Elric had studied with the monks. He knew the gospels back and forth. He had the Psalms by heart… He sang in Latin, but, for me, he put them into speech I understood.
“God keeps me as a shepherd keeps his flock.
I want for nought,” he said.
“I bleat with hunger, and he pastures me in meadows green.
I’m thirsty, and he leads me forth to water cool and deep and still.
He hoists me to my feet when I am weak.
Down goodly ways he guides me with his crook,
for he himself is good. Yea,
even when I lose my way in shadows dark as death,
I will not fear,
for he is ever close at hand with rod and staff to succor me.”
(From Frederick Buechner’s Godric)
I’ve been musing over some things I read in the notes to my chronological Bible recently. They seemed to me to suggest a compelling parallel between post-exilic Jews and modern American Christians.
In the transition into the book of Esther, the commentary points out that the book’s purpose was to encourage Jews living in a foreign land. “These Jews of the Diaspora (meaning “dispersion”) faced different pressures and different problems than those Jews who had returned to Palestine,” it explains. The religion of the Diaspora had certain characteristics, such as the tolerant attitude toward intermarriage. Earlier in the Old Testament, Phinehas skewers Israelites who marry people of other faiths, and later, after Esther, Ezra and Nehemiah make it a priority to confront intermarriage. But Esther’s marriage to Ahasuerus is depicted as a good and saving event in the book of Esther.
Also, while Palestinian Jews were very vocal and demonstrative about their faith, Diaspora Jews kept a low profile. Though ultimately she’s willing to die for her faith, Esther doesn’t tell her husband that she’s a Jew until it becomes essential to the survival of her people. And in the way the story is told, we see a similar reticence, for it tells the story of God’s salvation of the Jews without ever mentioning God’s name.
Palestinian Jews’ faith in this period has a very different character. It’s more outward and demonstrative. These Jews had returned to their homeland and were reclaiming territory they saw as rightfully their own. But it shares with Diaspora religion a focus that’s more Book-centric than temple-centric. Even though the Temple is rebuilt in Jerusalem, the Exile had changed the emphasis from the Temple to the Law. That’s why Ezra’s priestly heritage is so important, and why he points to his knowledge of Scripture as proof of his authority — rather than to the King who gave him permission to rebuild the wall.
All of this raises questions for me. For one, did God allow the Exile only as discipline, and was it merely tragic for the Jews — or did God really send it partly for the express purpose of transforming the Jewish faith, making it less about the objects and traditions, and more about His word? Did He want the Temple destroyed because it had warped the relationship between God and His people by becoming an idol?
For another, which branch of post-exilic Judaism does the American church resemble most closely? A goodly number of evangelicals would say, speaking as if from a majority position, “we are a Christian nation and must get back to our roots.” I have a hard time seeing this. But in any case, it resembles the more outspoken faith of Palestinian Jews who were in their own territory than that of the Diaspora Jews who were trying to maintain their identity in hostile territory.
I wonder, ultimately, if the American church labors under a false sense of itself as representing Palestinian-style faith, when in fact it is essentially “dispersed,” and would be better off adopting a more Diaspora-style perspective. There have after all been many “dispersals” for a once-unified, coherent expression of faith. The splintering into denominations. The movement, so much like that of the ancient Jews, away from knowledge of God to Temple-centric (institution-centric) faith — mere cultural Christianity. The divergence between faith and practice (read any poll on marital faithfulness or divorce rates in evangelicals). The slide from love for people to political stances. These and many other forces have weakened and splintered the church.
The good news is that in cultures where Christians recognize their Diaspora-state, Christianity is on the rise. The problem in this country is that we may fail to rightly assess our condition. Look around and try to see this as a culture in which Christianity has any momentum at all. Perhaps we are not “heirs apparent” to a Promised Land, but a people in exile right here on our native soil, in urgent need of repentance and revival. Perhaps like the Jews of the Diaspora, our faith should be less noisy and more real.
