So, Is God violent?
First, one of my assumptions about the Bible is that it is not - as Brian McLaren has pointed out - a legal constitution.
It's not one document that we quote article and paragraph to prove a point. It's not a text where everything is taken literally, without the work required to understand and interpret it. To take the Bible seriously means to understand it's historical context, the Hebrew and Greek text, the type of literature we are reading, and the cultural circumstances in which the writers lived and wrote and through which they saw the world around them.
The Bible - both the Hebrew Scriptures and New Testament writings - must be interpreted using the tools we have at our disposal, along with much prayer and openness to the Holy Spirit. It requires me to remain open to my own cultural assumptions and how that impacts my reading and understanding of what God is ultimately conveying through these inspired texts.
The Bible isn't like a legal constitution, but rather like a library. It contains a collection of books by many authors who are often in dialogue with each other about God and what God is revealing.
This doesn't solve every issue related to the question, Is God violent? We still find these disturbing images of God in this library. The images really make me uneasy. As much as God is Creator, Sustainer, Provider, Grace-filled, and Loving, let's be honest, God is also violent, cruel and un-Christlike.
What do I do with those violent images? How do I embrace this God?
What do I tell my children when we read a story like the one in 1 Samuel about the Prophet Samuel giving King Saul a command from God? The command is to exact punishment on the Amalekites and to kill every man, woman, child and infant, as well as every animal and beast. Nice, huh?
I can hear it now, "Daddy, why did God want Saul to kill even the babies? What did they do wrong?"
What do I do with texts like that? Do I simply live with this image of God and say, "Honey, listen. God is just way too difficult to fathom? Too much of a mystery to understand? But just remember, God has a plan. He loves us. And it's part of the plan."
And I can hear her reply. "But daddy. If God did that once to the Amalekites, couldn't God one day do it to you and me? I mean, if we do something wrong that makes God sad and angry? In Bible class sometimes we talk about sin, and if we are bad, then God will punish us. My Sunday school teacher said that some people living today will die and go to hell forever, unless they confess their sins and accept Jesus into their heart."
And so the commonly accepted story line goes, a story line that frankly simply perpetuates that God is, indeed, violent. If you don't think this story line is being taught, you're just not listening. (1)
So, one place I begin - and it's only a beginning - is to point out that God's crimes are far less serious than the crimes of other gods in the surrounding region in the ancient world.
A way to illustrate this is to point out that we know of other creation stories that existed during the same time the creation stories of Genesis 1-2 were witten. The most famous one is called the Enuma Elish, a Babylonian creation myth from the same period as the early Old Testatment.
In the midst of the Enuma Elish is the story of the rebellion of young gods against old gods. Tiamat, a female god, fought against Marduk the head god. Marduk killed Tiamat. He forced the wind into her mouth and blew her up like a balloon. And when she was thus distended, he shot her with an arrow. With Tiamat dead, Marduk took his sword and sliced her "like a fish into two parts." He set up the upper portion of her distended belly to become a big dome that makes the sky (parallel to the dome in Genesis 1:6), and established "stations" in this sky for each of the great gods. Finally, Marduk announced that he would "establish a savage; 'man' shall be his name. Verily, savage-man I will create. He shall be charged with the service of the gods that they might be at ease!" After conducting an investigation into which god had provoked Tiamat to rebel, Marduk identified Kingu as the guilty party. So, he "severed his blood (vessels)," and used the blood to create humankind to serve the gods and allow them freedom. (2)
Now. Let's stop.
Allow that to soak in a bit ...
When you compare this creation myth written about the same time as Genesis 1-2, some things become apparent.
Contrary to the spontaneous acts of capricious gods, who create in the aftermath of violence, the Genesis accounts tell a story of order out of chaos without the use of violence. God fashions humankind out of the dust and blows into his nostrils and the man becomes a living being. God establishes a partnered relationship with humankind to care for the Creation.
|Creation of Adam|
Of course, we still have in the library that is our Scriptures, images of God that are cruel and un-Christlike. Is that where I end this? God is indeed violent, but at least he's less violent than other gods?
Check back, after I have a little time to unpack something else in the next post.
(1) I wrote a series called The Overarching Story Line of the Bible" that explored this in more detail. You can read the first one HERE
(2) Adapted from J. Denny Weaver, The Nonviolent God (Grand Rapids: Wm B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2013), pages 105-106.