How Can We Believe in the Bible? Part 6 - VIOLENCE in the Bible
After a short diversion - back to the topic of the Bible, and its believability. One of the greatest obstacles to the Bible seems to be, for many, the Bible itself - that it doesn't seem to be consistant with itself, particularly when it comes to on particular subject, VIOLENCE.
The Old Testament, in particular, has some VERY gruesome scenes, wars, executions. Sometimes God appears to be telling prophets and kings to wipe out entire civilizations: men, women, children, livestock, everything. Other times, punishment for crimes seem very severe, like being stoned to death for mixing fabrics on your tunic, that sort of thing.
Then along comes Jesus, who tells us to not only not wipe out the Romans (the Jewish mortal enemies), but to LOVE them, to pray for them, to turn the other cheek, etc. Not only that, Jesus tells us that the whole point of ALL the Old Testament Laws was to love, God and neighbor.
So what's going on?
Well, what's going on is that Jesus knows more about God then the people in the Old Testament did. This is a tough one for some of us to swallow, especially those of us who take a more fundamentalist interpretation of scripture - but it is backed up by the fact that, if Jesus is the Son of God, he would know better than someone like Joshua or King David or even Moses would.
Does this mean Joshua and King David and Moses were wrong? Well, no - but sort of, yes.
Haven't I just denied the inerrancy of scripture - that the Bible is God's divine word revealed to humanity? No I haven't - it's still the word of God, and God does still speak to us through it, but the people depicted in it were boneheads sometimes.
And the Bible is BLUNTLY clear on the fact that they were boneheads too. That's one thing that distinguished the Bible from other ancient texts. Babylonian texts make the Babylonians look great. Egyptian texts make the Egyptians look great. Roman texts (mostly) make the Romans look great. The Bible makes both the Jews in the Old Testament and the Apostles in the New Testament look like IDIOTS - because the point of the Bible is to make GOD look great, which it does, partly because God is great for putting up with them despite being idiots.
Now how does this make any sense at all?
Well, I find the most useful analogy is a non-Biblical example, about a guy named Francis of Assisi. In his younger days, he had a vision that God was speaking to him or heard a voice or something like that, and the voice told him to "build up my house." Francis, being a down to earth guy, INTERPRETED the message to mean, go down to the valley to that broken down old chapel, and fix it up for me, which he did.
Did Francis interpret God correctly? Well, not really. See Francis realized, years later, that the "house" God was talking about was actually the Roman Catholic Church as a whole, which had fallen into decay due to luxury and corruption, and had lost touch with its foundation in the Gospel. Francis himself had been instrumental in reconnecting SOME of the Church back to the Gospel - that's what God actually meant - BUT no harm done, because that little church at the bottom of the valley, now rebuilt, had lots of people going there, and his new movement, the Franciscans, were doing a lot of good work too.
Now I'm gonna make a really CRAZY statement, scandalous to some - some of the people responsible for writing the Bible did the same thing as old Francis there.
A guy named Joshua receives a message from God - not a literal voice, but a message nonetheless, a REAL message, from the REAL God, telling him to clean out the land, thoroughly, of all evil, and don't hold anything back. Within Joshua's VIOLENT culture, such a message would very easily be interpreted - go wipe out every man, woman and child in the land.
Did he get the message wrong? Well, kinda, yea - do think Jesus, would have told him to go kill everyone? Of course not. What God probably meant was a type of spiritual cleansing, both of the land itself, but also of their own hearts, HOLDING NOTHING BACK. And we can still get that message from the Book of Joshua today, without interpreting it as being a mandate to go commit Holy Wars.
And the development in the understanding of God continues throughout the Old Testament. The further we read, the less violent God appears to become - but maybe it isn't GOD that's becoming more violent, its the people who are writing about their REAL experiences of God, coming to deeper understandings of God.
By the time we get to Jesus, we've got the definitive interpretation, because Jesus is sent direction from the Father.
This notion of "progressive revelation," that God's revelation is understood gradually throughout history, explains not only the violence in the Bible, it also explains a few other things:
1. In the earliest parts of the Bible, people figured God rewarded people IMMEDIATELY for their good or evil deeds - this is the notion of the book of Deuteronomy. But it isn't long before people realize, wait a minute! Why are bad things happening to good people? We see this reflected in later writings like Jeremiah, Job, Ecclesiastes. Finally, by the time we get to Jesus, we have the Beatitutes - God is with us, even when we think he's absent, and suffering isn't just a DIRECT consequence for an individuals own sins.
2. In the earliest parts of the Bible, the people of Israel were exclusively God's chosen people - his favorites, and God didn't really care for anyone else. As we read on, we see verses in Isaiah that speak of God as not just the God of Israel, but of the whole world. By the time we get to Jesus, salvation is for both Jews and Gentiles (i.e. non-Jews).
3. You might not be aware of this, but if you read closely, you'll realize that there is NO notion of life after death in the earliest parts of the Bible. No heaven, no hell, no nothing. By the time we get to the Book of Samuel, we have some notion of a resting place, Sheol, where people just basically sleep forever. Later we have a Bossom of Abraham, which is the comfy part of Sheol, for God's really special ones. Then in Maccabbees (which is not part of the Hebrew or Protestant Bible because it was written in Greek, but is included in the Catholic and Orthodox Bible), we have a notion of God rewarding martyrs for their faith in some kind of eternal reward. Even by the time of Jesus, there were people who believed in life after death (the Pharisees), and people who didn't (the Sadduccees), because, as mentioned, the OT doesn't say anything about heaven. Finally Jesus says, "Today you'll be with me in Paradise." And that's that.
So, that's all I have to say about the Bible. The bottom line about the Bible is that the Bible is about YOU, and its about ME - it may appear irrelevant, but if we can work through the boring geneologies and ritual-directions, learn a little about the culture that it came from, we'll see that the Bible really is the most relevant book we could ever read.
Having read it several times myself, there's no doubt, for me, that God inspired it - because I have found it to be so TRUE about my own life - its miraculously true. And its God's way of telling us, with words, his one most important, most unifying message of them all - that God is Love.