Acknowledging Grief and Trauma in The Bible
July 23, 2022
At The Conference on Death, Grief and Belief last weekend, one of the presenters — Dr. Jamie Eaddy — gave a brilliant talk about how the violence and trauma in the Old Testament (i.e, Hebrew Bible) is never identified as violent or traumatic. These events are not acknowledged as hurtful, and the pain of the people experiencing these horrors is never mentioned. God does not apologize or offer healing for the suffering he imposes through his random fits of rage.
As a trained theologian, I was shocked that I had never noticed this before. Listening to Jamie’s talk, dozens of bible stories ran through my mind. As the mother of a child who has died, I thought about all the parents whose children were murdered in these stories, for example, when god sends a bear to kill 42 children to punish them for making fun of a bald-headed man (2 Kings 2:23-25). The grief of their parents and the horror of this act is never mentioned. And let’s not forget that there are TWO incidents of slaughtering first-born sons (Exodus 11:4-5 and Matthew 2:16–18). In the first, it is directly via god’s command that the children are murdered. In the second, the command comes from King Herod, but in either case, there is no acknowledgment that his is a terrible thing to do. The parents of these children, along with their entire communities, are traumatized from experiencing mass child death. Yet there is NO mention of their grief, and no healing offered. I envision thousands of mothers crying and wailing as they hold their dead children in their arms, but the scriptures give us no such images. I think it’s safe to say that if women had written these stories, the pain of the mothers — and the fathers — would have been critically important to mention. But then I also know that a mother would never write such stories.
All these events… mass murder, rape, genocide, slavery, child abuse, colonization, etc. (along with laws requiring murder or torture for a long list of minor infractions) are treated as if they’re no big deal. We’re supposed to trust that god knows what he’s doing and that these events are somehow justifiable. This belief has desensitized millions biblical literalists to the sadism behind such ideas, and blinded them to the nature of the brutal psychopath that inflicts these traumas upon the people he “loves.”
It’s not hard to see how this connects to the callousness of religious conservatives who have political power in our country today. Denying basic human rights to women, and allowing assault weapons to be readily available to anyone (think: mass child death) are just two examples.
Apparently if it’s OK for god to do it, then it’s OK for us to do it.
You can hear Jamie’s talk — and all the others from the conference — by purchasing the conference recordings HERE.
For more on this topic, read this excellent article.
Wow! While I’ve always seen these events as making no sense from a loving God ( if you believe that), I never connected them to conservatives insensitivity. I’m bowled over. Thank you so much!
Exactly! It bowled me over too. I couldn’t believe I missed that after all these years of education in theology!
I think these stories can be viewed through the lens of the brutal world where the OT people lived. The people acted slightly better than those around them. Their understanding of God’s will for them was possibly affected by their worldview. As culture advanced, so did the activities of the people. But you’re right. God’s responses to these events seems calloused when viewed from our modern worldview.
I don’t think the human grief response would have been any different thousands of years ago. Advancing culture doesn’t make our response to loss any different. Perhaps for the Israelites, a worldview where everything god does is OK no matter how horrible it is might have allowed them to accept these actions in some way. But that’s highly unlikely. Human beings do not want their children to be murdered, even by god.
The biblical quote is from “2 Kings 2:23-25” as opposed to “1 Kings 2:23-25”. Exodus 11:4-5 is quoted correctly. .
I’m not certain what Dr. Eaddy’s point was, however, God certainly was not unaffected by his murders. The Passover, which occurred when the Israelites were trapped in Egypt, had a point of affecting the living – to get the attention of the Pharaohs.
That said, these are not events based in reality. These murders are not a factual event. They are myths; Disney World; something that did not happen; not committed by God. If these events did happen, God is not a good being. So I choose not to defend all the mythology, all the bible stories, all the nonsense that has happened on this planet we call Earth. It is difficult enough to defend reality and what things did actually happen. God has nothing to do with the reality of any murders, tortures, etc. If God does have anything to do with these, I have a total misunderstanding of God and the Afterlife and Freewill.
Good points Carmelo. The bottom line is that we ALL have “a total misunderstanding of God and the Afterlife and Freewill.” And yes, of course these events are fictional (mythical) and not historic or literal. For some reason, people invented this barabaric god and made up these stories, based in fear, and designed to create even more fear.
There is a really good theory about why they came up with this type of god-image. It comes from OT scholar Richard Elliott Friedman. I wrote about in a paper of mine a few years ago:
If, as archeological evidence and historical inquiry shows, most of the Old Testament was written during the Jewish exile in Babylon, it leaves a large gap between the written record and the events of 1000 years earlier that the record is describing. The land of Judah (now Israel) was not a powerful kingdom, but a small town or village overshadowed by the enormous power of Babylon and Egypt. Friedman suggests that Judah’s leaders and priests, in order to establish a sense of power that could compete with other nations, created the idea of an all-powerful god that took a special liking to their tribe and promised to transform them into a great nation (Friedman, 1997, 138). This idea, mixed with stories and legends handed down verbally for centuries, found its way into the writings of the scribes who wrote while in exile. They had heard for generations, through oral tradition, that they had been promised God’s favor and would become world leaders if they followed God’s laws. But now they found themselves imprisoned in a foreign land with no nation, no temple for worship or sacrifices, no identity, no political or social power and no special protection from God. In writing their story, they had to find a way to justify their loss of status in God’s eyes, and as Friedman states, “In Pagan religion, if another nation defeats you, you can say their god was more powerful than your god. But in monotheism, if you’re suffering, it must be because you did something wrong” (Empires). Friedman goes on to say that the Ten Commandments were a covenant; a sacred agreement between God and the Jews. According to this agreement, God would bring the Jews out of slavery in exchange for their obedience. But according to the writers of the Pentateuch, the Jews were not obedient, and by breaking the laws, they broke the covenant, and punishment was inevitable.