2 Jan 2017

Violence in the Bible

Violence in the Old Testament is mainly real and warlike physical aggression, consisting largely of Moses and others smiting their enemies, whereas violence in the New Testament is largely imaginary.


Some years ago at a Quaker Meeting for Worship I read out the passage from Exodus below. I added that this was not the kind of passage that would make it into the canon of texts for Sunday Services or Bible study. That is because it casts God and Moses in such a terrible light. (I can't remember where I first read it but it was definitely a non-religious or anti-religious book.)

Anyway, one Friend after the Meeting commented, "Ah, you like to find your Biblical violence in the Old Testament." This surprised me as I'd never really thought there was much violence in the New Testament. But that was simply because I'd never read Revelation properly. It is replete with violent icons that have made their way into Gothic novels, horror films and other popular culture.

So here are a few of the best (or worst) examples of  violence in the Bible.

Old Testament Violence

Two of the most egregious examples are in Moses's books:

The Golden Calf and the Levites' massacre of the three thousand

When the people saw that Moses had not come down from the mountain they asked Aaron to make them a god and gave him their gold earrings, which he melted down, poured into a mould, and made a gold bull-calf, which they then worshipped.
6 Early the next morning they brought some animals to burn as sacrifices and others to eat as fellowship offerings. The people sat down to a feast, which turned into an orgy of drinking and sex.
Then the Lord told Moses to go back down the mountain and destroy them, adding "Then I will make you and your descendants into a great nation." But Moses persuaded the Lord to change His mind and not bring on His people the disaster He had threatened. Nevertheless…
19 When Moses came close enough to the camp to see the bull-calf and to see the people dancing, he became furious. There at the foot of the mountain, he threw down the tablets he was carrying and broke them. 20 He took the bull-calf which they had made, melted it, ground it into fine powder, and mixed it with water. Then he made the people of Israel drink it. 
... 25 Moses saw that Aaron had let the people get out of control and make fools of themselves in front of their enemies. 26 So he stood at the gate of the camp and shouted, “Everyone who is on the Lord's side come over here!” So all the Levites gathered around him, 27 and he said to them, “The Lord God of Israel commands every one of you to put on your sword and go through the camp from this gate to the other and kill your brothers, your friends, and your neighbors.” 28 The Levites obeyed, and killed about three thousand men that day. 29 Moses said to the Levites, “Today you have consecrated yourselves as priests in the service of the Lord by killing your sons and brothers, so the Lord has given you his blessing.”

Moses's vengeance on the Midianites

The Lord said to Moses, “Take vengeance on the Midianites for the Israelites. After that, you will be gathered to your people.” So Moses said to the people, "Arm some of your men to go to war against the Midianites so that they may carry out the Lord’s vengeance on them." ...
7 They fought against Midian, as the Lord commanded Moses, and killed every man.  ... 9 The Israelites captured the Midianite women and children and took all the Midianite herds, flocks and goods as plunder.  They burned all the towns [...and] took all the plunder and spoils ... to Moses and Eleazar the priest and the Israelite assembly at their camp on the plains of Moab, by the Jordan across from Jericho.
13 Moses, Eleazar the priest and all the leaders of the community went to meet them outside the camp. Moses was angry with the officers of the army... 15 “Have you allowed all the women to live?” he asked them. ... 17 Now kill all the boys. And kill every woman who has slept with a man, 18 but save for yourselves every girl who has never slept with a man.

Tom Paine called this "an order to butcher the boys, to massacre the mothers and to debauch the daughters" in The Age of Reason - according to Gerald Preistland in The Future of Violence, p22.


  • 'Egregious' is one of Chomsky's favourite adjectives. I could not resist using it here, even though I normally prefer plain English to the obfuscating kind. 'Egregious' means extraordinary in some bad way: glaring, flagrant, gross, outrageous, or shocking.
  • Aaron was the older brother of Moses, according to Exodus Ch 6 v20 and Ch 7 v7 and the Qur'an 28:34. It's a bit odd that he survived the massacre considering that he instigated the Golden Calf worship in the first place. I suspect nepotism.

