Thursday, September 29, 2011

Disturbing Divine Behavior

The Bible study I am currently teaching is taking us through the "big picture" of the biblical story in seven weeks. As we work our way through some of the key points of the biblical storyline, we have approached the troublesome texts in the OT that depict God as authorizing mass slaughter.

Below is a section of an essay I wrote in seminary about this issue that you might find helpful, frustrating, or perhaps a little of both.

John 1:1,14 "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God… And the Word became flesh and lived among us"

Colossians 1:
15 "He is the image of the invisible God"

Heb 1:1-3 "
Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds. He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being

What all these passages point to is the fact that God didn’t reveal God’s heart by dictating a book;  God revealed God’s heart by becoming a human being in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus is the Word of God, and the value and authority of the Bible comes from its ability to point us towards Jesus. As Christians, we should have a thoroughly Christ-centered interpretation of Scripture. What this means is that all of our interpretations of Scripture, particularly the Old Testament, should be seen through the lens of God’s most complete revelation of who God really is in Jesus. It doesn’t mean that the Old Testament is worthless, it simply means that in Jesus we get a fuller and more accurate picture of God than from any revelation that came before Jesus.

Let’s apply this interpretative method to one of the most vexing and frustrating issues for people who take the Bible seriously for their faith: the issue of God and violence in the Old Testament. I have a book on my shelves called Disturbing Divine Behavior (an excellent book by Eric Seibert) and it explores all the disturbing passages about God in the OT. There are alot of them, but out of them all, perhaps the most disturbing is this:

Deuteronomy 7: When the Lord your God brings you into the land that you are about to enter and occupy, and he clears away many nations before you—the Hittites, the Girgashites, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, seven nations mightier and more numerous than you— 2and when the Lord your God gives them over to you and you defeat them, then you must utterly destroy them. Make no covenant with them and show them no mercy.

The theology of holy war that undergirded the Crusades and the European genocidal actions towards Native Americans is found here. The idea is that it is sometimes necessary to use unrestrained violence to advance God’s purposes and God’s plans.  How do you fit that with these words from the lips of Jesus:

Matthew 5: 43 ‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” 44But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.

Are we to exterminate our enemies or are we to love them? If you take a Christ-centered approach to Scripture, then I think the conclusion to draw is that this earlier understanding of how to treat enemies does not reflect what God really wants. So am I saying that Deuteronomy 7 is wrong? Yes, I am. I think at that stage of development of God’s people, they had an incomplete and in some ways misguided understanding of what God was really like. While it conveys a wrong understanding of God, we shouldn’t take our scissors to it or throw it away. It still is valuable for us because it reveals to us how easily we can use God to justify our own agendas. Texts like this serve more as a mirror of what is in our hearts than a window into what is in God’s heart.

The response to this approach is often this: So are we just free to pick and choose what we like? I have often heard people say, “It’s either all or nothing, you can’t pick and choose.” To that I say, not only can you pick and choose, you must pick and choose and as a Christian you must pick and choose with Jesus as your guide.

Jesus himself gave us a key for how to interpret OT texts that depicted God as violent and vengeful. This story is from Luke’s gospel.

Luke 4:16 When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, 17and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: 18 ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free,19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’ 20And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. 21Then he began to say to them, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’

Here is the key question to ask: Why did everyone “fix their eyes on him” when he rolled up the scroll? The Greek word for “fix” is ateinzo, and it means to gaze intently. The root of the word means to “stretch.” So there eyes were stretched wide open and their gaze was fixed on him. Why? Let’s look at the passage in Isaiah 61 that he is reading from:

The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; 2 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God.”

What does Jesus do when he gets to the line about God’s vengeance towards outsiders? He doesn’t read it in worship. He closes the scroll and sets down. Now, this was a foundational passage of Scripture for ancient Jews and they grew up memorizing texts like this and cherishing them. Everyone there would have been familiar with this passage. This is why their eyes get big and they stare at him intently when he rolls up the scroll. He finished before he was supposed to. For Jesus, God’s mission isn’t to bring vengeance, it is to bring salvation. For Jesus, God isn’t about retribution, God is about restoration. God is not on a mission to damn people, but to save. Jesus refused to endorse this OT depiction of God as violent and vengeful, and so should we. Our interpretation of the Bible should always keep Jesus at the center, and he should be the lens through which we read everything else. If the Christian church would have held to this approach, then our past would have far fewer dark spots than it does.