Islamists aren’t the only ones with instructions for terrorism in their holy book.
Last fall, Dutch pranksters put a cover from a Quran over a Bible and then asked passersby to read aloud homophobic, violent, or sexist passages that violate modern moral sensibilities. The texts shocked people who had never immersed themselves in the Iron Age world of the Bible writers, a world in which daughters can be sold as sexual slaves and most of us deserve the death penalty—you included.
Defenders of Islam point to the atrocities in the Bible and Christian history and argue that Islam looks positively peaceful by contrast. After all, according to one count, the Quran has only 532 cruel or violent passages, while the Bible has 1321. Christians respond that the Bible is longer and so the cruel, violent passages make up a lesser percent of the whole. Besides, they say, the Quran contains more timeless prescriptions of violence while the Bible merely contains more descriptions. To religious outsiders, this back and forth is rather like arguing over two containers of rotting leftovers in the back of the fridge, trying to decide which would make a better dinner. Why eat either?
Whether or not Christians and Muslims worship the same God—a point debated on both sides—their sacred texts offer similar blueprints for living. ISIS terrorists claim that their scripts for jihad, executions, sexual slavery and theocracy come straight from the Quran, and they cite chapter and verse to back up their claim. But Christians who find ISIS horrifying might be even more horrified to learn that similar scripts can be found in their own Good Book, including endorsements of terrorism that rival the most vile atrocities committed in the name of Allah.
What is terrorism? Definitions vary. Some limit “terrorist” acts to those committed illegally by groups seeking social power. Others argue that the state itself may systematically terrorize a civilian population. James Poland, author of Understanding Terrorism, defines terrorism as a means (intimidation) to an end (social control over someone other than the victim):
Terrorism is the premeditated, deliberate, systematic murder, mayhem, and threatening of the innocent to create fear and intimidation in order to gain a political or tactical advantage, usually to influence an audience.
Our Iron Age ancestors who wrote the Bible lacked explosive devices and the ability to spread gruesome images via mass media. They lacked jetliners and napalm and nerve gas. But they definitely understood mass intimidation as a tool of social control, and they sanctified their own terrorist tendencies by projecting the same tendencies onto their God.
- In the Bible, God controls humans by raining down death, destruction and terror on those who defy or anger him.
I kill … I wound … I will make mine arrows drunk with blood and my sword shall devour flesh. So says Yahweh in Deuteronomy 32:39-42, and this is no idle threat. You’ve heard the story of Noah’s flood, and about the fire God rains down on Sodom and Gomorrah, and about the 12 plagues of Egypt, but did you know that in the Bible God kills 158 times? The full list can be found in the Steve Wells book, Drunk With Blood.
Like ISIS, God sometimes acts as an executioner with a laser focus, as when he kills a baby to punish King David’s sexual infidelity (2 Samuel 12), or strikes dead a couple who falsely claim to have given their money to the church (Acts 5: 1-10). But also, like ISIS, he often wreaks death and destruction on those who happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time or who were born into the wrong culture. For example, when the same King David conducts a forbidden census, God gives him a choice of punishments: Three years of famine, three months of attacks by neighboring tribes, or three days of plague. David chooses the plague, which kills 70,000 Israelites who had done nothing but let themselves be counted (1 Chronicles 21:1-17).
- The Bible both opens and closes with graphic descriptions of torment and fear inflicted by God and designed to keep the faithful in line.
In the Torah, God’s reign of terror is described in a series of graphic histories. In the book of Revelation, it is described in a series of graphic prophecies. In the books between, threats of torture and death hang over every interaction between God and humankind. God himself leans into his role as terrorist-in-chief.
I will send my fear before thee, God promises the marauding Israelites (Exodus 23:27). This day will I begin to put the dread of thee and the fear of thee upon the nations that are under the whole heaven, who shall hear report of thee, and shall tremble, and be in anguish because of thee (Deuteronomy 2:25). The terror of God was upon the cities that were round about them, reports a narrator in Genesis (35:5).
