Violence in the OT


I’ll leave it to readers to judge whether or not the Pentateuch was intended to describe historical events. If you honestly think it was all meant to be allegory then I don’t know what to say.


No, it’s not an allegory. It’s a story. The story has a point. If you focus on the details (which don’t matter to the point of the story), you are missing the point of the story.


You’re missing my point. Whether or not the details are essential to the point of the story isn’t the question, the question is whether the author intended to state the details as literally true (as opposed to intending an allegorical sense, as was the case with much of the prophetic writings).

While there is certainly much spiritual meaning to be gleaned from the stories (e.g. how the Canaanites represent the sins in our lives which we are unwilling to get rid of), I’m not aware of any evidence or scholarly opinion suggesting that the author of the Pentateuch did not intend to give a historical account.

Appealing to the larger purpose of the narrative doesn’t help you. The point of the Pentateuch (from the perspective of the human author), as is made clear in Deuteronomy, is that the Israelites unwillingness to destroy the Canaanites will lead (or did lead if you accept the late authorship hypothesis) to their religious and moral corruption, which will lead to their exile. That God did in fact tell them to destroy the Canaanites is hardly tangential to this.


Historians, both ancient and modern, often intend primarily to offer a broad narrative of historical events. That doesn’t mean they aren’t seriously intending to give accurate details.


And you’re missing my point! I agree that yes, the authors of the Old Testament were trying to tell the relationship between God and Israel within a framework of the history of Israel. Were they writing (or were they intending to write) “history” in the sense we understand it today? No. Were they intending to “state the details as literally true”? Perhaps. But that doesn’t mean they ARE true. Nor are we under any religious obligation to consider them true–again, go back to Dei Verbum.

And yes, there is almost always an allegorical sense (how is story x related to Christ? how is story x related to salvation?), but that’s not what I’m talking about here. My point is that there are a lot of discrepancies in the Bible–a point Muslims make with great relish–and yes, you could twist yourself into a pretzel trying to rationalize away all the discrepancies. For example, in a certain battle, one place says they killed x number of enemies; in another place it says y number of enemies. My point is that it’s pointless to try and rationalize x and y; it simply doesn’t matter. There is always a point to the story (and again, I’m not talking allegory here). Whether it was x or y doesn’t affect the point at all.

The same holds for the New Testament. If you read the accounts of the resurrection in all four Gospels you immediately see there are four different stories: Who goes to the tomb? Who arrives first? What do they see? Do they enter the tomb? Where does Jesus first appear after his death? And of course John puts the Last Supper on a completely different day than the other Gospels. But does any of this matter? Of course not. In the essential message–Jesus physically died, was buried, and rose from the dead–they all agree. They are all making the same point.

If you want another example, look at the genealogies of Jesus in Matthew and Luke. They’re different. Again, you could twist your logic into a pretzel to try and explain away the differences. But of course that’s not the point of the story, is it? Are Matthew and Luke practicing genealogy as we know it today? Of course not. They’re trying to make a point. Does it matter that they disagree? No.

It’s very much like an old couple trying to describe some incident in their vacation. They go on and on and on disagreeing about all the details. Do you care about the details? No. You’re waiting for them to get to the point of the story. After 10 minutes of arguing over meaningless details, it turns out that they met their next door neighbor in the Louvre. What a coincidence! And of course that’s the point of the story–the coincidence of meeting your next door neighbor by chance on a trip to Paris. None of the other stuff matters. Like the Bible.

Is the Bible infallible? In what concerns “what God wanted to reveal to us,” yes. In all the details? No.


There is no dichotomy between the literal sense of scripture and those that flow from it, the spiritual senses.
The Catholic Church sees a seamless garment in scripture.

Yes, the bible is rooted in history and has many historical details. The writer says "this is what happened to us, this is what we did, this is how God is acting in our lives"
At the same time, you cannot impose a “CNN standard” or “Rand McNally standard” of historical accuracy on the bible. It is way too small of a view of inspiration. Especially when you are discerning the accuracy of a people’s view of God’s will for them. God patiently trains the Israelites, ergo, they need training for their errors, right?

