A New Way to Hope
Rethinking scripture’s violent portrayals of God
If you join me for a church service on July twelfth of this year, you will hear an Old Testament story about the Ark of the Covenant. Liturgical churches like the one my wife and I attend follow the Revised Common Lectionary: a book which specifies scripture passages to be read each Sunday. The reading for July 12, 2015 is II Samuel 6:1–5 and 12–19. These verses describe how King David brought the Ark of the Covenant to the holy city of Jerusalem twenty years after its capture by the Philistines.
The story is full of joy and excitement, as the ancient Jewish people are reunited with their most sacred, treasured object. It’s a story about a people joined in celebration and hope after decades of struggle. But it is not the entire story. The lectionary excludes verses 6 through 11. In verses 10 and 11, King David delays bringing the Ark to Jersualem for three months. David is afraid to be near the Ark after the events described in verses 6 and 7:
And when they came to the threshing floor of Nacon, Uzzah put out his hand to the ark of God and took hold of it, for the oxen stumbled. And the anger of the Lord was kindled against Uzzah, and God struck him down there because of his error, and he died there beside the ark of God.
Church-goers who read the lectionary texts in July may wonder, as I have, why these verses are removed. Perhaps the reading is abridged for the sake of simplicity and clarity, but I suspect a different motive: the deleted verses have been deemed too uncomfortable to include. They present a violent, angry, even petulant God who kills a follower for using his hands to keep a holy object from falling to the ground. Rather than allow these problematic verses to raise the difficult question of how a loving and merciful God could act this way, the lectionary authors deleted them.
Uzzah’s destruction is far from the only troubling story the lectionary avoids. In Leviticus (20:9), God commands that anyone who curses his father or mother shall be put to death. In Ezekiel (5:10) and Jeremiah (19:9), God threatens to cause people to eat their own children. In 2 Kings (2:23–25), God causes forty-two boys to be mauled by bears for making fun of Elisha’s baldness. In numerous places in Deuteronomy (2:32–36, 7:1–2, 20:16–20) and Joshua (6:21), God commands and enables the slaughter of every man, woman, and child who belong to certain people groups, including the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites. In one particularly harrowing account from Numbers (31:7–18), the Israelites kill all the men of Midian and keep the women and children as captives. When Moses learns this, he becomes angry and commands the soldiers to kill all the boys and women who are no longer virgins, but to keep the virgin girls for themselves. None of these stories are found in the Revised Common Lectionary or Roman Catholic Lectionary. Both lectionaries contain only two passages from the book of Numbers. They also include several Psalms with invocations of violence and judgement expunged.
That lectionary authors and Christians in general avoid these verses is understandable. Some of the depictions of God in these texts sound downright evil. Texts like these describe a god who causes or condones genocide, rape, slavery, oppression of women, and gratuitous violence. They are offensive to our modern ethics, and they contradict Christ’s instructions to “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,” “love thy neighbor as thyself,” and “do not resist an evil person.” They are inconsistent with God’s own divine standards of love and mercy expressed in the Ten Commandments and the teachings of Jesus Christ.
Despite how tempting it is to ignore these awful passages, Christians who desire to live with sincere and considered faith must confront them. How can Christians claim that a good God communicates to us through scripture when scripture portrays God acting in ways that are anything but good? Anyone who attempts to live out Christ’s instruction to love the Lord with all your heart, soul, and mind cannot deny or ignore this grave inconsistency. Honest Christians must explain how these verses portray a God who is love itself.
