Approaching biblical warfare and violence

April 4th, 2023

Can moral injury help us understand better, or even somewhat differently, the nature of the struggle with biblical violence ? Can moral injury help explain why the Bible’s depictions of divine and human war and violence are a problem for contemporary readers? From the perspective of moral injury work, we could state the question this way: Do the biblical warfare texts morally injure their readers (i.e., is that why many Christian readers today find them so troubling)? And if so, how do these texts cause moral injury (i.e., why are they morally injurious to those who encounter them in present-day, especially faith-based, contexts)?

As a starting point, we may review the ways that moral injury has been said to occur in soldiers in order to ask whether similar things are happening to faith-based readers when they encounter the Bible’s war and violence texts, particularly the texts that describe God acting violently in direct and personal ways. We should note two primary causes that have been identified for the struggles associated with moral injury. A soldier’s sense of having been betrayed by an authority figure in a high-stakes situation occupied the initial place among causes of moral injury.[1] The authority acted in ways that were not only perceived by the soldier as immoral and unethical but also led the soldier or others to engage in morally questionable actions. The solider watched a trusted individual violate “what’s right,” especially the right ways that one should treat and be treated socially, relationally, and interpersonally in difficult situations. The second major cause identified for moral injury had a more personal element and focused on acts done (or allowed or witnessed) by the soldier that violated her or his deeply held moral convictions about self and the world. This view appeared in the most widely accepted clinical definition that mentioned transgressing a person’s morals.[2] Here, morals represent the fundamental assumptions about how things should work and how one should behave in the world. Psychologists and other caregivers have noted that the experiences of betrayal and personal violation can cause significant moral dissonance, which can lead to the development of the core symptoms associated with moral injury.

These articulations of how moral injury occurs provide some resources for thinking in new ways about why the biblical war and violence texts are particularly problematic for those who read them as part of sacred scripture within religious contexts. At least in part, these texts morally injure their readers in ways that are similar to military moral injury. For some, especially faith-based, readers today, the portrayals of divine and human war and violence within the Bible create a sense of betrayal and violation of perceived moral convictions about God, people, and the world, some of which are expressed in the Bible itself and others of which come from the readers’ religious traditions and practices. We should not overstate this claim. After all, the history of interpretation shows that past generations were able, to a certain level of satisfaction, to arrive at explanations of the violence, suggesting that they didn’t (or at least didn’t entirely) feel betrayal or violation by these biblical depictions. Likewise, many Christian readers today just assume that God has good reasons for doing whatever God does or commands, even if we don’t know those reasons. Even so, although a sense of betrayal due to God’s actions and commands may not be pervasive in the history of Christianity or present-day popular understandings, moral injury perspectives suggest that, at least for some believers who have increased awareness of the effects of sustained modern warfare, the theological problem created by these texts is that they seem to violate the operative conviction that God is good and works to bring life rather than death in order to establish a rightly ordered and stable world. The passages raise questions about faith-based understandings of the character and actions of God and the human beings said to be made in God’s image.

Let me focus on my own tradition of Protestant Christianity. The ways that the Bible has been commonly interpreted within the primary framework of the Christian tradition past and present have formed Christian readers to believe that their scripture gives a particular moral vision of the character and actions of both God and God’s people (i.e., who they are in their nature and how they should act in accordance with that nature). This moral vision isn’t entirely self-evident in the texts themselves, but results from the ways that the texts have been collected, organized, and interpreted within Christianity, beginning even with the selection and ordering of the biblical books in the Protestant canon (compared to, say, the Jewish, Roman Catholic, or Orthodox canons).[3] One most clearly sees the Bible’s dominant moral understanding of the character and actions of God and God’s people on the level of the whole of scripture and not necessarily in any one single passage or verse. When viewed through the lens of moral injury, however, the Bible’s many graphic depictions of war and violence enacted by God and God’s people—spread as they are throughout nearly every portion of the canon—seem to violate this moral vision.

