“The troubling and untamed God that encounters us in Scripture”

September 19, 2014

In the past few weeks, as I’ve preached on the Book of Judges, I’ve reflected on the tension we Christians often feel when we read about God’s commanding Israel to drive out the Canaanites completely. In the case of Jericho, for example, God orders Israelite soldiers to kill every living thing—men, women, children, and livestock. How is God’s command consistent with the teaching of Jesus—to say nothing of the Ten Commandments? Is God authorizing genocide? How do we interpret these texts?

I’ve dealt with these questions in several places—here, here, and here, for instance. The theme of each of these posts is my rejection of the idea that the God revealed in Jesus Christ couldn’t have given this order—that Israel necessarily misunderstood God’s intentions. In other words, I reject the idea that the Bible got it wrong.

Just in time, Rachel Held Evans weighs in on the question on her blog this week, in her review of a new book about the Bible by Peter Enns. Guess which side Held Evans comes down on? One theme of Held Evans’s blog is that she—as someone who grew up evangelical and might kinda sorta still be one even though she constantly complains about evangelicalism—is always “wrestling” with the Bible. Theologian Alastair Roberts, one of Held Evans’s fellow millennials, described her and her fellow progressive evangelicals perfectly: “[A]fter a while of watching progressive evangelicals, one realizes that whatever ‘wrestling’ they are doing, they must be losing, because contemporary liberal values always seem to come out on top.”

Nevertheless, Roberts, a very patient young man, offered some insightful comments on Held Evans’s blog post. For instance, in response to someone named James, who complains that the God revealed in the conquest of Canaan is “so at odds with his revelation through Jesus Christ” that we should reinterpret Old Testament texts, Roberts writes:

The Jesus who causes the death of persons in Corinth who partake of the Supper unworthily? The Christ who destroyed Israelites with serpents in the wilderness for tempting him? The Lamb from whose wrath sinners cower? The Lord who treads the winepress of God’s wrath? The Jesus who employs images of torture and massacre as parabolic images of his future judgment? The Jesus for whom the NT provides hints of pre-existence as the Messenger of the Covenant, who was responsible for killing many thousands in the OT?

The NT portrait of Jesus Christ has various sides and doesn’t fit comfortably into anyone’s preconceptions. Just as Jesus confounded first century expectations of a violent political Messiah, so he confounds modern pacifist expectations of a God without violence. Jesus puts all of us off balance.

To a woman named Cat who responded to this comment, saying that we should reinterpret the New Testament’s words about Second Coming in a strictly metaphorical way, Roberts writes:

Problem is that this isn’t just about the Jesus of the Second Coming. This is about the Christ who was active in the early Church, causing the deaths of such as Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5) or unworthy participants in Corinth (1 Corinthians 11:29-34). This is about the Christ whose angel caused Herod to be eaten alive by worms (Acts 12:23). This is about the biblical testimony to the fact that pre-incarnate Christ was active in the Old Testament, causing many of the Israelites to be destroyed by serpents and leaving their bodies scattered in the wilderness (1 Corinthians 10:1-11). This is also about the Jesus who brought about the bloody destruction of Jerusalem in AD70, avenging the blood of the martyrs (N.T. Wright is good on this). These events aren’t metaphorical and should be part of our understanding of who Christ is.

One of the things that is missed here is the two visitation motif, something seen in Stephen’s speech in Acts, for instance. The first visitation ends in rejection, but the second visitation is accompanied by authority, power, and judgment. If rejected, serious consequences fall. For instance, David, while pursued by Saul, suffered and did not seek to exercise judgment or avenge himself. However, when he attained to the throne, he did exercise judgment and the appropriate vengeance committed to those in that office. Likewise, the Son of David suffers before he is raised to God’s right hand. However, when he is raised to God’s right hand, those who reject him will be slain before him (cf. Luke 19:27), which is exactly what happened to Jerusalem in AD70, for instance.

Then there’s this:

Before talking about the killing of Canaanite children, we should probably start by talking about God’s slaying of the Egyptian firstborn children in the final plague (joining various biblical dots suggests that these were male children of one month to five years of age). God apparently doesn’t have a problem with killing infants and young children on occasions (and this is certainly not the only case).

For all that Enns and others say about wrestling with Scripture and bravely facing up to the tough issues, the God that we are left with at the end seems to be rather … tame. Hyperbolic rhetoric of ‘courageously’ facing up to the complications and problems of the text, or of God’s supposedly ‘scandalous’, ‘radical’, or ‘shocking’ alignment with our values—pacifist, egalitarian, feminist, whatever—against the misconceptions of a patriarchal and violent society really are little more than a sort of braggadacio beneath which the real impulses dissemble themselves. The ‘wrestling’ is just with the supposed paper tiger of a Scripture whose bark is worse than its bite, rather than with a God who is a consuming fire and must be approached with reverence and a godly fear. All of this masks a deeper cowardice that refuses to recognize the troubling and untamed God that encounters us in Scripture, a God who should unsettle all of us.

Alastair Roberts blogs here. He co-produces an excellent podcast called Mere Fidelity here.

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