I am going to start by talking about the brutality of God in the Old Testament. Particularly Israel’s war on Canaan. I am going to share some viewpoints on how to reconcile these events within our theological framework. But, before some of you freak out (speaking from experience), please read to the end. Because, the points I am about to discuss briefly are not the point of what I am writing today. They are simply used to create some tension for my main point.
The Israelites were promised this land a long time before they took it. Now the only thing that stood between them and their land was the dirty work of wiping out an entire ethnic group. And, they were given very specific commands from God on how to do it.
On the way to the land, they would encounter other cities who were not necessarily part of the territory they were to take. They were to offer them peace and if those people accepted it, they would merely become forced labor for the Hebrews. If they were not down with becoming forced labor and decided to stand up for themselves, then the Hebrews were to kill all the men and take the women, children and animals as plunder. Not really a great choice, but hey, that’s life huh? They shouldn’t complain though. They could have had it a lot worse like the people of Canaan. When the Israelites entered Canaan, the directive from God was less complicated. Murder everything. Anything that breathes is to breathe no longer.1 If that story was made into a movie, you would not let your kids watch it.
So, what do we do with this? I mean is this the same God we talk about today who you can have a “personal relationship” with and who is full of grace and mercy? Why does he seem to be acting more like the other tribal Gods of the ancient world? Well, there are a lot of different ways in which we work this out theologically.2
We say things like “God does love, but he is also just. He sends people to hell. That is worse than genocide. Plus, the Canaanites deserved it. Those guys offered their kids as human sacrifice. So, they were just getting what they were going to eventually get anyway.” Now, I am treating these theological theories somewhat flippantly. I do not have time to deal with any of them in a serious way. Peter Enns (read my last footnote) offers another theory. What if God did not tell the Israelites to do this at all? What if the Israelites came to believe this over time and then attached God’s name to their plans and their desires? Humans do it all of the time. It is not far fetched. Remember, what I said. Keep reading. Do not shoot me yet.
Personally, I have entertained this theory before. For me, some of it has been bolstered by Jesus himself. We find Jesus, seemingly out of the blue, reverse centuries old Jewish law and not as if to say, “Hey, that time is over. I’m bringing in the New Testament homies.” Instead he seems to say, “You guys have had this all wrong the whole time.” In Matthew 15:1-20, he suddenly declares that what you eat does not make you clean or unclean. It is not what goes in your mouth, but what comes out. His disciples think he is talking that crazy parable talk again and in private ask him to tell them what he really meant. He basically tells them that he meant what he said and that they need to get it through their thick skulls. He does not say, “Well yeah, that was the law, but now I am here and it is different.” He does not offer some sort of theological explanation. He just says they were wrong.
But we do not even have to flip forward to the New Testament. There are plenty of voices in the Old Testament that point out how the Israelite have drastically missed the point. Read Micah 6:6-8. From his point of view, God does not want all the animal sacrifices they offer. He does not need their olive oil and he definitely is not interested in disgusting human sacrifice. Instead, he wants us to be just, merciful and humble people. These are just two examples among many, that to me, seem not to say, “Well yes, these are the laws, but things are a changing.” Instead, they seem to possibly say “You got this all wrong and you always have.”
Now, take a deep breath at let your adrenaline simmer down if you need to. None of what I have said is the point. In fact, I am not necessarily satisfied with or fully convinced of any of it. My point is not to change your theology in a blog post. More educated people than I write books on this stuff and there are a thousand opinions. These are big, multi-faceted questions. I have a bigger point.
I want you to Think Again.
I had a student in my ministry tell me that he was bored with Christianity because he basically already knew it all. Now before you dismiss that as typical teen bravado, I want you to hear how truly sad that is. Some teachers and preachers are better than others at the craft, but if you are bored with the sermons, maybe it is your fault. Could your preacher get away with sharing the “crazy” theory that I just did simply as a possible theological conclusion? No way. People would gnash their teeth or something. What do we demand from them? To teach us what we have already agreed upon but, dress it up differently to keep us interested. To do otherwise is to risk one’s livelihood.
That teen was bored with Christianity because we had left no room for mystery. We pay lip service to this tragedy with clichés like, “Don’t put God in a box.” That does not nearly go far enough. We cannot just be satisfied with pointing out the error of reducing God to a package that can be shipped by UPS. We must create space to imagine together. We must create space to publicly explore and question. There must be room to Think Again.
Yet, we are afraid to open the door to mystery because we see it as an elusive, smoke-like substance that we cannot control. Mystery is not flimsy theology. Mystery is not a lack of conviction. This is God-mystery. It is opening the door to God-possibility. This is awakening, engaging and interacting. This is alive and active, not only stone-chiseled history. Mystery is not satisfied with an unassured shrug. Mystery demands that we Think Again. In this space. God captures our imaginations. In this space, we want to know Him, because we do not yet fully. In this space, no one has arrived, but we are all truly journeying unsure of what we will find.
Souls die, God shrinks and evangelism fizzles in the absence of the divine mystery. May we be willing to Think Again.
1 Deuteronomy 20:10-17
2 among other resources, I recommend “The Bible Tells Me So” by Peter Enns. The beginning section of this post is heavily influenced by this book.