This is a sermon that I spoke at church this past week. I was somewhat excited to give this sermon and yet at the same time was dreading every minute of it. This is such a sensitive topic and folks read so deeply into how someone lands on topics like this. Over the last few weeks I’ve been reading and preparing for this sermon, and some conversations have come out of it on Facebook where this was said to me “Then you are as lost as the rest of the world and the Spirit of Truth is not in you. Please step out of leadership until you have somewhere to lead people.” Really, whenever we talk about the Bible we get responses like this, that if you believe something different than them or the majority of the evangelical church then you have no business being a Christian. At theStory we value these hard topics and the conversations surrounding them. I’m certainly not speaking on behalf of the whole church with a sermon like this, but I do have an unique opportunity to force some questions and make people think by offering my own take. With topics like this we can never preach it, expect everyone just to listen and agree and then move on. Rather, it is my role to bring these conversations to the surface and help facilitate discussion around what is going on here. So by doing that I have to intentionally push some buttons at times, and expose our biases and (in love of course) and suggest things that hurt. I think a sermon like this does that. Thank God that our opinions about violence in the OT don’t matter to our salvation!
I think this week could be a very interesting one for us, as I think a conversation like the one we are about to have is what a church like theStory is all about. So may I remind us ahead of time about our rules of dialogue and let us keep in mind that disagreeing can be done in a healthy way as we learn more about God and each other.
So we’ve been sitting in First and Second Samuel for about eight months now and we’ve been starting to pick up on some patterns in this story, and many of these patterns have caused quite a bit of discomfort. For instance, we have a story where God tells a king to wipe out another nation – and leave no one spared – including children. Just think about that for a moment. Some of us have already allowed these stories close to our hearts and that has caused us to be awfully uncomfortable. How could the God of the universe, who created us in his own image, who takes the side of the oppressed, who was incarnate in the Prince of Peace, who took violence upon himself so his creation didn’t have to – how could this God have so offhandedly just commanded genocide. How could desire the death of innocents? For many of us – those views are simply incompatible, and these stories in 1&2 Samuel are bringing these conversations to the surface. Of course this is just one of many of the violent stories throughout Samuel. There is also this crazy scene where David wants some food and this guy doesn’t give him any – so God kills him. Really? God is in the business of taking people’s lives because a wandering nomad is looking for some attention? It doesn’t help after that David takes his wife after God kills him, and there doesn’t seem to be any issue with that.
So what do we do? What are we left with? The Christian and Jewish traditions has long struggled with these stories and people have come to land in all sorts of different explanations of what is going on. You’ll have some people that will see that and instantly become atheists. You’ll have some that just say God is God and he can do what he wants – how dare you question him (like Job’s friends). You’ll have some that refuse to believe that God did anything in the Bible that rubs us the wrong way. It’s always difficult to approach topics at theStory like this because we want to acknowledge all these different views, make sure people feel like they can question without penalty and especially make sure that people have the grace to change their mind. It’s also difficult to approach these topics here because we end series like this without giving too much away. We don’t like to tell everyone what they have to think, and that generally leaves people with a bad taste in their mouth. So we kind of leave it open at times. We present you with the points of view and then we challenge you to wrestle with it yourself. Maybe, if you are lucky, the person who is presenting will give you a hint about what they are thinking about and where they are leaning.
I think though, when I’m leading this discussion, it is always a good idea to start with the opposite. To start about what we are NOT talking about and agree on some non-negotiables at least for this conversation. From there I think we can start a good discussion into getting us into what we need to discuss.
1. So for instance. Here is one thing that I think we can all safely say together as Christians. That we are not really putting on the table that God is evil. We aren’t saying that there is no such thing is evil, I think we are saying that whatever it is, it isn’t that which we call God. We can get into all sorts of arguments about who God is and if God can be restricted to our definitions and such, but I think when it comes down to it for us – all of us believe in a God that is good. So whatever we come up with when this is over – it is not going to be ‘because God is evil and/or does evil things.’
