I have a feeling that this might be my last ‘beyond the pale’ blog for a while, I feel like I just need a change. This is not to say that I have in any way covered the weird, disturbing stories of the bible and explained them all. I’ve only studied a drop in the ocean. There really are a lot of deeply troubling passages in Bible, in particular the Old Testament. Genocide, infanticide, slavery, polygamy, objectification of women, incest… the list could go on. One of the most troubling things is not only that these stories are recorded for us (to tell us about God?) but that they often are attributed to God’s will and wish, even at times commanded by God.
Take this as an example:
This is what the LORD Almighty says: ‘I will punish the Amalekites for what they did to Israel when they waylaid them as they came up from Egypt. Now go, attack the Amalekites and totally destroy everything that belongs to them. Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys. (1st Samuel 15:2-3)
Or this classic:
He went up from there to Bethel, and while he was going up on the way, some small boys came out of the city and jeered at him, saying, “Go up, you baldhead! Go up, you baldhead!” And he turned around, and when he saw them, she cursed them in the name of the Lord. And two she-bears came out of the woods and tore forty-two of the boys. (2 Kings 2:23-24)
I guess we all have heard sermons where the preacher would validate these actions because, man is sinful or whatever (Note: I’ve probably done this myself!). But still something just never sits 100% comfortably with me there. There is always a nagging doubt. Is God really angry? Is it really okay if God justifies and commands violence and murder, rape and abuse?
I don’t know.
This is not my experience of God.
These descriptions of God swim against the tide of the gospel stories of Jesus.
“Love your enemies. In so doing, you will be like your Father, who is kind to the wicked. Be merciful as your Heavenly Father is merciful.” – Jesus in Luke 6
Here we have two images of God. They seem to be opposing. One looks violent, angry, petty, vindictive, and one is self-giving, loving, suffering, merciful. One is an image of God in the Bible from thousands of years before Christ and one is the words of Christ himself who, we are told, is “the image of the invisible God” and the “exact representation of God’s being.” What do we do with this?
The answer is not to throw out the Old Testament or ignore the horrifying stories you come across. Because the Old Testament has an important voice too, a voice that needs to be heard even though it may at times seem faint. It points at an ever-progressing understanding of Gods unconditional love – how he pleads the cause of the victim and hates violence.
Rather, the answer is to acknowledge the obvious problem and recognise two views of God wrestling with each other in the minds and through the actions of the people of God, the people of Israel and the writers of scripture. This contest culminates in the revelation in Christ.
Jesus, not the Bible, is the perfect representation of the Father God.
The author of Hebrews sums up the matter nicely when he writes:
In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven. (Hebrews 1:1-3)
The author is saying that while God revealed himself in a variety of ways in the past, now, God has superseded all these by revealing himself through his own Son – Jesus. Unlike all previous written and spoken revelations, the Son radiates God’s glory and is “the exact representation of his being.” He is, in fact, the one through whom and for whom everything exists (back to Colossians 1:15-17 again).
In other words, Jesus is the point of everything – including the point of all the previous revelations, i.e. the Old Testament. While others spoke and wrote about God, Jesus is God. The unmistakable message that the New Testament attempts to hammer home is that, if you want to know what God is like, look at Jesus Christ.
Again, Jesus, not the bible, is the perfect representation of the Father God.
Jesus isn’t merely part of God’s revelation. No, Jesus is himself the definitive, unsurpassable revelation of God. All we need to know and can know about God is found in him. Jesus is not a way to God or a truth about God: he is the way and the truth – which is why he’s the only way to go to the Father. Jesus is not a Word, an image or a form of God. He is the Word, the image and the form of God. Now that God is revealed in Christ, there are no competing revelations.
You want to know God?
Then get to know Jesus.
This is exactly where I come in conflict with the OT images of God hardening hearts, commanding wars and celebrating death. I cannot for the life of me imagine Jesus doing those things. I cannot imagine Jesus telling the Israelite nation to murder, rape and pillage other communities.
