Let’s just admit it. Parts of the Bible are extremely troubling.
- The destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 18. Now people will say this was justified, but even Abraham was horrified and pleaded against it. Shouldn’t we?)
- God’s desire to destroy Israel because of their refusal to believe in him. (Numbers 14)
- Phinehas driving a spear through a man and woman. God celebrates his actions and says they delivered Israel from plague. (Number 25)
- Joshua and the commanded genocide of the Canaanites.
The reason they are troubling is because it seems that God is not only permissive of violence, but at times commands and rewards violence. There was a time in my life in which I was okay with this depiction of God. After all, God is God. Who are we to question him?
However, accepting this is becoming more difficult. The more I seek to know Jesus, and the more I revel in the divinity of Jesus, the more difficult it is becoming to reconcile the depiction of God in these texts with the reality of God we see in Jesus. Hebrews tells us that Jesus is the exact representation of God. If we are to take the text at its word, this must mean that if we look at Jesus will see God. In other words, if we want to see God, we are to look at Jesus. When I look at Jesus, I have a very hard time seeing a God who commands people to genocide.
A very hard time.
Which creates a lot of anxiety in me.
My anxiety stems from being in the Reformed tradition – which leans heavily on the sovereignty of God. Often it is taught that nothing happens without first passing through the hands of God. Which means that God, in his sovereign choice, allowed or even ordained, the events in these violent “terror texts.” But this just seems inconsistent with a God who is “slow to anger, and abounding in love.” Or the God who commands us to love our enemies.
So I’m working out that apparent inconsistency. And it’s a bit unnerving.
(As an aside, let me say that the doctrine of God’s sovereignty is mostly a warm blanket to me. There is a comforting assurance in the belief that God is control even when it doesn’t seem like he is. And while I believe sovereignty to be important, I believe mystery is just as important to the faith. Sovereignty and mystery must be held in tension. We don’t always do that well. As products of modernity, we value certainty over mystery, and perhaps, this has led us to extend God’s sovereignty too far.)
How are we supposed to approach these violent texts in which God orders the complete annihilation of a people group? If “all scripture is God-breathed, and useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness,” what do these texts teach us? Are these texts teaching us about the sovereign nature of God’s will? Or is there something else for us to learn?
Our typical approach to the Bible is to try and figure out what the Bible teaches us about the character of God. So we look at these stories and ask, “What does this reveal about God?” It seems, in the case of the terror texts, God is angry, full of wrath, violent, arbitrary, and for some – evil. This is the problem with these texts. It is very hard to see a God who is love in a text where God rejoices in the piling of people on a spear.
Does that make you love God or fear God? I’m not talking about the good fear. I’m talking about the cower-in-the-corner-afraid-you-will-be-beat fear.
And I thought perfect love drives out all fear (1 John 4:18).
Which may indicate we might be reading these texts wrong.
What if the texts aren’t supposed to reveal the character of God. What if they are to reveal how God wants me to be? I think that’s what 2 Timothy 3:16 is saying. “All scripture is God-breathed and useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness so that the person of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” In other words, scripture is preparing you and I to do good works. Not just every day, hold-the-door-open good works. But like Jesus, restoring, healing, and making-wholeness-a-reality good works.
If that is true, then learning something about my character is equally as important (and at times more important) than learning something about the character of God. I must learn to see where I am not like Jesus so I can enter the sanctifying work of being like Jesus.
Romans 9-11 is another difficult text. For one, Paul is confusing as all get out. When Peter says about Paul’s writings that, “There are some things in them that are hard to understand,” I am pretty sure he was talking specifically about Romans 9-11. But mostly this is a frustrating text because Paul quotes God saying, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.” Again, if this is about God, then the conclusion one draws is that God is somewhat arbitrary. There is no reason for this choice other than God is sovereign and can make that choice if God wants. But if I am to learn something about me and my character, then I must ask a different set of questions. What does the text do in me? What does it cause me to feel? What does it make me long for?
I want him to be chosen. There is this compassion towards Esau as I share the pain of Esau’s rejection. I want God to change his mind and not choose one or the other, but both.
In other words, I have love for Esau.
Might that be the point? In Paul’s overly confusing exposition in Romans 9-11, one thing is clear; Paul loves his fellow Jews and it pains him that they have rejected Christ. Paul compares the Jews to Esau, whom God has not chosen, and then moves towards them by wishing that they may be saved. He even goes so far as to say that God has not rejected them!
I wonder what else we might learn about ourselves from the violent texts. Joshua might teach us that we really would like to eradicate those who are different or think differently than us. Sodom and Gomorrah might teach us that holding out hope for people, like Abraham for the righteous, is the right way to live out our faith. Or pleading on behalf of others like Moses and Aaron for the Israelites.
Or maybe we’ll see just how comfortable we are with a God who is full of wrath, as long as it isn’t directed at us.
That I am comfortable with that, even the slightest bit, bothers me most.