The violent character of God as presented in the Old Testament, the Hebrew Scriptures, has always troubled me. I grew up having been taught that the whole Bible is the word of God without any errors. This idea of inerrancy became sort of a doctrine one had to subscribe to within the evangelical church.
Some people raised in more fundamentalist homes and churches were taught the Bible says it and I believe it, only to discover how untenable some of that ancient stuff really is. So when God commands the slaughter of people, well we just know that God had his reasons. He was purifying the world by getting rid of the bad people. Some say that God’s ways are mysterious and we can’t know God’s will. We just accept the printed word.
People leave the faith because of answers like that. I believe we CAN understand the violence in the Old Testament but it will require a certain grace to read the scriptures differently than what we might have been taught.
Let me write this cautiously because some will be offended even though they might not know why: Not every biblical event in those ancient times was specifically from God. Much that was written interpreting God’s intent and actions was actually the way a tribal society amidst other tribal societies interpreted what God was saying and doing through them.
I know that ‘all scriptures are inspired by God,’ but not all of them are accurate portrayals of God’s character. How do we know God’s character? Through Jesus, the Christ. He was the very WORD made flesh so that we can know God. Jesus himself says at one point, ‘if you see me, you see the Father’.
So I came to a conclusion late in life that if I see something from the old stories that don’t conform to what I know about God in Jesus then at the very least I say now that the old stories are problematic and probably not accurate. I feel under no pressure to believe differently now because I have come to know the living eternal God through Christ. God’s character never changes. He is love, once and for all time. The cross is the place where love and justice meet in Christ. Our God is a merciful and forgiving God. Christ shows us that time and time again in his acts of forgiveness, healing and Godly love.
As one evangelical writer put it, “Some biblical writers got the message wrong.” Jesus even corrects some old sayings when he speaks what we now call the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5,6, and 7. (C.S. Cowles) For example: “Thou shalt not avenge, nor bear any grudge against the children of thy people, but thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself: I am the LORD.” – ( Leviticus 19:18) But Jesus goes on to say, “43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.” ESV.
Or take Saul, for another example. (1Samuel 16) The Bible says that God sent an evil spirit into Saul. Then look at Jesus…. He never put evil spirits in anyone he encountered but rather removed them.
So I am not troubled any more by the misunderstandings I read. Although I must be forthright and say that many churches wouldn’t want such an evangelical as me. But I want to be honest to God and I want to seek truth. And the only one who really had the truth was Jesus who himself said that he WAS the truth.
So I am reading the Scriptures with grace-filled eyes these days so I can model my life on the God I know in Jesus who gave me life and life eternal. On the Mount of Transfiguration God said to Moses and Elijah, about Jesus, “This one is my son. Listen to him.” That’s who directs my ways these days.
One more thought. A man approached a monk one day and asked, “Why does the Bible contain so many bizarre, offensive and un-Christlike depictions of God?” The monk replied, “Because God let his children tell the story.”
And so it was. The children continued to tell the story progressively until the WORD became flesh and dwelt among us and we now get to behold his glory.
So, enjoy the Scriptures. We learn much about God. And when your friends tell you they can’t believe some of the violence in the Old Testament, feel free to say, “It’s ok, I have the same trouble with it.” Then get to Jesus.