One of the most unpleasant conversations I’ve ever had was with a hardline fundamentalist Christian, who, upon learning that I was a Catholic, made it quite clear that I was on my way to hell. This man knew virtually nothing about me, and yet he had my eternal destiny all figured out. Amazing!
That encounter left a stark impression on my soul. I found no evidence of compassion or love in that man, only judgment for those different than himself. What frightens me the most is that he claimed to know and worship the same God to Whom I have devoted my life; yet, our respective notions of that God could not be further apart. His god, I fear, is very much like him.
Recently, I received a Facebook message that, at first glance, appeared to be representative of popular Christian piety. It included a familiar image of Jesus, taken from Revelation 3:20, wherein The Lord is depicted as standing outside and knocking on a door with no external doorknob. The initial, visual implication was clear – Jesus can only enter one’s life when the door (to the heart) is opened from the inside; but, after reading the caption, I understood that this was not the intended theme.
The message, forwarded by someone I know – a Christian – who regularly monitors atheist social media sites, was meant to mock the often contradictory images of God that some Christians seem to hold. The caption read as follows:
It’s Jesus. Let me in…
I have to save you.
From what I’m gonna do to you if you don’t let me in.”
Sadly, this version of Jesus seems much like that fundamentalist’s god. If one is on that god’s good side, then all is well. If not, well, there’s (literally) hell to pay.
Honestly, I found the forwarded message both humorous and sad; but, I also find it important, especially for consideration by a Christian community that often seems to present contrary pictures of her God to a disbelieving world. In fact, it seems that Christians themselves often hold on to contradictory images of God without ever noticing the conflict. It is perplexing to say the least.
Is God the cause of humanity’s struggle? The cure? Both? Hmmm.
Several years ago, a woman in Iran was sentenced to death by stoning for the sin/crime of adultery. As news of her fate filtered out through various news and human rights outlets, an enormous protest was raised against what was rightly seen as a barbaric form of punishment.
Her story reminds me of a similar episode in the Gospel of John. Therein, a woman caught in adultery was brought before Jesus in an effort to entrap Him. Jesus was told of the woman’s sin/crime and that her sentence, according to Mosaic law, was death by stoning. The religious leaders then asked Jesus if He concurred with her sentence. His reply is one of the best known verses in the entire Bible. “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.” (John 8:7b)
Whenever I read or hear those words, I marvel. This woman had infinite value in Jesus’ eyes. While the religious leaders viewed her situation opportunistically, Jesus looked at her with the very compassion of God.
Imagine for a moment, however, if Jesus’ response had been entirely different, if He had concurred with her accusers and had said: “Since I am the only one here who is without sin, I shall be the first to throw a stone at her.”
“That’s easy! Stoning is barbaric!” you might say. “And, God loves and desires to save that woman, not to condemn and brutally butcher her! Get real!”
I would agree wholeheartedly. Then, however, I might read Numbers 15:32-36, wherein God is said to have ordered the stoning death of a man caught picking up sticks on the Sabbath.
If stoning is barbaric today, and if stoning was barbaric in Jesus’ time, was it not also barbaric in Moses’ day? If God was merciful to the woman caught in adultery, was God less than merciful to the man in Numbers 15? Is there another logical explanation? We’ll see; but, first let’s consider another apparent Divine contradiction.
When the horrific murder of so many innocent, defenseless children occurred last year at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT, every sane and civilized person recognized the unspeakable evil of the gunman’s actions. Anguish and grief were universally felt.
At least one prominent “Christian” leader, though, pronounced this tragedy as evidence of God’s judgment on the United States – as if Adam Lanza were somehow acting as an agent of God in his murderous rage.
How could such an opinion be held? Can God be complicit in such evil? Does God ordain the murder of innocent children?
“Of course not,” I would say. Then, however, I might read 1 Samuel 15:1-9, wherein God is said to have ordered the total annihilation of the Amalekites due to a past offense against Israel.
Imagine, if you dare, the horror of walking amidst the slain Amalekites… seeing babies and small children violently, mercilessly slaughtered. Would you sense the handiwork of a loving and merciful God? I certainly would not; and, the recent Newtown tragedy has only intensified my conviction in the matter.