I was thirteen years old when I first heard the story of Uzzah. I remember my teacher’s unease as she tried to convince my skeptical friends that Uzzah’s seemingly innocent attempt to right the Ark did not excuse him from the consequences of violating God’s instructions. I grew up in a conservative theological tradition that claims the Bible’s ‘terror texts’ require no explanation. The Lord is our creator and sustainer; apart from God we cannot exist, much less discern right from wrong. As created beings we have no grounds to question our creator’s justice. Popular pastor and author John Piper summarizes this viewpoint well:
It’s right for God to slaughter women and children anytime he pleases. God gives life and he takes life. Everybody who dies, dies because God wills that they die. God is taking life every day. He will take 50,000 lives today. Life is in God’s hand. God decides when your last heartbeat will be, and whether it ends through cancer or a bullet wound. God governs. So God is God! He rules and governs everything. And everything he does is just and right and good. God owes us nothing. […] The Old and New Testaments present God as the one who has total rights over my life and over my death.
I call this the Nixon approach to God’s justice: ‘if the Lord does it, it is right.’ While this is true on its face, God’s nature is incomprehensible if we consider the terror texts a perfect portrayal of divine action. If it is acceptable for God to slaughter children, but wrong for us to do so according to God’s own laws, then how can God be called righteous? Without an unqualified standard of morality, devised by God and to which God conforms, what is virtue? “Do as I say, not as I do” may be a fair command for a fallible parent to give, but it reflects a hypocrisy that cannot be within the character of a perfect, immutable God.
A good God must be one that encompasses and transcends, not contradicts, God’s standard of goodness for humanity. Reacting to C. G. Jung’s formulation of a God who is good, but not completely good, theologian John Polkinghorne writes, “Such an ambiguous God could not be a reliable ground of hope.” Hopelessness is the inevitable result of Piper’s response to the terror texts. Even if one believes that the Midianite massacre was righteous simply because God approved of it, how can hope and trust be placed in such a God? Of what use are a new heaven and a new earth if they contain such atrocities? Either God is not fully good and thus not worth hoping in, or these scriptures do not provide a full picture of the divine nature.
Attempting to answer these questions has often left me frustrated and discouraged. For a while I gave up. I concluded that an interpretation of these scriptures that reflects God’s goodness and mercy must exist, but it is beyond me, and may be always. But after years of listening to scholars, pastors, and teachers bend over backwards, twisting their way through Hebrew translations and rhetorical flourishes to describe how these verses mean the opposite of what they plainly appear to mean, I lost this confidence. I am no longer able to muster the faith necessary to believe that a good God could use genocide and rape as a means to bring about peace and redemption. I have decided to seek out a new way to hope.
The most helpful voice I’ve found in this search is that of Kenton Sparks, in his book Sacred Word, Broken Word: Biblical Authority and the Dark Side of Scripture. Sparks is bold enough to take the step I have been tiptoeing towards for years. He admits what must be true: scriptural stories such as the slaughter of the Midianites are broken portrayals of God. They are not true to God’s character. Sparks frames this daring assertion by relating Scripture to God’s other beautiful yet broken revelation: creation.
The problem of scripture is the problem of evil. Just as God’s good and beautiful creation stands in need of redemption, so Scripture — as God’s word written within and in relation to that creation, by finite and fallen humans — stands in need of redemption. Scripture does more than witness explicitly to the fallenness of the created order and humanity. Scripture is implicitly, in itself, a product of and evidence for the fallen world that it describes. This is why there are texts in Scripture that strike any thoughtful observer as vile and morally compromised — texts that we simply wish were not in the Bible. […] Scripture was written by godly but fallen human authors who sometimes thought and wrote ungodly things.
Scripture is contextual; it reflects its authors’ cultures, biases and yes, even their sinfulness. It is a collection of stories, spread out over centuries, about how people have struggled to find, understand, and follow the mystery of God. Not every word it says about God is correct, but taken as a whole it is the most useful, important, and authoritative tool Christians have to learn about who God is and what God requires of us.
