I’ve been reading the Old Testament. It’s a great story, despite Leviticus’ by-laws and Numbers’ numbers. However, reading it is an unsettling experience. As I started to note the body count, it seemed to me that God was a lot like the Red Queen in Alice in Wonderland, with her constant cry “Off with their heads!”
How do we get from the complete destruction of enemies in the Old Testament to loving our enemies in the New? How on earth do we get from the bloody God of the Old Testament to the bleeding God of the cross?
In case your memory needs refreshing, here is a sampling of passages that can keep you up at night:
“And Israel vowed a vow to the Lord and said, ‘If you will indeed give this people into my hand, then I will devote their cities to destruction. And the Lord heeded the voice of Israel and gave over the Canaanites, and they devoted them and their cities to destruction. So the name of the place was called Hormah” [which means destruction] (Numbers 21:2-3).
“. . . And the Lord our God gave him over to us, and we defeated him and his sons and all his people. And we captured all his cities at that time and devoted to destruction every city, men, women and children. We left no survivors. . .” (Deuteronomy 2:33-34)
“Shout, for the Lord has given you the city [Jericho]. And the city and all that is within it shall be devoted to the Lord for destruction. Only Rahab the prostitute and all who are with her in her house shall live” (Joshua 6:16b-17).
“Thus says the Lord of hosts, ‘I have noted what Amalek did to Israel in opposing them on the way when they came up out of Egypt. Now go and strike Amalek and devote to destruction all that they have. Do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey” (1 Samuel 15:2-3).
This is not a complete list, but it well serves as a reminder of the violent, troubling Old Testament passages we try to blip over when we come to them. The problem is, here, we’re dealing with real life and real death, not Alice’s dream of a bloody-minded but comic Queen of Hearts.
I realize, of course, that I am not alone in noticing God’s bloody hands in the Old Testament. It’s there for all to see: Slaughtering opponents is part and parcel of entering God’s Old Testament real estate—rather like the buyer killing the seller at the closing. And, I know full well that I am not the first one to comment on this.
My difficulties with the slaughter passages were compounded by a series of articles published in Christianity Today within the past year. There, people brighter and more capable than I, attempted to make sense of God’s troubling tendency in the Old Testament to wipe out whole groups of people. From my perspective at least, they failed to do so. This troubled me, and I sensed that there had to be a way of making sense of the God who is the Father of Jesus Christ and who saves sinners, and the God of the Torah, who kills them. So, I decided to take a whack at it.
William Blake, the visionary romantic poet, captured this divine dilemma in two poems, “The Lamb” and “The Tyger.” For Blake, the lamb is an image of Christ and is created by a God who is Jesus-like:
He is called by thy name,
For he calls himself a Lamb:
He is meek & he is mild,
He became a little child:
I a child & thou a lamb,
We are called by his name.
Little Lamb God bless thee.
Little Lamb God bless thee.
Yet, there is also in creation the tiger, dark, violent and dangerous:
Tyger, Tyger burning bright,
In the forests of the night:
What immortal hand or eye,
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?
Both the lamb and the tiger are God’s creations, and both point to the character of the God who made them both. Both tiger and lamb find their source in the mystery that is God. Seemingly, God’s tiger qualities and lamb qualities coexist in a Divine Shalom. But, from the outside looking in, we find God’s tiger qualities uncomfortable and frightening and even violent. Blake’s question in “The Tyger” is our question as well:
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?
Blake, I think, suggests the answer to that question is “yes.”
So, how do we reconcile God’s murderous, tiger-like impulses with His lamb-like love revealed in Christ the Lamb of God?
Let’s begin with violence in general. From what I can make out, violence seems to be an integral part of life in ancient times, and wars between states and violence in general were religiously sanctioned. One appealed to one’s gods for victory, and if your side won the war, your gods were the reason for the victory. You win because your gods were more powerful than the gods of your enemies.
Since God works within the context of human cultures, God worked within the violence integral to cultures of the Ancient Near East. For God to be God in that context, God would also need to be a God who fights—and conquers. A God who gets beat up by the other gods isn’t a god to be taken seriously. Such a God would not be worth worshiping or taking seriously in that age because there would be better god options available, namely the gods of the powerful and successful kingdoms who regularly beat up everyone else’s gods. Battles were not just bloody human affairs; they were battles between the gods as well. In this sense, all ancient wars were, in a sense, holy wars. Not only would human opponents of God need to be conquered, so would their gods. These gods can be destroyed only as their worshipers and servants are destroyed. From what I can make out, there is no god anywhere in any pantheon who is the god of losing gracefully and surrendering.