2. A second thing I think we can all come to terms with is that Jesus is Lord and he came to do away with an old system and invoke a new system in the way we interact with each other. This isn’t up for debate. We are here because we call ourselves CHRISTians and so Jesus is the central figure in this. We can fully know who God is because we know who Jesus is. Everything we believe is filtered through the lens of Jesus. Jesus trumps everything else.
3. The last thing that I think we need to put on the table before we start is that the Bible is the Christian’s book. We believe that it is important to read, study, meditate on and we give it authority over our lives. So that means we need to take it seriously. We can’t just discard something because we don’t like it. The Bible informs our faith and points us toward Jesus. It also means though that we just can’t make it say something because that’s what we are used to, or that’s what we think it means or because “God said it so God meant it.” There is so much work that goes into reading and studying the Bible. It’s why we spend eight months in a series. It’s why every week we open it up and dive into and try to understand what is going on. We can’t read the Psalms the same way we read Matthew and we can’t read Genesis the same way we read Samuel. If the Bible is to be a sacred text in our lives, then we better do the hard work that is necessary to understand what is going on and not just jump to conclusions.
John Walton wrote a brilliant book on Genesis and he I think explains this well for us:
The Old Testament does communicate to us and it was written for us, and for all humankind. But it was not written to us. It was written to Israel. It is God’s revelation of himself to Israel and secondarily through Israel to everyone else. As obvious as this is, we must be aware of the implications of that simple statement. Since it was written to Israel, it is in a language that most of us do not understand, and therefore it requires translation. But the language is not the only aspect that needs to be translated. Language assumes a culture, operates in a culture, serves a culture, and is designed to communicate into the framework of a culture. Consequently, when we read a text written in another language and addressed to another culture, we must translate the culture as well as the language if we hope to understand the text fully.
– John H. Walton
If this is true, we need to go to great lengths to understand Israel and what was going on and how they would have read it and why it was written before it will be much help to us. If we were to just open the Bible to any verse and claim it as our own life verse we are doing a drastic disservice to the Bible. We need to approach it with respect and due diligence to understand what is going on.
OK. So now that we have our foundation, we can enter into the issues at hand. For us the issues are about Samuel in particular. So let’s be clear about this. We are not talking about the entire Old Testament as a whole. We cannot do that. There are thirty nine books in the Old Testament, with different authors, different agendas, written at different times, to different people with specific purposes. So we are unable to speak about a wise way to interpret all of it at once as they all demand their own specific understanding. So for us, this morning we are looking to what Samuel is. What kind of book is it? What is going on here?
Well the first thing we know about Samuel is that it wasn’t written by Samuel nor written around the time when these events were going on. It was about 1000BC when these events were taking place, but the books were recorded over a span of a couple hundred years almost 400 years later. Many of the additions were added while Israel was in Babylonian exile. So this means a lot of things for us to consider. First of all. It means that the authors of the text were not there. This forces some questions:
How do we evaluate the claims of the biblical story? We begin by recognizing that the Bible is not objective history, nor was it ever intended to be. The idea, and much more so the practice, of “objective history” was unavailable to its authors. The biblical narrative breaks most of the fundamental rules of modern history writing. We find in the biblical story, presented as fact, aspects that no historian could know: private and unverifiable elements, including events that occurred behind closed doors; dialogues; and even internal monologues. We find characterizations of the various individuals in the story that are far from unbiased. And, perhaps most notably, we find the introduction of divine intervention as an explanation for the course of events. We can hardly blame the biblical author for failing to follow conventions of history writing that developed thousands of years after he wrote his narrative. At the same time, however, we cannot read the biblical text as if it were a piece of modern history writing. It may be describing the past, and in that sense it is historical in nature, but it describes the past using conventions more familiar to us from the genre of historical fiction.