A few months ago, I started to write an as-yet-unfinished essay with the working title, “Jesus Wept.” I began it with a short reflection on what the scene must have been like in the aftermath of the slaughter of the Amalekites. Perhaps I’ll finish that essay one day; or, perhaps this essay is the completion. In any case, here is that brief reflection:
“The aftermath was perversely still and cold. Retributive violence, fueled by religious zealotry, had been meted out with frightening indifference. Absent was any sign of mercy, any evidence of human understanding or compassion. Even the smallest of children had not been spared. After all, the value of human life – including innocent human life – paled before the presumed divine imperative. Such was the cruel mandate of ‘the ban.’
“Now, no one remained to grieve those lost to the sword. Death had won!
“Did that also mean that God had won? Unthinkable!”
In my view, Jesus wept not only for the death of his friend Lazarus, which is the Biblical context, but also for all of suffering humanity. Lazarus’ death was only the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. And so, the God/man wept for all of fallen humanity’s ills, e.g., poverty, injustice, cruelty, oppression, abuse, persecutions, wars, natural disasters, slander, loneliness, selfishness, sins of every kind. Jesus thus wept for the victims of the Holocaust, Columbine, Newtown… and for the slain Amalekites.
It genuinely puzzles me that pro-life people can argue with such passion about the inestimable value of every human life but then can accept as literal truth stories about a God Who treats human life – even the most innocent and vulnerable of human life – as utterly disposable.
Killing a helpless child is always wrong!
And those who argue that when God does something deplorable then it’s really not deplorable are, in my opinion, naive and potentially dangerous.
Could an absolutely good God really be the architect of the monstrous butchery found in 1 Samuel 15? Surely, there must be another explanation!
Today, as never before, such apparent contradictions in the Bible are being spotlighted by militant atheists like Richard Dawkins and (the late) Christopher Hitchens. I certainly disagree with their ultimate conclusions, but I actually applaud their raising of the questions. In fact, I wonder if – unbeknownst to them – God is using people like Dawkins and Hitchens prophetically to call God’s people to deeper engagement with revealed truth, especially in the pages of the Bible.
I realize that I’m treading on hotly disputed ground here; but, with no intention to harm, I feel I must go still further.
In 2 Timothy 3:16, we read the following:
“All scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.” (RSV-CE)
What does the author really mean by the phrase “inspired by God” – or, “God-breathed,” as some translations render the phrase?
Some Christians, like the fundamentalist mentioned above, unwittingly adopt an understanding of Biblical inspiration that has more in common with the Islamic model of Koranic dictation than with the demonstrated intention of The Lord to work incarnationally, i.e., in and through human agents in real-world circumstances, to bring about God’s salvation plan.
Here, I find it necessary to share a bit of the Catholic perspective on Biblical inspiration because it is the view that I embrace.
In Dei Verbum, the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation from the Second Vatican Council, this explanation is given:
“… To compose the sacred books, God chose certain men who, all the while he employed them in this task, made full use of their powers and faculties so that, though He acted in them and by them, it was as true authors (emphasis mine) that they consigned to writing whatever He wanted written, and no more.”
Perhaps the best example of this at work can be found in Luke 1:1-4 wherein the human author explicitly states that he decided to “write an orderly account” after carefully following the (oral and written) traditions handed on by the “eyewitnesses and ministers of the word.” There is no direct Divine dictation happening here. Luke did careful research before composing his Gospel.
I also find an interesting example in 1 Cor 7:25 where Paul, writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit as a true author, claims to “have no command of the Lord” but offers his “opinion” on the state of the unmarried. The Church has subsequently come to identify that opinion as inspired, but Paul had absolutely no sense of this while he was writing.
Critiquing the fundamentalist approach to interpreting Scripture, the Pontifical Biblical Commission (PBC) offers this explanation, which I find enormously informative, in The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church:
“[Fundamentalism] refuses to admit that the inspired word of God has been expressed in human language and that this word has been expressed, under divine inspiration, by human authors possessed of limited capacities and resources (emphasis mine). For this reason, it tends to treat the biblical text as if it had been dictated word for word by the Spirit. It fails to recognize that the word of God has been formulated in language and expression conditioned by various periods. It pays no attention to the literary forms and to the human ways of thinking to be found in the biblical texts, many of which are the result of a process extending over long periods of time and bearing the mark of very diverse historical situations (emphasis mine)…
Quoting again from Dei Verbum:
“However, since God speaks in Sacred Scripture through men in human fashion, the interpreter of Sacred Scripture, in order to see clearly what God wanted to communicate to us, should carefully investigate what meaning the sacred writers really intended, and what God wanted to manifest by means of their words.
