A Spirituality blog from our Community

He (God) vanquished those cities and all the inhabitants of the valley, and everything that grew on the ground. (Genesis 19:25)

The Anglican Chaplain received a letter* this week:

Dear Mark,

At Lambeth Palace we’ve heard wonderful things about your student group ‘Bible for Bluffers‘. We’re issuing a new edition of the Bible and would like your help.

There are a few difficult passages in the Old Testament which we’re wondering what to do with. Should we cut them out? Put them in brackets? Give them an ‘advisory warning to the reader’? Put in a footnote? Or something else? What does your group think?

We have attached some specific examples and would value your group’s comment.

Look forward to hearing from you,

He with the bushy eyebrows,


P.S. There’s a job coming up- interested?


Leviticus 25:44-6 (CEV)

If you want slaves, buy them from other nations or from the foreigners who live in your own country, and make them your property. You can own them, and even leave them to your children when you die, but do not make slaves of your own people or be cruel to them.

Leviticus 20:9-10; 13 (NIV)

Anyone who curses their father or mother is to be put to death. Because they have cursed their father or mother, their blood will be on their own head.

If a man commits adultery with another man’s wife -with the wife of his neighbour- both the adulterer and the adulteress are to be put to death. …

If a man has sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable. They are to be put to death; their blood will be on their own heads.

Deuteronomy 13:12-16 (NIV)

If you hear it said about one of the towns the LORD your God is giving you to live in that wicked men have arisen among you and have led the people of their town astray, saying, Let us go and worship other gods (gods you have not known), then you must enquire, probe and investigate it thoroughly. And if it is true and it has been proved that this detestable thing has been done among you, you must certainly put to the sword all who live in that town. Destroy it completely, both its people and its livestock. Gather all the plunder of the town into the middle of the public square and completely burn the town and all its plunder as a whole burnt offering to the LORD your God. It is to remain a ruin for ever, never to be rebuilt.

Psalm 137 (NIV)

By the Rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion.

There on the poplars we hung our harps, for there our captors asked us for songs,

our tormentors demanded songs of joy; they said “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”…

Remember, LORD, what the Edomites did on the day Jerusalem fell.

“Tear it down,” they cried, “tear it down to its foundations!”

Daughter Babylon, doomed to destruction, blessed is the one who repays you according to what you have done to us.

Blessed is the one who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks.


(Of course there are other examples of violence, cruelty, or intolerance in the Bible, but with these we hope to convey the type of approach and resources that the Church has for dealing with this issue.)

To carry out the Archbishop’s request as efficiently as possible we split into specialised working groups, one for each of the passages, and then brought back our findings to the group as a whole. So what should we do in our Bible editions about these?

We unanimously agreed censorship was the wrong approach. Not only does it seem wrong to change the story as it has been told for a long time, but it would be a lack of integrity on the part of the editors to deceive the audience as to the true nature of the text.

Yet this valuing of the original historical context then comes into stark tension with the concern of Christians to present the Bible through the lens of Christ. Christians do not read the Old Testament to learn about history, but to clarify Christ’s message through his progressive revelation to humankind [that was to culminate in his resurrection]. So we need to do something to point to this message, rather than to the views of the ancient Hebrews.

We thought that footnotes would be a much better method, particularly to advise not taking such passages as these out of context, and that the publishers are not advocating acting in this way [which may also help to avoid litigation!].

We also mentioned introductions to books (or sets of books) which may be more efficient because there so many things require guidance and interpretation, even though few will be as shocking as these. [Some translations do this, such as the New Jerusalem Bible.]

Finally, we decided that it would only be acceptable to use passages such as this in church services if it was explained in the sermon. So we could have brackets around these parts to indicate that they weren’t to be read out normally [that is what Benedictine monks do when they sing passages].

We also had some reactions to the particular passages:

Leviticus 25: This text says that morality requires that we treat our relations well, but we know now that we are all related. Not only biologically, but that the New Testament says that we are all children of God in Christ. Thus, this seems to prohibit slavery. [See the comments section]

Leviticus 20: This text was more difficult because it seems to call for completely over the top punishment. Moreover, the phrase ‘their blood will be on their own heads’ is exonerating the executioners from any wrongdoing (the blood is not on your hands), so the passage seems to be justifying murder.

A popular interpretation in Talmudic (Rabbinical) scholarship has been that ‘put to death’ was a metaphor for exile. That those who do these things should be treated as if they were dead by ostracising them from the community. Christians have continued in translating ‘death’ as not meaning physical death, but in their case as spiritual death. As we saw when discussing the expulsion from paradise, ‘spiritual death’ is another name for sin, which is separation from the life in God. St. Augustine said: “As the soul is the life of the body, so God is the life of the soul. As therefore the body perishes when the soul leaves it, so the soul dies when God departs from it.”  Thus it is sure that they will be put to ‘death’ because such acts, the Hebrews believed, immediately separated one from the life in God.

Deuteronomy 13: To be honest we didn’t have much luck thinking about this one (the destruction of evil towns). But generally we must interpret this through the Gospel to see that God doesn’t really require such things of us. Perhaps you can suggest a more specific reading?

Psalm 137: This notorious infanticide verse is easier to explain. In the medieval church the most popular interpretation was that we should destroy little thoughts of sin -the ‘infants’ from which big sins grow- by bashing them against Christ (who is elsewhere referred to as a rock). This is plausible because Babylon is used throughout the Bible as a symbol for sin. More recently this has come to be seen as hyperbole that the psalmist wrote here to express his great anger at those who have oppressed his people, and that he was using  prayer (the psalms are prayers, of course) as it is the best place, the safest outlet for murderous (or other angry) thoughts.

This leads directly to the general thought that parts of the Bible are tailored to parts of one’s life or to different feelings, but not to one’s life as a whole. It may be appropriate to express the more troubled aspects of the human psyche in spiritual writing such as biblical texts, but not in Church doctrine that must be taught and lived. By being emotionally provocative, by touching on the subjects of family conflict and death, of murder and war, the Bible speaks to the worst parts of ourselves. In such a way Luther said that the Old Testament paves the way for the New by showing us how sinful we are and how in need of salvation we are.


* No, not really. Though he did visit last year.

View the Next Part of Bible for Bluffers.

Comments on: "Cruelty in the Bible [Full Discussion]" (4)

  1. With regard to slavery I deal with that in the relevant section of one of my personal essays: http://www.facebook.com/note.php?note_id=10150377486870554

    The view I’ve had for a long time on the Church’s retaining of the Old Testament is that the contradistinction brings out clearly why the New Testament is so good (and such good news). We see progressive revelation whereby the Hebrew’s theological development gradually improves until we finally get the most sophisticated, the most exhaustive wisdom of what God is like in Christ.

    Linked to this is my personal view that the bible is not inerrant, so I would explain these ‘awkward’ parts of the OT by saying that they are clear examples of where the Hebrews were wrong about what God was saying to them (though this is far from being the only reason why I hold this view).

  2. Peter you agent provocateur.

  3. As I went to this muched discussed ‘debate’, I think that this is an important point too: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/andrewbrown/2011/nov/09/richard-dawkins-william-lane-craig

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