I remember when I was about five years old I attended a ‘Holiday Bible Club’ in my estate with my brother and sister. It was essentially a kid’s club, with games, snacks, crafts and a few Bible readings thrown in for good measure. One day I was selected to do the Bible reading, the problem was I wasn’t very good at reading. So, one of leaders whispered the reading into my ear and I shouted it out at the top of my voice. The reading was Luke chapter 5 and I began shouting (you can imagine a Northern Irish child’s voice here yourself):
‘One time Jesus was in a town where a very sick man lived. This man was covered with lepor…lepoor..lepor..asy. When the man saw Jesus, he bowed before Jesus and begged him, “Lord, you have the power to heal me if you want.” Jesus said, “I want to heal you. Be healed!” Then he reached out and punched the man, and immediately the lepoorasy disappeared.’
My brother and sister lost it. They laughed hysterically and consistently for the rest of our day in Holiday Bible Club. Even today if I mention this to my brother he will likely start uncontrollably laughing with tears streaming down his face.
Then he[Jesus] reached out and punched the man.
Why was that line so funny to my family that day? Well, chiefly because it was so absurd. The very idea of Jesus punching a leper is so silly because it is illogical. The very idea of Jesus listening to this poor man’s requested for healing and responding with a punch to face is hard to imagine in any format other than a comedic one. That is because we know Jesus would never do this. We know he would never punch a poor, helpless, sick man.
How come then my mind continues to attempt the mental gymnastics required to believe both that God commanded the people of God to genocide and that Jesus was significantly non-violent? If I cannot imagine Jesus commanding people to genocide then surely God would not do that – if I accept that Jesus is the exact representation of God.
But again, what do we do with these passages in the OT then of the seemingly violent, angry, petty, vindictive God. We don’t ignore them but equally I think we end up on the wrong side of the tracks if we end up justifying atrocities and death. Sin brings death. God brings life.
In the novel “Silence“, Shusaku Endo tells the story of a young Portuguese Jesuit priest called Sebastião Rodrigues who in the seventeenth-century travelled to Japan. Upon arriving, he finds the local Christian population have been driven underground. Rodrigues is eventually captured and forced to watch as Japanese Christians lay down their lives for their faith. The authorities force the priest to watch the torture of other Christians, telling the him that all he must do is renounce his faith, by publicly stamping on a picture of Jesus, to end the suffering of his flock. The priest is torn in two between the love for his flock, and faithfulness to his Lord. He is wrestling with his decision, when he hears Jesus speak to him,
“Trample, trample! It is to be trampled on by you that I am here.”
When we are confronted with difficult passages in the Bible we are placed in a similar situation. On the one hand, we are compelled to condemn the horrific idea of genocide. On the other we want to defend God’s justice as well as the infallibility of the Bible.
We need to remember here the scandalous message of the cross: God came into the world and was falsely declared guilty and condemned on a cross for the sake of the ungodly…. for us. He did not seek to defend himself, but was condemned for the sake of the unrighteous… for our sake. Jesus gave his life for his enemies, God died for the Amalekites just as much as he did for people like you and me.
When we seek to protect an image (as the priest did) or a book, but in the process, need to condone the slaughter or degrading of human life we forget that Christ is not found in the book or an icon, but in the least. When we defend the foreigner, the poor, the outcast, the enemy, we are defending God, as Jesus says, “as you have done it unto these…you have done it unto me”.
It is a good thing for us to seek to understand the difficult parts of Scripture and to struggle with them. But when we find ourselves justifying atrocities in our attempt to defend God, then something has gone terribly wrong. God does not need us to defend his honour and reputation. I’d potentially even go as far as to say God does not want us to either. What he does call us to is to follow Jesus in his way of loving so radically that he was accused of blasphemy and unjustly condemned.
God came into the world not to defend his honour, but to be trampled for the sake of the lost and sinners.