Monday, 21 December 2015

The Bible and Me Part VI - The Difficult Bits

[I've struggled for a long time with my relationship with the Bible. It has been a rich source of insight and spiritual nourishment to me, but also at times, a source of deep doubt and confusion. My intention in this series is to share a little of how that relationship has developed over time. If you're a Christian and you're trying to work out your own approach to the Bible then it won't give you all the answers, but it may give you some questions and insights that could help you along the way. If you're not a believer, but you're interested in the Christian faith - or in Christians in particular - then it may give you a little insight into how some of us tick!]

[The Bible and Me Part I - Beginning to Question]
[The Bible and Me Part II - Creation]
[The Bible and Me Part III - Inerrancy]
[The Bible and Me Part IV - Scripture vs Tradition]
[The Bible and Me Part V - Job]

I've tried to make clear in my previous posts that I don't believe the Bible is inerrant, but I also do believe that it's extremely important to the Christian faith. Without it of course, there's a very good chance the Christian faith would not even exist.

I also don't believe that the Bible has the ultimate authority over our (Christian) lives. I believe that Christians are called to submit to God, not to a collection of ancient manuscripts! Having said that though, discerning God's will is often not straightforward and if we're serious about doing so then we need to take advantage of every means we can. This includes keeping our hearts open to God, being willing to hear things from Him that we don't like, listening to one another, and especially paying very close attention to those who have gone before. The four gospel books in the New Testament give us the best insight we have into the life and teachings of Jesus - the author and finisher of our faith - and the rest of the New Testament records the deeds and teachings of those who knew Jesus and/or carried his message in the early days. These people are more qualified than any of us to speak for him, and we have to take extremely seriously anything they have to say. In addition, Jesus himself and his early followers held the Old Testament in extremely high regard and understood Jesus' life and teachings in the context of, and as a fulfilment of, the story that it contains. As Jesus' followers then, we are compelled to do the same.

So as a believer in Jesus, I still feel it is necessary to hold a very high view of scripture, in spite of the caveats that I've just mentioned. This is not always straightforward though, and at times I have found it to be a considerable source of personal tension.

There's lots of great stuff in the Bible that I don't have any fundamental problems with - even though some of it is personally very challenging. The bits I particularly do have a problem with though, are the bits that seem to present God's character in an unpleasant light. For example, compare this:
God is love, and the one who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him.
    - 1 John chapter 4 verse 16 - in the New Testament
with this:
When you approach a city to fight against it, you shall offer it terms of peace. If it agrees to make peace with you and opens to you, then all the people who are found in it shall become your forced labor and shall serve you. However, if it does not make peace with you, but makes war against you, then you shall besiege it. When the Lord your God gives it into your hand, you shall strike all the men in it with the edge of the sword. Only the women and the children and the animals and all that is in the city, all its spoil, you shall take as booty for yourself; and you shall use the spoil of your enemies which the Lord your God has given you.
    - Deutoronomy chapter 20 verses 10-14 - in the Old Testament
Where do you start with this passage? Forced labor!? Killing every man in the city!? Treating (now bereaved) women and children as your "booty"!? This sounds more like something I would expect to hear from ISIS than from "God is love"!

Well the "good news", first of all, is that these are instructions given to a particular group of people - the Israelites - under a particular set of circumstances in a particular place and time. These are not general instructions for Christians regarding how they ought to behave! Violent behaviour by believers towards others is not endorsed in the gospels or anywhere else in the New Testament. Instead, Jesus' teaching on violence generally involves phrases like "love your enememies", "pray for those who persecute you" and "turn the other cheek". (That's not to say that God doesn't occasionally come across as angry and vengeful, even in the New Testament, but perhaps that's a topic for another post!)

