Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Understanding the Dark Stories of the Bible

Rachel Held Evans posted an excerpt from her book, A Year of Biblical Womanhood, which is beautiful, poignant, and haunting.  It also raises the question that I often get as a pastor, especially once someone finds out that I have a Ph.D. in Old Testament literature.

I hope that you will stop reading this now and go read her piece before continuing here, but for those of you who can’t or won’t, in one part Evans recalls the story of Jephthah in Judges 11, who promised the Lord that, if granted victory in battle against the Ammonites he would sacrifice to the Lord the first thing that came out of his house upon his return.

The Lord granted the victory, but, alas, it was Jephthah’s daughter who came running out first to greet him.  And with much sadness and regret, Jephthah fulfilled his vow.

We don’t understand how God would require that Jephthah keep his vow.  We can’t reconcile that picture of God with the one found in Jesus nailed to the cross for our sins.  The math just doesn’t work for us.

Nor does it work when God orders the Israelites to slaughter the entire city of Ai, combatants and non-combatants both (Joshua 8).

And numerous other times in the Old Testament.  God is much too violent for our tastes.  We prefer the portrait of God found in the New Testament, with the exception of a few incidents i.e. the execution of Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5.

Some of Evans’ readers commented on this, one asking plaintively if anyone could explain if this incident and others like it were actually sanctioned by God.

My approach to the Bible is that it is more than a collection of books and more than a collection of stories; it is actually telling a story, and, no, it’s not merely the story of how God used Jesus to forgive us of our individual, personal sins so that we could go to heaven when we die.

It is the story of the insidious effects of violence on God’s creation, and how God acted to put an end to all violence, envisioning a day when wolves and lambs would feed together, swords would be beaten into plowshares, and we would learn war no more.

But here is the key: God himself is a character in the story, and in really good stories, the major characters grow, develop, and change.

I’m not saying that God really changes, grows, and develops.  This is not process theology being imposed on the text.  It is a literary way of looking at the text and understanding what is happening.

In the Big Story that the Bible is telling, the character named “God” learns that violence doesn’t work, that it doesn’t really solve anything, that it doesn’t lead to peace but instead leads to even more violence.

A couple of years ago I did a series of posts on my blog about this.  One dealt specifically with God learning about the ineffectiveness of violence in the Flood Narrative.

Once again, I’m not saying that God actually learns, I’m saying that in the narrative the character named God learns.  Of course God didn’t need to learn that violence  only begets violence—but we do.  After all these years, we still need to learn the lesson that the Bible, summed up in the cross, is trying to teach us.

When people ask me about the violence in the Old Testament, especially that which is sanctioned by God, I tell them that this event occurs in an early section of The Story, and one shouldn’t judge a character in a story by their actions in the early chapters.  Wait instead until the story is finished and see where the character ends up.

And in the Bible, God ends up on a cross, having refused to brandish a sword or raise an army.  Rather than being a perpetrator of violence, God is a willing victim of it.

But his victimization is an illusion; he used violence against itself, both by exposing the perpetrators for the evil that they have become and by absorbing their fiercest blows.

And rising three days later victorious.

There is obviously more than can and should be said about this, but perhaps this is enough to get you to begin thinking through the implications of this.

So the story of Jephthah and his daughter teaches us that there is a cost to war, even in victory, and that cost is terrible, painful, unbearable, and unjust.  There has to be a better way.

And that better way is found in the cross.

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