Preaching on Violent Texts with Integrity: Four Questions

There’s no getting around it: there are some tough passages in Scripture.

For example:

  • Judges 11:34-40: Jephthah sacrifices his beloved daughter to keep a vow to God.

  • Numbers 31: 15-18: Moses tells his officers to kill Midianite boys and mothers, and rape the girls.

  • Is. 13: 15-16: Infants will be dashed to pieces and wives raped.

  • Luke 9:51-54: James and John want to rain fire on Samaritan villagers.

  • Col. 3:6: God’s wrath will come upon the disobedient.

That’s just to name a few.

Dr. Lisa Thompson, Assistant Professor of Homiletics at Union Theological Seminary, was a recent guest lecturer for the Backstory Preaching Collective+. She helped us find our way through tough passages like these.

Dr. Thompson showed us we can stay true to the text without excusing it, making it metaphorical, allegorical, or symbolic, or providing a justification that the times were “different back then.”

Not only did she help us find our way through, she did so without even trying to get around the text.

Dr. Thompson showed us we can stay true to the text without excusing it; making it metaphorical, allegorical, or symbolic; or providing a justification that the times were “different back then.”

Horrific behavior is always horrific—no matter the era—and it is always inexcusable.

She showed us how to take these texts exactly as they are written, with exactly the events as described, and exactly the way God’s role was perceived.

The Big Picture

Before we get to her four questions we first need to articulate how we see Scripture as a whole.

Who do we see God to be overall?

That is, on balance, what do we see most often revealed about God’s character?

What does God desire?

What do we learn about God from beginning to end?

In addition, on balance, what do we see most often revealed about people’s characters?

What do they hope for?

Who do they hope God is for them?

Do they change, evolve, learn, grow?

The working theories we draw about the character of God and people influence how we wrestle with violent texts, with texts that denigrate others, and the whole of Scripture that takes slavery for granted as the norm.

To use my own views as an example, on balance I see the God of Scripture as creative, compassionate, loyal, merciful to a fault, and always wanting the best for humanity.

As for the people in Scripture, I see them as finding their way. Stumbling blindly plenty of times, and making an absolute muck of it plenty of others, but doing the best they can with the information they had.

Is some of what they did inexcusable? Definitely.

Inexcusable behavior may be inexcusable, but by the grace of God, that’s not the same thing as saying it is unforgivable.

Without God’s mercy there was neither hope for biblical characters nor for me or you now.

That’s why I rely on God to be merciful to a fault.

Once we can answer who we understand God and humanity to be on the whole, we can use Dr. Thompson’s four questions to dig deep into the disturbing, violent passages of the Bible.

Four Questions

1) Where do I not want God to be in this text?

Based on the ugly parts of the text, what do we not want to be surprised to learn about God?

Which behavior of God’s do we want to see as the outlier, the action that doesn’t make sense, the aspect of God that is inconsistent with the whole?

In light of my understanding of God above, I don’t want God to direct horrors to be perpetrated on any human being. I don’t want God to sanction, condone, laud or magnify abuses against anyone else, and especially not on the vulnerable.

2) Where do I want God to be in this text?

Based on your broader, more consistent understanding of God, where do you hope God is acting?

In a biblical story, for all its horror, where do we want God’s highest qualities to be discovered, hidden though they may be?

I want God to be with the vulnerable. I want God to be with those who need compassion, those who need truth spoken smack into their faces.

I want God to be in the hearts of those in power to change whole systems so no one feels the need to take power over another.

3) What do I hope this text will say?

What do we hope this text will reveal about God, people, and our relationships?

What aspect of God’s character and our deepest longings do we hope are described?

What kernel of hope might be found in humanity’s actions and—if none is to be found—in God’s actions toward us?

I will summarize my own hopes by riffing off of Dr. King: I hope the texts illustrate the arc of humanity’s maturation is long, but we bend toward holiness.

4) What do I hope this text will absolutely not say?

Here’s my interpretation of that question:

What do we hope, in fear and trembling, we didn’t get wrong about God?

That list for me is too long and too terrifying to consider for any length of time.

The short version is, I absolutely hope that murder and mayhem, might-making-right, and God hating “everything to do with Christmas” (a la the Grinch) was not God’s intention all along.

Finding God

When we employ those four questions—along with academic rigor to be sure we understand the circumstances and complexities of the text—we can find God hiding in plain sight.

God is found in the absent voices.

God is found never to have voiced the words of violence others placed in God’s mouth.

God is found in the correctives.

God is found to be absent in the voice of the very human narrator who is grasping to make sense of chaos when sense does not exist.

God is shown in the contrast of what is reflected about humanity’s cruelty by the written text versus the creative, compassionate, merciful love God would like humanity to reflect, as embodied by Jesus.

Dr. Lisa Thompson is the author of Ingenuity: Preaching as an Outsider (Abingdon Press, 2018)*. Her next book is Preaching the Headlines (Working Preacher Books, 2020 anticipated).

*As an Amazon affiliate, a small portion of book sales support our ministry. Thank you!


Interested in our guest lecture series for preachers?

Our next guest is The Rev’d Dr. Carolyn Helsel, Assistant Professor at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary, who will help us preach about racism from her book, Preaching about Racism: A Faith Leader’s Guide (Chalice Press, 2018).

Join us in the Backstory Preaching Collective+ (Plus).