– Joel Baden
A quote like this might scare us a bit, but I think it’s important for us to acknowledge what the Bible is and how we are to understand it. This collection of books is not a magic book. God did not write it. People wrote it. If God wrote it then we would be worshiping the Bible, but we aren’t to worship the Bible, we are to worship Jesus. This doesn’t mean we are discarding the Bible – this just means we are looking at it more accurately and therefore can interpret it more correctly. So this means like Walton suggests that we need to understand the culture and the language and the people and the authors before we can wisely apply anything that we are reading to our own lives.
What I think one of the fallacies approaching the Bible, especially the Old Testament is this idea that the Bible was a book that fell from heaven and is absolutely 100% accurate and infallible and inerrant. This just isn’t true. We’ve seen contractions in our own little story let alone all the books with each other. These stories were written by humans that we believe were inspired by God, not written by God through humans. As we know through our own experiences, even inspired people get things wrong, have agendas and don’t know everything.
So many Christians feel like they need to hold the ‘texts in tension.’ This basically means that we just assume that both things are true and we enjoy the paradox of not really knowing what is going on. While I admire this approach for things that don’t make sense to us – I do think it’s dangerous as this tension is a result of us having an uninformed approach to these stories so we feel like we need to keep things in tension when we really don’t.
For example. Let’s look at the genocide in Rwanda. Rwanda is one of the most Christianized nations in Africa when the Hutus went out to slaughter the Tutsis and in a year killed 800,000 of them. There was a group of Christians in Rwanda who wrote and pleaded with their district president to intervene. Their response they got from him?
“You must be eliminated. God no longer wants you.”
Everyone turned on them, the pastors and the president and pointed out where they were living and killed them all. Now here is the issue we are presented with in this story – and in stories in the Old Testament. We know about who God is. We believe God is good. We believe Jesus is God. Then in the other hand we hear things like “God no longer wants you.” Remember this is coming from a place of authority. The person you are supposed to submit to and respect, someone who is inspired by God. So we can see the predicament arise. What belief about God do we hold? Is God good or does God want me dead? Are those two thoughts mutually exclusive? How do we know the difference? Or what about when the planes went crashing into the Twin Towers? Many people started announcing that this was God’s judgement on America for homosexuality running rampant. Was it? How do we know if it was or not?
We are faced with the same predicament with the Bible. The Bible says God told Israel to commit genocide. The Bible says God killed someone because he didn’t give up some dinner.
And this is where the debate rages…There is so many fascinating viewpoints on this one specific idea that it will hurt your head.
- God doesn’t fit into categories of good and bad
- Everything God does is good, even if we don’t understand it
- The Bible is inerrant with everything it says, so what it says we have to accept at face value
- This was just God meeting people where they were at in this time
All of these justifications all have one thing in common. They hold to the belief that BOTH statements about God are equally true. Many times this is seen as taking the high road – that you are holding both things in tension. But I think by taking that road – that we are going back on our non-negotiables. That God is good, Jesus is Lord and that we need to take the Bible seriously.
Some things maybe we don’t need to hold in tension. I don’t think it is necessary to believe that “well I guess God just decides to wipe out nations.” I’m not sure that is a healthy place to be in as a Christian. Do we then look at Pat Robertson, or the Rwandan genocide and say “well I guess maybe they could have heard from God?” I think in cases like this it is OK and probably important that we put down our foot as Christians and say “No, this is not the kind of God that I serve.” That might cause you to have to go back to the stories and understand them differently (some would call that watering down the text to force your own view into them, and it is doing that, just like the fundamentalists). But if you hold to a certain idea then absolutely it should cause you to question these stories, at least be skeptical of them. I think it’s a much safer place to be in to question these stories then it is to question your understanding of God.
So with that said. This is how we approach this at theStory. We admit our biases. We acknowledge that we are approaching every story with certain presuppositions. For some it is that the Bible is true about everything it says at face value. For others it is that God is good and wants his best for creation, and that God is love. For our bias – we acknowledge that everything, absolutely everything has to be filtered through Jesus. We don’t filter things through our belief in the Bible, we filter things through Jesus. And simply by having that stated up front – it will change drastically how we read all these stories.
