The Bible Is Brutal

It has been a struggle to keep up with my reading of Scripture. The pace is unrelenting and, ironically there is no reading Sabbath in this 90-day program. On some level, this is just a matter of prioritizing, as I know that I can find about 40 minutes a day to read the Bible, but it is also a matter of discipline. It is a constant of my life that I bristle at routines and obligations, even personally imposed one’s, and so my heart and inner voice respond by saying, “You can’t tell me what to do,” and “I’ll show you. I am not going to read you. So there!”  As a result of this, I am currently a week behind. I should be in I Chronicles, and I am back in I Samuel. However, I am further along than I ever have been, and even if my slacking turns this into a 120-day program, I am still going to do what I have not done before, read the Bible cover to cover.

Beyond my struggle to keep up with my reading, I am struggling with my attitude about what I am reading. The Bible is brutal, and I often find myself judging God. In some instances God has the Israelites march towards a city and allows the them to offer the inhabitants terms of peace, and if they refuse the Israelites are to kill the men, take the women and children into slavery, and take their livestock and belongings as plunder. In another instance, more brutal in nature, the Israelites are to take a city without mercy, killing everyone and everything: man, woman, child, and livestock. Moreover, the Israelites are not to take any plunder, as they are to be devoted to God in an offering of fire. In short, every trace of the people is to be absolutely removed from the face of the earth. In reading such instances, particularly of the latter kind, my gut level response is “Damn! That is harsh.” I understand that such was the nature of tribalism during that epoch of human history. The Israelites were merely acting in a manner consonant with how people groups acted in that day, which if I was an anthropologist I probably wouldn’t think much of it. As a believer, however, I see these people as God’s chosen, and as such they are supposed to be different than the rest. They are supposed to reveal the character and will of God, and yet what I see is an all too common brutality.

The irony of my judgment is that it relies upon standards that I received through studying the Scriptures, through reading about God and his people. Beyond myself, I would also assert that this irony remains even among people who have not personally studied the Scriptures, for it is historically accurate to say that the ethical sensibilities of the West were deeply influenced and shaped by the moral vision of the Christian scriptures. Love, mercy, redemption and a host of other related concepts did not take their current form in Western consciousness primarily through the influence of Greek metaphysics, or Roman law. As potent as these two cultures were in shaping the Western Tradition, it was Christianity that accounts for the sacrificial overtones rendered in the concept of Love, and it was Christianity that saw redemptive possibilities in justice.

So, to sum up my struggle with my attitude, I find myself in this conundrum, I am indebted to the book I am judging to formulate my judgment about the book. Moreover, as I find myself questioning God about his actions and the actions of his people, I realize that what I know about love and mercy comes from what I have seen of them in the revelation of God, both in his word and through his people. In the end, I am committed to living in the tension between the mercy and severity of God, between his love and judgment, in the hopes that this tension will give birth to a transcendent perspective that is able to integrate these polarities. As a Christian, I am obviously making a nod toward the cross, but it is one thing to understand these things in your head and another to genuinely accept them in your heart.

How do you deal with brutality in the Bible? What do you make of God’s severe actions in the Old Testament? Do you cop out and chalk it up to contradiction or have you come to some kind of creative synthesis?

7 Responses to “The Bible Is Brutal”

  1. Roger Green  

    I was talking about this very topic to a Jehovah’s Witness and he said that the punishment is not God’s punishment but man’s punishment for disobeying God. That help? I thought not.

    My synthesis is that God is an ever-evolving God. All those rules in the OT about circumcision and dietary laws et al. that Paul pretty much said were now null and void? God needed the nation of Israel to follow them to insure its survival. After the fall of the temple, or even slightly before, the Word was for all and it didn’t have to go beating down on all those folks. Of course, the NT can be pretty brutal too, with that “those in whom He finds favor” stuff, just not so bloody.

  2. Anthony Velez  

    Roger – I like what you say about evolving, but I am not sure if I would apply that term to God directly or essentially. I realize the pitfalls of rendering God through the static categories of Greek metaphysics, as that leaves us with a God who is unresponsive, and incapable of acting in history in a personal and meaningful way. In contrast to this, based primarily upon the Scriptures and secondarily in the lives of people through the ages, and in the lives of those I have known, I see that God is dynamic, and responsive. However, I would say that the evolution happens in his progressive dealings with humanity. His goal from the very beginning was the same. Thus, change in action is not expressive of change in his being. Instead what we see as changes are strategies in the historical management of his redemptive purposes. Granted, it is hard to understand some of these strategies, but nonetheless they have a place in God’s plan, which always had the same goal.

    So, if I am understanding you correctly, I am in agreement with you that what comes later in this unfolding plan has preeminence in shaping our understanding of God’s will and character.

  3. K.L.B.  

    My understanding of the Almighty is ever growing, as am I.

    Of course, we see that God demonstrates His nature and character in relation to ours, either by contrasting or comparing it.

    For example, when we are unfaithful to Him, He compares us to unfaithful lovers. And when we are stubborn, He contrasts our often-hardened, rock-like hearts to those which should be soft and tender.

    And though often times we make bad decisions, we are ‘stuck’ with the results of our actions. In essence, God assists us in making lemonade from the lemons of our lives.

    For example, when the Israelites took slaves, and by extension wives and family from among them, God gave instructions on how to treat them. Though God’s plan was not for them to take slaves as wives and families, He has a plan for how they ought to be treated. God is seen most frequently and precisely in our interactions with each other. That’s one reason why the Christ told us so frequently to forgive one another, and that if we did not forgive one another, that God – in turn – would not forgive us.

