A riot is a form of civil unrest in which a group causes a public disturbance by destroying property and/or harming innocent people. Often, there are corrupt individuals or groups who instigate a riot, either as a means of retaliation for some perceived injustice (real or imagined), or simply to cause disruption as a means of leveraging power within the community (i.e. a power grab). Many within the mob are willing pawns who are manipulated to act violently. The Bible teaches, “Everyone must be quick to hear, slow to speak, and slow to anger, for man’s anger does not accomplish God’s righteousness” (Jam 1:19-20). However, because rioters are often more emotional than rational, it becomes very difficult to restrain a mob except by physical force. This is why a well-trained and supported police force is necessary for civil peace. Below are examples of riots in the Bible and how they were handled.
- Lot and Sodom (Gen 19:1-25). Lot, while living in Sodom, had received some male guests (who were actually angels) that he welcomed into his home (Gen 19:1-3). However, there were sexual perverts in the city who came to Lot’s house and demanded he turn out his male guests so they could have sexual intercourse with them, and it’s likely they intended to rape them. The text tells us. “Before they went to bed, the men of the city of Sodom, both young and old, the whole population, surrounded the house” (Gen 19:4), saying, “Where are the men who came to you tonight? Send them out to us so we can have sex with them!” (Gen 19:5). Surrounding the house and making demands is an intimidation tactic designed to cause fear. In this way, the sexual aggressors used this tactic to get what they wanted. Lot tried to reason with them, saying, “Don’t do this evil, my brothers” (Gen 19:7), even wrongly offering them his two daughters (Gen 19:8). But the men of the city demanded Lot get out of their way, and “they put pressure on Lot and came up to break down the door” (Gen 19:9). When the men of Sodom did not get what they wanted, they resorted to force and tried to break into Lot’s house. This mob would certainly have committed a great evil against Lot and his guests, but fortunately, “the angels reached out, brought Lot into the house with them, and shut the door” (Gen 19:10). Since the mob was not rational, the angels were required to use force, so “they struck the men who were at the entrance of the house, both young and old, with a blinding light so that they were unable to find the entrance” (Gen 19:11). This was a temporary non-lethal use of force to control the situation. The next step was to get Lot and his willing family members safely out of the city. Once they were removed from the hostile situation, God then rained down judgment upon the city and destroyed it (Gen 19:12-25).
- Gideon and Baal (Judg 6:1-31). Gideon was a Judge in Israel who was called by God to deliver His people from Midianite oppressors who were attacking and raiding the cities of their food (Judg 6:1-24). Gideon was also called by God to tear down the pagan altars that were being used by Israelites to worship Baal and Asherah (Judg 6:25-27). When the idolaters in the city woke in the morning, “they found Baal’s altar torn down, and the Asherah pole beside it cut down” (Judg 6:28). After a short inquiry, the men of the city learned the pagan altars had been torn down by Gideon (Judg 6:29), so they went to Joash, Gideon’s father, and said, “Bring out your son. He must die, because he tore down Baal’s altar and cut down the Asherah pole beside it” (Judg 6:30). Here was a group of violent men at Gideon’s house seeking to kill God’s servant. Like the previous illustration of Lot, surrounding the house with many people was an intimidation tactic intended to cause fear so others would do what they wanted. However, Joash was not a man to be bullied and he defended his son, standing alone against the mob, saying, “Would you plead Baal’s case for him? Would you save him? Whoever pleads his case will be put to death by morning! If he [Baal] is a god, let him plead his own case because someone tore down his altar” (Judg 6:31). When Joash said, “Whoever pleads his case will be put to death by morning!”, was, in effect, promising to kill anyone who defended Baal and tried to harm his son. In this situation it took someone with a strong personality and a blunt argument to quiet the mob. In the end Gideon was not harmed (Judg 6:32), and went on to serve as Israel’s leader to defeat their enemies (Judg 6:33—7:25).
- Jeremiah and the Leaders in Jerusalem (Jer 26:1-24). God called Jeremiah, His prophet, to warn the people of Jerusalem that unless they turned back to God in obedience, He would destroy the temple and the city (Jer 26:1-2), saying, “Perhaps they will listen and return—each from his evil way of life—so that I might relent concerning the disaster that I plan to do to them because of the evil of their deeds” (Jer 26:3). As God’s people, the Judahites were under judgment because they had turned away from the Lord and were living like the pagan nations. If God’s people did not turn back to Him, as He instructed (Jer 26:4-5), then God said, “I will make this temple like Shiloh. I will make this city [Jerusalem] an object of cursing for all the nations of the earth” (Jer 26:6). When Jeremiah finished delivering his speech (Jer 26:7-8a), “Then the priests, the prophets, and all the people took hold of him, yelling, ‘You must surely die!’” (Jer 26:8b). Here is a heightened emotional response in which an angry crowd wanted to kill Jeremiah. So, how was it handled? It turns out some city officials who heard about it intervened, and “went from the king’s palace to the LORD’s temple and sat at the entrance of the New Gate” (Jer 26:10). Once there, they mediated the situation and listened to the demands of the crowd (Jer 26:11), as well as Jeremiah the prophet (Jer 26:12-13), who told them, “As for me, here I am in your hands; do to me what you think is good and right. But know for certain that if you put me to death, you will bring innocent blood on yourselves, on this city, and on its residents, for it is certain the LORD has sent me to speak all these things directly to you” (Jer 26:14-15). The city officials defended Jeremiah, as they should have, (Jer 26:16-23), and “so he was not handed over to the people to be put to death” (Jer 26:24). Here is an example of a riot that was handled properly by governing officials who intervened and mediated the situation in an orderly and rational manner.