Scripture is just one of many ways Christians find truth about God and the world. God is revealed to humankind through nature, through our fellow human beings, and through our consciences. We must resist the temptation to make scripture more than what it is, what it describes itself to be. John Polkinghorne contrasts the Bible as textbook and classic:
The Bible is not a kind of divinely guaranteed textbook in which we can, without any trouble, look up all the answers. I find the notion of the ‘classic,’ rooted in its own age but possessing through its underlying universality the power to speak across the centuries to other ages, to be the category which best contains my own understanding of the spiritual power of scripture. Yet that classic is not just a tale told to illustrate general truths, but has its anchorage in the particularities of history.
Many barriers had to be crossed in order for me reach Polkinghorne’s conclusion. The primary one was my former belief that all Scripture is infallible and inerrant: inerrant because it is completely accurate, infallible because it is completely trustworthy. I was forced to confess that scripture is neither, without rejecting the importance and authority placed in it by its readers for centuries — including Jesus Christ.
The doctrines of biblical infallibility and inerrancy have been popular in many conservative churches since the 19th century. However scripture never describes itself this way. St. Paul calls scripture “holy,” “useful,” and “God-breathed,” but never presents it as a perfect historical account that contains no inaccurate portrayals of God. Christ himself interpreted certain scriptures in ways that contradict their author’s intent. Paul even claims in chapter two of Romans that it is not necessary to hear scripture, inerrant or otherwise, in order to follow Christ.
Oftentimes those who claim the Bible is infallible and inerrant will throw up their hands when confronted with a particularly difficult passage or contradiction and claim that an interpretation exists to reconcile the text, but the interpretation is beyond our reach. It is just as well to say the text is incorrect. Scripture is not perfect if it communicates something that opposes what it means; it would be better to say nothing at all. As sociologist Christian Smith has pointed out, an infallible and inerrant Bible should not result in a wide variety of contradicting interpretations, especially among those who believe it to be so. Yet it has.
There is perhaps no author more beloved among those who believe in biblical infallibility and inerrancy than C. S. Lewis. And yet he viewed scripture as nothing of the sort:
The human qualities of the raw materials show through. Naïvety, error, contradiction, even (as in the cursing Psalms) wickedness are not removed. The total result is not “the Word of God” in the sense that every passage, in itself, gives impeccable science or history. It carries the Word of God; and we (under grace, with attention to tradition and to interpreters wiser than ourselves, and with the use of such intelligence and learning as we may have) receive that word from it not by using it as an encyclopedia or an encyclical but by steeping ourselves in its tone or temper and so learning its overall message.
Rejecting biblical inerrancy and infallibility is unsettling. If the Bible cannot be wholly trusted, how will Christians find truth? The answer: the same as we always have. Every Christian community, whether it holds that the Bible is inerrant or not, interprets scripture in order to learn about God and how we should live in our context. This always results in the diminishment of some biblical ideas (Paul’s instruction for women to cover their heads in church, for instance) and the promotion of others. This is essentially what occurs when authors splice scripture together for the lectionaries. Whether a community decides to dismiss scriptural ideas because they are incorrect, or because of some complex hermeneutic, the result is the same.
Significantly, this is how our Jewish brothers and sisters have dealt with the problem of Old Testament violence for centuries. Rabbi Reuven Firestone explains:
The Hebrew Bible is not Judaism, and Judaism is not the Hebrew Bible. […] The great compendium of rabbinic Jewish literature is the Talmud, commonly referred to by rabbinic Jews (that is, virtually the entire Jewish world today) as “the oral Torah.” […] Representations of God and the role of humanity found in the Talmud tend to be more consistently quietist. […] In the Talmud, the countless references to Israel’s seemingly ubiquitous sacred wars fought with God, by God, and always for God, are melted down into one paragraph, which, given the Talmudic rhetorical tendency, is an extraordinary feat.
Firestone goes on to theorize that the reason for this downplay of Israel’s military conquests is the lack of military power the Jewish people possessed when the Talmud was written. The Talmud is an attempt by Jewish leaders to interpret scripture for its people’s current context. Firestone responds to the charge that this renders Judaism relative, with no ethical consequence, by pointing out that God’s consistent message to the Jewish people is to “seek peace (or amity) and pursue it.” This is the directive all should follow.
