Old Testament terms that particularly explicate the concept are chamac [s'm'j], gazal [l;z"G], and asaq [q;f', (and their derivatives). Primary among these is chamac [s'm'j]. The main New Testament term is bia [biva], although it is used sparingly. An understanding of the phenomenon should not be built on isolated readings of what appear to be narratives of violence.
The term chamac [s'm'j] first appears in the Pentateuch in Genesis 6:11, 13: "The earth was filled with violence." Although the term is undefined in Genesis 6, acts of violence (murder) have already been encountered ( Genesis 4:8 Genesis 4:23 ). Jacob describes the swords of Simeon and Levi as "weapons of violence" ( Gen 49:5 ), an apparent reference to their killing the Shechemites ( Gen 34 ).
Sarah perceived the conception of Ishmael as violence done to her ( Gen 16:5 ). The Book of the Covenant identifies the act of carrying a false rumor with being a form of verbal violence ( Exod 23:1 ).
The Former Prophets also link violence with murder in the Gideon narrative, when the narrator refers to the murder of Abimelech's brothers as "violence" ( Judges 9:5 Judges 9:24 ). The specific nature of violence remains unspecified in 2 Samuel 22:3, where David celebrates his deliverance from violence by God, although physical violence, including murder, might well be within the scope of the reference.
The Latter Prophets reflect the dual nuance of physical violence and nonphysical violence/ethical violence of the term. Jeremiah's complaint that his message is one of "violence and destruction" ( 20:8 ) is of particular interest because it serves as a possible double entendre. On the one hand, Jeremiah's message anticipated the violence of Babylonian destruction; in the context of his complaint, the prophet has just announced to Pashur ben Immer, the priest, that he will go into Babylonian captivity ( 20:1-6 ). The subsequent destruction of Jerusalem and the temple by Babylon, lamented by the prophet in Lamentations, is described as violence achieved by Yahweh ( Lam 2:6 ). Furthermore, proclamation of the message elicited a violent act from Pashur ben Immer toward Jeremiah. On the other hand, from the prophet's perspective, the message itself appears to constitute verbal violence. Elsewhere, Jeremiah portrays taking advantage of the disadvantaged (orphan, widow, and stranger) as violence ( Jer 22:3 ).
In the dramatic prophetic narration of Ezekiel 8, violence is described as pagan idolatry that had come to characterize Israel (v. 17). Ezekiel 45:9 confronts the "princes of Israel" for violence against their own people; the context takes the term in the direction of heavy taxation of the covenant community (cf. Neh 5:1-5 ).
Amos's antithetic woe to Zion and Samaria concerning delaying the day of calamity but bringing near "the seat of violence" ( 6:3 ) is ambiguous, but may allude to a reign/rule of violence that contextually refers to oppression of the disadvantaged (c.f. 3:9-10 ; 4:1 ). Micah's use of the term in 6:12 connotes verbal violence when he links it to "speaking lies" and "deceitful tongues." Three of Habakkuk's six uses of the term refer to violence done to the land ( Habakkuk 2:8 Habakkuk 2:17 [2x]). In two of those three uses, violence done to the land is paired with bloodshed ( Habakkuk 2:8 Habakkuk 2:17 ). Included in Zephaniah's excoriation of the covenant leaders of his day were the priests, who are accused of doing violence to the Law ( 3:4 ). Cultic violence seems to be the object of Yahweh's hatred, according to Malachi 2:16.
The psalms employ the root fourteen times, mostly in unspecified contexts. However, two psalms use the term in the sense of verbal violence ( 27:12 ; 35:11 ) two uses that seem to share some commonality with Exodus 23:1 and Deuteronomy 19:16. This is a nuance that may also be intended by the dual proverbial use of the observation that the mouth of the wicked conceals violence ( Proverbs 10:6 Proverbs 10:11 ). Lady Wisdom simply asserts that one who misses her inflicts violence on himself ( Prov 8:36 ).
From an examination of the term chamac [s'm'j] we conclude that it may refer to either physical or nonphysical/ethical violence. However, from among the latter usages, one can further isolate the nuances of verbal violence and cultic violence.
The Pentateuch uses the term gazal [l;z"G] to describe violent taking/robbing/plunderingan act that, while it may be viewed as "violent, " may or may not involve physical harm. Abraham's wells were "grasped" by Abimelech, without any apparent physical harm to the patriarch ( Gen 21:25 ).
Similar usage of the term is found in the Former Prophets when Judges 9:25 asserts that the Shechemites "plundered" all who passed by. Perhaps the Judges narrator intones a sense of ethical violence in his description of certain of the Benjaminites who carried away wives from among the dancing maidens ( 21:23 ). That the term is sometimes associated with physical harm is demonstrated by its use in 2 Samuel 23:21 (cf. 1 Chron 11:23 ).
