First before we get into it, let's be honest. We all have presuppositions. For my friend when he reads passages in the Bible like the ones I'll quote he has prior commitments to his interpretation. His presuppositions probably go something like this - there is no god and religion is an evil that is used to justify all sorts of heinous crimes. This affects the way he reads these passages. He's looking for a fight and gets one. He's also unlikely to give the Bible much sympathy within it's historical setting. He is unlikely to take into consideration the fact that the Bible is an ancient text written by over 30 authors across a period of several thousands of years of human history to a culture and world that is very different from our own. He is likely to write it off because he won't take time to think through the cultural and historical differences between him and the text. People wouldn't do this with Homer or Shakespeare, but they do it with the Bible. 'After all,' people often think 'isn't the Bible just a collection of truisms I can stick on my fridge?'
I have a predisposition to believe a few things too however and they affect I read things. I need to think through my beliefs then in light of things that challenge them as everyone else does.
The prior convictions I hold before I come to sections in the Bible I struggle with are to do with nature and existence of God. I believe God exists for three main reasons: complex universe points to design, empty tomb points to Jesus as God, existence of moral law points to law giver.
I hold several basic beliefs about this God:
- God is loving (based on Jesus and many many OT passages)
- God is good (based on Jesus and many many OT passages)
- God is holy (based on Jesus and many many OT passages)
I take these contentions about God into my reading of difficult texts. On top of these (and really because of these) I also belief the following:
- The Bible when correctly understood is all true - because Jesus trusted it and he is God
- The Bible is a story - I can't take lift a text from one part of scripture and directly import it to my life without due consideration
- Not all of the Bible is directly instructive - just because something happens in the Bible, doesn't mean God approves eg polygamy despite Eden's orginal mandate of one man and one woman
- The Bible is written from within and to specific cultural and historical settings - in order to fully understand a passage I need to be willing to ask questions about historical context
All of that motivates me when I approach a passage like the ones quoted by my friend, written below:
Happy is he who repays you for what you have done to us.
He who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks.
Now go and attack Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have, and do not spare them.
But kill both man and woman, infant and nursing child, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.
(1 Samuel 15:3)
The people of Samaria must bear their guilt, because they have rebelled against their God.
They will fall by the sword; their little ones will be dashed to the ground, their pregnant
women ripped open.
Let's take them each in turn.
This is a beautifully emotive poem (and a popular song by Boney M about the rivers of Babylon). Within the narrative of the Bible as a whole you really feel it's force when you read it. Historically what's happened is that a nation (the Israelites) have been driven from their home land, a land that has been destroyed and laid to waste. They have been carried off as prisoners to a foreign land where tormentors have mocked and abused them. Their captors have slaughtered their families, raped their women and left their corpses to rot in the sun.
The writer of this song (alas it wasn't Boney M) is expressing in prayer their remorse and desire for justice to be done. They are praying that what has been done to them would be done to their captors. They're singing that 'whoever exacts this justice will be happy!' Anyone who has ever been severely mistreated can in part relate to this emotion. This is not God saying 'yes the baby killers will be blessed!' This is a grieving, agonising victim praying and demanding 'let justice be done!' If anything, this gives us permission to bring our honest pain to God in prayer. Since it's not a prescriptive passage (thou shalt kill babies) but a descriptive (this man prayed for justice to be done) I don't think it's a problem. It's poetry and raw emotion, not a command.
1 Samuel 15:3 & Hosea 13
These two are more challenging, I agree. Brutal and horrendous. Before answering our concerns about what it says about a loving God let me start by saying this. The Bible is written into culturally and historically specific settings, and (again) just because God tells one group of people in one part of the story to do one thing does not mean that it's a blanket command for everyone else who reads it.
Let me quickly say this about the Hosea passage my friend quoted. It is a description of what will happen to a people under judgement. It is brutal, but again it is not a prescriptive 'you should do this as well' passage. Also it comes after decades (centuries even?) of God warning, forgiving and receiving back this wayward people who've abandoned trust in him for trust in themselves, their resources and other demon-gods of the day.
A few things to say about war and brutality in the Bible:
- The Bible begins with peace and wholeness in Eden.
- After sin enters the world, murder, war, racism and disasters follow.
- The story of the Bible is a gradual moving away from violence back towards peace.
- God makes covenants through this story with his chosen people and charges them to be the light of peace and humanity in a dark, evil and perverse world.
- The covenants God makes with his people move this story on.
- Jesus is the final covenant in which he proclaims again an Edenic ideal of enemy-love and cheek-turning forgiveness.
Reading the first few books of the Old Testament we see that God determined that for that period of history the strip of land known as the the fertile crescent (where all the nations of the world lived and needed to pass through regularly) would be the place on earth that he would 'dwell'. He chose a people to inhabit that land and desired that that people would live radically differently from the other nations of the world. His desire was that they would embody in a counter cultural way the Edenic ideal of peace and wholeness. The commands of separation that God gives his people in the books of the law (Exodus, Leviticus and Deuteronomy) reveal this and teach us about God's holiness.
Holiness is a massive Bible idea.
God is not like anything else in the created universe, that's an essential premise to understanding the Bible correctly. The idea of the eternal, holy, pre-existent Yahweh revealed to Moses at the burning bush was not one that any civilisation had conceived of before and other than by God revealing it we wouldn't create the idea either. Harry Potter could not know anything about J.K. Rowling unless she revealed herself to him in one of the books and it's the same with us and God. God's holiness is terrifying to unholy (which is what we are post Eden) created creatures such as us. It is unlike anything else. Men do not create holy gods. You might want to argue 'yes they do, power hungry men create sacred things to scare people into behaving properly!' To which I would say that in the Old Testament (and New) it is the people in power who seem to suffer most at the hands of this holy God. He is not a puppet used by corrupt leaders. Holiness has the 'otherness' of fire to our skin. As unholy beings we cannot venture near God. That's the God revealed in the Bible.
As creator and holy I also believe that God is well within his rights to do with us whatever he pleases. The clay cannot say to the potter 'what right have you to make me into this' and neither can we to God. This is underlying conviction based on what I said at the start about why I believe in God.
Can I end by saying this. Several centuries before this God told Moses in the book of Exodus that he would blot out the Amalekites from the Earth (if God is God and man has rebelled against him, surely he has that right). Centuries passed since that statement and knowing God (as we do from the rest of the OT) he would have forgiven them had they repented and returned to him (ala the Assyrians in Jonah). They hadn't and now, after centuries of waiting God orders their deaths.
God alone has the right to judge and take life. It is not unlawful killing if it is carried out by the creator. All of this sticks in the mouth of 'enlightened' secular westerners as it presupposes a lot about God, but there we go.
We come down to this. If there is no God then my friend is right this is an awful killing of innocent people. If God is God and has the rights to be God and judge the world (which the Bible says he will one day fully do), then he has the right to do so and who am I to speak against him?
To quoted Lucy and the Beavers in The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe:
“Is he a man?” asked Lucy.
“Aslan a man!” said Mr Beaver sternly. Certainly not. I tell you he is King of the wood and the son of the great emperor-beyond- the-sea. Don’t you know who is the King of the Beasts? Aslan is a lion – the Lion, the great lion.”
“ooh!” said Susan, “I’d thought he was a man. Is he – quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion.”
“That you will, dearie, and no mistake” said Mrs Beaver; “if there’s anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they’re either braver than most or else just silly.”
“Then he isn’t safe?” said Lucy.
“Safe?” said Mr Beaver; “don’t you hear what Mrs Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”God isn't safe but he is good. How do I know? The list is endless but here's my highlights:
- Future hope