The book of Proverbs advised Hebrew readers that the fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom (Proverbs 9:10 KJV). Centuries later, in New Testament times, the “fear of the LORD” is alive and well—and still useful. Knowing therefore the terror of the Lord, we persuade men, says the writer of 2 Corinthians (5:11).
- In addition to inflicting terror directly, God does so via human and nonhuman agents.
He sends a bear to tear apart 40 boys who are teasing a prophet—presumably as a warning to others. In the story of Job God gives Satan permission to destroy a house in which Job’s sons and daughters have come together for a celebration, killing them all—this time as part of a divine wager that will become a morality tale. He later gives superhuman strength to Samson (the Bible’s version of Hercules) so that Samson can complete an Iron Age suicide mission. He pulls down the pillars of a pagan temple so that it collapses killing 3000 civilians and Samson himself dies in a blaze of glory (Judges 16:27-30).
When Moses as leader of the Israelites catches some of them worshiping a golden calf, he orders those who have remained loyal to Yahweh to take up swords and slaughter their family members and neighbors (Exodus 32:21-24). They do so by the thousands. In the Exodus story, an angel of death passes from house to house, killing the firstborn son in each Egyptian family whether the parents are poor slaves or royalty and whether their child is an infant or youth (Exodus 7-12).
Of all the Bible writers who sought to terrify pagans and other sinners, none exceeds the writer of Revelation, who fantasized supernatural monsters, each with some special capacity for inflicting torture or death. In one passage, a cloud of giant insects with human faces and the teeth of lions descends on those who lack a special mark from God.
“And out of the smoke locusts came down on the earth and were given power like that of scorpions of the earth. 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. 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. During those days people will seek death but will not find it; they will long to die, but death will elude them” (Revelation 9:4-6).
- During armed conflict, God and his messengers command the Israelites to slaughter civilians and destroy their homes and means of food production including livestock and orchards.
During World War II, the American military engaged in “terror bombing” of civilian centers including Hamburg, Dresden, and Tokyo, as the Nazis terror bombed London. If the Old Testament stories are to be believed, the ancient Israelites similarly targeted and terrorized ordinary villagers during their military campaigns, only they did so at God’s command and with his blessing.
Bible believers sometimes defend the slaughters depicted in the Old Testament by arguing that they serve a practical purpose. Ethnic cleansing is the only way to rid the Promised Land of evil idolaters, which is why God frequently orders the death of even children and slaves in conquered towns. But the stories themselves include graphic tortures and humiliations that would be of little value if the only goal were ethnic cleansing. A close reading suggests that many of the killings are simply God-sponsored terrorism: mass murder as a display of power and means of social control.
In one account, God commands human assassins to wreak havoc on civilians literally hundreds of years after an offense. Just when you think He has forgiven or forgotten . . . Thus saith the LORD of hosts, I remember that which Amalek did to Israel, how he laid wait for him in the way, when he came up from Egypt. Now go and smite Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have, and spare them not; but slay both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass (1 Samuel 15:2-3).
- As in ISIS, sexual enslavement of conquered women is one means of humiliating enemy combatants.
In the book of Numbers, God’s messenger commands the Chosen People to kill every Midianite man women or child, except for virgin girls who are to be turned into sex slaves according to very explicit instructions. Many Americans were horrified at the story of an ISIS fighter who bound and gagged a captive girl, praying and quoting the Quran to her before commencing rape. The Bible’s instructions for claiming a captive virgin suggest shaving her head rather than applying duct tape to her wrists and mouth (Numbers 31).
Why might this be considered terrorism rather than simply spoils of war? In the Bible, as in the Quran, women and children are literally possessions of men, which is why a man can sell his daughter into slavery, or a rapist can be forced to buy his victim. In the Iron Age honor cultures of the Ancient Near East, female consent mattered little, but a man’s honor could be destroyed by the sexual violation of a female. Enslaving and impregnating the women of a conquered tribe or religion sends a explicit message to other men about who is on top.