I think I’m done writing out my questions and thoughts-in-process on this subject for awhile. (I’m actually taking a reading detour into an Elizabeth Goudge novel right now and leaving this pot to simmer in the back of my mind and heart.) But I want to record here a few of the relevant ideas and resources that I’ve come across in recent weeks. In the comments, some others have indicated similar questions, so I’m sharing these for anyone interested in checking them out.
1.) This past Sunday, my pastor preached a sermon called “Holy Violence.” The podcast is here. He packs a lot in, including the relationship between Genesis 15:16 and the later wars against the Canaanites, as well as a consideration of the whole idea of God’s wrath. I’m grateful for his perspective on all of this, and I believe you will be too if you listen.
2.) Greg Boyd has a series of blog posts about the Bible’s violence at his blog. He is kneading some of the issues and ideas that will be developed in his forthcoming book Crucifixion of the Warrior God. The book won’t be out for another 18 months or so, but you can get a taste of some of the thinking behind what he calls “The Cruciform Thesis.”
3.) Boyd touched on the subject of violence in his book Letters from a Skeptic, which represents his thinking as of several years ago. The upcoming book will not necessarily reflect these same ideas in this form, but they have still fed into my own recent engagement with this subject. Here is an excerpt from the book:
Jesus Christ is the person in whom God is fully revealed. This, for me, must be my central definition of God. Whatever else God is like, He can’t be different from the God I encounter here. “If you see Me,” Jesus says, “you see the Father” (John 14). If something in Scripture appears to contradict this, I must confess ignorance and suspend judgment. I don’t always know why God did what He did in the Old Testament. But since I know on other grounds that God is all-loving and all-wise, I must simply trust that He had wise and loving reasons for doing what He did.
He moves on there to talk about
- …how “intensely violent” and “power-driven” the ancient world was; he discusses some aspects of Canaanite culture and concludes, “perhaps one of the reasons God had to use violence in the Old Testament was because violence was the only way of accomplishing what He wanted to accomplish…”
- “Perhaps the death of certain people was, in certain circumstances, the lesser of two evils. Do we not also believe that death is sometimes preferable to life? If, with this, one considers God’s universal perspective, one must ask not only what is the lesser of two evils for the individuals involved, but what is the lesser of two evils for the entire world throughout history?…”
- “If one believes in an afterlife, as I do, then the death of the Canaanites is not really the end of their life at all. It may be just the beginning of an eternal life with God. What God does for historical purposes is not necessarily an indication of how God judges people eternally. And in this light, the death of certain Canaanite people, especially the children, could be seen as an act of mercy. Perhaps they were spared the hellish life (and afterlife) they would have had if they had grown to maturity…”
Now, all of this is excerpted from his book, and if it piques your interest I urge you to get ahold of a copy and read it so you can see the full development and context of these ideas. I am giving only brief quotations here and that never does full justice to someone’s thoughts.
4.) If you’d like to get a sense of Eric Seibert’s overarching themes in The Violence of Scripture, he wrote some guest blog posts over at Peter Enns’ blog: here, here, and here. Dr. Seibert’s book was helpful to me as a survey of both the troubling texts in Scripture, and the ways they have been used to justify violence throughout history (including in America). But though I agree that the Bible’s historical context is important, I don’t have quite so limited a view of its authority, so I didn’t find his recommendations for how to deal with the Bible’s violence that helpful. (I think the way certain elements in evangelicalism are attacking him is inexcusable.)
There are aspects of all these sources that I agree with, disagree with, and am up-in-the-air about, but here they are for anyone who’s interested.
I wrote this post last week, and it’s been sitting in my drafts folder. It’s such a sensitive subject, and I am so very much “in process” in mulling over it. But I know that as my understanding grows, I’ll want to remember the stepping stones along the way, and this is one of them. I’m planning to follow up this post with another one that simply lists some recent sources I’ve found helpful.
On to the post at hand…
This week’s chapter of The Story includes lots of war. Jericho. Ai. The Amorites. Makkedah. “So Joshua subdued the whole region, including the hill country, the Negev, the western foothills and the mountain slopes, together with all their kings. He left no survivors. He totally destroyed all who breathed, just as the Lord, the God of Israel, had commanded.”
