God Behaving Badly?

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(Warning: This is too deep for you to read!)

I know what you’re thinking. “Larry, are you applying for a job as a writer for Yahoo Headlines?” In case you have not read any of these, they are usually pretty bizarre and designed to grab your attention. Like one of today’s headlines was “The Time of Day You Are Most Likely to Die!” or “Read This Article Now or Die a Horrible Death Tomorrow!” A month ago one was “Will Science Someday Rule Out the Possibility of God?” I loved this response by one of the readers … “I am an atheist, but I do not see any purpose in the title other than to provoke and incite. This has become a far too frequent tactic of Yahoo to get people to read, but the comments are ridiculous and rude. I believe faith gives many people comfort and I think that's great. I don't like war except in defense, and far too many people are too energetic about killing people. It starts with nasty words.”  –Mark 

Speaking of “deep,” I loved a memorial comment made after my friend Rich Mullins had passed away. “Does anyone in Contemporary Christian Music have deeper lyrics than Rich Mullins? I fell into one of his songs and I’m not sure that I’ve come out yet.”

I am going to attempt to condense part of one of my lectures for the current Old Testament class I am teaching and hope that some of it can be an encouragement to you or perhaps shed a bit of light on some of the controversial passages found in the OT.

When was the last time you heard a pastor preach about the passage in I Samuel 15:2-3 as the Lord of hosts commands Israel to destroy all of the Amalekites, “… both men and women, child and infant …”? Someone without much Bible background would potentially look at this and say that God is commanding genocide. Or when you were young in Sunday School did you hear about Psalm 137:8-9 with the impassioned plea for revenge against Babylon and “Happy is the one who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks.”

I want to share some possible theories from my research over the years including how to potentially resolve the difference in the way God seems in the OT compared to how Jesus is portrayed in the NT.

The 3rd theory (I have already censored the 1st two!) is a theory given by an OT professor named Eric Siebert in his book Disturbing Divine Behavior. I will call it the worldview theory. He believes in the inspiration of the Bible but also that the Jewish nation often read their worldview into the way they would interpret events taking place. Initially the Jews attributed everything that happened to them to the hand of God. But as time wore on and they continued to suffer at the hands of foreign oppressors and other evils in the world, it became harder for them to maintain that God was responsible for all their misfortunes. (This may be similar to the book of Job attributing the evils that befell him to Satan with God only allowing it and not causing it.) Israel's view of God changed over time. Certain passages in the historical books had a political slant to them in favor of a certain king or to motivate the Israelite nation with the thought that God was in their corner. Siebert would simply say that God did not command genocide as it goes against the heart of God portrayed by Jesus in the NT. He points out that the Bible does claim to be inspired but does not claim to be inerrant so we need to understand the writing styles and the Hebrew mindset.

The next possible theory I will mention includes progressive revelation. Galatians 4 mentions that the law was like a “taskmaster” to lead us to Christ. This Greek word relates to a disciplinarian or someone who would help raise up a child. A parent disciplines a child differently than an 18-year-old teenager. One may spank a child to warn against the dangers of running into a street and getting hit by a car but I would guess this strategy would not be employed on a teenager. In the same way God may have been dealing with the Israelite nation (all nations) in a more drastic manner during humanity’s infancy. or childhood, if you will. The Old Testament/Covenant (again, there is a reason it is called old!) seemed to focus more on nations, whereas Jesus was not concerned with defeating the evil Roman Empire, but was more interested in dealing with individual lives. God seems to use human agents and/or supernatural events to carry out His judgment on humans in the OT, whereas in the New Testament/Covenant He allows the natural consequences of their sin (what you reap, you will sow) and “gives them over” to suffer the results of their sinful choices in this life reserving judgment for the final “Day of the Lord” (Romans 1:24, 26, 28). The term “progressive” could refer to God gradually revealing more and more of Himself to us or possibly refer to us gradually understanding more and more about Him.

The holy-theocratic state theory says that Israel had God as its king and commander-in-chief. God sometimes needed to participate in acts of war and killing in order to maintain the integrity of the state. God wanted to keep his people pure and holy; so in order for the state of Israel to survive, God had to participate in war. The holy war was valid as part of the old covenant when the people of God were one nation. Today the people of God are scattered throughout many nations and our holy war is now a spiritual conflict not a physical one. A potential con is whether God would be justified to command preemptive strikes in order to keep them separate. Additionally, would these strikes actually be needed in order to keep them holy? The other side of that may be that the Holy Spirit had not yet been permanently given so individuals did not have the ability to stay holy on their own.

The just cause approach is espoused by David Lamb (another OT professor) who wrote a book called God Behaving Badly. He has a pretty straightforward approach that seeks to justify God's behavior. According to Lamb, our problem is that we do not have enough information or background on the context of various passages in the OT. If we knew a bit of history and context, which he explains passage by passage, we would understand why God did the things that He did. Some things we may just not be able to understand now because of lack of information or because God's ways are so much higher than our ways of thinking.

This would lead to the final view (God’s judgment) voiced by a few Christian leaders who would say that the wars & killing in the Old Testament are consistent with the way that God would deal with people and our nations today. Hurricane Katrina was God's punishment on New Orleans for their sinful behavior. 9/11 was God’s judgment on an immoral America. God chose America to punish the evil leadership of Iraq.

Another book on the topic is “Show Them No Mercy: 4 Views on God and Canaanite Genocide” by C.S. Cowles, which features 4 different scholars discussing and responding to their various viewpoints.

In my personal opinion, there are problems with every one of the above theories. So I am of the very strong opinion that we need to have a Christo-centric hermeneutic. This is just a fancy way of saying we need to interpret everything in the Bible through the eyes of Jesus. Hebrews 1:1-3 says, “In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days He has spoken to us by His Son, whom He appointed heir of all things, and through whom also He made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of His being …” Jesus clears up the current misconception that God is punishing certain people because they are wicked in Luke 13:2-4. Jesus answered, “Do you think these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! …” In the OT a woman caught in adultery is to be punished by death yet in John 8 Jesus says that whoever is without sin should cast the first stone. Rather than raising up an army to defeat the evil Roman Empire, Jesus says love your enemies. I don't have all the answers, but I just know that God's most perfect revelation of Himself was in the person of Jesus Christ so if I have any doubt, I am going to seek to follow Jesus.

For me to hold to a Christo-centric hermeneutic includes asking that famous question WWJD. I never thought this applied to me since I have been happily married now for 20 years (as of 11/28/12 to be exact!) ….. WWJD ….. not me! Who Would Jesus Date? Just kidding. Of course, it is What Would Jesus Do taken from the powerful book called “In His Steps” by Charles Sheldon, which was taken from I Peter 2:21.

I guess it's appropriate to close with the words from a song by the very first contemporary Christian songwriter I ever heard in my early Christian days. Larry Norman wrote such classics as “Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music.

   “Don't ask me for the answers I’ve only got one.

   That man leaves his darkness when he follows the SON!”


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