Part 2 of our series based on Adam Hamilton’s book Making Sense of the Bible. Today we are going to tackle one of the toughest questions I’ve wrestled with and the answer that Hamilton comes up with really challenged me but also expanded my ideas of the Bible and what it means. Just because the Bible isn’t exactly what we expect doesn’t mean it isn’t the inspired Word of God. Nor does it mean that we weren’t meant to learn something from it. I hope this will challenge you and help you and inspire you as the research and reading did for me.
When my sister Nicole was born, I used to secretly watch after her.
My room was right next to hers and so when she would cry at night, I could hear her clear as a bell. Everyone else would be in bed and Nicole would be crying, but when I told my mom she said we needed to let her cry it out. I was only 12 but that just didn’t sit right with me. Not only was her crying keeping me up, but I couldn’t let her sit there with tears running down her face when all I had to do was to pick her up. I knew logically why parents let their kids cry, my mom explained it and everything, but something in me just couldn’t do it. Same thing happened with Emma. I could never just let her cry. I’d have to pick her up. So that’s what I did with Nicole. I would sneak past my parents’ room, go into Nicole’s, and quietly lower the bar on her crib and pick her up. I would carry her and rock her to sleep as best as I could. A couple of times, I could tell that her diaper was full so I would change her and then just as quietly lift up the bar again and let her rest. The funny thing is that nobody else remembers it that way. Not my mom, not my sister Karen, not Nicole. They swear up and down that it never happened, but my argument is this – how would they know? They were asleep! That’s the whole point!
It’s funny how people remember history differently.
From something as simple as watching my baby sister to the way in which huge events take place, history is remembered by different people in different ways. Living in the South and serving at Roswell UMC in Atlanta really showed me that. Talking about the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II is pretty common knowledge out here in California, but back there I was surprised at how many people didn’t know it happened or knew very little about it. Cassie told me it wasn’t something they were taught in history even though it’s pretty standard curriculum out in sunny CA. I would share stories about how the internment affected the lives of the Japanese-American community and many people would come up afterward and talk about how shocked they were and how surprised they were to find out what happened. More shocking to me was the frequency with which people would dismiss it as a reasonable reaction to the fear of war. To the victors go the spoils – including the right to record history any way you want.
Think about how often that’s happened in our own past just in the United States.
How the Native Americans were treated by the early settlers is only something that has recently been addressed. How the ancestors of today’s African-Americans were treated as slaves was seen as normal and right and took not just a Civil War to correct it, but about 100 years of social justice before it became the law of the land. And that’s in our country where freedom is a gift. Think about the many, many places where freedom doesn’t exist. Freedom of the press. Freedom of speech. Basic human rights. These are things that we have been blessed with and even we make mistakes. Think about how common it is in other parts of the world. As the saying goes, “History is written by the victors.” History is written by the victors. Sometimes it’s done intentionally, sometimes it isn’t. But usually people write themselves as the heroes. Nobody is the villain in their own story. Nobody is the villain in their own story.
So how does any of this relate to our lesson today?
We are going to read a passage of the Bible to help explain it all. If you have a Bible or a Bible app on your phone, would you please turn to 1 John 4:7-15. One of the biggest difficulties we encounter in the Bible is the difference between the God of the Old Testament and the God of the New Testament. Now the God of the Old Testament seems to be unusually harsh and mean. Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of times in the Old Testament where God’s grace and mercy seem in abundance. The hundred or so times that the people of Israeli abandon God and then come crying back to him when things get tough come to mind. God always welcomed them back. When God saved his people and brought them out of slavery in Egypt comes to mind. When God provided miracles of manna and water while they were wandering in the desert come to mind. But then there are the times when God’s wrath seems pretty abundant and God strikes out at us through war and plague and slavery (Deuteronomy 20:10-18 is one example of many). It’s hard for us to reconcile these different images of God we receive, this God of the OT and the God we usually think of from the New Testament as evidenced by the passage below.
7 Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. 8 Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. 9 This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. 10 This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. 11 Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. 12 No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.
13 This is how we know that we live in him and he in us: He has given us of his Spirit. 14 And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world. 15 If anyone acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God, God lives in them and they in God.
It’s like that game show To Tell the Truth, “Would the real God please stand up?”
