Popular author and United Methodist pastor Adam Hamilton has shown God the door — the violent God of the Old Testament, that is. In a recent three-part blog series on his website, Hamilton suggests that the warriors of old, such as Moses, Joshua and David, were putting words in God’s mouth. “They attributed to God words, commands, and deeds that they believed God would have authorized or done,” Hamilton writes.
I will admit that God’s commands to wipe out men, women and children is cringeworthy–especially in light of the horrific reports coming out of Syria and Iraq. What thinking person hasn’t felt uncomfortable when reading passages like Deuteronomy 20:16: “… in the cities of the nations the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance, do not leave alive anything that breathes.” Such bloodthirsty directives rub against the modern Western notions of tolerance, charity and fair play.
Hamilton falls back on the familiar argument that the savage deity of the Hebrew Bible is nothing like the gentle, loving God of the New Testament as revealed in Jesus Christ. Therefore, he raises serious objections about the reality of the Old Testament God who ordered genocide and plundering. I have never found this proposal entirely convincing. For one thing, there are plenty of passages in the Hebrew Bible that speak of the lovingkindness of God — and Jesus wasn’t exactly tender in His descriptions of hell and final judgment (Matt 13:36-43, Mk 9:45-46, Lk 12:5). We also read that the Holy Spirit struck down Ananias and Sapphira in the early days of the church (Acts 5:1-11) and that Christ will return “to judge everyone, and to convict all of them of all the ungodly acts they have committed in their ungodliness, and of all the defiant words ungodly sinners have spoken against him” (Jude 1:14-15). This is hardly the “gentle Jesus, meek and mild” that makes us feel all warm and cozy inside. Besides, Christ Himself did not dichotomize the God of the Hebrew Scriptures with the God He called “Father.”
I think it’s too easy to dismiss any biblical picture of God. Once we do, where does it stop? Should we carry around our own versions of the Bible, edited to suit our personal preferences? (Thomas Jefferson did, cutting out all the miracle stories of the Gospels, including the Resurrection of Christ). What we learn in the sacred canon is that God is tender and tough; beautiful and terrible; the One who brings loving redemption to the world not by waving a fairy wand, but by sending His Sinless Son to a murderous cross.
God does, indeed, work in mysterious ways. His methods can be unsettling, strange, confounding. The Lord is wild, often detonating our careful human constructs of Him. “‘For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,’ declares the LORD” (Is 55:8). As Mr. Beaver described the Christ figure, Aslan, in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe: “‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”
Instead of dismissing these harsh stories, I suggest that the church continue to wrestle with them, engage them and, with the guidance of the Spirit of truth, let them inform us about the Lord of creation who both judges and saves; convicts and redeems; the One who creates light and forms darkness, calling forth peace and presiding over calamity.
“I am the Lord who does all these” (Isaiah 45:7).
For Further Reading & Reflection: