July 10, 2012 at 3:56pm
I often hear questions about all the killing, raping, pillaging and so forth in the Old Testament. These stem from a difficulty in perspective and understanding on the part of humanity rather than God being an evil being. The further removed in time we as humans become from those events the more difficult it becomes for us to understand. As humans, we filter everything through the lens of our own time, place and experiences. To be able to answer these questions on this we need a little background on the Bible itself.
The first problem is that we view the Bible in our current culture as a book, often The Book. In reality it is not a book, it is a collection of books that spans all of human history. As such, it gets a bit confusing. Think about the simple concept of a book in our society. Any book we read, with the possible exception of textbooks, covers a limited period, has a limited number of players, and has a finite beginning and end. Whether it is an account of a historical event, a biography of a famous person, or a fiction story, the content of the book is typically concentrated on only a few years of time, with highly specific and interesting details to keep the reader’s attention and convey the important parts of the story.
The Bible isn’t that. It is multiple stories held together by common threads and themes that crop up hundreds and thousands of years apart within society: first of mankind, then the Israelites, then the Christians. During the course of the historical time frame of the Bible, entire civilizations and empires rose and fell, time lifted and obliterated whole cultures, and the world that the people in the Bible resided in changed dramatically in those thousands of years the Bible chronicles. Therefore, contextualization of the events with the time and place they occurred is lost, both through our own tendency to view all things through the lens of our own point in history, and through the vast amount of time and distance covered within the Bible’s pages.
Secondly, each book of the Bible served a different purpose. Genesis is a combination of the story of creation and a genealogical record. It is also a prelude to the later story of the people who God eventually chose out of the rest of humanity to become His people, that he would later use to instruct the rest of the world in his ways. Its style is a mixture somewhere between chronology and mythology and God gave it to the early Jews, first spoken then written, to give them a sense of what came before as they embarked on the journey He laid before them.
Exodus, Leviticus, Deuteronomy and Numbers were similar in their purpose but more practical in their style. God gave them to the people of the time to explain His expectations of them and to chronicle the results and history of God’s interactions with his people. Then you come to something like Chronicles or Kings and it is almost pure historical and genealogical documentation with a bit of story thrown in. Those books covered many years. From the end of some books, or eve stories within them, to the beginning of others, there can be 4-800 years in between. Each of those books was written to a people who were in a different set of circumstances and residing within a different culture. That too distorts our understanding of the Bible, because we tend to read it as though it were written to us in our here and now, which in a way it was, but we can’t understand it without the context.
If we want to understand the commands in the Bible that seemed to advocate barbarism, we have to look deeply at the passages that give us trouble, determine when in the timeline of humanity they were written, to whom they were written and why. Did they warn and admonish the children of God that they had lost their way, as in Isaiah? Did they protect the children of God from those who sought to kill them, as in the story of Jericho? Who were the people God was telling them to kill? What was the larger purpose behind the story? God was never vengeful toward those who loved Him, even in the Old Testament. He was rarely even vengeful toward those who hated Him. He was vengeful toward those who caused harm to the people He had set apart for His purposes and had promised to protect.
This brings me the last full thought on this, Jesus was not all about being a nice guy, loving and forgiving to everyone no matter what. Jesus was actually harsh toward those who would harm the people He had come to save (same as God in the Old Testament). He verbally shredded the Pharisees and Sadducee for their hypocrisy and false piety. He told his disciples to sell their possessions to buy a sword if they did not have one. He told the people he preached to that he did not come to bring peace but the sword. It is important in our understanding of Christ that he freely offered salvation to any who were willing to follow Him in following God. He also threw demons into hell and shattered the temple. By his power, in the NT, Herod died and was food for worms because he did not give glory to God when others praised him.
In our society, we want to find the easy path. We want to believe that we can find the magic key that will allow us to become perfect human beings on our own. We want very much to believe that everyone who has ever existed will find ever-lasting peace. Truth is, that cannot be true, no matter how much we may want it to be, and Jesus was not at all shy about saying so. Jesus preaching on love and compassion in the Bible was not about tolerance of sin, it was about modeling the behavior that those who followed him would need to exhibit in order to be heard when they began spreading the message to the world that God was offering this one last covenant, this one way to salvation. Because Jesus loved us, God loved us, and the Spirit loves us, He made sure that their apostles would be equipped to give as many people in the world as possible the opportunity to come to know Christ. However, Jesus was specific that the law of God in the Old Testament still stood. Also, He was specific about what would happen to those who tried to harm the children of God.
