Christianity 201

February 13, 2016

The ‘Gratuitous Violence’ of the Old Testament

Judges 4:21 NIV But Jael, Heber’s wife, picked up a tent peg and a hammer and went quietly to him while he lay fast asleep, exhausted. She drove the peg through his temple into the ground, and he died.

Click here to read all of chapter four.

Peter Enns is a renown theologian, Biblical scholar, author and teacher at Eastern College. This is his 4th time here at C201, and his style seemed like just the right thing for a weekend study/devotional. For some of you today’s subject may raise more questions than provide answers. You may disagree with one of his conclusions, but I do believe that Peter has great respect for the text. Click the title below, not only to read the post, but see an image based on the verse cited above!

“people are just dying all over the place”—reading the Old Testament historical books

This semester [I’m] teaching a course on the Old Testament “historical books”—Joshua, Judges, 1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings, Ezra, and Nehemiah. (I cover Chronicles as part of my Biblical Hermeneutics class under “midrash.”)

As I always do for my biblical canon courses, I read through that portion of the Bible during break. And as I’m revisiting these stories, I’ve found myself thinking, “Please, Lord, let these be greatly exaggerated if not largely manufactured stories.”

With hardly a break, I am struck (pun intended) by how casual and heartless the ancient Israelites were about violence and vengeance. The ancient Israelites, by and large, were plain old nasty, mean, and not the kind of people you’d want to cross—or even playfully tease.

. . . Or better: the Israelites we meet in the Old Testament were that way.

Frankly, I have no idea what “ancient Israelites” were actually like—those tending the sheep, growing their grain, telling stories to their children, hiding from invaders. We don’t really know anything about them. We just know of a precious few, and we only know them through what anonymous writers said about them probably many centuries later.

How fair were these writers? Were they even trying? What ax were they grinding? What was their deal?

At any rate, regardless of how they got there, the people we meet in these stories have issues, and you can’t help but wonder what the point of all this is in a holy book. If I were writing the Bible, I’d throw in some more positive stuff—like not glorying in impaling or beheading your enemies or people who want to take your stuff.

Or at least have God step in now and then and say, “Hey, will you people cut. it. out?! Enough of this already! If you only knew the shelf life these stories will get and how people are going to use them. . . . ”

But God seems OK with it. At least that’s what the writers have written.

Yes, reading the stories from conquest to exile can be an eye-opening experience, not for the faint of heart, and probably not without someone to talk it through with. Sometimes I wish the Bible came with a toll-free customer service number. (And no, that’s not what prayer is. Sheesh.)

Even leaving aside the whole conquest of Canaan (aka extermination of Canaanites and any other living thing), people are dropping like flies. It seems like major death is the end result of nearly every story you read. People are just gonna die. Brace yourself. And often those killings are portrayed as good, just, honorable, and normal—like, “What’s your problem? This is just what happens, you know?”

I started going through these books and listing the violence and general vindictive nastiness, but then stopped. I have a busy schedule. Plus it’s getting discouraging.

All of this reminds me of a couple of things I tend to harp on, and I think for good reason.

  1. Knowing something of when and why these stories were written might help us understand something of what the writers are trying to say. Discerning all this isn’t straightforward by any means, but I think it’s worth the effort.
  2. And after you’re done with all that, we readers of the Bible still have to decide what WE  are going to do with all of it, how we are going to process it for our life of faith here and now. And that’s not easy either.

In The Bible Tells Me So, I basically come down on these two things as follows:

  1. I think at that these stories were written in a tribalistic context, and thus reflect that context—this is how stories of gods and nations were told.  Further, the writers exaggerated and/or freely shaped the past for theological and/or propagandistic purposes.
  2. I do not think these stories should be read theologically uncritically, meaning simply accepted as prescribing what God is like. The Bible isn’t a rule book or owner’s manual, and we don’t get off the hook so easily. What God is like transcends the stories written about him.

I’ve said a mouthful here, I know. Agree or disagree, but my thinking comes from reading the Bible respectfully and carefully, not from an antagonistic or dismissive point of view.

