Have you noticed in church when we have an Old Testament reading, the reading always stops JUST before it gets gruesome? We do our best to steer clear of the nasty bits. I’m guilty of this too. For example:
Psalm 139 is a beautiful expression of God’s complete knowledge of us … but:
“How precious to me are your thoughts, oh God! How vast is the sum of them! Were I to count them, they would outnumber the grains of sand …”
(Quick — stop reading!)
“… If only you, God, would slay the wicked! Away from me, you who are bloodthirsty!”
Often it’s more blatant than that eg in 1 Samuel 15 God tells Saul:
“Go, attack the Amalekites and totally destroy all that belongs to them. Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys”.
Heads roll, bowels gush, mass killings, and genocide come and go. Our atheist friends love to quote these passages. They have even compared the person of God to the modern-day practises of ISIS. Surveys show that many Christians struggle with the bloodshed in the Old Testament while many leaders simply avoid it.
There are hard questions we need think through when it comes to the Old Testament (OT). Here’s my top two: violence and truth. These two alone cause us to struggle and provide ammunition to others to criticise and ridicule the Christian faith.
Why is the Old Testament so violent?
Actually, in many ways the Old Testament law was ahead of its time in its care for the vulnerable. For example its treatment of widows, orphans, refugees and slaves was far more humane than the laws of surrounding nations*.
But even so, the apparently gratuitous violence of the Old Testament is troubling. A few things:
1. The culture and the time was inherently brutal.
People lived violently, massacres were not uncommon. The idea of a war crime hadn’t been invented. If someone in a town caused you offence you might well decide to wipe-out that entire town. Eg see Genesis 34: one man commits rape but ALL the men of his town are put to the sword. The famous Exodus 21 passage “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” was as much a way of limiting retaliation as anything else – God saying that the punishment should fit the crime, it should be equitable, not go over the top. It’s not a licence to poke someone’s eye out. Many hundreds of years later Jesus moves people on again by stating “no more eye for eye”. Now we are to love our enemies; now we are to pray for those who persecute us (Matthew 5).
The point? God only shows us as much of his law as we can cope with at the time.
An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth was a way of limiting retaliation
2. Some Old Testament language is rhetoric, triumphant chanting and sacred cursing.
Recently Watford thrashed Manchester United 3:1 (soccer!). No doubt the Watford fans went home singing “we massacred them … kicked their heads in”, but probably using more colourful language than that. But in fact nobody died in this game, and as far as I remember nobody’s head was kicked. It’s a way of speaking — metaphorical. Theologian David Instone Brewer explains that some towns in the Bible which were “totally annihilated” in fact were not. They crop up a few pages later with people in them. It’s not a lie, or even exaggeration, it’s the language of the day.
3. But … we can’t argue it all away – sin is still sin.
Gruesome events did take place in the OT. We must take on board the fact that God views sin incredibly seriously – far more than we do. The potential destruction of an entire people like those Amalekites demonstrates this. It is uncomfortable but in reality this punishment is what we deserve were it not for the grace of God. It’s that serious.
Did all those events in the OT actually happen?
There’s that uncomfortable silence in the Bible Study when someone says something that makes us question long-held beliefs. Sometimes they are making the comment that everyone is thinking but no one likes to say.
We had just read the Book of Jonah and his aquatic adventures. Discussion was going swimmingly well until someone piped up:
“…Do you think it happened?”
“What do you mean? It’s in the Bible”
“Yes but did it happen – it all just seems, I don’t know, a bit unusual” ….
Somebody better informed than me, told us they had read somewhere that it’s possible to live inside a whale for several days. That is good to know but let’s briefly look at the general question:
Is the Bible literally true – did all those things happen?
The Bible is a library of 66 different books, written over many centuries. If you were to stand in the centre of any library and say “is this library literally true? — well that question is unclear, and must be answered in different ways. The history section of a library tells us about Kings and Queens and battles of long ago, and is literally true. But the Poetry section is not literally true It’s another way of articulating truth, principles of truth –for many people that might be easier than reading history. Similarly Jesus told stories, parables, that had a twist in the tale and contained a lesson…. lost sons, good neighbours, wedding banquets treasures and pearls. These are fiction, they are not “true”, but they have truth within them. (See Is the Bible True? for more on this).
Would you stand in the centre of a library and ask ‘is this library true?’
OK but … did the events of Jonah actually happen?
Christians agree that God created this universe with ease. Rolling out the heavens across the sky, casting the galaxies into deep space, and spinning each planet into orbit was well within his capability. Even time and space, which we use to calibrate experiences in our world, are only features of his creation. God also created our laws of nature – like for instance water is different to wine, people don’t turn into salt, bread doesn’t drop out of the sky, and dead people should stay dead. But God isn’t limited by his own laws. He always has the ability to “do a new thing”, to insert a new rule into our world just for a time. If God can do all THAT, how hard is it for him to look after one man called Jonah … any way he wants? Wouldn’t that be child’s play?