies to a larger corpus of literature than the Pentateuch or even the entire Hebrew Bible. The historical evolution of the Hebrew scriptures is far longer and more complex than the present shape of the Bible might lead one to suspect. The editing that eventuated in the final shape of the Pentateuch alone represented already multilayered interpretative developments. In a sense, the "later" books of the Hebrew Bible represent early forms of exegesis of the earlier texts.

Jewish extrabiblical literature is vast and expansive. Two large bodies of literature are generally known as Talmud and Midrash. Talmud consists of the systematization of successive waves of originally oral commentary by religious scholars on sacred scripture. First, views of earlier generations of rabbis were codified in the Mishna. Subsequent generations further commented on the Mishnaic material, and that was brought together in the Gemara. Then the Mishna and Gemara were combined in the Talmud, which was produced in two versions, the Jerusalem or Palestinian Talmud and the considerably larger Babylonian Talmud.

Medieval European rabbinical scholars devised still more comprehensive and elaborate exegetical frameworks. Perhaps the most famous is summed up in the acronym PaRDeS (an ancient Persian term meaning "Paradise"). Each of the upper case consonants stands for a Hebrew term referring to one of the four principal levels or methods of exegesis. Peshat is the literal sense and the kind of interpretation prevalent in oral Torah, remez looks for the allegorical meaning, derash (study) derives the homiletical or ethical significance, and sod (more) unveils the mystical significance of a text. Jewish exegesis has devised highly sophisticated methods of drawing out the various meanings of the sacred text and has preserved the results in an enormous library known as Rabbinical literature.

Much of the content of the Talmud is described by the term halakhah, a word that means literally "proceeding, walking." It refers to the bulk of Talmud and more generally to the literature interpreting the specific rules and legislation found in the scripture. The plural of the term, halakhot, came to mean all the specific laws derived through exegesis, even if not explicitly mentioned in scripture. Halakhic literature peers into every conceivable nook and cranny of Jewish daily life, prescribing in minutest detail how the Torah should be used as a guide here and now. The term midrash means "study, commentary, amplification" and originally meant the method used by all scholars of sacred scripture. Hence, much Talmudic material is midrashic, for example. But eventually midrash came to be more popularly identified with the non-halakhic material in the Talmud and with another type of literature called aggadah (or haggadah, meaning "narrative"). Works of aggadic midrash, like halakhic works, primarily comment on scripture. But unlike halakhah, aggadah is more concerned with reading between the lines. Aggadic works tell the story behind the story and say little about specific legal implications. As such, aggadah is generally much more appealing and entertaining, offering interpretations that are frequently very moving, charming, and droll.

Against this broad backdrop, Reuven Firestone's "A Brief History of War in the Hebrew Bible and the Jewish Interpretive Tradition" explores a number of critical junctures in biblical history, highlighting the divine initiative and support of violent means in ancient Israel's dealings with other peoples. Firestone identifies as a key element the early transition from a sort of revolving henotheism to monotheism, and from a tribal to a universal theology. In this context, prominent historical moments include especially the extended period of initial conquest of Canaan, expansion under the monarchy, restoration during the Second Temple Period, and various revolts against Roman rule during that period and after the destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E. An especially important turn away from any possibility of "offensive" war characterized rabbinical thought during subsequent centuries. Twentieth-century events again turned Jewish concerns back toward greater willingness to understand the use of violent means as rooted in a theological reading of Israel's history and the right to continued existence as an unfolding of the modern Zionist project. In the course of his chapter, Firestone provides a broad overview of both a range of literary exegetical genres and diverse ways of interpreting the biblical library.

Christianity and the Old Testament

Christian communities identify and enumerate the canon of the "Old Testament" differently both from mainstream Jewish tradition and, in some instances, from one another. In theory, Christian churches agree in dividing the whole corpus into the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings, but they count their books differently and thus arrive at a total of thirty-nine. But for pedagogical purposes, one could argue, Christian biblical studies distinguish the Pentateuch (the Jewish Torah), the Historical books, Prophets strictly so-called, and Wi