To explain further, the dominant moral vision of the nature and actions of God and God’s people that emerges from Christian scripture has several elements. In short, God’s nature is love; God’s actions intend to restore humanity and all of creation to a flourishing life of right-relationships with God and each other; and the role of human persons, as those created in God’s image, is to love God and others in a way that reflects God’s own character and allows for mutual flourishing.[4] A few representative texts illustrate this moral vision. Some of its first expressions in the Old Testament appear in the portion of the story where God is attempting to form the moral and ethical character of the chosen people after their rescue from slavery in Egypt and before their entrance into the promised land. For instance, the general prohibitions of the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20:1-17 (cf. Deut 5:6-21) include commands not to murder or do other forms of violence to members of the community (vv. 13-17). A traditional confession of faith that appears later in Exodus and reappears in various places and forms throughout the Old Testament affirms God’s nature as

merciful and gracious,
slow to anger,
and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness,
keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation,
forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin. (Exod 34:6b-7a) [5]

In one of the more extensive discussions of ethics in the early part of the Old Testament, Leviticus 19 begins with the overall command for the Israelites to imitate God’s character and “be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy” (v. 2), before moving on to demand that they deal fairly with the poor and other vulnerable people among them (v. 18). The climax, however, is the command for them not to “hate” or “take vengeance” but to “love your neighbor as yourself ” (v. 18). Later in the same chapter, the divine command expands to love not only those who share their citizenship but also to “love the alien [i.e., immigrant, sojourner] as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: [and] I am the Lord your God” (v. 34; compare several commands elsewhere not to mistreat the immigrant; e.g., Exod 23:9). Deuteronomy 6:5, one of the most well-known Old Testament passages (part of the so-called Shema in Jewish tradition), makes explicit the command for the Israelites to love God: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.”

Some of the texts among the Old Testament prophets emphasize God’s love for the people: “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son” (Hos 11:1). Likewise, presenting God as speaking in first-person, Isaiah 54:10 says,

For the mountains may depart
and the hills be removed,
but my steadfast love shall not depart from you.

Other prophets, perhaps most well known for their demands for the people to practice justice and righteousness, call the people to treat others rightly and in life-giving ways:

He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God? (Mic 6:8)

Even some of the prophets’ visions for an ideal future present God’s ultimate desire as a world free from war and violence:

They shall beat their swords into plowshares,
and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more. (Isa 2:4; see also Mic 4:3; but cf. Joel 3:10)

The overall picture of a loving God who intends a peaceful world and calls believers to act in love is also explicit in the New Testament. Perhaps no clearer statement exists than John 3:16 and its attribution of God’s saving actions through Jesus of Nazareth to God’s love for creation: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” But the epistle of 1 John emphasizes this moral vision the most: “For this is the message you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another” (1 John 3:11); “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love” (1 John 4:7-8); and most succinctly: “We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19). This moral vision finds similar expression in places such as 1 Corinthians 13, a chap- ter devoted to the nature (see vv. 4-7) and practice (see vv. 1-3) of love in believers’ lives. The chapter concludes with the assertion, “And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love” (v. 13). The admonition in Romans 12:19-20 applies this moral vision specifically to cases of desired vengeance and quotes from Proverbs 25:21-22 in order to extend the practice of love even to one’s enemies: “Beloved, never avenge yourselves....No, ‘if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.’”

For Christian readers, however, the most compelling indications of a comprehensive moral vision centered on loving actions and right relationships appear in the teachings attributed to Jesus in the New Testament Gospels. The prime example is Jesus’s response to a Pharisee lawyer in which he was asked to identify the greatest commandment. Jesus identified two by quoting the passages from Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18 cited above: “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’” (Matt 22:37-39). Most significantly for our purposes, Jesus here identifies these commandments as the overall moral imperative that summarizes the biblical revelation on the whole and as a whole: “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets” (Matt 22:40). Other places in the New Testament echo this assertion of the fundamental ethic of loving God and neighbor (e.g., Mark 12:28-34; Luke 10:25-28; John 13:34; Rom 13:9-10). Still others promote a guiding principle of nonviolent response (e.g., Rom 12:14).

The main expressions of this moral vision that conflict with the Bible’s depictions of divine and human violence appear in the Sermon on the Mount in Matt 5–7.[6] Here, we again find general principles of nonviolence and admonitions to peacemaking (5:9, 11-12), including the famous “turn the other cheek” response to physical assault (5:39) and the “golden rule” of treating others as you would have them treat you (7:12), both of which reinforce the impression that Jesus’s interpretation of the entire biblical tradition is that God acts with unconditional love and God’s followers should do the same. Most strikingly, the Sermon on Mount explicitly extends the call for the love of neighbor to include not only foreigners (as present already in the Old Testament texts) but also enemies (see 5:43- 48): “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, ‘Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,” (vv. 43-44; see also Luke 6:27-36). This extension, combined with scripture’s other moral imperatives concerning love and violence, leave readers with the clear message that Jesus’s teachings neither promote nor support the use of force, even in the face of oppression and persecution.[7]