It seems clear that we aren’t supposed to emulate the Israelites in geopolitical terms; we’re not supposed to invade and conquer to gain territory or kill inhabitants in God’s name. Why? Because “Thou shalt not kill.” Yet here it is.
It makes me take a step back and think about the larger perspective on war in the Bible. Recently I read in The Myth of a Christian Nation that we probably wouldn’t have war, even wars with “good” results like Civil War or World War II, if Christians were really living the way Jesus tells us to. What if Christians had stood against slavery? What if pastors had put slaveholding on the same level as other “bad” sins, like adultery? What if Christians had worked with southern plantation owners to make their economy viable without dependence on human trafficking?
Unfortunately, it happens time and time again: Christians don’t actively love — don’t step up to protect the good and the beautiful and the right — and war becomes an alternative.
War is a condition of life in the Old Testament; God is said to command the Israelites to fight often to further his goals for humanity at large. Immediate issues usually involve territory; often there is a spiritual conflict as well. Time and again they are told to thoroughly demolish their enemies, including people of all ages, possessions, and religious paraphernalia. It’s more than what’s necessary merely to gain territory or establish political dominance. It makes me wonder if there are spiritual dimensions to life in the ancient world that are no longer apparent to us today. There are, after all, plenty of miracles, all told matter-of-factly: divine manifestations through pillars of fire or voices descending from heaven; angelic visits, some of them involving visible ascents heavenward (Samson’s mother and Manoah). Sometimes God’s “army” appears visibly, but they seem to be more a sign of God’s presence with the Israelites than supplemental military force. There is a big fish that swallows, delivers, and deposits a prophet where he is supposed to go. Two cities are destroyed with fire and brimstone after several reasonable warnings. These things are all incredible! They imply that the spiritual atmosphere is somehow thinner in the ancient world. In such a context it becomes imaginable that the military conflicts had more obvious spiritual dimensions too.
In Letters from a Skeptic, I read some of the horrific details of Canaanite life: ritual slaughter of infants; tying women’s legs together during childbirth so that they would die; torture and abuse of all kinds. It’s part of the “normal” texture of life for them. It sketches out in much more graphic detail what may have been meant by the terse statement in Genesis 6 that “every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time.” It isn’t hard to believe that there may have been demonic forces involved in such cultural practices. Thus it becomes at least a possibility that ancient wars were more obviously spiritual battles than can be seen merely from the written record.
But over the course of Scripture, things change. In the New Testament, Jesus is noticeably less political and less of a warrior. He does not join in with any of the varied political forces vying for power in his day, and he chastises John and James in Luke 9 for wanting to call down God’s wrath. He heals the Roman’s ear that Peter cuts off, and scorns political boundaries by healing Roman and Samaritan people as well as Israelites. But he too seems to regard war as a condition of life in a fallen world: Matt. 24:6 he says, “You will hear of wars and rumors of wars, but see to it that you are not alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come.”
He is depicted as a warrior himself in Revelation, but these are not visions he ever delivers on in his Incarnation. They remain veiled to us, accessible only in dream visions and prophecies. I understand Jesus’s warrior status as referring to his authority in the spiritual realm — and authority that Scripture tells us we will one day see him act upon. But this is in marked contrast to the frequent intervention of God in human wars in the Old Testament.
I guess my point is simply that there is a very obvious progression in the attitude Scripture takes toward war. Yet overall war remains something that the Bible doesn’t clearly tell us either how to justify or how to condemn. It’s like many other consequences of fallenness that we see in the Bible. Illness. Aging. Corrupt authorities. Abuse. Jesus lives among these grievous realities, and in his lifetime he works to stop suffering wherever he can. He heals. He protects. He tells the truth. Could it be that he sees war as a consequence of a fallen creation, and simply expects us to pray and follow our conscience? For some that will mean pacifism. For some, that will mean fighting to protect certain ideals or people. Neither should be made into an absolute moral rule.