Christians today do not generally use passages like the one above as justification for killing people. This is not how Jesus operated and it's certainly not how his early followers operated either. But for me, that isn't the problem. The problem is - what do passages like this say about the God who I love and worship? And can I (or even should I?) love, trust, and worship a God like this? This has been a big problem for me. I have only ever experienced God as loving and compassionate. There are plenty of things in the world that are genuinely worth getting angry about and I have no doubt that God gets angry about some of them, but I still expect him to behave with wisdom and justice. I don't see very much of this in passages like the one above. If that passage really is telling the truth about God, then I don't know this God as well as I thought I did - and all of a sudden I feel a lot less sure if I really can trust Him or feel safe with Him!

I can understand why the Israelites might have behaved like this. I can see how for them, this might've been a normal way to do things - it probably was for most of the other nations around them at the time. I can see a lot in the Old Testament that is very positive and that seems to cut across many of the more negative cultural norms of the period. I can understand God patiently working with people who thought like this and behaved like this and gradually drawing them closer to Himself. I can understand God working through the cultural norms of the time in order to achieve a longer term objective that culminated in the life and teachings of Jesus and His self-giving death on the cross. I cannot understand though, God directly commanding the Israelites - or anybody - to do stuff like the above to anybody else!

God is God. He is in charge of life and death and He - and He alone - has the ultimate right to execute judgement on anyone. He is also the only one who is in a position to do so with perfect justice - being totally impartial and in complete possession of all the facts. But I can't understand - or accept - Him directly carrying out this kind of justice - if that's even what this is - through imperfect human agents. Those who try to defend passages like the above often point out some of the terrible and barbaric practices that many of the nations surrounding Israel were involved in at that time, implying that they were in fact only getting what they deserved. Even if this is true and God had simply decided that enough was enough, how could He use His own people - who He says He loves - to do such a terrible thing? Nobody can treat others in such an appalling fashion without having their own humanity deeply scarred by the experience!

I did notice one new thing about this passage when re-reading it yesterday, which is that it is Moses, rather than God Himself, who is giving the Israelites these instructions. This gives me a little hope that perhaps the passage reflects Moses' world view a little more than it does God's! There are other places though, where it is recorded that God Himself gave fairly similar instructions, albeit - inevitably - through one of His other mouth pieces. Moses himself is generally considered to be the greatest of the Jewish prophets who walked extremely closely with God, and seems to often be assumed to be speaking on God's behalf. Maybe though, that assumption doesn't always hold true? Maybe God left Moses quite a large amount of room to interpret what He wanted, within the parameters of what Moses considered to be normal at the time...?

I realise at this point though, that I am stretching the text in an attempt to interpret it in the way that I would like it to read. And so I am still left with a difficult problem - which is that the God of the Old Testament does not seem to me to consistently be a God of love. There is a lot of love in the Old Testament and much of it comes from God, but there is also too much there for my liking that looks very suspiciously like its opposite and as yet I am unable to fully reconcile this.

For myself, I am persuaded that God is a God of love. Ultimately, only love can make sense of the world and of life. If God is arbitrary and capricious, then where do all my high ideals come from? Why do I even have a concept of love and morality? If it's all some big cosmic joke, then it isn't very funny and ultimately God isn't laughing either - if that's the best He can do then it's no more satisfying for Him than for anyone else! If there is no God then it's all ultimately meaningless, and enlightened self-interest, rather than self-giving compassion, is the best of the available bad set of options! But if God is real and Jesus is His best representation, then - in spite of all the mess and the pain - life is ultimately good and is deeply, deeply worth suffering and sacrificing for!

So I still have a mismatch between the God I see revealed in Jesus and the God of the Old Testament. The best I can do is to suggest that the Old Testament authors recorded things according to their best understanding at the time, and that God worked in them and through them - just as He does with us - in spite of all of that. But that doesn't dot all of the i's, and it doesn't cross all of the t's, and it still seems to leave rather a lot of open questions...!

[The Bible and Me Part VII - The Supernatural]
[The Bible and Me Part VIII - Noah and the Flood]

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