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Is God Really Violent?


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For many years, I was able, somehow, to read the Old Testament, without noticing the violence, genocide, racism, infanticide, slavery, and polygamy. For over 50 years, I've sat in churches, while preachers have been highly selective about the Old Testament passages they read. Whenever passages involving violence have occurred, they have always been 'spiritualised'. So the account of Joshua razing Jericho would become an object lesson about faith (he trusted God would deliver them), or praise (they played trumpets), or how the battle belongs to the Lord.

Then one day, I realised that the people in Jericho were real people; that the Israelites must have chased screaming children out of their homes and skewered them from behind; that they must have beaten to death old people cowering in the dark corners of their huts. They must have walked among the ruins of the shaken city, seeking out survivors and killing them.

And my Bible readings came alive! In the most disturbing way.

The fire that Elijah called down fire from heaven didn't instantly consume insensate sub-humans. The hapless foot soldiers sent to apprehend Elijah were regular blokes, with homes, wives, children and with hopes, hobbies and wondering minds. They were burned alive.

The only way I had been able to feel comfortable about God's apparent propensity for violence in the Old Testament, was to not think of them as people, but as a kind of disease that had to be eradicated to keep Israel pure.

That brings me to my second problem. As a technique, it didn't work. The genocidal taking of territory, the violent defence of God's honour and worship, did not result in a community of purity, compassion, success, praise. The hope of a place of shalom in the midst of a violent world remained just that - a hope. The vision of a worshipping people welcoming the alien, releasing captives and restoring property at every jubilee years never happened. Instead, it was the usual story of rich and powerful interests trampling down the poor. It was corrupt judges, grasping priests, power-crazed kings, and the poor and weak crying out for relief.

Our recent history tells us that there is rarely a just war, and even when the moral high ground is occupied by just one side, even when the cause is just, the process of violence still brutalises the victor, and breeds hatred and resentment in the vanquished. The retrieval of peace in Angola, in South Africa, as in Europe, has been one of rediscovering the enemy's humanity.

When Jesus Christ came, his radical redefinition of God's way was so shocking that it was rejected by the nation of Israel. They could not reconcile their understanding of God, with this man's teaching and behaviour. He shared meals with thieves and prostitutes. He refused to follow the Old Testament law and stone an adulterous woman.

Interestingly, when James and John wanted to call down fire from heaven, Jesus rejected the course of action, stating that his disciples could not discern that the spirit leading them to that suggestion was not the Holy Spirit, but something else of which they were unaware.

Luke 9:54-55 (KJV) And when his disciples James and John saw this, they said, Lord, wilt thou that we command fire to come down from heaven, and consume them, even as Elias did? But he turned, and rebuked them, and said, Ye know not what manner of spirit ye are of.

(The text "and said, Ye know not what manner of spirit ye are of" is a disputed inclusion - Present in KJV, in early Syriac manuscripts, in Textus Receptus, not in NIV, not in Vulgate)

Jesus quoted scripture on many occasions - when tempted by Satan, when teaching the crowd, when training his disciples. But he wasn't averse to cutting across people's preconceptions about the authority of it! He justified the actions of his disciples in eating grain on the Sabbath (they should have prepared food the day before), by referring to a special dispensation that King David obtained from the priest in his own day.

Before Jesus came, the scriptures (the Law and Prophets), were the best thing they had. But it wasn't the 'real deal'! As the book of Hebrews says,

Heb 10:1 (ESV) ... the law has but a shadow of the good things to come instead of the true form of these realities ...

I don't want to push the analogy too far, but a shadow is shaped not only by the light that is cast, but also by the surface onto which it falls. And the truth about God was inadequately expressed within that ancient Iron Age culture. His moral perfection was only expressible in a form which included ritual physical cleanliness. His perfect holiness and justice was understood to necessarily require the death penalty for children who dishonour their parents. And the spiritual warfare was translated into a physical war against the neighbouring nations.

But now things are different ...

Heb 1:1,2 (ESV) Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son ...

And the understanding we now have of God is totally different. There was plenty of violence in Jesus experience, but only that done to him, and his followers. And his prayer, even for those who murdered him, was "Forgive them, Father, they don't know what they are doing."

Maybe the most shocking revelation about God, in the life of Jesus Christ, is that He gets his hands dirty. When he puts his arm around the diseased skin of a man with leprosy, he capsizes the assumption that the man is under God's curse. When he washes his disciples feet, he demonstrates God close and near.

Fallen humanity is selfish, and jealous, and violent. And religious folks who want to do God's work, are often very similar! We only have to look around to see that when God wants something done, and picks someone to do it, they can always screw it up for him. We hope to be ambassadors for Christ, but are we? Very few of us have that radical Christ-likeness which can both bring down the proud, and lift up the humble, while washing the feet of those in need.

In Jesus, we see a God who knows our value, our worth, our frailty, our humanity.

(Don't forget, Jesus said "Little lamb, get up". Then when the fear of the disciples was turned to amazement, and the wailing of the mourners was turned to praise, and the agony of the parents was turned to delight, Jesus said, "Could someone please get this little girl a drink...". Oh the tenderness of the Lord of all creation!)

And when God said 'Vengeance is mine, I will repay' ... what will he repay?

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