The existence of wars in the first place, like the existence of so many other kinds of fallenness, is what is wrong. How we respond is a secondary question at best. I appreciate the protection of our country’s military. However dysfunctional our foreign policy is, however corrupt our political powers, the armed forces are made up of many honorable and brave people who put their lives on the line for the rest of us. But wouldn’t the best possible option be a world in which they didn’t have to? We scoff at the possibility: “Such a world will never be.” Maybe our thinking needs to shift away from abstract questions about whether war can be just, and toward questions about how we can live our faith in ways that prevent war from becoming a possibility in the first place.
Sherry shared this sermon on her blog. It’s called “God’s Two Words,” and it’s almost an hour long. I don’t listen to many sermons; when I get some time, my go-to is a book. But I’ve listened to this one twice… so far. It’s rich and inspiring, and it really illuminates the overall coherence of the Bible.
I’ve been thinking about God sending the Israelites into the wilderness for 40 years to discipline them for their unbelief. On Sunday a picture of the desert was projected on a screen in church, and what struck me most was how utterly barren it was.
There is no way the Israelites could provide anything for themselves. They couldn’t raise crops or pasture livestock. They couldn’t barter with the hostile neighbors for clothing. Yet we’re told that God provided manna to eat, water to drink, and clothing that didn’t wear out.
It ties in with Jesus’ teaching much later to “consider the lilies” in Matthew 6. Don’t worry about tomorrow, he tells us; God provides for the birds and the flowers, and he will provide for you.
Even if outward circumstances are reduced to the most barren desert conceivable — freedoms withdrawn, income reduced, all visible reference points of security or identity lost — God provides for his children. For nations? Personally I don’t think so. But for his children who trust him, he provides for every need.
Greg Boyd, who wrote Letters from a Skeptic, has a post called Getting Honest about the Dark Side of the Bible. It touches on the subject of his upcoming book: Crucifixion of the Warrior God. It looks like one I must read, because it concerns violence in the Bible. But unlike *Eric Seibert’s The Violence of Scripture, which was helpful in surveying problematic texts in the Bible but which had a more limited view of biblical authority than I was comfortable with, Boyd holds to a more challenging position. His post is worth reading because it begins with a list of examples of divine violence in the Bible and faces the difficult questions with faith. He concludes the post this way:
To be clear, in obedience to Jesus, I adamantly affirm that all this material is inspired by God. In my book I argue against the many scholars today who try to resolve the problem this material poses by dismissing the text, whether on historical or theological grounds. But to say it is God-breathed says nothing about how it is God-breathed. Nor does it say anything about how this material is to be interpreted such that it bears witness to God’s unfathomable love revealed on Calvary.
As with all matters of faith, the place to start is by getting honest with ourselves, each other, and God by admitting the obvious. It was when I got to this point that the clouds began to lift and I began to discern that something else is going on in these horrific portraits that I hadn’t noticed before. So can we be honest? Can we agree that causing babies to be viciously ripped out of wombs, causing babies to be dashed on the ground, and causing mothers to eat them is horrific, macabre, and revolting, regardless of where the divine portrait is found, and regardless of the deity this behavior is ascribed to? As we admit this, let us hold fast to the conviction that this material, in all of its ghoulish detail, is “God-breathed.” And now begin to prayerful ask – how might this depth of depravity point us to the cross?
Lord bless our honest ponderings!
I’m interested to read the book because although Boyd touched on these questions in Letters from a Skeptic, this will be a more thorough study. I can relate to his sense of clouds lifting as he faced the obvious about Scripture; though it’s a bit destabilizing, I feel like I’ve gained something, not lost something.
So far, in my own reading and searching, I’ve come up with a few ways of responding to violent portrayals in the Bible. Though they don’t yet represent the more complete understanding I’m seeking, they are ingredients in a developing perspective:
- Remember the nature of inspiration, which allows human elements to be mixed in with the divine word — culture, history, personality of the writer, etc. C.S. Lewis talks a lot about this in Reflections on the Psalms; So do Peter Enns, Eric Seibert, and Greg Boyd in the books I’ve read by them lately.
- Read the Old Testament in the light of Christ, God’s most complete revelation of himself.
- Name the problems for what they are; don’t skim or sanitize or ignore.
- Pray for understanding.
It’s not a very long list, is it? But this is a journey, and it may take awhile.