Passages like those mentioned above (particularly the ones found in Jesus’s teachings) create the impression for most Christian, especially casual, readers that the Bible presents God and God’s people as having a certain moral character with accompanying moral actions. That moral vision is grounded in love: God’s nature is love; God acts in love toward creation; and God’s people are called to act lovingly toward neighbors, foreigners, and enemies, even in circumstances of persecution. Importantly, we’ve seen that this moral conviction isn’t present in the New Testament alone, but appears throughout the biblical story of God and God’s people. The overall moral vision is that God is good, God works to bring life rather than death, God’s people should imitate God in this work, and violence represents the opposite of God’s nature and intentions for the world. After all, Jesus declared that love for God and neighbor is the true and full summary of the content of scripture’s revelation (Matt 22:37-40). When examined as a whole, the “governing center” of scripture’s moral vision is to depend on God, respond with love, and resist violence.[8]

Perspectives from moral injury show that the biblical war and violence texts are problematic because they seem to violate the overall moral vision of God and God’s people that is derived by many Christian readers from the Bible itself. We might, for instance, say the same thing about the Bible’s war and violence texts that the recent Adaptive Disclosure methodology says about the ways that war experiences violate moral sensibilities and create the struggles of moral injury. Just as war does for soldiers, so for many Christian readers the depictions of divine and human war and violence confront people with things “outside what our moral code prepares us to anticipate and cope with.”[9] Texts describing God’s killing of firstborn babies and animals or the Israelites’ mass slaughtering of the Canaanites are at odds with common understandings of Christian morality, especially as seen through the moral imperatives in Jesus’s teachings. The depictions of behaviors present in these biblical texts unexpectedly violate the sense of morality previously assigned to the character and actions of God and God’s people in the minds of many Christian readers, leaving them to struggle with how to cope and thus leading to proposals of the interpretive strategies surveyed above.

The element of betrayal by an authority figure provides another perspective from moral injury on why the Bible’s descriptions of God’s violence are problematic. In moral injury terms, such betrayal occurs when an established authority acts in ways that are not only perceived by the soldier as immoral and unethical but also lead the soldier or others to engage in morally questionable actions. For some Christian readers, the Bible’s violent depictions of God constitute a betrayal of their core beliefs about who God is and how God works in the world. As Brueggemann states succinctly, the violence attributed to God is “plainly offensive” to sensitive readers because “it does not agree with our sense of the Christian gospel that promotes a God of compassion, gentleness, and forgiveness.”[10] We need only think here of the often-echoed description of the character of God in the Old Testament that I mentioned above:

merciful and gracious,
slow to anger,
and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness,
keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation, 
forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin. (Exod 34:6b-7a)

Seibert goes further and explains that many Christian readers possess an understanding of God that attributes to God a character that is “morally perfect,” and they’ve often developed this view from what they believe to be the Bible’s comprehensive and authoritative descriptions of God.[11] Upon close reading, however, they discover a tension between their beliefs and the Bible’s portrayals, encountering diverse and contradictory descriptions of God, which they can’t easily reconcile with their overall theological convictions. The God they looked to as a moral authority to exemplify life-giving and loving ways in the world betrays their trust in story after story.

The betrayal aspect of moral injury also sheds light on one other element regarding why the biblical war and violence texts are problematic for Christian readers. The experience of betrayal within moral injury involves not simply the immoral or unethical actions of the authority, but also the sense that the authority’s actions led others, directly or indirectly, to engage in morally questionable acts. As discussed earlier in this chapter, the biblical war and violence texts, especially those that portray God’s direct involvement or sanction, have been used throughout history to justify war, killing, and conquest in different settings. For the Christian reader who looks to the Bible as life-giving revelation of the God who brings salvation, the recognition that the very same book has been weaponized and has helped to cause the suffering and slaughter of others may feel like a deep betrayal. One may conclude that the trusted source of life and redemption has, in fact, been a cause of pain and death. The realization that the biblical texts have the potential within them to be agents of actual harm may register as a betrayal of the believer’s highest ideals concern- ing the nature and function of their sacred scripture—a betrayal that can leave one afraid to take up these texts again, sensing an uncertain morality within them and worrying about their trustworthiness as a life-giving source.