- Terror isn’t just an Old Testament affair. In the New Testament gospels, Jesus himself threatens violence and torment against those who don’t fall in line.
In one parable Jesus likens God to the master of a great estate who says, “These enemies of mine, who did not want me to reign over them, bring them here and slay them in my presence” (Luke 19:26-27). In a sermon, he says that those who fail to repent in time will be cast into outer darkness where there will be “weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Luke 13:22-30).
Jesus even uses words that invoke the slaughter commanded by Moses at Mt. Sinai, “Do not think that I have come to send peace on earth. I did not come to send peace, but a sword. I am sent to set a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law” (Matthew 10:34-35).
From Genesis to Revelation, God terrorizes those who fail to fall at his feet and worship in the way he demands. His followers inflict divinely sanctioned torture and death, knowing that if they don’t they may end up on the receiving end—or at least with less real estate and booty.
In the Old Testament, the Chosen People see the horrors God rains down on evildoers, meaning anyone who worships another god; and despite having dedicated themselves to the cult of Yahweh, they walk on eggshells, following an intricate set of rules and rituals and offering up burnt offerings in order to avoid his wrath. In the New Testament narrative, even these burnt offerings and rituals fall short, and the only way God can be appeased is with the sacrifice of Jesus, “the lamb without blemish.”
The Bible is filled with histories of God-blessed slaughter and threats of supernatural torture for a reason: To create fear and intimidation. To gain political or tactical advantage. To influence an audience. Specifically, to keep “the faithful” faithful and to justify their recurrent bouts of conquest and mass murder. And that is exactly what Bible texts have done for as far back as we can trace the history of Abrahamic religion.
Fortunately, most modern believers are more knowledgeable and kinder than the writers of their sacred texts, who could not even imagine the varied, intricate world of landscapes and cultures that lie beyond the stark landscape of the Middle East. Many Christians claim what is spiritually nourishing from Bible and discard the rest.
But the rotted parts of the Bible remain a problem. Christian fundamentalists who see themselves on a crusade against godless infidels—and Right wing politicians who pander to those fundamentalists—find biblical sanction for bigotry and atrocity when they seek it. This fact is not lost on Islamists, who assert that they are fighting defensive jihad while simultaneously inflicting their own Quranic version of bigotry and atrocity on anyone within reach.
As long as Christians continue to bind together the words of our Iron Age ancestors and call them Good and Holy, they will have little argument against terrorists who cite other sacred texts to justify destruction and death in the names of gods.
Valerie Tarico is a psychologist and writer in Seattle, Washington. She is the author of Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light and Deas and Other Imaginings, and the founder of www.WisdomCommons.org. Her articles about religion, reproductive health, and the role of women in society have been featured at sites including AlterNet, Salon, the Huffington Post, Grist, and Jezebel. Subscribe at ValerieTarico.com.
Yep. Wonderful analysis as always. Same with the Köln,Germany situation this New Year Eaves. As my wife says, if it took a group of men at New Year Eaves to attack women in a public space to make people (men) aware that women are mistreated and abused everywhere for thousands of years, well, then, let it be. In other words there is nothing new about it and the reaction of the police, or their absence of reaction is nothing new either. Awareness is what is needed, and those events in Germany might just have brought some of that needed awareness, in spite of what the German christian democrats say.
So true. These Iron Age ways of thinking have to be really seen to be changed.
If your purpose is to persuade me to get on board with Christian fundamentalists, you’ve failed miserably.
As always a very thorough analysis of the Biblical tradition. Doesn’t it mean anything to parents that this book is sitting in front of the pews where their children are sitting? And how do people who actually read the Bible stay in the faith?
Depending on the methods and degree of indoctrination, the inculcation of such terrorizing beliefs can cause serious psychological harm to children. Applying the definition of ‘terrorism’ Valerie started this article with, it’s a form of terrorism many Christian parents commit against their own children.
