So we are spending a full year in 1 & 2 Samuel as a church. Very quickly the violent stories of the Hebrew Bible start coming into play. Stories like when God tells Saul to slaughter a nation – every adult, every child, every animal. Stories like when Samuel beheads the King because Saul didn’t – all seemingly under the good will of God. Of course, we start working our way through these stories and you can sense the discomfort in the room. Excuse me? God said what?
“Sorry I can’t just start talking about the cliche of obedience over sacrifice when obedience means genocide.”
As facilitators of the discussion, we try to nip it at butt and tell people that we aren’t talking about it this week, but its really all futile. It comes up in most responses or questions or answers. How can we go any further in this story and why do we keep getting stuck here? There is so much more to this story and we keep getting stuck on the idea that God seems like he’s the worst thing to happen to the world. And oh sure, we know all the typical excuses of violence in the Old Testament, we’ve read this book and so we find ourselves a bit more enlightened than everyone else. I even wrote one of my final papers on this subject in 2006 because I wrestled with it so much.
Then why is this all such a struggle still? Why can’t I just unload my findings to everyone else and say don’t worry everyone? Jesus shows up and makes it all better?
Truth is, it is these stories that caused me to revisit the Scriptures and what they are and what place they are supposed to hold in the Christian’s life. I’m not content with the typical response of “well it’s in the Bible, so it must be true.” Yet, I find at this place in my life my faith is stronger than it has been before. I think what happened, if I was to flesh this out, is that I completely abandoned my faith in the Bible as being the kind of book that I can look at and say “well it must be true, end of story.” I can’t really look at passages and think “yup, God is exactly as described in this passage.” For instance, let’s just take a look at this for a second. I came across this in preparing my sermon for last week. This is 1 Samuel 18.
The next day an evil spirit from God came forcefully on Saul. He was prophesying in his house, while David was playing the lyre, as he usually did. Saul had a spear in his hand and he hurled it, saying to himself, “I’ll pin David to the wall.” But David eluded him twice.
Saul was afraid of David, because the Lord was with David but had departed from Saul.
Now if we were just to take this at face value, it’s quite confusing. Not only does God have evil spirits, but he’s forcing them on people that causes them to kill other people and then abandons them just as quickly after. Now this book was written a few hundred years after this actually happened sometime around 630-540 BCE. I just can’t help but think that possibly, after that long that maybe, just maybe, there is some writing going on here to help make a point, or tell a good story, or to justify a story, or to make it more interesting, or to remove blame, or to pass on guilt, or to drive home a metaphor or maybe the result of a game of telephone gone horribly wrong. I know, I just became a heretic or something.
Hear me out. If these stories were written hundreds of years later by people who were not present then either God gave them the exact details of the story (and I’m completely out to lunch) or they wrote the story in such a way that would make sense from their present perspective (years later) in exile. So it is very possible, that us, reading these stories thousands of years later, might be trying to interpret interpretations. Which really, could be difficult if we are looking for exact details about what God said or did. Because if we were honest. No matter who you are today, if ‘God’ told you to go kill an entire nation and you made the attempt, there isn’t a God believing person on this earth that would believe you that God told you to do it. So why do we believe that God told Saul to do it? Oh right, he was just meeting them where they were at. Why is it easier for people to believe God commanded genocide then but won’t now? Or maybe we do think he’s commanding it now.
I’ve lost my faith in the Bible. That sounds bad. But I really haven’t lost my faith at all. I know, how else can I know Christ but through the Bible. Well, besides community, love, Holy Spirit, experience, tradition, etc. – But my faith just isn’t in those things either. My faith cannot be in the thing that is supposed to point to the redeemer, my faith should be in the redeemer himself. Paradoxial? Yup. It’s a slippery slope.
The Bible is the most brilliant story, and I believe it to be the kind of story that accurately reflects the state of mankind and its need of being saved and the true story of salvation. But to ask me to believe that God, who we can know through Jesus, was just a few thousand years before commanding genocides is just too much. I have no reason or need to believe that is true. My faith is not in a hermeneutic of inerrancy or infallibility. My faith is not in the people who passed down the stories of Israel in that they had accurately grasped God’s heart, moods, regrets and actions. Nor should it be. I almost expect them to get it wrong, and attach God’s name to their hostility. It’s easy in a few hundred years to go from attacking a nation out of self defense or wanting to expand to attacking a nation because God was with you and commanded it. Hell, just look at the country below us. They already believe God is blessing their wars. I wonder how many history books will be written, in three hundred years, about how God commanded us to invade Iraq and Afghanistan.
My faith lies in a good God who was willing to sacrifice himself to end the cycle of violence and bring forward God’s Kingdom here and now. Just because the written stories of his people from thousands of years ago claim to speak for him doesn’t necessarily mean that we have to believe it.
Or am I completely out to lunch here? All my orthodox friends want to chime in here and put me back on the straight and narrow?