“The Old testament is a document of the faith of the old Israel and only secondarily a document of the church. It’s message is not of and itself a Christian message.”
– John Bright
Bright isn’t saying this because he wants to discard it – he is saying it because he is trying to have us realign our perspectives with how we approach the Old Testament. If we read these stories in and of themselves without understanding Jesus, and how Jesus understood it – then these stories will take on a life of their own.
Old Testament theological articulation does not conform to established church faith…There is much that is wild and untamed about the theological witness of the Old Testament that church theology does not face”
– Walter Breuggemann
Breuggemann here is establishing that the Old Testament is so wildly different, and the Christian church generally does not know how to approach it. So this is why we as Christians approach the Old Testament with Jesus as our understanding.
So then we start with Jesus, and a good question to ask to start is how did Jesus read and understand the Old Testament?
While Jesus affirmed the Hebrew Scriptures as the authentic Word of God, he did not endorse every word in them as God’s. He rejected some Torah tests as representing the original and will of God, such as Moses’ divorce laws (Mark 10:4-9). He displaced Moses’ laws governing vengeance with his new ethic of active nonviolent resistance of ‘overcoming evil with good). His command to ‘love your enemies’ represents a total repudiation of Moses’ genocidal commands and stands in judgment on Joshua’s campaign of ethnic cleansing. In his word of absolution to the woman taken in adultery, Jesus contravened the clear injunctions of the Torah calling for adulterers to be put to death. It is clear that Jesus exercised audacious prophetic authority over the Torah and on how it was to be interpreted.
So much of Jesus’ life was lived by and from the Torah and what we call the Old Testament, but in so many ways it was obviously in contrast to. Whether it be to the scholars, pharisees, breaking the rules, changing the meaning and straight up disagreeing with what he was always finding himself in this place of interpreting what he read with fresh eyes. In some cases he almost is making apologies for the OT (se conversation with Canaanite women). Jesus gives us the freedom to reinterpret these stories through new eyes. With Jesus we have new information that we didn’t have before, that the OT characters never would have had. We learn more about God through Jesus – we learn more about what it means to be loved by God.
This means that it will take some work, but we cannot just read these stories and pretend that Jesus didn’t happen. We absolutely have to read all these stories through the eyes of Jesus, and what he said, how he lived and what he was doing. So if this is true, we cannot believe that God is evil – we cannot believe that God commands genocide or strikes people dead for not doing the right thing, or punishes entire groups of people over sins of a few. Other Christians over the centuries push back very strongly on this idea of God.
To attribute such atrocities to God is an outrage against his character and makes him “more false, more cruel, and more unjust than the devil…God hath taken [Satan’s] work out of his hands…God is the destroyer of souls.”
– John Wesley
“Against such an image of God the revolt of atheism is an act of pure religion”
“When it came to the ritual or ceremonial law…containing all the injunctions and ordinances which related to the old sacrifices and service of the Temple, our Lord indeed did come to destroy, to dissolve, and utterly abolish. To this bear all the Apostles witness.
So may I suggest this. In light of what we know about Jesus, what we know about GOd and what we know about how authors of this time compiled their stories that it is quite possible that these descriptions of God committing these atrocities are just simply not true. Better, we don’t HAVE to hold in tension that God did do these things and God is love. Rather we can hold that God didn’t do these things. But if we hold that, we need to understand differently then what is going on in these stories. Remember, we have to take the Bible seriously, we can’t just say we don’t like it and throw it out. But now that we are faced with this new truth revealed in Jesus we need to re-evaluate what is going on here when God is evoked throughout the OT.
The very name of Israel means to wrestle with God. This is a defining characteristic for Israel. To simply accept what someone tells them blindly about who God is or what God has done would be unacceptable for them. So by refusing to hold these in tension and demanding God’s character be understood in light of these texts we are joining an age old struggle with God to understand who he is and how he acts in history.