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But Jesus loves you…
Do Muslims and Christians worship the same God? Well, if there was a real one and only god of the universe, then by definition they do, even if some of their conceptions and perceptions of such a god differ. It’s the blind men and the elephant idea.
But because the WMT god is a fictional idea, and not a reality, then it can only be said that all WMT worship, to varying degrees, a similar idea of a god, but not the same god. Heck, even Christians don’t have a cohesive idea of the god they worship.
I was reminded of the elephant parable too, but didn’t read your comment before postin mine.
Perry…Great minds roll along the same gutter.
I’m not a religious person, but I read a lot about religions and appreciate the perspectives many people who are religious have because I want to try to understand the drive behind the religion.
I grew up in a very conservative small town in the Bible Belt, in the Southwest, and it floors me how uneducated “the faithful” really are about the text upon which they decide to base their entire lives and all their decisions.
I appreciate these posts so much. It really makes so much sense to me to examine all these texts and their similarities (because they ARE incredibly similar) so that maybe one day, we’ll stop having such fundamentalism in our world and people will wise up and realize that these texts are just old books that don’t have much relevance to today’s world.
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“I will be happy when the last monarch is strangled in the entrails of the last priest.”
Another great learning post, Valerie, thank you.
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those of us who have escaped from the clutches of evangelicalism had all kinds of excuses and arguments to justify these passages. I think the most common is well, THAT was “pre-grace” but this counters the teaching that God is unchanging. Another is that of no one in “those days” was won over by “love” . in the past people didn’t get love, or they may have considered love as weakness. it took some serious stoning of disobedient kids and chopping limbs off and foreskins to get peoples attention…but somehow…..this really doesn’t fly either….
It all seems so bizarre from the outside.
My “saving grace” FROM evangelicalism and Christianity itself was my own parents own attempt to instill within us children that seeking TRUTH is what is most essential. I know they believed that every time we’d seek for truth on all issues we’d end up back deeper imbedded into Christianity, and that did work for awhile…until i began to realize how much stretching I was doing to “make things fit”. The “personal relationship with God” part still is to some extent, the most difficult area to come to terms with and face reality about.
“Whether or not Christians and Muslims worship the same God—a point debated on both sides—their sacred texts offer similar blueprints for living.”
To religious outsiders that debate is nonsensical, as are most theological debates. The dogmas and the proclamations of the various prophets in the Abrahamic religions may differ in detail, but that doesn’t mean they don’t all worship the same god, which they obviously do. It’s kind of like the parable of the blind men and the elephant. Here’s Natalie Merchant’s song version which you can hear free at:
And so these men of Indostan
Disputed loud and long,
Each in his opinion
Exceeding stiff and strong,
Though each was partly in the right,
And all were in the wrong!
So oft in theologic wars,
The disputants, I ween,
Rail on in utter ignorance
Of what each other mean,
And prate about an Elephant
Not one of them has seen.
Hey, that’s Very Good! Thus here, My notion of “the bottom line.” (OK, Has it already got tiresome?) The idea that there’s a God-like “consciousness” watching us- collectively and individually- monitoring if/when to come back, blow it all up and start over – is an idea hatched in mortals minds. There is No “Real” (i.e. Natural), “apprehendable,” and testable evidence of it’s reality whatsoever. It is inconsistent with everything that we can and have identified. Apprehended, testable evidence accounts for everything material with which thus far we live our lives. And all that we don’t yet know of Cosmic Physical Reality. The absence of evidence of outside influence applies equally to our “Philosophies” of life experience. We are, in effect and in fact, freely active Human minds; at work on our own, collectively and individually, attempting to learn how we might be able to get along together, in peace and equity. And, aside from the comforting but vain wish for relief from fear and uncertainty, Religions are one natural source of ideas to consider in that other quest. There is a worldwide consensus on the scientific method as the means to continue discovering Reality. Now if we could figure out how better to create and agree upon standards and “process” for the merger of our “values” and other ideas about how to LIVE life.
