Our church is “doing” The Story, a resource that helps churches to experience the overarching themes of the Bible together within the span of a year. It’s an abridgement that puts the Bible into chronological order and divides it into 31 chapters. I have mixed feelings about it in some ways, but we are off and running at this point with Sunday school classes at all levels working through it together.
This week we’re up to chapter 6, which covers a big chunk of the Israelites’ wanderings in Numbers and Deuteronomy. I’m actually teaching an adult Sunday school class, and one issue that has come up is the violence and divine anger that keep showing up in these stories. This is something I was struggling with myself, even before the class; in fact, one of the reasons I agreed to teach is that it would force me to continue reading my Bible in a season when I’ve been tempted to just avoid it — sort of a “run towards the roar” approach. That’s all well and good, I suppose, but it’s not solving the problem of what to do with these bewildering depictions of God.
I read this week’s chapter over the last two days and decided to keep track of the instances of violence recorded even in our excerpted reading from The Story:
- God sends a plague on the Israelites for complaining about the food;
- Miriam gets leprosy for criticizing Moses (Aaron doesn’t, though both of them criticize);
- God wants to destroy them with plague for lack of faith, but Moses talks him out of it; God settles for refusing to let this generation see the Promised Land;
- God punishes Moses for striking the rock;
- God sends poisonous snakes against the Israelites — and then sends a cure (?);
- God sends plague on the Israelites for getting involved with Moabite women and their gods; it ends when Phinehas skewers an Israelite and a Moabite woman in one swipe. Phinehas is rewarded with a “covenant of peace” and priesthood.
- There are also two military conquests depicted in which God helps the Israelites invade and conquer other nations, the Amorites and Bashan.
How to make sense of it all? It’s difficult to read of all this in terms of a loving and gracious God, who claims he is slow to anger. It’s hard to reconcile it all under the heading of discipline either, though that’s what Moses does in his final speech to the people. I find myself asking, how accurate is this as an account of God’s behavior? How relevant is all of this to us in the post-Jesus age? How do we determine what still applies?
If the idea of post-exilic authorship I encountered for the first time in The Evolution of Adam applies, then we can assume a degree of exaggeration. The author is engaging the Israelites’ past creatively in an effort to show that they matter to God, that he does think they’re special, that he is a super-strong warrior. This theory suggests that the Old Testament writers are interpreting their history in the light of present concerns and circumstances — just as Paul later interprets the Old Testament in the light of his new knowledge of Christ.
But even so, this picture of God is of someone violent and capricious in his moods. Even the matter of keeping the covenant he has made is depicted as something Moses has to keep talking him into. So I am wondering: is this less a history of a nation than it is a history of a developing God-consciousness? Could it be that God is patiently working to reveal his character to a people meeting him for the first time, and they are misreading and misrepresenting him a lot in the process?
I know I come across differently to someone who first meets me than I do to someone who knows me well. Some of the conclusions you might draw based on surface impressions turn out not to be borne out once you see my heart. Couldn’t it be the same with God? And wouldn’t this help to explain why it takes him such a long time — the entire Old Testament — to lay the groundwork so that his people will recognize him in Jesus? — at least, some of them will. Many of them are still blinded by this very idea of a warrior God, a lens that keeps them from recognizing him when he comes to heal, restore, serve.
Because the God ultimately revealed in Jesus is just night-and-day different than this God. This God is angry; that God is patient. This God is about Law; that God is about grace. This God sends plagues; that God heals. This God sends storms; that God calms the sea and reassures those who fear.
- Friday Fave 5: March 1
- They’ve Got the Whole World in Their Hands