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?