- Jesus Teaching in Nazareth (Luke 4:14-30). Early in Jesus’ earthly ministry, when He was becoming more widely known, He was entering and teaching in synagogues and having discussions with His fellow Jews (Luke 4:14-15). When Jesus came to Nazareth, “As usual, He entered the synagogue on the Sabbath day and stood up to read” (Luke 4:16). After reading from the scroll of Isaiah (Luke 4:17-20), He identified Himself as the One whom Isaiah had written about, saying, “Today as you listen, this Scripture has been fulfilled” (Luke 4:21). At the beginning of His address, “They were all speaking well of Him and were amazed by the gracious words that came from His mouth” (Luke 4:22). However, Jesus went on to explain they would, in the end, reject Him as Messiah (Luke 4:23-27). “When they heard this, everyone in the synagogue was enraged. They got up, drove Him out of town, and brought Him to the edge of the hill that their town was built on, intending to hurl Him over the cliff” (Luke 4:28-29). In this situation, the murderous crowd was ready to kill Jesus, “But He passed right through the crowd and went on His way” (Luke 4:30). Here, Jesus was able to avoid the situation by walking away. Though the text does not say, it is likely there was divine intervention, either by God the Father, or Jesus Himself.
- Jesus Before Pilate (Matt 27:1-26). By the end of Jesus’ earthly ministry, we have an example of how the religious leadership in Jerusalem manipulated a crowd in order to help bring about Jesus’ crucifixion. In the Gospel of Matthew, we are informed that “all the chief priests and the elders of the people plotted against Jesus to put Him to death. [And] after tying Him up, they led Him away and handed Him over to Pilate, the [Roman] governor” (Matt 27:1-2). And when Jesus was brought before Pilate, He did not defend Himself against the charges because He knew His hour had come for Him to be crucified according to the Father’s will (Matt 27:10-14; John 7:30; 8:20; 12:23, 27; 13:1; 17:1; Acts 2:22-23; 4:25-28; 1 Pet 2:22-23). Pilate, knowing the Jews were operating on envy and hatred tried to dissuade the mob from demanding Jesus’s death. As a possible solution, Pilate offered to release Barabbas, a violent criminal, or Jesus (Matt 27:15-19). The “chief priests and the elders, however, persuaded the crowds to ask for Barabbas and to execute Jesus” (Matt 27:20). Here we observe corrupt leaders stirring up a crowd as a pressure to tactic gain power. Pilate tried to defend Jesus by reasoning with the crowd (Matt 27:21-23a), “But they kept shouting, ‘Crucify Him!’ all the more” (Matt 27:23). We then witness a failure of justice, for “When Pilate saw that he was getting nowhere, but that a riot was starting instead, he took some water, washed his hands in front of the crowd, and said, ‘I am innocent of this man’s blood. See to it yourselves!’” (Matt 27:24). In this way Pilate proved to be a weak leader who surrendered to the insane demands of the mob. The Jewish crowd took full responsibility for Jesus’ trial and death, saying, “His blood be on us and on our children!” (Matt 27:25). But this was not their place to do this thing, as they had no legitimate authority to make this sort of demand. However, Pilate caved in, and “after having Jesus flogged, he handed Him over to be crucified” (Matt 27:26). The leadership that should have defended Jesus against the mob failed, and the greatest miscarriage of justice in human history resulted in Jesus being unjustly put to death. It should be noted that God was in control of the situation surrounding Jesus’ trial and even used the breakdown of Jewish and Roman jurisprudence to bring about our salvation through the death of His Son (Acts 2:22-24; 4:27-28).
In these five examples of riots we observe people gathered in groups who caused disruption as an intimidation tactic. None of the innocent people attacked in these accounts were alone, but had others helping them. Lot was aided by angels who came to his defense and temporarily used nonlethal methods to control the mob in order to get Lot and his willing family members out of the city before they destroyed it. Gideon had the help of his father, Joash, who boldly confronted the mob that wanted to kill his son. Jeremiah had the assistance of city officials who—in that moment—modeled good government which intervened and mediated the situation in an orderly and rational manner. Jesus, when He was facing the mob in Nazareth, apparently had some divine assistance—perhaps by the Father or the exercise of His own divine power—and was able to avoid the crowd that wanted to kill Him. And Jesus, when He was tried before Pilate, was clearly in the Father’s will and was sustained by the Holy Spirit in the midst of that situation.
Dr. Steven R. Cook
- The Gospel Message
- The Sovereignty of God
- Categories of Divine Justice
- Righteousness Exalts a Nation
- Christians in America
- Is Self Defense Biblical?
- The Worthless Person
- Submission to Authority Part 1
- Submission to Authority Part 2
- Submission to Authority Part 3
- What Does it Mean to Be a Man?
- The Righteous Lifestyle of the Believer
- Contrasting Good and Bad Leaders
- When Life Gets Tough
- When Believers Hide
- Satan as the Ruler of this World
- Satan’s Evil World-System
- The Effects of Sin Upon Our World
- Holy Angels and How They Influence Humanity
- Demons and How They Influence Humanity
 Unless otherwise stated, all Scripture citations are taken from the Holman Christian Standard Bible, Copyright © 1999, 2000, 2002, 2003, 2009 by Holman Bible Publishers.