Here’s what a Catholic must do, (if there is a Catholic imperative…and I believe there unquestionably is):
read the bible through the eyes of Christ, who is the fullness of revelation.
If you do this you will have a very tough time finding a God who wills human violence.
We believe God is unchanging, we believe Christ is the eternal Son of God, who always was and always will be. Given this firm teaching of the Church, when you look at these violent passages, the burden of morality must fall on human beings, not God.


When looking at Scripture it’s also crucial to know the difference between God’s actual will and God’s permissive will. (active will is also called “positive” or “perfect”)

God permitting something does not give us liberty to say “God in fact desired it”.
This is a constant issue even in our lives.
We live imperfect lives, all of us from Adam forward. We misunderstand God, and we also sin. The bible chronicles this human imperfection and God’s guidance through it, to the giving of his Son.

This is not the same thing as God desiring it.
For instance: when we sin we know that God permitted it to happen. But he does not actively will sin.
Same principle applies for violence in the OT. Historical chronicles of these events is just that, and from it God proposes saving truth, or “Good News”. It takes discernment to hear God speaking in history.


“To interpret Scripture correctly, the reader must be attentive to what the human authors truly wanted to affirm”


I’ve studied scripture in an academic setting, and though I’m no published author, if I am writing something important, details are everything. When someone skilled is actually putting something important into writing, whether it be fiction or non-fiction, he doesn’t recklessly mess with details for the sake of a greater story. He puts his life into every word, phrase, sentence, etc. Nothing is irrelevant. If this is the case with people today, how much more is it the case with people who 1) already had scarce resources and time and 2) were writing something which though they didn’t necessarily know was inspired, knew was important to the actual foundation of a people. Treating scripture like a casually told story does not do justice at all to the authors’ intent, and can even result in rather sloppy exegesis.


The key question is, of course, what DID the human authors truly want to affirm? Unfortunately, we can’t go back in time and ask them. And even if we did, we might not get a good answer. If you went to an historian today and asked “Why did you write this book”? you might get a number of answers (“I needed to get tenure, I needed the money, I wanted to tell the story of xyz, I wanted to write about a subject no one had written about before, etc. etc.”). You would probably get different answers on different days, depending on their mood. And of course the author might be too self-unaware to give his actual motives, even though he wants to.

I would suggest that in the case of the authors of the Bible, the answer to “Why are you writing this?” is “To show God’s relationship to the world” or some variation.

And I am NOT denying the ultimate historical truth of the OT: There certainly was a group of people called Jews, they believed they had a covenant with God, they fought wars with their neighbors, etc.

What I AM saying is that you shouldn’t be a literalist–you shouldn’t spend your time and effort trying to decide if 4,579 enemies were killed or if it was 5,678. Whether Jesus was crucified at the 6th hour or the 9th hour. Or exactly how many loaves and fishes were in those baskets. None of those things are lmportant, and focusing on them simply distracts you from the actual message. (Just like if you’re listening to the old couple recount the details of the day they met their neighbor in Paris, you join in and ask if they had one or two cups of coffee that day–it doesn’t matter!)

Now HOW literal you want to be seems to me to be an open question. I think there are extremes at each end: on the one hand, it’s clear that each author sometimes has a different set of details for an incident; on the other hand, I don’t think you can simply discount the historical setting the authors chose to set their message in.


And of course newcomers to Catholicism often ask “Where is the definitive Catholic interpretation or commentary on the Bible?” And of course there is none. Interpretations that go to certain extremes are condemned, but there is a wide range between the historical-critical St. Jerome Commentary to the Navarre Bible sponsored by Opus Dei. They are both Catholic. They are both approved by the Church. My quarrel is with those who advocate a very literal interpretation and have the attitude that their interpretation is the “true” or “only” interpretation. It’s not.


The entire Pentateuch? Or just parts of it?

