The Bible isn’t ‘pro-life’ — and the Old Testament God isn’t ‘more violent’ than the New one

·6 min read
Manifestantes contra el aborto frente a la Corte Suprema de EE. UU. (AP)
Manifestantes contra el aborto frente a la Corte Suprema de EE. UU. (AP)

Over the weekend, “Old Testament” began trending on Twitter. The cause? A tweet from the Family Research Council that stated, simply: “The Bible is ardently and unequivocally pro-life.” It seems to have been written in support of SB 8, the new and controversial Texas law that outlaws abortions after six weeks.

The Southern Poverty Law Center recognizes the Family Research Council as a hate group, noting that they are well known for promoting fringe positions that are both offensive and untrue. For our purposes, what makes this particular tweet noteworthy is not the claim that it makes, but why it caused “Old Testament” to trend on Twitter.

In the hours after it was posted, a number of prominent Twitter accounts responded to it. Analyst Eric Garland, for example, wrote “Warning: May Not Apply to Old Testament.” Comedian Vinny Thomas commented: “God turned an entire woman into salt because she looked in the wrong direction.” As we write, the tweet has been responded to and quote-tweeted roughly 20,000 times.

Most responses reject this claim about the Bible and point to examples where the Bible is not at all “pro-life.” Most examples offered are from the Old Testament (which biblical scholars typically refer to as the Hebrew Bible) rather than the New, and while these responses are made with good intentions, in the end they prop up a persistent and dangerous anti-semitic idea: that the Jewish God is violent, vengeful, and generally angry, while the God of the New Testament is loving, forgiving, and compassionate.

Sadly, this stereotype existed long before these responses brought the issue to the fore; a Twitter account of a comedian going by the name “God” even made the connection between it and the abortion debate in the days before the bill was passed.

The dichotomy that would pit the “Old Testament God of anger and violence” against the “New Testament God of peace and love” is patently and demonstrably false. It is tied to and fueled by a Christian theological position called “supersessionism,” which holds that Christianity “superseded” and ultimately replaced Judaism. Supersessionism is dangerous, and has historically been one of the primary sources of anti-semitism and violence against Jews.

The Old Testament is actually full of examples of God’s mercy and love. Exodus 34:6, for example, speaks of God’s compassion, love, and faithfulness. Other examples include Isaiah 40:11, Leviticus 19:34 and Psalm 103. Even the famous “love your neighbor as yourself,” which is often attributed to Jesus alone, is actually from the Old Testament (Leviticus 19:18).

Of course there are places in the Old Testament where God is violent and demands that others act violently as well. In the book of Exodus, in the Plague of the Firstborn, God murders the oldest child in every Egyptian family (Exodus 12:29-30). In the conquest narratives from the book of Joshua (Joshua 2-12), God commands Israelite armies to destroy whole cities and slaughter their inhabitants without prejudice. Today we might describe such extermination as “genocide.”

It would be naive to deny examples of horrific violence in the Old Testament. But the New Testament likewise conveys the anger, wrath, and violence of God.

Consider the famous statement by Jesus in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke: “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law.” (Matt 10:34-35; see the similar saying in Luke 12:51-53). In this passage, Jesus deliberately calls for violence and eschews peace. The violent disruption that he brings will affect even the most intimate of familial relationships.

In Matthew 18:23-35, Jesus compares God to a king who tortures a slave: ​​”And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.” Here, God loses patience and the full divine fury is felt; Jesus threatens eternal torture for all who do not comply with God’s will.

But there are even more explicit scenes of violence and God’s vengeance in the New Testament. In the Book of Revelation, Jesus takes a sickle and “reaps” the earth. The “grapes” that are harvested — which we are no doubt supposed to understand as representative of humans — are cast into a great wine press: “They were trampled in the winepress ... and blood flowed out of the press, rising as high as the horses’ bridles for a distance of 1,600 stadia” (Revelation 14). Revelation is not subtle in depicting the extreme violence that Jesus will mete out on the day of judgment.

There is nothing wrong with acknowledging that both the Old and New Testaments contain violence and non-violence, compassion and vengeance, hate and love. In fact, highlighting divergent perspectives in these ancient texts is a foundational step to understanding them. However, when we see blanket statements about either canon being singularly about “love” or “violence,” such views are generally guided by the supersessionist view that the New Testament is superior to the Old.

Many of the thousands of responses to the Family Research Council tweet were meant to push back on a poor attempt to use “the Bible” in service of the “pro-life” political agenda that has most recently appeared in the passing of SB 8. But these responses, like the tweet by FRC in the first place, assume that the Bible has only one thing to say about any given issue. While these progressive responses were offered with the best intentions, many inadvertently reproduced one of the oldest and most poisonous anti-semitic tropes regarding the wrathful temperament of the Jewish God.

Scholars of religion are used to seeing this and other anti-semitic tropes at work in far right political discourse, and it is often overwhelmingly easy to point out such things in conservative propaganda. But we should also be diligent about turning a critical eye toward those who share our political leanings, and to identify these harmful tropes in discourse that comes from the political left.

Perhaps a better response (and one that reflects the US Constitution’s goal to protect individuals’ personal beliefs from government interference) to the Family Research Council tweet would be something along the lines of: “We are not a theocracy, and so the question of what any scripture purports to say about an issue is actually irrelevant when it comes to the passing of laws.” Repeating stereotypes that harm Jews does nothing to further the pro-choice cause.

Sarah E. Rollens is an Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Rhodes College, Tennessee. This article was written with contributions from Meredith JC Warren and Eric Vanden Eykel

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