The book Drunk with Blood listens and elaborates all the violent actions of God in the Bible and numbers God’s victims as nearly 25 million.
People who say Christian/Islamic terrorism has nothing to do with real Christianity/Islam have a lot of confidence in man-made religion. If man has violent tendencies they will be in at least some of the religions he invents.
And how many people claiming to be Christians/Muslims will bomb and maim before anybody admits that their being Christian/Muslim or their faith in their religion is the main problem or the problem? Faith in a religion is distinguished from the people who make up the religion even though you cannot really belong to the religion without it. Faith and the people in a religion cause problems in their own way. If they are not “real” Christians or Muslims that does not get the Christian or Muslim faith off the hook. The Bible of Jesus, the Torah, is full of God sanctioned violence and has very little love. Surprise surprise! And what does it say about him that he had to honour a book like that as sacred and his foundation. Those who say that religion is always good are talking a pile of nonsense. If one religion says Jesus is God and other says he is not one of them is not in tune with the truth and corruption always starts with failing to give priority to truth and to follow where it leads. And corruption leads to violence in one form or another.
A secular force causing war and terrorism is one thing. A religious one doing it is another. The two may do similar things but that does not make them the same. To say they are the same is dangerous. Accuracy in discernment is crucial. Those who deny they are the same are often motivated by a wish to pretend that religion never harms. That motivation is bad and religion is not a good thing if it inspires people to put their heads in the sand like that.
A religion does not always show its true face. What does? A religion that, in some subtle or indirect way, makes a few people turn terrorist is a bad religion regardless of how many good people seem to be in it.
If you take the word religion to refer to a community and a community only, then you cannot say, “Okay if they do harm in the name of the religion that does not mean the religion bad or untrue”.
Some politicians extol religion because they think its crap but useful for manipulating the people to keep public order. Even that approach leads to intolerance and persecution of dissenters eventually.
Keep on truckin,Valerie. This needs to be done. “Let your light shine before men” Mt. 5:16
Valerie, I completely agree with you on the points of your article. Again, your tone is direct yet moderate, your evidence overwhelming, etc. (A couple years ago, I reposted your article about torture and the Bible. It’s still the most read article on my site).
Not so long ago, one Christian leader even claimed that the atom bomb was “God’s gift to America.”
That’s the one foot:-)
But there is the other. Since deconverting officially from Christianity about 3 1/2 years ago, I’ve continued my search for a way of life which emphasizes humanism, compassion, human rights, ethics, etc.
Guess what, Christianity and Islam aren’t the only belief systems which major in commanding and committing slaughter.
Two other worldviews I’ve spend many hours studying do also:-(
So as to not divert the point, I won’t specify the two other worldviews–one a religion, the other an ideology–which support slaughter, too.
Many spokespersons for these systems claim there is no “right or wrong,”
that killing about 800,000 unarmed civilians is justified if it will protect our heavily armed soldiers, that ethics are “relative,” “subjective,” only personal preference.”
Even slavery is only a matter similar to liking or disliking the “color blue.” :-(
So I keep searching.
Thank you for your kind words, Daniel. I am honored, and knowing that people like you are also working to help moderate humanity’s tendency toward cruelty helps to keep me working. I also draw comfort from Steven Pinker’s analysis–that broad brush our societies today are vastly less violent than they were when the Bible’s texts were written. That is one reason it is so important to expose the Bible’s texts of terror.
I’m reading Better Angels of Our Nature right now:-).
ASK PLEASE DONALD TRUMP, HILLARY CLINTON, BILLY GRAHAM OR EDIR MACEDO!!!
TQ for this article. However, the “prescriptions of violence” in Islam in my opinion are the driving forces of evil today. The “descriptions of violence” in the Old Testament are just recordings of history which we hopefully learn from not to commit violence. However, uncultured leaders slaughtered thousands of innocent & peaceful Bosnian & Iraqi Muslims in retaliation in recent periods of history without any prescription from New Testament/Covenant Christianity.