This sermon is shortened version of a talk given by the Revd Simon Coupland at the New Wine summer conference in 2010. You can download Simon's talk (which is well worth listening to) online at https://www.essentialchristian.com/revd-simon-coupland/teaching/is-god-homicidal-1 (£3 MP3 format, £3.99 audio CD)INTRODUCTION
How did the first reading make you feel? How many of you felt uncomfortable saying 'Thanks be to God' at the end of that reading?
Paul in his 2nd letter to Timothy writes, 'All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness.' But if that is the case, how are we to make sense of passages like the one we heard this morning? What possible connection can such violence have with the God we long to love, trust and understand?"
The Christian faith talks about God, being a God of love. But yet there are passages in the Old Testament which portray God as being anything but a God of love.
This is what the well known atheist Richard Dawkins writes in his book 'The God Delusion': "The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sado-masochistic, capriciously malevolent bully."
Richard Dawkins words are offensive, but if we are honest, I am sure that we sometimes find ourselves thinking the same thing when we read the Old Testament. Bible scholars and commentators don't try to hide from this fact. In Richard Hess' commentary on the book of Joshua he writes, "Few of the many issues raised by the book of Joshua create more difficulty than the question of how a loving God could command the wholesale extermination of nations that inhabited the Promised Land. There is no easy or simple solution to this problem."
This morning I want to look at two simple but wrong solutions to this problem, and next week we will look at three helpful thoughts as we tackle this difficult but important issue.
SIMPLE SOLUTION 1 CUT OUT THE OLD TESTAMENT
Solution 1 is to get rid of the Old Testament altogether.
This was tried in the past by a man called Marcion. Marcion lived in the second century AD, and argued that there were two Gods, the vengeful God of the OT –and the all forgiving God of the New Testament. Marcion believed that Paul was the only true interpreter or Jesus, and produced his own canon of Scripture, which got rid of the whole OT and large parts of the NT.
This prompted the church to agree its own list of accepted books, which became more or less the New Testament canon that we know today. The early Christians also agreed, against Marcion, that the Hebrew Bible was their Bible too, to be read, studied and quoted. Thus when Paul wrote to Timothy, 'from infancy you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness' (2 Tim 3:15-16), it wasn't the New Testament Scriptures to which he was referring, as they were still being written, but the Hebrew Scriptures, the Old Testament.
What would happen if we cut out the OT?
- We would no longer be following Jesus, who saw the Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament, as the Word of God. For example in a debate with the Sadducees (religious leaders) about the resurrection (which they did not believe in), Jesus rebukes them and says "You are in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God." (Matthew 22:29) When Jesus talks about the Scriptures, he is of course talking about the Hebrew Bible.
- We would have to cut out large parts of the New Testament, too, as almost all books quote the Old Testament. For example in Mark 12:10 Jesus quotes Psalm 118 when he says "Haven't you read this passage of Scripture: 'The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone'?" (Psalm 118:22). Jesus clearly expected his listeners to know the Old Testament, to respect its authority and to see its relevance.
- We lose the context into which Jesus came: the way he understood himself. For example on the day of the resurrection Jesus met two of his disciples travelling on the road from Jerusalem to Emmaus, and Luke tells us that "Beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he [Jesus] explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself." (Luke 24:27) We cannot understand who Jesus is, and the significance of his death and resurrection, without also understanding the OT.
- If we cut out the OT, think about all that we would lose. The richness of the Psalms, the ten commandments, and so many incredible stories.
Jesus also clearly identifies his Father as the God of the OT
SIMPLE SOLUTION 2 SAY IT DIDN'T HAPPEN
What do I mean by this?
Well in 1 Samuel 15:3, Samuel, God's prophet, says to Saul the King, this is what the Lord says, "Now go, attack the Amalekites and totally destroy all that belongs to them. Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys.'"
But later on in 1 Samuel 30, we read how the Amalekites raided the Negev and Ziklag, and took captive the women and all who were in it (1 Samuel 30:1-2) What this shows is that the Israelite's didn't actually wipe out the Amalekites. So although God gave this command, and Saul said 'yes I did it, I slaughtered them all', he clearly didn't.
The point some people have tried to argue is that, maybe the Bible is exaggerating, maybe it didn't really happen that way. Another example is in Leviticus where it says "If a man commits adultery with another man's wife, both must be put to death." But when King David has an affair with Bathsheba, no one puts David or Bathsheba to death. The conclusion may be that this is something that didn't happen. It's a rule that emphasises the gravity of adultery, but was never really meant to be put into practice.
Even Jesus used exaggeration to get over points. For example he said "If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters, yes, even his own life, he cannot be my disciple." (Luke 14.26) Of course Jesus isn't asking us to hate our families, but it is to drive home a point about the commitment he expects when people follow him.
We need to recognise that the Bible exaggerates. But this solution doesn't account for all passages.
So far we've looked at two solutions that don't work. Cut out the OT and pretend it didn't happen.
None of the solutions put forward are satisfactory. We cannot simply get rid of the OT, or ignore it. The Old Testament speaks of judgement, but it also speaks of grace, and the New Testament is exactly the same. The God of the OT is also the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, and if we're followers of Jesus, which for me is the definition of a Christian, then we should, as the Book of Common Prayer says, 'read, mark, learn and inwardly digest' the Old Testament as well as the New. For as Paul says, these are the Scriptures which 'are able to make you wise for salvation' (2 Tim 3:15); they reveal the Father to us and they point us to Jesus.
Next week, we will consider some helpful thoughts, which may not solve the problem entirely, but hopefully will help us to embrace these passages as Scripture, and say yes this is the word of God.