Here is an example, let me point out a story we’ll be getting to very soon in 2 Samuel.
“Again the anger of the Lord burned against Israel, and he incited David against them, saying, “Go and take a census of Israel and Judah.” (24:1) Then – he obeyed and ‘was conscious stricken….and he said to the Lord ‘I have sinned greatly in what I have done. So the Lord sent a plague on Israel from that morning until the end of the time designated, and seventy thousand of the people from Dan to Beersheba died. (24:15)
OK, what? God commands David to do something, he does it, then David repents for doing it and then God punishes them by killing 70,000 people. What in the world is going on here. This story alone should give us some insight into the kind of story we are reading here.
Q: Is it fair to suggest that maybe God didn’t actually command David to do this? Is it fair to suggest the plague maybe didn’t have anything to do with this as punishment? Or do we have to look at this story and take it at face value that they got God’s actions and motives down pat?
Now, let me throw in a twist.
Satan rose up against Israel and incited David to take a census of Israel.
1 Chronicles 21:1
This is the exact same story but the main character is defined as the complete opposite, yet written later.
That a significant development in the understanding of God’s role in the abortive census had occurred is obvious. The Jews had begun to project some of the darker attributes of Yahweh onto a contra divine being, Satan. We see this development most clearly in the book of Job. It was not God who caused the disasters that befell righteous Job, as both he and his comforters believed by Satan.
Now this is very easy for us to approach if we want to take the Bible seriously. You see by taking the Bible seriously that means that we have to understand the authors, the conditions, the culture, the reality of what is going on when these were written. So we can start to see the author’s personalities and understandings of God seeping through – not objective truthful God speaking on behalf of himself/herself.
“What we witness in the pages of the Bible is the gradual process by which God works in the history of a particular people for whom war is an essential part of the religion and culture. By doing so he transforms these ideas to enable all humankind to understand more clearly the nature of the world we live in.”
– Colin Chapman
This can be seen already the biblical stories about David: the two books of Kings, written at the close of the monarchic era (mid””sixth century BCE), elevate David to the perfect king; the two books of Chronicles, written when the temple dominated Israelite society (ca. 400 BCE), value David as a religious leader. There is a progression here about not only how God is understood but also how David is understood. So we see that the OT authors were working with what they had, not objective facts about what happened.
As Calvin even said, that the OT authors would have had slight capacity of ability to comprehend the fullness of God’s character and nature, which would come to light only in Jesus hundreds of years later. This would mean to us that we can read the OT knowing that the authors and the stories are written by folks in an ancient culture, who were slow to realize who God was and are sharing their stories. Sharing their stories was their way of sharing their experiences, not passing down truth that could not be questioned or critiqued or challenged. This means that we aren’t required to read these words “About ten days later, the Lord struck Nabal and he died” as historical fact of what happened. We are required to read those words with healthy suspicion, knowing that God doesn’t just go around murdering people and knowing that David had a lot of interest in the death of Nabal and taking his wife and this story was recorded hundreds of years after and was reading their current situation into the story as well. It is awfully too easy to play the ‘God card’ whenever you need to make a strong point and to take the Bible seriously doesn’t mean that we have to assume the authors of the Bible always knew when God was acting.
Here is what I am suggesting. That if we are seeking to know God more and better then we allow Christ to filter absolutely everything. We know God as he is revealed to us in Christ and the scriptures point us to Christ. 1 & 2 Samuel isn’t meant to tell us about God and how he acted in history (Chronicles was meant to do that), it is meant to tell us about how Israel became a nation like all other nations, it was meant to tell us about David’s rise to power, that eventually lead to the need of Jesus in history to correct everything. There is plenty about God in there, but everything about God must be read through who Christ is and then we interpret these stories through that lens.
Q: If this is true, where does that leave us?