I don’t think anyone would claim that the entirety of the first five books of the Bible is allegory. Well… maybe I shouldn’t speak so hastily… :roll_eyes: :wink:


Not all details are immaterial to “the point of the story.” :wink:

Actually, I’d have to disagree with you. In fact, this does matter! Did you hear the Gospel reading today? The apostles are completely missing the point about what Jesus has said to them, and do you remember what his response is, in His attempt to help them understand the point? He asks them to recall precisely these details about the loaves and fishes that you claim are ‘unimportant.’

Details matter. Details help us understand the ‘message.’ :wink:


If there is just one thing that Catholics should absorb from this conversation it is this:

any and every allegorical sense of scripture is rooted in the literal. Those sense are not dichotomous.
So one need not cower in fear that allegorical senses of scripture threaten the Inspired integrity of the bible. That is the fear that results from fundamentalism, and it is not Catholic. If the allegorical sense exposes the fullest truth, embrace it, don’t cringe in fear (not you gorgias, generally speaking)

You know what this world needs more of:
people who are willing to listen, to read, to think and discern, and to obey legitimate authority and pastoral guidance from the Church, especially when that guidance comes from the highest levels of expertise (Benedict’s word).
And less modern American individualism.


Umm… no.

The “literal sense” of a passage of the Bible might be an allegorical interpretation. For instance, Catholics are free to believe that the creation narrative of Genesis chapter one is, in fact, allegorical rather than a literal account. Either way, though, the “literal sense” of that chapter (i.e., what the inspired writer intended) is to pass along the teachings that the Church relays to us: God created everything from nothing; everything God created was good; God created humanity in His image and likeness; etc, etc…

(Perhaps you meant that “every spiritual sense of Scripture is rooted in the literal”? Now, that would be true! However, an allegorical interpretation is not a ‘spiritual sense’…)


See catechism, sections 116-117:

116 The literal sense is the meaning conveyed by the words of Scripture and discovered by exegesis, following the rules of sound interpretation: “All other senses of Sacred Scripture are based on the literal.”

117 The spiritual sense. Thanks to the unity of God’s plan, not only the text of Scripture but also the realities and events about which it speaks can be signs.

And then it goes on to talk about the “allegorical sense,” “the moral sense,” and “the anagogical sense” [the eternal significance of events].

So you can’t simply ignore the literal sense; it serves as the setting for the lesson. And of course the literal sense–if taken in a wider meaning and/or context–is the lesson itself. Take any parable–the Prodigal Son, for example. The point is that the father forgives the son’s disloyalty, disobedience, and foolishness. The son comes to realize he’s better off living with his father. But if you were a very strict literalist, you wouldn’t apply it to mankind at large; you would say it’s a story about a particular father and son and had no bearing on anything else. This, of course, is not the point of the story.

I disagree with your disagreement…the point of Jesus asking the Apostles how many baskets there were of leftovers is simply to emphasize that a miracle took place: 5 loaves became 12 baskets of leftovers; at another time, Jesus had 7 loaves and the collected 7 baskets of leftovers. Now if another Gospel said Jesus had 6 loaves and 14 baskets of leftovers, would that matter? If you think it does, you are a literalist. If you don’t think it matters at all, you are looking at the point of the story: There was a miracle, as demonstrated by the ratio of leftovers to original loaves. Exactly what that ratio was doesn’t matter.


Ummm no what?
I didn’t say that the sense “might be” allegorical or “might not be”. Depends on the passage.
I said all allegorical senses are rooted in the literal. The point being (again) that no dichotomy exists between the literal and allegorical senses.
I think you misunderstood what I said based on your credibility as a poster here, but what was said was pretty straightforward.

The senses of Scripture

115 According to an ancient tradition, one can distinguish between two senses of Scripture: the literal and the spiritual, the latter being subdivided into the allegorical, moral and anagogical senses. The profound concordance of the four senses guarantees all its richness to the living reading of Scripture in the Church.

116 The literal sense is the meaning conveyed by the words of Scripture and discovered by exegesis, following the rules of sound interpretation: "All other senses of Sacred Scripture are based on the literal."83

117 The spiritual sense. Thanks to the unity of God’s plan, not only the text of Scripture but also the realities and events about which it speaks can be signs.