Another perspective gained from moral injury may illuminate why present-day readers struggle with the Bible’s war and violence texts in a way not usually considered. Contemporary readers may struggle with these biblical portrayals because of what they reveal about the morality of our own lives, society, and world today. Reading the biblical war and violence texts reminds us that domination-based relationships, war practices, and violent actions are not a thing of the past. They are present in many respects in our society now. The Bible’s stark descriptions may make us more aware of the violence that regularly reveals itself among us and may confront us with broken morals and ethics to which we are too eas- ily desensitized. Those attuned to moral injury work will recognize here the dimension in which a morally injured person is no longer able to see themselves as a good person or to see the world as a reliably moral, life-giving place. The Bible’s portrayals of God and God’s people committing violence wound us in the same way, as they point us to our own personal, relational, and societal violence. In her study of violence and personhood in the Old Testament and its context, Lemos surveys many examples of contemporary violence and domination that have manifested themselves in American culture in recent years.[12] One could think here of the Abu Ghraib prison scandal, dehumanizing treatment in the American prison system, or police violence against African Americans. The ways that the Bible’s violence points us to our own examples of violence remind us that we still face the task of “eliminating the ideologies, the socialization practices, the training, the scarcities, and the structural forms of violence” that exist today.[13] We find the war and violence texts morally injurious because these biblical passages show us the brokenness of humanity and the world—a brokenness that remains today.

I conclude this section with a more general observation. I've suggested that the moral wound suffered is not simply about transgressions; rather, it’s the phenomenon of being caught between two moral imperatives, each of which is good but which can’t be simultaneously followed in particular instances (e.g., to defend one’s family or country and to honor and protect all life as sacred). Seen in this way, moral injury is the experience of being in a moral catch, believing in the virtue of two convictions but recognizing the seemingly irreconcilable conflict between them. This conception accurately describes the moral dilemma sensed by many readers of the biblical war and violence passages. A person operating within a Christian theological framework affirms on the one hand that the fallenness and brokenness of the world results in sinful actions and that a holy God should judge sin and overcome evil, even to the point of bringing down oppressors and destroying evil forces. At the same time, however, the Christian reader believes that God’s essential nature is love and God’s actions toward people and all creation should always reflect that nature by being consistently loving, indiscriminately merciful, ever redemptive, and life-giving.

Even the testimony of God’s people preserved in scripture seems to ac- knowledge this tension. The core biblical confession of faith about God’s character in Exod 34:6-7 mentioned above includes in its fullest formulation a recognition of this tension. The first half of the statement asserts God’s loving mercy:

a God merciful and gracious,
slow to anger,
and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness,
keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation, 
forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin. (vv. 6b-7a)

But the second half asserts God’s commitment to acting in judgment:

yet by no means clearing the guilty,
but visiting the iniquity of the parents upon the children
and the children’s children,
to the third and fourth generation. (v. 7b)

The people of God live in this tension within God’s essential character. The feeling of being in a moral catch between two virtuous but incompatible convictions may contribute to the difficulties readers have with the Bible’s war and violence. And yet this insight also shows that the struggle of present-day readers with these biblical texts is, at its core, a moral struggle.


Excerpted from The Bible and Moral Injury: Reading Scripture Alongside War's Unseen Wounds by Brad E. Kelle. Copyright © 2019 Abingdon Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

[1] See Jonathan Shay, Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character (New York: Touchstone, 1994), 208.

[2] Brett T. Litz et al., “Moral Injury and Moral Repair in War Veterans: A Preliminary Model and Intervention Strategy,” Clinical Psychology Review 29 (2009): 695.

[3] For example, Christian canonical collections (both Roman Catholic and Protestant) present the main storyline of the Bible as describing an ideal creation that becomes distorted by a human “fall” into sin, which is followed by prophetic pronouncements of a new saving act by God that then give way to the New Testament’s announcements that Jesus is the fulfillment of that promised saving act. For more on this issue of how the organization and in- terpretation of the different canons of scripture affect theological understandings and moral perspectives, see Kelle, Telling the Old Testament Story, 9–10.

[4] For a detailed description of how this interpretation emerges from the study of the Old Testament in particular, see Kelle, Telling the Old Testament Story.

[5] For discussion of the remainder of this affirmation in v. 7, see below.

[6] Jerome F. D. Creach, Violence in Scripture, Interpretation (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2013), 218–26.

[7] Creach, Violence in Scripture, 221.

[8] Creach, Violence in Scripture, 234.

[9] Brett T. Litz et al., Adaptive Disclosure: A New Treatment for Military Trauma, Loss, and Moral Injury (New York: The Guilford Press, 2016), 124.

[10] Walter Brueggemann, “Making Sense of God’s Violent Actions in the Old Testament,” The Thoughtful Christian (2013):1. http:// -violent-actions-in-the-old-testamnt.aspx.

[11] Eric A. Seibert, “Recent Research on Divine Violence in the Old Testament (with Special Attention to Christian Theological Perspectives),” CBR 15 (2016): 10.

[12] T. M. Lemos, Violence and Personhood in Ancient Israel and Comparative Contexts (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017), 178–96.



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