We wouldn’t be alone by approaching the scriptures this way. For instance there is a rabbinic tradition that God’s angels sought to chant songs of victory once the Israelites crossed the red Sea. But their song is stopped by God saying “the work of my hands has drowned in the sea and shall you chant songs?” In the eyes of the Rabbis, the Egyptians deserve their fate (as do they), but they too are God’s creations, God’s children…the joy experienced in the liberation of one’s own people, a victory made possible by God’s war against an oppressive tyrant, is tempered by sorrow for the enemy.
The view that says God did it is so harmful to understanding the character of God, and understanding the purpose of the scriptures that we will end up reading these stories and starting to make the same mistakes that the authors made. We will start to look around and attribute divine intervention to everyday things. Just look at the story of Job to see how the friends understood God. If we just accept these stories as truth rather than their experiences we will be at risk of being just like Job’s friends.
“War was a normal state in the ancient world of the Near East.” It was inevitable that Israel would be a fighting nation. The land that they were convinced they were promised was strategic land for all the surrounding nations around them. They never even owned the land in the first place, they had to run out, kill or destroy the people that already occupied the land. Peter Craigie, a scholar on violence in the Hebrew Bible pushes this point in saying that “it is evident that without the use of force the state of Israel would not have come into existence.” In that time, war was how you accomplished anything. So Israel was technically like everyone else. Yet, they attributed their violence to God, either by command or direct intervention. Kingdoms can only exist through war.
– John L. McKenzie
So this leads me too why I picked 1&2 Samuel in the first place. I didn’t pick these stories because I thought that we were going to learn all these new truths about God and try to scare you with all these stories of a big bad God up in the sky. If we go back to those little cards that we handed out at the beginning of the year, it explains the reasoning behind what 1&2 Samuel can teach us. Remember this entire series is called “National Insecurity” and I made the tagline be “so we can be like all the other nations” which is a direct quote from the mouths of people of Israel of why they want a King.
These stories are important for us because it shows us what it looks like to be a group of people who serve God that want to pave their own way and go in their own direction and be like everyone else. It shows us the lengths that people go through to thrive, be powerful and be safe. They tell us more about our own weaknesses than it tells us about God’s actions.
Across all books and scholars that I read there is an overwhelming understanding of the corruption of Israel as it seeks to start looking and being like all other nations. Slowly they become a kingdom, get their temples, get their armies, and spread their influence by killing and murdering and destroying. How can we read the stories of Israel in any other way but to be skeptical of God’s direct action to make way for them to do this?
When comparing the activities of the Israelites throughout their long history with that of early Christians, it is clear that theology matters and that people’s concept of God makes a vast difference in terms of how they relate to one another and their world. It is the difference between ideologies of coercive and destructive violence embodied in the Islamic doctrine of jihad (“holy war”) and the noncoercive, life-ennobling, self-giving love of God exhibited in Jesus on the cross.
– C.S. Cowles
Like Wesley, our Free Methodist forefather. We refuse to negotiate if God is good, or if God is different than the God that we find in Jesus. So we look to understand God in the Old Testament in light of who Jesus is. We recognize that the Old Testament wasn’t written with the aim to give us objective history of God’s every move rather it was written in a particular context and a particular understanding of who God was with a particular agenda. This context was shaped by the cultures around them and their desire to be just like them. This context lead them, like their surrounding cultures, to attribute divine action to unknown realities and divine action to affirm what good or bad went on. If we are looking to understand God, we need to look to Jesus, not to stories of Kings and nations and war and oppression and exile who are looking to justify their actions and record their understanding of who God was to them. So as we keep reading 1 & 2 Samuel, we can read it through the lens of Christ if we are looking to see who God is. We can read these stories to give us insight about what happens when nations turn away from God and seek to justify their own existence through power, corruption, kings and war. We can see where we are vulnerable to apply God’s direction and commands into our own life and we can continually be reminded that all stories, regardless of who wrote them are still desperately in need of the redemption of Jesus Christ.