Violence in the Scriptures: Mormonism and the Cultural Theory of René Girard
Stirling, Mack C., Dialogue : A Journal of Mormon Thought
Many who revere the scriptures as the inspired word of God are nonetheless disturbed by them. The scriptures contain inconsistencies and outright contradictions. Particularly disturbing for many are scriptural portrayals of God as wrathful, vengeful, and violent. This article will introduce these problems with several examples from the Old Testament, then present a succinct overview of René Girard's theory of culture because of its unique value in helping us to interpret these difficult texts. The final portion of the paper will present selected texts from the LDS canon in light of Girard's theory.1
Second Samuel 24 begins ominously: "Again the anger of the Lord burned against Israel, and he incited David against them, saying, 'Go and take a census of Israel and Judah'" (2 Sam. 24:1, New International Version [NIV]; unless otherwise noted, all biblical quotations are from this translation). David took the census, against the advice of his general Joab, but then felt very guilty. He prayed for God to take away his guilt, and the next morning the prophet Gad brought David a message from the Lord. He must choose among three different punishments for Israel: three years of famine, three months of defeat in war, or three days of plague. David chose the plague, "so the Lord sent a plague on Israel" (v. 15), killing 70,000 people in three days. As the Lord was about to finish the job by destroying Jerusalem, he "was grieved because of the calamity" (v. 16) and stayed the hand of the destroying angel. David then pled with God to stop killing innocent people and instead let any further punishment fall on him. Gad, obeying God's next command, told David to build an altar on the threshing f loor of Araunah the Jebusite. David purchased the land, built the altar, and offered sacrifice. "Then the Lord answered [David's] prayer in behalf of the land, and the plague on Israel was stopped" (v. 25).
This is a strange and troubling text, which raises difficult questions about the nature of God and his relationship with humankind. The text gives no reason for God's anger against Israel. Why then would God incite David against Israel? Why did David feel so guilty after simply taking a census, especially one commanded by God Himself? Why would God kill 70,000 ostensibly innocent Israelites? What accounts for the strange options of three different punishments? Why didn't the plague simply end in three days, as originally agreed? Why did God feel sorrow for massive death and destruction that He Himself caused? Why did God direct David to build an altar?Why was animal sacrifice necessary to turn away the wrath of God and terminate the plague?2
We are presented with a capricious God who is willing to kill Israelites, whether for David's sin of taking a census or for unspecified sins of the nation in general. This Deity doesn't care what method He employs (famine, war, or plague) or whom He kills (but insists on the killing itself). He apparently isn't ready to stop killing after the agreed-upon three days of plague but nonetheless experiences remorse and is placated by animal sacrifice.
Worse yet, the familiar account of the destruction of Pharaoh's army by God andMoses in Exodus 14 portrays a God who exults over the impending death of Pharaoh's soldiers and who declares that by destroying the Egyptians He brings Himself glory (vv. 4, 17, 18).We are told that "the Lord hardened the heart of the Pharaoh King of Egypt, so that he pursued" the Israelites into the Red Sea (v. 8), then asked Moses to stretch forth his hand so that the waters would drown Pharaoh's entire army.What are we tomake of a God whose glory consists, in part, of His ability to annihilate humans at will? Can we trust our redemption to such a God?
Jeremiah depicts God as similarly vindictive. In Kings and Chronicles, Israel's sins against its covenant with the Lord are well documented. In Deuteronomy, the penalty for covenant violation is destruction of the nation (Deut. …