Last, if you read the Bible from beginning to end, keeping in mind the vast time, distance and cultural changes it covers, it is interesting that you can see a progression of change in mankind. At each point where mankind had matured to a point of being able to make better choices, God seemingly changed, ultimately culminating with the last covenant of Christ as Savior. If you view that from the perspective of God being a parent (He is called Father) and humanity being his children, it is not that God changed, but that mankind matured to the point where those early restriction and disciplines were no longer necessary to keep God’s children from harming themselves.
It is similar to our parents smacking us on the butt, sometimes hard enough to make us really cry, when we are 4-5 years old and insist on playing catch right next to the campfire. From our perspective at 4-5 years old, Dad is an ogre because he really hurt us when he laid his hand or belt across our backside. Worse, he humiliated us because he did it right in front of the whole world. But, from our Dad’s perspective, he had to make the punishment strong enough to keep us from doing it again, even if it made us hurt or upset, because he knows what would happen if we tripped and fell in the fire and he loves us too much to let us hurt ourselves that way.
When we have gotten to be about 11-12, gained a bit of reason, Dad starts teaching us how to build a fire, and how to use fire as a tool. We’ll still get smacked pretty hard if we then start lighting things on fire behind the woodshed, probably harder than we got smacked at 4-5 because by now we should know better. The reason is the same, he loves us too much to let us catch ourselves on fire. Eventually, we reach adulthood, if Dad has done his job we know enough not to catch ourselves on fire. However, he still expects that we will follow the safety precautions he taught us along the way. The harshness of God directed at the Israelites, from the story of Adam and Eve in the garden all the way through the New Testament, follows this pattern. Discipline changed with maturity and meted out to teach His children not to hurt themselves or each other.
The wrathful, vengeful directed at the other peoples of the world is a different type of parental function. If I, as a mother, was out with my child and a psychopathic murder came after my child to inflict harm, a child molester came to molest them, or a kidnapper came to take them I would not hesitate to put a bullet between their eyes. I might be sad about doing it, I would definitely pray for their souls, and I would ask forgiveness from God for taking a life, but I would still do it in a heartbeat. The same would be true if a perfectly innocent person that was mentally impaired or otherwise incapacitated was doing something that put my children in peril. I would weep for them, I would try everything else possible to stop them. Nevertheless, if there were no other way to save my child from harm, that individual would be no less dead.
God is the Father, throughout the Old Testament He had set aside the people of Israel to be His children, and through them bring about the necessary maturity in mankind to make the New Covenant of Christ as savior. It was God’s job to protect his children, as He promised them He would, from those who sought to do them harm. When we get twisted up over things like leveling every man, woman and child in Jericho, we have to understand that God gave that directive to protect his children, and nothing short of that would have done so. In that culture, in that time, to leave one woman or child in place would have left the Hebrews open to centuries of sneak attacks and blood feuds. Islam is actually a perfect example of the result of God not eliminating those who were enemies of Israel down to the last child. It was the product of the survival of the first illegitimate child of Abram. If God had ordered Abram to kill Ishmael instead of allowing Hagar to take him off into the desert, Islam would never have come into being, and the Jews would not still be fighting the Muslims to this day. Now, I cannot tell you why God told them to kill all those in Jericho but spared the life if Ishmael, but I imagine He had a purpose.
That is the last thing. We will probably never understand the purpose of God in this life. We can learn knowledge, we can even gain in understanding over time, but we can never really get what God’s plan is because there is a difference between knowledge and understanding. Understanding only comes when we can process our knowledge through things we can relate to that are tangible in our lives. God has a radically different experience and perspective from ours, so He sees things in radically different ways than we do. Until we can share His view of the world, we will not really be able to fully understand the WHY we so often seek.