The people of God would have had no reason to believe in, much less trust, a God who did not fight and conquer. That they existed at all, especially after the Exile, is a witness to their shared memory of a God who fights. Their existence depended on not being assimilated into the polytheistic fertility religions around them. They survived as the people of God because they depended on a zero tolerance policy in regard to this type of religion. Holy war was about the people of God’s survival as a religious, political, and cultural entity.
Further, when it came to violence, God had an equal opportunity attitude. The Old Testament shows that God’s violence is both a means of conquest and a means of judgment of His own people. If Israel was God’s bloody means of judging the idolatry of the nations, then the Nations were God’s bloody means of judging His own people, as the Assyrian, Babylonian, and Persian invaders illustrate. One can say that God wages holy war against His own people, using the Assyrians and Babylonians as His unwitting proxies. God’s violence is for God’s purposes, not for the purposes of His people. God is not on the side of His people to accomplish their purposes. Rather, God’s people are on God’s side to accomplish His purposes.
However, once the people of God were established and purified—painfully—over the centuries, then violence no longer needed to be accommodated to God’s purposes. Those who return to the Promised Land after the Exile are a sadder, wiser and humbled people. The only major war after the Exile was the Maccabean War, which was a war of self-defense and survival. They were faced with obliteration as a nation, and they fought back. This was a different kind of war than what we find in the Conquest of the Promised Land. Though certain Messianic hopes kept the violence option alive, religious violence met its bloody end in the Zealot uprising of 68-70 A.D.
The uniqueness of God and the power of God were established in history. Once established as the God of Israel who keeps His promises and who is with His people in power, God no longer needs violence in order to reveal Himself. Now, he reveals Himself in weakness in His Son, and supremely so in His Son’s death.
The God who fights becomes the God who suffers. A God who suffers and who has never fought and conquered is a weak and insignificant God, worthy of our pity but not our worship. But, coming on the heels of Israel’s bloody history—a history of war, slaughter, conquest, judgment and God’s faithfulness to His promises—the fierce, bloodthirsty God of the Old Testament who reveals Himself in and through Isaiah’s Suffering Servant and who becomes enfleshed in Christ, who humbles himself and dies, is a God who is truly remarkable and beyond our comprehension, who is worthy both of our reverent fear and humble love.
If God caused suffering in the Old Testament, He redeems it in the New. God caused suffering, and then undergoes it, transforming it with his presence so that now there is hope in suffering, slaughter and death for those with the Gospel faith to see it.
On the cross, the God of Holy War identifies with the victims of Holy War. God identifies there with those who perished because of His bloody, holy war justice. The Old Testament God of bloody justice is also the New Testament God who bleeds in Christ on the cross of judgment and rejection. At the cross, God meets those who were judged and slaughtered in God’s holy wars by a God who experienced the same judgment and the same slaughter. The God who dies is the God who kills; the God who raised His slaughtered Son from the dead is the God who loves.
This does not explain away the bloody=mindedness of the Old Testament, but it does make some sense of it. God’s OT violence sets the stage for this same God to make Himself known all over again in the baby in a peasant’s manger and in the suffering Messiah nailed to a cross. If God uses violence to execute His justice in the Old Testament, He judges violence on the cross of His Son and bears Himself the violence of His own judgment. The One who gives life also gives violent death in judgment. The same One then takes violent death and uses it to create life anew.
It is because we meet God most intimately in the bleeding Lamb of God of the cross that I am content to trust that God, and choose to hope that the violent tiger God of the Old Testament will make sense when I meet that God. I am bold to hope this, because Paul the Apostles tells me that though I now see as in a glass dimly, someday I will see clearly, as Isaiah the prophet suggests:
“The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat,
the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them. . .
The infant will play near the hole of the cobra,
and the young child put his hand into the viper’s nest.
They will neither harm nor destroy on my holy mountain,
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of God as the waters cover the sea.”
Somehow, though, it wouldn’t surprise me at all that, when the time comes and we come before God seeking answers to our questions, we might find ourselves like Job in the presence of God:
“Surely, I spoke of things I do not understand,
things too wonderful for me to know .
My ears had heard of you, but now my eyes have seen you.
Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust an ashes.”
(Job 42:3, 5)
When we meet the One who is both lamb and tiger, we will see the Wholeness of the One who is both.