One cannot escape wondering why an all-powerful God would allow scripture to require this kind of interpretation. Why would God allow the Bible authors to present genocide as righteous, divinely ordained behavior? Of course there are no reliable answers to this question, but we can speculate. C. S. Lewis admonishes that whatever God has done is best for us and mortals should not ask such questions. Pastor Greg Boyd offers that by allowing the Israelites to portray God as the author of their violent acts rather than themselves, God was taking on their wickedness, which would eventually be redeemed by Christ’s crucifixion. Kenton Sparks claims that there is no difference between the corruption of creation and the corruption of scripture; they are both humankind’s responsibility as the result of the Fall. Both Kenton Sparks and scholar Peter Enns speculate that if God had indeed created the perfect book of truth that some Christians claim the Bible to be, our limited minds couldn’t comprehend it. Enns puts the discussion in perspective by noting, “I’m a lot less bothered by a Bible that tells ancient stories than I am by the thought of God exterminating a population and giving their land to others.”
One chilly night last December my wife and I attended a concert in D.C.’s historic Meader Theater. Halfway through their set the band played a song named “Does Your Heart Break.” Over soft, trembling strings and spare piano chords the vocalist sang these words:
When the walls fell
And the hungry child
Cried out for help
Did you hear the sound?
Did your heart break?
Does your heart break now?
These lines address God, and I believe they allude to the biblical battle of Jericho, when God felled the city walls and ushered in the Israelite army, who slaughtered every living thing inside: women, men, children, infants, and livestock. They plundered the city and then burned it to the ground.
Did God’s heart break? Sitting in the quiet of that theater, I was overcome with resolve to answer “yes.” The answer must be yes. No rational person could call these actions merciful or loving. What sort of being do Christians portray when we ascribe such horrors to God? The answer must be yes. If the story is more than ancient bluster, and the Israelites did slaughter the children of Jericho, God had nothing to do with it. God’s heart broke, just like it breaks now as walls fall around the children of Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq. The answer must be yes, and Christians should hasten to offer it.
Boyd, Greg (2013). A Revelation of Beauty through Ugliness. http://reknew.org/2013/03/a-revelation-of-beauty-through-ugliness/.
Boyd, Greg (2014). Eye for an Eye: That Time Jesus Refuted an Old Testament Teaching. http://reknew.org/2014/10/eye-for-eye-that-time-jesus-refuted-an-old-testament-teaching/
Boyd, Greg (2013). Getting Honest about the Dark Side of the Bible. http://reknew.org/2013/03/getting-honest-about-the-dark-side-of-the-bible/
Enns, Peter (2014). The Bible Tells Me So: Why Defending Scripture Has Made Us Unable to Read It.
Firestone, Reuven (2004). Judaism on Violence and Reconciliation: An Examination of Key Sources.
Knoll, Mark A. (2012). Evangelical Advantages: A Review of The Bible Made Impossible and How to Go from Being a Good Evangelical to a Committed Catholic in Ninety-Five Difficult Steps. http://www.firstthings.com/article/2012/02/evangelical-advantages
Meunier, John (2012) God in the Lectionary Gaps. https://johnmeunier.wordpress.com/2012/05/16/god-in-the-lectionary-gaps/
Olson, Roger E. (2013). Every Known Theistic Approach to Old Testament “Texts of Terror.” http://www.patheos.com/blogs/rogereolson/2013/07/every-known-theistic-approach-to-old-testament-texts-of-terror/
Polkinghorne, John C. (1994) The Faith of a Physicist: Reflections of a Bottom-Up Thinker.
Sparks, Kenton (2012) Sacred Word, Broken Word: Biblical Authority and the Dark Side of Scripture
The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy. http://www.spurgeon.org/~phil/creeds/chicago.htm
Wright, N.T. (2013) Scripture and the Authority of God: How to Read the Bible Today.