“To search out the intention of the sacred writers, attention should be given, among other things, to “literary forms.” For truth is set forth and expressed differently in texts which are variously historical, prophetic, poetic, or of other forms of discourse. The interpreter must investigate what meaning the sacred writer intended to express and actually expressed in particular circumstances by using contemporary literary forms in accordance with the situation of his own time and culture. (7) For the correct understanding of what the sacred author wanted to assert, due attention must be paid to the customary and characteristic styles of feeling, speaking and narrating which prevailed at the time of the sacred writer, and to the patterns men normally employed at that period in their everyday dealings with one another. (emphasis mine)
How might this perspective be put into practice? Well, regarding 1 Samuel 15, and mindful of the instruction given by my Church and the excellent work done by Biblical scholars, I might approach the text this way:
- Israel, like other Middle-Eastern nations of during the time period recounted in 1 Samuel 15, necessarily had strong militaristic tendencies as a condition of survival
- Also, Israel, in those early days, was monolatrous rather than monotheistic (see Psalm 95:3, for example); and, The Lord was seen as the greatest among the various gods
- In battle, warring nations/tribes perceived that they were enacting a larger cosmic battle between rival deities (e.g., the Lord vs. Baal) and victory was indicative of a triumph of one deity over another
- Herem (or, “The ban”), wherein total destruction of life was exacted upon an enemy, was thus perceived as an absolute victory of one people’s deity over another’s
- The true author of 1 Samuel 15 was a man of his time with “limited capacities and resources,” i.e., with an incomplete theological and political worldview
- That author wrote from his limited worldview, which God honored and used for God’s good purpose in that time period
- One of the central themes of 1 Samuel 15 was the tension between temporal kingship and Divine kingship… (though Saul was Israel’s first temporal king, it was important for the author – guided by the Holy Spirit – to communicate that Saul remained subordinate to The Lord)
- Saul, consistent with the practice of his time, most likely carried out a herem – or, a nearly complete herem – against the Amalekites; but, since his destruction of Israel’s enemy was not absolute, he was judged, likely by the prophet Samuel, as unworthy of kingship
- The text of 1 Samuel 15 then would represent the (limited) theological interpretation of the true author, which was honored and used by God to teach about Israel’s need to recognize The Lord as the true King of Israel
- Taken in its entirety then, the author of 1 Samuel 15 was actually reflecting on two important themes – The Lord’s sovereignty over the god of the Amalekites and The Lord’s sovereignty over King Saul and the people of Israel
- By reporting on Saul’s use of herem as a tactic of battle, the author had no intention of commenting on the character of God… (remember, herem was a vicious but theologically justifiable practice at the time)
- A contemporary reader in the author’s time period would have understood the text within his/her own worldview, which had much in common with the worldview of the author
- A 21st century reader, however, comes to the text with a much deeper understanding because we now have Christ to show us God’s true, merciful character; so, Christ Himself becomes our hermeneutic (i.e., interpretive tool) for understanding the troublesome text
- We now know that God is love (1 John 4:8b) and that 1 Samuel 15, along with other problematic Biblical texts, represent the evolving faith/understanding of God’s people over time rather than the true character of God
For me, this interpretation is far more intellectually and spiritually satisfying than a strictly literal reading could ever be; but, more importantly, I believe it is also far more respectful of the Biblical text and of the incarnational process of Biblical inspiration.
To be clear, I believe that God was “breathing” through the human author of 1 Samuel 15 and was speaking to the people according to their understanding at the time. I make no claim that 1 Samuel 15 was not inspired by God; rather, I would suggest that it is the responsibility of the contemporary reader to engage the text on its own terms – e.g., through historical critical study – and to discover the true meaning in light of the fullness of revelation now available in Christ. Jesus is the exact representation of the Father’s being (Hebrews 1:3). Jesus is our perfect hermeneutic!
In 1 Corinthians 15:26, Paul identified death as “the last enemy to be destroyed.” I do not believe that God is complicit with this enemy in any way.
Jesus wept because of human suffering and due to the horrible choices that fallen humanity has made and continues to make.
As a Christian, I believe that our only sure hope is God’s grace. Further, I trust that one can turn the doorknob of the heart without fear precisely because Jesus, Who wept with compassion for each one of us, is waiting on the other side.