    Regarding the wholesale elimination of people and animals, my understanding of such a request is broad enough to consider the possibility that disease could have very well been present in the people. From an historical perspective, Zoonotics have only been recently discovered, and we are still finding that more and more human diseases have originated in animals. Thus, such a request for total and wholesale destruction could perhaps be viewed as a move toward preservation.

    Remember, His ways are higher than our ways, yet His mercy is infinite.

    Is it better to euthanize a suffering animal, one for which there is no hope for cure? Or, is it better to allow it to linger simply for our own purposes, that we may ‘enjoy’ its presence or companionship?

    Such decisions are made more frequently than we imagine. Consider horse racing. Horses have been so severely injured that they have required euthanizing at the track. A most recent case in point was “Eight Belles” in this year’s Kentucky Derby, the first filly to run since 1999, which was euthanized trackside.

    After she finished second and “4 3/4 lengths behind winner Big Brown, Eight Belles galloped out and was around the first turn toward the top of the backstretch when she suddenly went down on her front knees,” because of two broken ankles.

    The on-call Triple Crown veterinarian said nothing could be done to save her. A veil was raised to prevent prying eyes, and she was euthanized immediately.

    Consider also parenting.

    Is it more merciful to physically punish a child in an attempt to warn them about the harm they could do to themselves, or to allow them to harm themselves? And merely talking (or screaming) at children is rarely effective. The Biblical book of wisdom, Proverbs, clearly states that “foolishness is bound in the heart of a child, but the rod of correction shall drive it far from them.”

    Pain (and by extension, brutality) teaches us a lesson.

    It may not be the most pleasant lesson, but it is rarely forgotten.

  4. Roger Green  

    KLB – corporal punishment may never be forgotten, but if it perceived as excessive and unnecessary and brutalizing, the lesson may not be the one intended. I speak of this from personal experience, which included a schism with my father as an adult that took a long time to heal.

  5. K.L.B.  

    Roger, as I awakened this morning I was thinking about what you had written.

    I did not review it before this writing.

    Here’s what occurred to me.

    I am not God.

    God’s ways are higher than ours.

    He is in control.

    I think of the brutality of Christ’s suffering.

    I think of what horrible things happened to Him.

    I think of the great patriarch Joseph, whom was sold into slavery, cast into prison several times, falsely accused of rape and again thrown into prison.

    Then I remember the Apostle Paul, who survived unjust stonings.

    The message here is that which Joseph said, and I paraphrase, “You meant it for evil, but God meant it for good.”

    Christ’s sufferings gave us healing for our bodies and minds, forgiveness for our spirits, and His overall example gives us opportunity for right relationships with each other.

    God used Christ’s suffering to provide opportunity for a lost humanity to return to right relationship with Him. And who could forget what happened to Him?

    He is the centerpiece of human existence. One must either believe what He said about Himself, or cast Him into the column of those whose mentation is akin to those who claim they are scrambled eggs. He is who He said, or He is a perpetrator of the greatest fraud humanity has ever known.

    However, we can see by the changes that are wrought in the human heart that His claims are indeed alive, as is He. The magnificent changes made in human hearts over the two thousand years plus since His arrival and work cannot be disputed.

    The message of the LORD is that He can take a sow’s ear and make a silk purse. We cannot.

    Christ is our example. God can and does use physical suffering for His higher purposes. We don’t know how.

    Regarding the unfortunate personal example you shared: I do not know whether your dad is now alive. If so, the redemptive power of God in Christ to bring you two back into good relationship is there for you, if you will take it and act upon it.

    If your dad is deceased, the Almighty’s redemptive power of healing is still available for your heart and mind. Healing IS available. Yet you must do what you can, and God will do the rest.


  6. Roger Green  

    BTW, my dad is deceased. I made my peace with him, but it raised its ugly head years later. Probably requires a blog post.

  7. K.L.B.  

    It’s good to know what you shared about making peace with him (your dad).

    Just this evening I shared with a friend about an excerpt from the motion picture “Kingdom of Heaven.”

    In a scene at the beginning and repeated toward the end, the character Balian, portrayed by Orlando Bloom, repeats these lines (the knight’s oath): “Be without fear in the face of your enemies. And be brave and upright that God may love thee. Speak the truth even if it leads to your death. Safeguard the helpless. That is your oath.” Then, he slaps the man’s face saying, “and THAT is so you will remember it.”

    To be certain, pain causes us to remember.

    What we do, and how we behave pursuant to such pain is a reliable indicator of how well we have allowed the pain to teach us a lesson.

    C.S. Lewis said this about pain: “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world. A bad man, happy, is a man without the least inkling that his actions do not “answer”, that they are not in accord with the laws of the universe . . .

    Until the evil man find evil unmistakable present in his existence, in the form of pain, he is enclosed in illusion . . .

    No doubt Pain as God’s megaphone is a terrible instrument: it may lead to final and unrepented rebellion. But it gives the only opportunity the bad man can have for amendment. It removes the veil; it plants the flag of truth within the fortress of a rebel soul.”

    Planting the flag of truth within the the fortress of a rebel soul… not only is it picturesque speech, it is true. We all have rebel hearts. We want our own ways.

    But again, His ways are higher than ours.

    Thus, pain teaches us unforgettable lessons.

    It taught us lessons from genocide in WWII, and it continues to teach us lessons even in this economy, in this nation here, now in the housing/banking meltdown.

    But the question remains… will we truly learn those lessons?