The Bible and Religious Violence

Ronald Hendel examines religious violence in antiquity and today


This woodcut by French artist Gustave Doré, titled “The Walls of Jericho Fall Down” (1885), depicts the Israelites’ destruction of Jericho as described in Joshua 6. In his Biblical Views column, Ronald Hendel wonders what is wrong with religion that it inspires religious violence.

Paris, Colorado Springs, Duma—in 2015, fundamentalist terrorists killed innocent people in these cities allegedly in the name of Allah, Christ and Yahweh, respectively. These are just a few recent examples of religious violence inspired by radical forms of Islam, Christianity and Judaism—the world’s three major monotheistic religions, each Biblically based or derived.

“Is there something wrong with Biblically derived monotheism that gives rise to religious terrorism—to murder in the name of God?” asks Ronald Hendel in his Biblical Views column “The Bible and Religious Violence” in the March/April 2016 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.

The concept of holy war (Hebrew: ḥerem), Hendel points out, is referenced several times in the Hebrew Bible and is a major theme in the Book of Joshua. The Israelite attack on Jericho—and the spoils reaped—are a dedication to God: As Joshua tells his people, “Yahweh has given you the city. The city and everything in it are to be dedicated (ḥerem) to Yahweh” (Joshua 6:16–17). Thus, the Israelites in the Book of Joshua believe their religious violence is justified.

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On the ninth-century B.C.E. Mesha Stele (or Moabite Stone), the Moabite vassal King Mesha commemorated his victory over the Israelites, framing the success as a tribute to his god Chemosh: “Chemosh said to me, ‘Go and seize Nebo from Israel,’ and I went in the night, and I battled against it from the break of dawn until noon, and I took it, and I killed all of them—7,000 men and boys and women and girls and maidens—for I dedicated [ḥerem] it to Ashtar-Chemosh, and I took from there the vessels of Yahweh, and I dragged them before Chemosh.”


Ronald Hendel

History—and current events—tells us that religious violence can be as much about material gain as about following doctrine. Indeed, today we see that the extremist group ISIS has been profiting from their devastating destruction of sites in Iraq and Syria.

“The religious ideology of holy war, which has trickled down into the religious motivation for religious terror, is a mask, a justification and a deception,” says Ronald Hendel. “It deceives its practitioners and its victims. Ashur does not want the death of the people of Laqe, nor does Yahweh want the death of the people of Jericho, nor does Chemosh want the death of the people of Nebo. Nor does Allah want the death of people in California.”

For a deeper probe into the ideology of religious violence throughout the ancient Near East, and to learn Ronald Hendel’s solution for addressing religious violence today, read the full Biblical Views column “The Bible and Religious Violence” in the March/April 2016 issue of BAR.


BAS Library Members: Read the full Biblical Views column “The Bible and Religious Violence” by Ronald Hendel in the March/April 2016 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.

Not a BAS Library member yet? Join the BAS Library today.


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10 Responses

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  1. JeffreyR says

    “Then YHWH said to Joshua, “….You are to do with Ai and its king as you did with Jericho and its king… ”
    Joshua did not draw back the hand which he had pointed the javelin until he had dealt with all the dwellers in Ai as with men under a ban. Joshua 8:2, 26

    To say that YHWH did not want or order the deaths of the inhabitants of Jericho and Ai would be to deny the validity of Holy Scripture. It is, however, a valid point that YHWH’s orders for cities to be put under the ban were for a specific time and place and cannot be extrapolated to present day situations.

  2. sebastianliew says

    I believe has to do with too much emphasis on identity – Jews are chosen people, Christians saved and Islam is the only true religion.

    When identity is emphasised, spiritual inner transformation is both.

    When identity is threatend war starts. It is the ego working

  3. Scott says

    The author says: “in 2015, fundamentalist terrorists killed innocent people in these cities allegedly in the name of Allah, Christ and Yahweh, respectively.” Please tell us where/when (in 2015) anyone killed in the name of Christ or Yahweh!!! It would be helpful to know the facts. Thanks

  4. Scott says

    God ordered the Destruction of Canaan. God did, not men! Moses did not do miracles. God did thru Moses, by which we know we can trust Moses to convey God to us. No one today has that sort of miraculous endorsement to justify new military escapades in the name of YHWH.