New Testament Violence

The number of the beast is 666 Philadelphia, Rosenbach Museum and Library
"The Number of the Beast is 666" by William Blake via Wikimedia Commons

The violence in the New Testament is largely to be found in the Revelation to John (The Apocalypse), which abounds with dreams and nightmares of violence, such as the:
  1. four horsemen (Ch 6 v1-8)
  2. 'rapture' of the 144,000 – with the consequent destruction of the rest (Ch 7 v4, Ch 14 v1-6)
  3. breaking of the seventh seal (Ch 8 v1 and see below)
  4. bottomless pit and the torture by locusts (Ch 9 v2-6 and see below)
  5. red dragon (Ch 12 v3) and the beasts from the sea (Ch 13 v1 and v11), one whose number is 666 (Ch 13 v18)
  6. harvest of the world by the grim reapers (Ch 14 v16 and v19)
  7. grapes of wrath (Ch 14 v20)
  8. seven bowls of wrath (Ch 15 v6-7 and Ch 16 in full)
  9. plain of Armageddon (Ch 16 v16)
  10. whore of Babylon (Ch 16 v3-6) and her destruction (v16)
  11. last judgement (Ch 20 v5) 

La BĂȘte de la Mer
La BĂȘte de la Mer by Kimon Berlin, user: Gribeco via Wikimedia Commons

Some of the above are worth quoting in full:

The Seventh Seal the Trumpets of the Angels

The first angel sounded his trumpet, and there came hail and fire mixed with blood, and it was hurled down on the earth. A third of the earth was burned up, a third of the trees were burned up, and all the green grass was burned up. The second angel sounded his trumpet, and something like a huge mountain, all ablaze, was thrown into the sea. A third of the sea turned into blood, a third of the living creatures in the sea died, and a third of the ships were destroyed. The third angel sounded his trumpet, and a great star, blazing like a torch, fell from the sky on a third of the rivers and on the springs of water - the name of the star is Wormwood. A third of the waters turned bitter, and many people died from the waters that had become bitter. The fourth angel sounded his trumpet, and a third of the sun was struck, a third of the moon, and a third of the stars, so that a third of them turned dark. A third of the day was without light, and also a third of the night.
(Revelation Chapter 8 New International Version, v7-12)

The bottomless pit and the torture by locusts 

1 The fifth angel … opened the Abyss. 3 And out of the smoke locusts came down on the earth and were given power like that of scorpions of the earth. 4 They were told not to harm the grass of the earth or any plant or tree, but only those people who did not have the seal of God on their foreheads. 5 They were not allowed to kill them but only to torture them for five months. And the agony they suffered was like that of the sting of a scorpion when it strikes. 6 During those days people will seek death but will not find it; they will long to die, but death will elude them.
7 The locusts looked like horses prepared for battle. On their heads they wore something like crowns of gold, and their faces resembled human faces. 8 Their hair was like women’s hair, and their teeth were like lions’ teeth. 9 They had breastplates like breastplates of iron, and the sound of their wings was like the thundering of many horses and chariots rushing into battle. 10 They had tails with stingers, like scorpions, and in their tails they had power to torment people for five months.
(Revelation Chapter 9 New International Version)

Whore of Babylon
Whore of Babylon, Russian engraving, 1800s


  1. Revelation is a work of eschatology. 'Eschatology' means study of 'last things': destiny, death and the afterlife, Heaven and Hell, the Second Coming, Millennialism, the end of the world and the Last Judgment. 
  2. Diadems – as worn by several of the beasts in Revelation – are just crowns.
  3. Wormwood is a bitter substance (Ch 8 v11)
  4. John of Revelation is widely considered to be John the Evangelist, who was an Apostle and author of the Gospel of John. He is not thought to be John the Baptist. 
  5. There are some Good Bits in Revelation, mainly in the final two chapters: 
  • new Jerusalem (Ch 21 v2)with its 'Pearly Gates' (Ch 21 v21)
  • river of the water of life (Ch 22 v1) and the end of night (Ch 22 v5)

See also

my blog on jesus-and-conflict

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