The Bible—as it always has—raises plenty of questions on its own. And when we engage those questions, we are joining a long and honored conversation.

January 6, 2014

Generation Lost

“A spiritual community that does not transmit its sacred writings to its children is one generation away from extinction.”

I don’t know the origin of the above quotation, but over and over I keep hearing statistics citing the alarming attrition rate in both mainline Protestant and Evangelical churches. Though the Evangelicals are not losing people at the same rate, the end result in 2-3 generations looks the same unless there is a major spiritual intervention.

Joshua 2 9-10

Judges 2 in The Message Bible reads,

8-9  Then Joshua son of Nun, the servant of God, died. He was 110 years old. They buried him in his allotted inheritance at Timnath Heres in the hills of Ephraim north of Mount Gaash.

10 Eventually that entire generation died and was buried. Then another generation grew up that didn’t know anything of God or the work he had done for Israel.

When you look at the current preponderance of Christian books, music, radio stations, TV ministries, easy-to-understand scriptures, etc.; it’s hard to imagine a day when an entire generation could arise having lost the thread of the story of The Church, the story of God’s dealings with humankind as understood by Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and by Luke, Peter and Paul.

Matthew Henry notes:

All that generation in a few years wore off, their good instructions and examples died and were buried with them, and there arose another generation of Israelites who had so little sense of religion, and were in so little care about it, that, notwithstanding all the advantages of their education, one might truly say that they knew not the Lord, knew him not aright, knew him not as he had revealed himself, else they would not have forsaken him. They were so entirely devoted to the world, so intent upon the business of it or so indulgent of the flesh in ease and luxury, that they never minded the true God and his holy religion, and so were easily drawn aside to false gods and their abominable superstitions.

Blogger Suzette at The Joy of Homemaking sums up what many think as they read these verses:

[ click here to read the article in full; the following is an excerpt ]

I find this to be one of the saddest passages of Scripture.

How is it possible that a whole generation grew up in Israel who didn’t know the Lord?

Weren’t they the children and grandchildren of the people who had seen the ten plagues come upon Egypt, who had walked across the Red Sea on dry land, who had eaten manna in the desert, saw water come out of rocks, marched around the city of Jericho and saw the walls collapse, participated in the military campaigns of Moses and Joshua, and who themselves had gone into the land promised to them by God and conquered the remaining cities?

So how is it then that they did not know the Lord or the work which He had done for Israel?

Unfortunately, the answer is even sadder than the passage itself.

The parents failed to share.

The parents did not tell their children about the works God had done in their lives and for their people.

The parents had not reminded them constantly about God’s mighty acts and awesome power.

The parents did not mention on a day-to-day basis the Hand of God being present in their lives…

… It is important for us to read God’s Word to our children on a daily basis. Have you ever noticed that the things that we immerse ourselves in (sports, crafts, fishing, etc.) become the things that our children take interest in? If we show our love for God and His Word to our children, they will develop a love for Him and His Word as well. What they see as priorities in our lives will become priorities in their lives too.

And, yes, I know that eventually our children will make their own personal choice about serving the Lord, but we have to make sure that as parents we do our part in teaching them about Him and His love for them. God does not expect us to leave that up to the church. He specifically tells parents to take on this responsibility in Deut. 6:6-9.

The generation mentioned in this passage of Scripture had not been taught, because they didn’t know God or what He had done.

Someone failed to share.

Maybe it was because the parents found themselves to be too busy (I’m sure conquering land takes up a lot of time and energy), too tired, or they just wanted to do other things. Whatever the case, the result was a generation who did not serve the Lord because they did not know the Lord.

The sad results of a generation that grows up not knowing the Lord or the work that He has done is found in Judges 2:11-12. “Then the sons of Israel did evil in the sight of the Lord and served the Baals, and they forsook the Lord, the God of their fathers, who had brought them out of Egypt, and followed other gods from among the gods of the peoples who were around them, and bowed themselves down to the; thus they provoked the Lord to anger.”

May it never be said that we did not teach our children about the Lord.

May it never be said that the next generation did not know the Lord or the work which He had done.


Related post: What Happened to the Memory Verse?