King Solomon is credited with fewer homicides than his predecessors and is remembered instead for building the Temple in Jerusalem and for writing the books of Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Songs (though with a harem of seven hundred princesses and three hundred concubines, he clearly didn’t spend all his time writing). Most of all he is remembered for his eponymous virtue, “the wisdom of Solomon.” Two prostitutes sharing a room give birth a few days apart. One of the babies dies, and each woman claims that the surviving boy is hers. The wise king adjudicates the dispute by pulling out a sword and threatening to butcher the baby and hand each woman a piece of the bloody corpse. One woman withdraws her claim, and Solomon awards the baby to her. “When all Israel heard of the verdict that the king had rendered, they stood in awe of the king, because they saw that he had divine wisdom in carrying out justice.”
The distancing effect of a good story can make us forget the brutality of the world in which it was set. Just imagine a judge in family court today adjudicating a maternity dispute by pulling out a chain saw and threatening to butcher the baby before the disputants’ eyes. Solomon was confident that the more humane woman (we are never told that she was the mother) would reveal herself, and that the other woman was so spiteful that she would allow a baby to be slaughtered in front of her—and he was right! And he must have been prepared, in the event he was wrong, to carry out the butchery or else forfeit all credibility. The women, for their part, must have believed that their wise king was capable of carrying out this grisly murder.
The Bible depicts a world that, seen through modern eyes, is staggering in its savagery. People enslave, rape, and murder members of their immediate families. Warlords slaughter civilians indiscriminately, including the children. Women are bought, sold, and plundered like sex toys. And Yahweh tortures and massacres people by the hundreds of thousands for trivial disobedience or for no reason at all. These atrocities are neither isolated nor obscure. They implicate all the major characters of the Old Testament, the ones that Sunday-school children draw with crayons. And they fall into a continuous plotline that stretches for millennia, from Adam and Eve through Noah, the patriarchs, Moses, Joshua, the judges, Saul, David, Solomon, and beyond. According to the biblical scholar Raymund Schwager, the Hebrew Bible “contains over six hundred passages that explicitly talk about nations, kings, or individuals attacking, destroying, and killing others. . . . Aside from the approximately one thousand verses in which Yahweh himself appears as the direct executioner of violent punishments, and the many texts in which the Lord delivers the criminal to the punisher’s sword, in over one hundred other passages Yahweh expressly gives the command to kill people.” Matthew White, a self-described atrocitologist who keeps a database with the estimated death tolls of history’s major wars, massacres, and genocides, counts about 1.2 million deaths from mass killing that are specifically enumerated in the Bible. (He excludes the half million casualties in the war between Judah and Israel described in 2 Chronicles 13 because he considers the body count historically implausible.) The victims of the Noachian flood would add another 20 million or so to the total.
The good news, of course, is that most of it never happened. Not only is there no evidence that Yahweh inundated the planet and incinerated its cities, but the patriarchs, exodus, conquest, and Jewish empire are almost certainly fictions. Historians have found no mention in Egyptian writings of the departure of a million slaves (which could hardly have escaped the Egyptians’ notice); nor have archaeologists found evidence in the ruins of Jericho or neighboring cities of a sacking around 1200 BCE. And if there was a Davidic empire stretching from the Euphrates to the Red Sea around the turn of the 1st millennium BCE, no one else at the time seemed to have noticed it.
Modern biblical scholars have established that the Bible is a wiki. It was compiled over half a millennium from writers with different styles, dialects, character names, and conceptions of God, and it was subjected to haphazard editing that left it with many contradictions, duplications, and non sequiturs.
The oldest parts of the Hebrew Bible probably originated in the 10th century BCE. They included origin myths for the local tribes and ruins, and legal codes adapted from neighboring civilizations in the Near East. The texts probably served as a code of frontier justice for the Iron Age tribes that herded livestock and farmed hillsides in the southeastern periphery of Canaan. The tribes began to encroach on the valleys and cities, engaged in some marauding every now and again, and may even have destroyed a city or two. Eventually their myths were adopted by the entire population of Canaan, unifying them with a shared genealogy, a glorious history, a set of taboos to keep them from defecting to foreigners, and an invisible enforcer to keep them from each other’s throats. A first draft was rounded out with a continuous historical narrative around the late 7th to mid-6th century BCE, when the Babylonians conquered the Kingdom of Judah and forced its inhabitants into exile. The final edit was completed after their return to Judah in the 5th century BCE.
Though the historical accounts in the Old Testament are fictitious (or at best artistic reconstructions, like Shakespeare’s historical dramas), they offer a window into the lives and values of Near Eastern civilizations in the mid-1st millennium BCE. Whether or not the Israelites actually engaged in genocide, they certainly thought it was a good idea. The possibility that a woman had a legitimate interest in not being raped or acquired as sexual property did not seem to register in anyone’s mind. The writers of the Bible saw nothing wrong with slavery or with cruel punishments like blinding, stoning, and hacking someone to pieces. Human life held no value in comparison with unthinking obedience to custom and authority.
If you think that by reviewing the literal content of the Hebrew Bible I am trying to impugn the billions of people who revere it today, then you are missing the point. The overwhelming majority of observant Jews and Christians are, needless to say, thoroughly decent people who do not sanction genocide, rape, slavery, or stoning people for frivolous infractions. Their reverence for the Bible is purely talismanic. In recent millennia and centuries the Bible has been spin-doctored, allegorized, superseded by less violent texts (the Talmud among Jews and the New Testament among Christians), or discreetly ignored. And that is the point. Sensibilities toward violence have changed so much that religious people today compartmentalize their attitude to the Bible. They pay it lip service as a symbol of morality, while getting their actual morality from more modern principles.