Several of the Latter Prophets inveigh against various leaders of Israel because they, through legal manipulation or in some situations physical abuse, "plunder" the poor ( Isa 3:14 ; 10:2 ; Jer 22:3 ; Micah 2:2 ; 3:2 ; Mal 1:13 ).
Wisdom use of the term correlates with the indictments of the prophets; one of the words of the wise counseled against plundering the poor because he is poor ( Prov 22:22 ; cf. Job 20:19 ; Job 24:2 Job 24:9 Job 24:19 ). Ironically, evil men are "plundered" of sleep unless they are engaged in evil activity ( Pr 4:16 ).
Conceptually, asaq [q;f' comes along side gazal [l;z"G] in that it often alludes to nonphysical violence. Samuel declared that he had not "defrauded" anyone ( 1 Sam 12:2-3 ); the context appears to refer to activity akin to extortion/bribery, which he declares he had shunned in carrying out his covenant functions.
Hosea accused Ephraim of loving to oppress, a description that is paired with a description of a merchant with false balances ( Hosea 12:7 ). Ezekiel indicates that neighbors have oppressed neighbors for profit by taking (charging) interest ( 22:12 ); and the prophet indicts the nation for "oppressing" the alien ( 22:7 ). Various pre- and postexilic prophets use the term with a similar nuance of ethical violence.
The wisdom slant tends to focus on ethical violence as well. An antithetical proverb juxtaposes oppressing the poor with being gracious to the needy ( Prov 14:31 ); oppressing the poor for much gain is said to bring poverty ( Prov 22:16 ). In a context where it is paired with bribery, Qoheleth asserts that "oppression" makes a wise person mad ( Eccl 7:7 ).
Contextually, gazal [l;z"G] and asaq [q;f' come alongside each other quite literally inasmuch as the terms are paired in several passages. Leviticus 6:2, 4 pair gazal [l;z"G] with asaq [q;f' as "plundering" and "extortion." The context is a continued discussion of the trespass offering, the introduction of which speaks of unintentional sin. That 6:1-7 addresses a trespass offering for intentional sin is evident from the nature of the situations described. Noteworthy is the fact that violent plundering of one's neighbor, whether figurative or literal, is cast as sin against Yahweh.
The two terms are paired again in Leviticus 19:13, where "plundering" and "extortion" appear to be associated with withholding the wages of a hired person until the morning (cf. Deut 24:14 ).
Micah charges the officials of his day with coveting fields and "grasping" them ( Micah 2:2 a); perhaps this violence was accomplished by means of "extortion" of the household ( 2:2 b). Although none of the terms under examination is used by the narrator, the Ahab/Naboth incident appears to offer a classic narrative illustration of the Micah situation in the extreme. There, the "coveting"/"grasping" went beyond use of extortion as the vehicle. The violence of murder was Ahab's means of "grasping a field" (1 Kings 21).
The psalmist counsels not to trust in "oppression" (asaq [q;f') and not to become vain in "robbery" (gazal [l;z"G]) ( Psalm 62:10 ). Wisdom literature pairs the terms in much the same way. Qoheleth recognized that officials were characterized by "extortion, " (asaq [q;f') and that there was "snatching away" (gazal [l;z"G]) of justice and righteousness in the provinces of the kingdom ( Eccl 5:8 ).
The range of meaning exposed by examination of the uses of the primary term, chamac [s'm'j], appears to be paradigmatic. inasmuch as the latter two terms mirror the physical/nonphysical (ethical) range, but stop short of the more particular nuances of ethical violence delineated above.
It is noteworthy that terms alluding to and the narrative descriptions of violence in the Gospels, Acts, and Epistles are less common than in the older biblical corpus.
In the much discussed context of Matthew 11:12, Christ is narrated as using two forms of the term bia [biva] when he observed that the "kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and violent men take it by force" (NASB). There are attempts to read it as a positive assertion. In the context, however, it was the imprisoned, soon to be murdered, Baptist's inquiry concerning Christ that elicited what seems best read as a pejorative evaluation of John's/Christ's opponents and their agenda. So read, the statement emits overtones alluding both to physical and nonphysical violence. Luke's narration of Christ's statement in lu 16:16 is akin to the Matthew narrative. Other Lucan uses of the term in Acts ( 2:2 ; 5:26 ; 21:25 ; 27:41 ) connote violence that either involves or potentially involves some form of physical harm.
John I. Lawlor
Bibliography. P. C. Craigie, The Problem of War in the Old Testament; J. Ellul, Violence: Reflections from a Christian Perspective; H. Haag, TDOT, 4:478-87.
Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of
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Bibliography InformationElwell, Walter A. "Entry for 'Violence'". "Evangelical Dictionary of Theology".