*Here is a troubling post about how Seibert is being maligned by certain evangelicals.
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.
This week for Sunday school, I’ve been thinking about Moses and the plagues and the Red Sea. What strikes me most is the contrasts. Egypt is under the authority of a ruler rebellious against God; Israel is under Moses, who obeys God. As go the rulers, so go the nations. Everyone under their authority experiences the consequences of their leader’s attitude. It’s the same idea as in Ex. 20:5, difficult for us in the post-Jesus world to get our minds around; God relates to people groups rather than individuals.
I think we have a deep-seated tendency to think God is still working in this Old Testament way. That’s where the whole “God is punishing America because it is drifting from its Christian roots” idea comes from: the notion of an angry God dealing out destruction to nations. But Jesus was the great game-changer for that whole way of thinking. In this story we’re given a foreshadowing picture of where God is going: Jesus as our passover lamb, available to all as a shield from the destruction that inevitably results when holiness and sinfulness collide. Now salvation is available to us all, individually; it doesn’t matter what our human authorities believe.
I just started a book called The Myth of a Christian Nation. Here is a thought-provoking excerpt from the introduction that seems related to all of this:
The myth of America as a Christian nation, with the church as its guardian, has been, and continues to be, damaging both to the church and to the advancement of God’s kingdom. Among other things, this nationalistic myth blinds us to the way in which our most basic and most cherished cultural assumptions are diametrically opposed to the kingdom way of life taught by Jesus and his disciples. Instead of living out the radically countercultural mandate of the kingdom of God, this myth has inclined us to Christianize many pagan aspects of our culture. Instead of providing the culture with a radically alternative way of life, we largely present it with a religious version of what it already is. The myth clouds our vision of God’s distinctly beautiful kingdom and thereby undermines our motivation to live as set-apart (holy) disciples of this kingdom.
Even more fundamentally, because this myth links the kingdom of God with certain political stances within American politics, it has greatly compromised the holy beauty of the kingdom of God…
It promises to be an interesting read. Among other things it occurs to me that nationalistic ideas of God are one of our modern day plagues.
…I believe that most people who read the Bible as Scripture do so in one of two ways: compliantly or conversantly…
…Compliant readers are individuals whose basic instinct is to read the Bible trustingly. Those who read this way accept the Bible’s claims, adopt its values, and embrace its assumptions without necessarily giving serious consideration to the implications of their consent. Rather than questioning or challenging the text, compliant readers take what the Bible says — or at least what they think it says — for granted. Their reading is appreciative and accommodating. It is neither confrontational nor contentious. Rather, they embrace the text “as is.” Therefore, they choose to agree with — and submit to — the Bible’s assessment of things, even when this may be difficult to understand or morally troubling…
…Conversant readers, on the other hand, are not constrained in the same kind of way. Rather than simply acquiescing to the text, their fundamental disposition is one of active engagement, sustained conversation, and critical evaluation. Conversant readers are ready to engage the Bible in a genuine dialogue whose outcome is not predetermined by the ideology of the biblical text. While they might agree with the views and values on this or that Old Testament text, they are just as likely to disagree. Conversant readers are discerning readers who accept what they can and resist what they must… Conversant readers do not feel obligated to agree with texts that violate the most basic dictates of human decency, and they are not prepared to remain obsequiously silent…
From The Violence of Scripture: Overcoming the Old Testament’s Troubling Legacy, by Eric Seibert.
Obviously this passage raises a question: what kind of readers are we? What kind of readers do we want to be? It’s worth thinking about. I would have said I was a conversant reader of my Bible — but after reading Dr Seibert’s book, I realize that I have missed an awful lot.
I would like to include more excerpts here from books I’m reading. I have numerous passages underlined and highlighted for further reflection, but I don’t always get back to them. I reviewed this book earlier this week, but there is always so much more to a book than can be discussed in a review. My Kindle informs me that I highlighted or bookmarked 76 passages in this book! That’s more than I’ll ever be able to quote here. But I’d like to lift a few of them at least to help round out the very limited perspective my review provided, and to stimulate thought.