V is for Vengeance

A Vengeful People

The Hebrew Bible is often said to be a book of violence and vengeance. The question is then asked as to how an attitude of vengeance can fit with an ethic of love? This post will look at two specific texts which helpfully crystallise what for some people seems to be genuine problem. One of these texts is from the torah, the other is poetic and from the Writings:

 “If people are fighting and hit a pregnant woman and she gives birth prematurely but there is no serious injury, the offender must be fined whatever the woman’s husband demands and the court allows. But if there is serious injury, you are to take life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise. . .”

Exodus 21:22‒25 (NIV)

Daughter Babylon, doomed to destruction,
happy is the one who repays you
according to what you have done to us.
Happy is the one who seizes your infants
and dashes them against the rocks.

Psalm 137:8‒9 (NIV)

We shall look at each of these texts in turn. The aim of this short post is to offer a pointer as to how these texts might not be so out of kilter with our modern sensibilities as is often supposed.

Seeing beyond an eye-for-an-eye

The passage from Exodus 21 is not unique within the Hebrew Bible. Both Leviticus 24:18‒20 and Deuteronomy 19:21 contain the same retaliatory idea. This principle is often termed the lex talionis which literally means law of retaliation. There is no doubting the question that this principle gives rise to. Many of the concerns, however, can quickly be alleviated by considering the context of this legal literature:

  1. At this time in the Ancient Near-East the sorts of issues for which this law was intended could give rise to civil strife because of disproportionate retaliation. In this way some people recognise the lex talionis as limiting the meeting out of justice, i.e. focusing on like-for-like rather than escalation into a feud.
  2. Also in this period, as in so many others, the richer more powerful classes could often escape justice. In other legal codes, such as the Babylonian Code of Hammurabi, similar laws are aimed at protecting those of inferior social standing [1]. That this legislation might especially relate to slaves and their masters in the torah is seen by the content of Exodus 21:26‒27 which explains that a slave must be set free if they lose an eye or a tooth.
  3. One of the dynamics of law in the Hebrew Bible is that like all law it is subject to change. We would not see UK law of, say, 1949 being a once for all finished law. Neither should what we have preserved in the torah be seen as a singular finished article.

None of these three points deals with all the questions we might have about the lex talionis and the ethic of love. The goal has been to show that the text is not either as stark or as simple as it first appears. As Beaton [2] says:

. . . regardless of which interpretation one finds most convincing, these explanations are unified by their endorsement of the principle of proportionality: the talion was about restraint, not vengeance.

On Babies and Rocks

Beatitudes are sometimes referred to as beautiful attitudes. Notwithstanding this unhelpful definition, no one can rightly claim that wanting real babies to be dashed against actual rocks is anything like a beautiful attitude. So why does such an ugly beatitude have a place in the Hebrew Bible?

The context of Psalm 137 is made very clear in its opening verses. These words were made famous by Boney M.’s song Rivers of Babylon. At this time, as we saw in ‘E is for Exile’ and ‘L is for Lamentations’, the nation of Judah had been devastated by war, Jerusalem had been sacked and the people deported into Exile. Remembering this context and noting that Psalm 137 is poetry can go some way to lessening the shock of these words. This is not a legal text which says how justice should be done, although given the fate of many women and children in Jerusalem it might appear to echo a crude wish for the application of a lex talionis. But we still have a big question: why is it appropriate to use poetry and song to articulate vengeance?

A good starting point is to observe that articulating emotion in poetry and song is an incredibly natural thing to do. At the same time we can observe that the participation in poetry and song, whether reading, reciting, hearing or singing, does not have to result in carrying out violence or even condoning it in a rational conversation. The psalms of the Hebrew Bible often deal with emotion and in many cases this can be negative emotion such as a desire for vengeance. Interestingly the language used; whilst unguarded in its frankness tends to leave the matter with God. Perhaps the need for candour with God and the need to entrust our foes to him are an emotional necessity ahead of loving our neighbour?


  1. Brevard S. Childs, The Book of Exodus, The Old Testament Library, Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Know Press, 1974.
  2. James Daniel Beaton. ‘Find Justice in Ancient Israelite Law: A Survey of the Legal System of the Israelites during the Post-Exodus, Pre-Exilic Period’, Journal for the Study of the Old Testament, 41.2, 139‒158, 2016.

Q is for Quelle

Quelle is the German word for source and is used as a technical term by scholars who advocate source criticism. This approach to biblical texts was introduced briefly in an earlier post and the basic idea is a simple one. Its implications however are far from simple and raise a lot of questions.  Source criticism assumes that behind many of the Hebrew Bible’s books there are previous documents or sources. This is neither controversial nor even surprising. Many biblical books even refer to their sources as we shall see in the next post. What can be more complex, and sometimes controversial, is the quest to recover these sources and what might be done with the results of such an exercise. In the Hebrew Bible the most famous example of source criticism is that applied to the torah/Pentateuch.

