‘Why I believe Bible horrors are educational’

Word of God: “Then he reached out his hand and took the knife to slay his son.” Genesis 22.
by Katie Edwards and Meredith Warren

Both Dr Katie Edwards and Dr Meredith Warren lecture on Biblical Studies at the University of Sheffield. Warren’s first book “My Flesh is Meat Indeed” examines the role of cannibalism in religious sacrifice.

What can we learn from violence in the Bible? Five hundred years after the start of the Reformation, which translated the Bible out of Latin, these academics think it should be taught more.

Ignoring that the Bible records horrible, terrifying human events makes it easier to gloss over the fact that these same things occur regularly today. Sexual assault, genocide and slavery, all described in the Bible, are still rife. If we want to confront today’s horrors, it helps to also confront biblical accounts that terrify us.

Students should be given the tools to address these issues to truly prepare them for the real world.

Texts, including the Bible, do not have meaning on their own. Readers must interpret the words on the page, and give the Bible meaning, whether that meaning reflects the ancient context in which it was written, or some meaning for contemporary life. We as readers decide what we do with what we read, and whether we gloss over violence and oppression — or confront it.

Readers decide what we do with what we read and whether we gloss over violence and oppression – or confront it

Violence is horrifyingly ordinary. The scale of sexual abuse scandals in the UK and the prevalence of bullying in schools should tell us that many children are all too familiar with the mundanity of violence. Children are more likely to be victims of, and witnesses to, violence than adults. Sanitising horrific biblical stories, or focusing on the beauty of the language in the King James Bible translation rather than asking hard, critical questions of the biblical text, will not make real-life violence disappear.

After all, it is not as if we do not already teach -— and celebrate —- horrific biblical episodes. Babies and infants are given books and toys based on Noah’s Ark – a biblical story of genocide. And schools and churches do not flinch from showcasing images of extreme torture through the crucifixion of Christ. The horrific crucifixion of Jesus is often glossed over but torture, the death penalty, and false imprisonment are still present in society.

The key is not to downplay the horror of God being compared to a slave-owner who beats his slaves into shreds, or that scripture seems fine with threatening sexual assault as punishment for disobedience, or that the annihilation of huge groups of people can be justified with religion.

Instead, the key is to use these texts as tools to confront violence in society. This starts in the classroom, reading through difficult texts with students and allowing them to grapple with issues of injustice. Avoiding violent texts as frightening or irrelevant to today’s “peaceful” society ignores the many communities for whom society is not at all peaceful. By the time students get to university many of them have already had personal experiences with violence; shying away from those topics only marginalises them further.

There are tools for teaching troubling texts in the classroom, as teachers well know when exploring difficult social issues, modern history, and contemporary literature, none of which shy away from addressing violence. And there are many, many, many scholars teaching Bible at university who are already helping students to read these difficult texts carefully and critically.

Especially when biblical texts have been used (unjustly or not) to justify some horrific practices and policies, from slavery to colonialism to genocide, we cannot afford to ignore the Bible. The solution is not to avoid difficult subject matter, but to give students of all ages the tools to work through them. Students will then have the ability to confront injustice when they see it now.

This is an extract of a longer piece. For the full essay please see the link in Become An Expert.

You Decide

  1. How useful is the Bible for modern readers?


  1. Using the internet or Bibles available in school, read the passage from Genesis 22. This is one of the most famous bible stories — when God commands Abraham to sacrifice his own son. What messages does this story have? Do you find this story shocking?

Word Watch

“Mundane” has two definitions. The first means something that is unremarkable and dull. The second is something of the physical world, rather than the spiritual.
Noah’s Ark
The story of Noah and the flood is recounted in Genesis 6-9.
Huge groups
Genocide features in Joshua 1-12. After the Israelites were liberated from Egypt they were promised the land of Canaan. The Book of Joshua depicts the slaughter of the tribes that existed in Canaan before the Israelites arrived.

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