    The problem is not the Bible or religions based on it. The problem is political people and causes wanting to use religion, all religion, to fill the ranks of their armies. Constantine courted Christianity and in return, gave bullies withing that movement, support to enforce doctrinal dogma and forced unity. Any bishop or church that did not go along, faced military-police action of the state. half of Christianity was inclined to monotheism (against the trinity) and half was not. today, most of Christianity still bears the adherence to a doctrine that defies logic and reason (the trinity) and adheres to state loyalty over faith wherever it exists. Yet another blight from the past. So lets stop blaming religion and blame those who try to take over and use religion for their war machines.

  5. Scott says

    I might also add that Moses ordered that no Israelite was allowed any sex, even his wife, during a military campaign and never allowed rape to His army. If allowed to take virgin woman after conquering, they had to wait 30 days. Neither the OT or the NT ever allowed rape at any time or situation. However, a wife could not claim rape by her husband. He was entitled by God.

    How rape became a past time for some, well, it was not from God. Some do not follow God. They make up their own rules. The Bible is fine. But some, even many, like to twist the bible. They will all answer one day to YHWH and I don’t think we are that far away from it any more.

  6. Scott says

    My comment/question #3 (Scott) has nothing to do with #4 and #5.
    I am Scott V. – still would like to hear from the author of this article.

  7. samuel says

    Kalau Allah dlm alkitab memerintahkan berperang, itu adalah hak Allah sepenuhnya, dan kita dalam hal ini berurusan ddengan Allah penguasa hidup dan pencipta manusia. Allah memerintahkan semua musuh dibunuh karena Allah ingi umat pilihan Tuhan tidak dibujuk bangsa asing utk berbuat dosa, karena terbukti saat bangsa Israel tidak membunuh musuh yang telah Allah perintahkan untuk membunuh maka mereka menjadi berdosa dng ikut menyembah berhala bangsa asing tsb.

    If God in the Bible commanded to fight, it is the right of God fully, and we are in this case dealing wirh Allah, the lord and creator of human life. God commands all enemies killed because God intending to God’s chosen people are not persuaded foreigners For sin, as proven when the Israelites did not kill the enemy that God has commanded to kill, they became guilty of idolatry with participating foreign that nation .

  8. Donna says

    To: Ron Hendel concerning Scott V. Question #3
    Sir, you still have not given your explanation and documentation verifying where/when in 2015 anyone killed in the name of Christ or Yahweh.

    To: Scott V., looking for Intellectual honesty in this case may be impossible….so check this out and you will understand what has been written about Ron Hendel and his anti-Christian bias from his past publications. This is why you have not heard back from him.

    In this internet search article which I found by accident, from an Associates in Biblical Research statement: (criticizing Ron Hendel’s Excerpt In the July/August 2010 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review,) as ” a disturbing and highly prejudicial, anti-Christian column was published. (By Ron Hendel) his main thrust of this article aims directly and antagonistically at Christian scholars who hold to any form of orthodoxy… Continue reading ….”

    This is my very first time on Biblical Archaeology Society site and it is very unfortunate that I read Hendel’s “Violence in Religion” anti-Christian, anti-Yahweh article. I did not believe what he was claiming so I immediately questioned who Hendel was and Googled him. I found out that he has been accused of Anti-Christian bias in the past. (see website link above)

    I just want to learn about Biblical Archaeology and ancient digs…it’s fun and very interesting. I was not expecting propaganda nor do I want to read it.

    Maybe the students at Berkley University believe everything he says. I hope they have the sense and courage to question him when he makes statements like this.

  9. Shane says

    Those people wondering who was killing in the name of Christ and Yahweh need to learn how to use a link.

    Click on the places in the article

    Robert Dear, an Evangelical Christian, killed 3 people and wounded 9 when he shot up a Planned Parenthood clinic…

    In Duma an 18 month old Palestinian baby was burned alive by Jewish settlers….

    And, no, the biblical story of Jericho is not historical.

    Those who still justify killing for God don’t get the article.

  10. s says

    For serious Bible students wanting to know WHY Yahweh ordered destruction of all life in Jericho, Ai, & certain other Canaanite cities & tribes once you read that He DID order Joshua how to handle each conquest…the way I understood it was to pray, read Genesis 6, study nephilim, Canaanites & their laws & practices (including all food & drink) & what constituted worship/tribute of & to their gods…had to dig for it. Who/what were the inhabitants of these cities & what were they up to? For me, I start assuming God knows more than me, then read what the original Hebrew says/means in the blue letter Bible (free app!) & then look for more to explain why a loving & merciful God would order destruction of all life in Jericho & Ai – He did order it (Joshua didn’t dream this up) & I now get it…it’s foreign to our current lifestyle & understanding, mainly because Yahweh has wiped out most of it, thank you Yahweh!

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