It was Julius Wellhausen (1844‒1918) who provided the first detailed hypothesis about the textual origins of the Pentateuch. He suggested that there had been four separate sources, or documents, which all originated centuries after the time of Moses, hence it became known as the documentary hypothesis. This is the first complication of source criticism: it challenges traditional views of authorship. The four-document hypothesis came to be generally accepted in the early twentieth century although like all scholarly proposals of this nature there are many rival variations on the theme. In its classic expression the four hypothesised sources were designated:

  • J—a document which names God as Yahweh. The German for Yahweh is Jahweh hence the use of the letter J.
  • E—a document which refers to God as Elohim.
  • D—for essentially the book of Deuteronomy.
  • P—for a document with a priestly outlook.

These four hypothesised documents were said to date from the mid-9th century BCE, mid-8th century BCE, mid-7th century BCE and around 500 BCE respectively. Despite its original popularity this model is no longer the consensus view. This is not to say that the idea of sources is wrong. Rather it is recognised that the use of sources and the subsequent editing processes will never be reliably recovered. To complicate matters further some of the features of the Hebrew Bible which were said to provide evidence supporting the fourfold documentary approach are quite possibly literary devices. For example the two accounts of creation are said by some source critics to be contradictory accounts. It is possible however that there is a deliberate theological point behind the two accounts—they are designed to be complementary since one conveys the story of creation from a transcendent perspective (1:1‒2:3) and the other from an immanent one (2:4‒25).

Robert Alter in his brilliant book The Art of Biblical Narrative [1] looks at type scenes and explores how similar events in a book are actually a reflection of literary artistry rather than an indication of a patchwork quilt of sources. He uses the conventions of Hollywood Westerns as a masterful illustration of how conventions can be misunderstood. In this way he shows just how wide of the mark some biblical source criticism is. His concerns it should be noted are not whether the events are true but simply squashing the hegemony of sources as the explanation of similar stories and narrative motifs.

From a stance of faith there is no sense in awaiting a final outcome of such critical work as this will never arrive. Instead the question must be faced: given that there are some complex editing processes and source texts behind the Pentateuch (as well as other parts of the Hebrew Bible), does this invalidate the possibility that we have Scripture, i.e. an authoritative religious text? If the Pentateuch is understood as Scripture, then even if some original texts could be recovered what would be done with them?


Reference / Further Reading

  1. Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Narrative, New York: Basic Books, 1981.


D is for Deuteronomistic History

Perhaps the choice of topic for the letter ‘D’ is a surprise. Many readers may not have heard of this theory. This idea seeks to explain the observation that the books of Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings tell a coherent story. The coherency of the story is explained in a variety of ways all of which centre on the strong literary relationship of the book of Deuteronomy and what in the Hebrew Bible are termed the Former Prophets (Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings). The earliest explanations of this literary relationship which were made well over one hundred years ago proposed that the Former Prophets were edited by someone who was committed to the theological outlook of the book of Deuteronomy. Later the German scholar Martin Noth (1902–1968) suggested that Deuteronomy and the Former Prophets had such strong similarities in terms of themes and literary style that they were at some level a single literary work. This work was dated to the exilic period (the exile will be our next topic). Like all intriguing theories it has been revised and refuted by other scholars.

It is likely that no overall theory will ever be recognised as the consensus but what is clear is the base data—anyone reading from Deuteronomy through the books of Joshua, Judges, I Samuel, II Samuel, I Kings and II Kings (the Hebrew Bible’s books of Samuel and Kings were each split in two for the Christian canon) will find they are carried forward in a compelling account spanning the Israelites poised to conquer the promised land to their exile from the land. The story is a complex ‘Game of Thrones’ history with strong theological claims and themes throughout. In the English-speaking world Joshua to Kings are seen as historical books whilst in Hebrew their theological freight is to the fore in their designation as Former Prophets. We would do well to note that history meets theology here in a complex and rich tapestry, for as we shall see the Hebrew Bible resists our modern categories that would separate the marriage of history and theology asunder.

By way of conclusion it is worth noting a central aspect of the book of Deuteronomy. The book displays many of the characteristics of an ancient near-eastern legal document. Read in this light it represents a legal covenant between Yahweh, the God of Israel, and the nation of Israel. In keeping with such treaties it uses the language of blessings and curse. The former the result of keeping the agreement and the latter the consequences of breaking the terms of covenant. In short if Israel serves Yahweh faithfully then they will know the blessings of peace and prosperity in the Land that they have been given by God. If, on the other hand, they follow the other deities of the ancient near-east or are led astray by idols they will lose the land and the peace and prosperity granted by Yahweh. The Former Prophets unfold the story of the gaining of the Land and the complex journey which leads to its loss in the midst of war, calamity and exile.