Because when you read these vastly different passages, it seems like either there are two Gods, God is schizophrenic, or God has a really different version of love than what we know. And is that even possible? If there really is a God would he do this? I think this is what troubles us the most, that it sows seeds of doubt about God’s existence. And to be honest, it’s one of the biggest challenges we have to our faith. How do we reconcile these different images of God? If you take the Bible to be the inerrant word of God, then there are two routes people generally use to justify God’s actions. One, that God as the author of life has the right to take it at any time he pleases. And two, that the people God kills deserve it. But that seems to point to a God who behaves in ways we would generally find unacceptable. A mother who gives birth to her child wouldn’t be justified in taking that child’s life simply because she gave birth to him, so why would we let God get away with that? Plus, it just seems like God is awfully fickle when it comes to giving and taking life. When Hurricane Katrina hit, there were people who said it was God’s will against the sinful city of New Orleans, but can you tell me what the 10 recorded infants who died might have done to sin against God? Or the other 10 children who died along with them? And could we really say that the people who died were among the most sinful in the city? All 971 of them? And that’s only according to one study. Some have the death toll at twice that much. Do we think God handpicked those people to die? And if so, why in that way? God, being almighty, could simply strike down the people he didn’t like. Look at what happened to Ananias. Luke tells us in Acts 5 that Peter simply accuses Ananias of lying to God and he fell over dead. If God was really going to strike vengeance, why not do it this way? I think what disturbs me most about the passage we read from Deuteronomy is that God is making the Israelites be his engine of death. Instead of doing it himself, he commands them to do the killing including every man, woman, and child for something they haven’t even done yet. Is this really the God we follow? Or could there be another explanation?
Perhaps the early Biblical writers got it wrong.
Not intentionally but perhaps the writers of the Old Testament interpreted the world around them in a way we understand today is not in line with God’s character. As Hamilton wrote in his book, Making Sense of the Bible, “In this case, the biblical authors were representing what they believed about God rather than what God actually inspired them to say.” The biblical authors were representing what they believed about God rather than what God inspired them to say. We test this not by our own opinions, but what we know of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. When measured against that rubric it becomes easier to determine the way in which we are supposed to read Scripture and gives us a more reliable way of understanding what God is trying to say to us. But if that’s the case, then you might ask why include them in the Bible at all? What purpose do these passages of violence and destruction serve? Again as Hamilton points out, there are two possible purposes these passages might serve for us today: As a way for us to understand the times and context in which the early writers put these passages to papyrus and as a reminder and a warning to us how easy it is for people to “invoke God’s name in the pursuit of violence, bloodshed, and war.”
Nothing is ever written without context.
Nothing is ever written without context. Even as we read passages of the Bible, they are read in the context of our own life and experiences. We can’t help that. As human beings, we are limited by what we know and how we came to know it. That’s why the Bible is such an amazing piece of literature. It has stood the test of time because we have been able to view it through many different lenses and it still talks to us today. But we need to keep that in mind as well. The authors of the Bible as much as us who read it today wrote the Bible out of the context of their lives. In the times of the Old Testament, it was common for people to believe that God sent them to war because that was very consistent with the beliefs of the time. It was common for their to be contests between deities to prove their worthiness. This happened a lot in the Old Testament. To Daniel and King Nebuchadnezzar when Daniel interpreted the dream, between Elijah and the prophets of Baal when they had a contest between which God could light the wood on fire. It was a different way of understanding God. So when they spoke about God and then later wrote down these stories, it was from that frame of reference. Our frame of reference changes, too. Just as we used to believe that God sanctioned racism and sexism, we don’t believe that any more. If our understanding of God could change within the frame of our lifetime, isn’t it possible that the violence we read about in the Bible was how the early writers understood God at the time? Isn’t it possible that our understanding of God has changed over the years? And if that is so, then perhaps the Bible should be seen not as a static work, unchanging in both meaning and words, but instead as a living document that offers us insight into the character of God and our own troubled history. Read your Bibles. Even the most difficult parts of it. And challenge yourselves to discover what God is saying to you within its pages. Wrestle with what you find and do not be afraid, because even though we may turn in the wind, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever.”
 Adam Hamilton, Making Sense of the Bible, p. 212 – Hamilton states directly that advocates for this view “speak of God’s authority to give and take life at will” and then prefaces the destruction of the Canaanites to their evil.
 Hamilton, p.213.
 Ibid, p.214-216.