Some of the most interesting, yet troubling, parts of the Bible are the passages depicting violence, especially when God seems to command slaughter and annihilation against an enemy of ancient Israel. We find a number of stories of conquest and warfare, occasionally genocide, and the brutal treatment of men, women and children. These passages are disturbing and, for me, quite difficult to read and stomach. Here is where the Bible seems so wildly divergent from the teachings of Jesus, especially about the treatment of enemies and loving one’s neighbor. I’ve had many faithful United Methodists ask me over the years if there were two different Gods, one for the Hebrew Scriptures and the other from the New Testament. I also know people, and I’m sure you do too, who see these difficult passages as a reason not to be a Christian. In effect, they’re saying, “I don’t want any part of a tradition that includes such destructive behavior.”
Scholars have written about the challenges of deciphering these “texts of terror” and the question of whether there can be virtuous or redemptive violence. Thomas Merton once commented, “Let us not be too sure we know the Bible just because we have learned not to be astonished at it, just because we have learned not to have problems with it. Have we perhaps learned at the same time not to really pay attention to it? Have we ceased to question the book and be questioned by it? Have we ceased to fight it? Then perhaps our reading is no longer serious.”
I like the idea that the Bible questions us and that we too get to question scripture. We’ll begin to answer these questions on Sunday as we consider if God is indeed violent. We’ll look carefully at ways to read these difficult portions of scripture in light of the life and teachings of Jesus and God’s love. There may not be easy answers to some of these most troublesome passages, but there are ways for thoughtful, faithful Christians to respond and interpret God’s word.
Pastor Dave Summers