  1. The allegorical sense. We can acquire a more profound understanding of events by recognizing their significance in Christ; thus the crossing of the Red Sea is a sign or type of Christ’s victory and also of Christian Baptism.84

  2. The moral sense. The events reported in Scripture ought to lead us to act justly. As St. Paul says, they were written “for our instruction”.85

  3. The anagogical sense (Greek: anagoge, “leading”). We can view realities and events in terms of their eternal significance, leading us toward our true homeland: thus the Church on earth is a sign of the heavenly Jerusalem.86

Note that the Church by literal does not mean literalism. Literal refers to the text and the integrity of the text. Words are written and they mean things. The meaning of the words can be derived by knowing the language and the culture. Exegesis.
That is different from literalist fundamentalism.


Aah… now I see where you’re getting confused. There’s a difference between an “allegorical narrative in Scripture” and the “allegorical sense of Scripture”. You responded to a discussion of the former with the definition of the latter.

The former is an exegetical approach that leads to an understanding of the literal sense of Scripture for a given passage. The latter is one of the spiritual senses of Scripture that lets us read a passage and interpret how that passage relates to Christ. (After all, the OT points to Christ, right?)

Let me give an example:

Chapter 3 of Genesis describes the Fall of Man (that is, the sin of Adam and Eve which brought sin and death into the world). The Catechism tells us that this account is an allegory: “The account of the fall in Genesis 3 uses figurative language, but affirms a primeval event, a deed that took place at the beginning of the history of man.” (CCC, #390)

The literal sense of this chapter utilizes the allegory of the story of the serpent and the apple to present the truth that the inspired author intended to convey: namely, that our first truly human parents sinned, and in doing so, caused sin and death to enter into the world.

So, in this chapter, the literal sense comes from an allegorical narrative.

However, the allegorical sense in this passage (that is, how this passage points us to Christ) could consist of a number of items: in this passage, we see the first Eve and first Adam, which points us to the second Eve (Mary) who gives birth to the second Adam (Jesus)! We could also identify that anguish in the Garden of Eden points us to Jesus’ anguish in another Garden – in Gethsemane, as He prepared to enter into His passion.

So, the allegory in the narrative is not the allegorical sense of Scripture in this chapter. To your credit, you did say that the “allegorical sense is rooted in the literal sense”, which is absolutely correct. However, you responded to a discussion of allegory in the Scriptural narrative, and therefore, I thought that this was what you were talking about. In short, you were correct in your statement, but your statement was a non sequitur, and I didn’t pick up on the incongruity. :+1:


The assertion was made that if one does not admit to the historical context of the Pentateuch then one is whitewashing the integrity of the passages as “all meant to be allegory”, (as if allegory is some sort of pejorative !)
This betrays an obvious misunderstanding of the relationship between the literal and spiritual senses of scripture. This dichotomy does not exist in Catholic thought on scripture. End of story.

(and you are doing a very fancy and tangential dance on this subject above. I’m sure you realize, a passage does not have to be intended by the writer as allegory to have an allegorical sense? yes. )

Edit: what you are speaking to above is genre. There is a difference between genre, or types of literature, and senses. They are not the same thing.
The full sense of what God intends to convey through a passage is rooted in but not dictated by the genre of literature.
Historical narratives can have literal descriptions of actual events rooted in time and culture, and have a deeper allegorical sense, or a moral sense, or an anagogical sense based on that literal sense (it’s probably safe to say that almost all of scripture has a spiritual sense, other than the construction narratives); historical narratives can point us to a deeper truth than the the literal details as they were written, even when they seem to be contradictory.

The problem we are discussing repeatedly in these forums and others is not whether or not these hard passages necessarily took place, but how we are to hear God speaking through them, and what God says about himself. That is sense, not just genre.


Don’t apologize for asking questions like this (“please bear with me”). The people who need to apologize are those who would consider you a troll.

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