Adopting Paul's critique of violence in the Bible

Saturday, January 25, 2014

In 2012 I wrote an article for Sojourners demonstrating how the Apostle Paul repeatedly deleted violence from Old Testament passages, instead using these very texts to proclaim God's grace.

To give just one example among many, in Romans 15 Paul quotes several passages from the Old Testament to make the case for showing grace towards Gentiles in Christ:

As it is written:
“Therefore I will praise you among the Gentiles;
    I will sing the praises of your name.”
Again, it says,
“Rejoice, you Gentiles, with his people.”(Romans 15:9-10)

Sounds lovely, but now take a look at the part Paul deleted from these above citations:
As it is written: “I destroyed my foes. They cried for help, but there was no one to save them—to the LORD, but he did not answer ... He is the God who avenges me, who puts the Gentiles under me ... Therefore I will praise you among the Gentiles; I will sing hymns to your name.” [quoting Psalm 18:41–49]

Again, it says,
“Rejoice, O Gentiles, with his people, for he will avenge the blood of his servants; he will take vengeance on his enemies and make atonement for his land and people.” [Deuteronomy 32:43]
Paul is rather obviously  using these texts to make the opposite point from that of the original biblical author. While the OT passage Paul cites calls for bloodshed, for the death of enemies, Paul instead calls for grace and love of enemies. As my article demonstrates, this is something Paul does over and over again.

What I'd like to discuss here is: What would it mean for us as Christians to adopt Paul's method of biblical interpretation today?

If we are going to do this, we need to realize that not only did Paul understand what he was doing, but so did his audience. Remember Paul's violent past of persecuting the church. It's not as if Paul was unaware of the violence in these texts he's quoting from, because Paul had in the past used these very texts to justfy his own acts of violence in God's name. Likewise, he is not addressing people who were unfamiliar with these texts. Rather he is deliberately taking texts that were understood by his audience to promote and justify violence in God's name, and instead using them to make the opposite point. It is intended to be confrontational, in your face.

A similar example can be found in the stories of Jesus. We often hear the stories of Jesus (like the Good Samaritan, the Prodigal Son, etc.) and think "Well, isn't that a lovely story about grace and compassion!" But the reaction of the religious leaders is almost always "at hearing this they wanted to kill him but he escaped into the crowds before they could." What's going on here is that Jesus is essentially saying "Let me tell you a heart-warming story where you are the jerk, and your enemy is the hero. Let's see if you'd enjoy that story." 

In other words, Jesus is continually confronting and provoking his audience, and so it Paul. This really should not surprise us. After all, Paul is the guy who describes his past religious fundamentalism as being "$#!+" (Philippians 3:8) and tells those opposing them to "go to hell" (Galatians 1:9). I wont even mention what he tells people to do to themselves in Galatians 5:12. Our Bibles of course translate these into a more PG version, but that is what Paul actually says. Why does he get so pissed off? Because he understands first hand how religion can be used to endorse violence and death. It pisses me off, too.

Now, I am not advocating saying rude things to people we disagree with. It's understandable, but not very productive. Let's face it, our world already has enough nasty polarizing exchanges between conservatives and liberals, both political and religious. Comment sections, rather than fostering community, are often where people get unbelievably nasty.  Frankly, Paul on his better days points us towards a superior way of "not being overcome by evil but overcoming evil with good." On my better days that the narrow road I try to go down.
 
But let me return to the real point I want to focus on: Paul, when he deliberately changes the meaning of these OT texts from violence to grace, is engaging in a form of critique. It was not intended or understood at the time as "What? That's just what it says... Good news for Gentiles!" As if the violent parts were never there. Rather, it was a way of provoking, an "in your face" deliberate reversal of the texts his audience has embraced as legitimate. These texts justified violence towards their enemies in the name of justice, and they had embraced these texts, just like our culture has embraced the idea that it's okay to torture terrorists since they are just monsters anyway (no need for a trial either). We have this idea ingrained in our minds from actions movies and TV shows like 24 and Chicago PD where the storyline is always "Sometimes the good guys need to use inhumane violence to protect us from the bad guys." That's the narrative we have in our time. Paul is confronting a similar narrative in his own time, confronting his audience's religious hatred by using the very texts that used to justify that violence, and reversing them so that they instead pointed to the fact that we all do hurtful things, and thus are all in need of mercy.

If we are going to get that, we need to realize that it's not the particular form, but the underlying substance that is essential. The forms Jesus tended to use are things like ironic stories, paradoxical statements, and clever word plays to engage in this critique. Paul uses other methods in his writings. Some of those techniques may work today, and some may not. That is, it may be so foreign to us in our culture that we just don't get it. But the point is not the form, but what they are doing with all this, the substance. That substance is a critique of religion, and in particular a critique of using religion to legitimize violence.

Therefore emulating Paul here would not mean we should read a particularly troubling passage from the OT and act as if it instead says something nice. To do that would in fact be to miss the provocation that both Paul and his original audience would have felt, in the same way as we often miss why Jesus' audience gets so mad when he tells them these nice stories of grace. 

No, the real way we can adopt the way that Jesus and Paul interpreted scripture is for us to recognize that it primarily involves a critique of religion as well as a critique of Scripture, and for us to learn how to enter into that critique as well.  In other words, we need to be morally engaged readers who can courageously question hurtful things in the name of compassion. 

We may have different methods and styles (the form) for how to do this than Jesus or Paul, but we need to join them in the act of moral engagement and critique in the name of compassion. To do that will mean questioning things that are done in the name of Scripture, in the name of "what's right" in the name of "what justice demands" in the name of what "love of country" requires. It means standing up to authority when that authority is wrong, no matter what that authority is. That's what we see Jesus and Paul doing. They are calling us to become courageous moral adults with them.

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Contradictions in the Old Testament (and why they are a good thing)

Sunday, January 19, 2014

It is commonly maintained that the Bible has one single unified voice, one "biblical" message. However this is simply not true. The Old Testament in fact contains a collection of competing narratives written from opposing perspectives.

Seeing the Old Testament from this perspective can be liberating. Rather than trying to make sense of and justify things that strike us as profoundly wrong (like genocide or slavery) we can instead see the Bible as a record of dispute, a witness to a struggle to understand who God is and who we are. Those contradictions we find are then not problems to argue away, but simply due to the fact that the Hebrew Bible allows for diversity, it allows for the voices of competing sides to an issue to stand side by side within the canon. Because there are these divergent views we are compelled to enter into that struggle too. The multiple conflicting views mean we must "pick and choose" as we read. The only question is, what do we pick and why?

This is a view that you almost never hear in church. Most of the time we Christians instead spend our time arguing that there are no contractions in the Bible, attempting to harmonize the texts. We have probably encountered the idea that there is a conflict between the Old and New Testaments--that one is a message of wrath and the other is a message of love, law vs. love. Or perhaps we've heard that the Old Testament when understood properly in fact shows a concern for social justice and compassion for the poor. What we have not heard is that in fact both are true at the same time. The Old Testament contains messages of compassion and inclusion, and it contains messages of hate and harm--each claiming to speak for God. The relationship of the New Testament to the Old then is that it embraces one particular narrative in the Old Testament while critiquing and rejecting another.

Now since the idea that the Old Testament contains multiple conflicting views is one that is unfamiliar to most church going folks, I wanted to give some examples of it. In a previous blog post I gave the example of how Job (and the Psalms) challenge and question the central promise of the law and the Mosaic covenant which clearly promises that if the Israelites are faithful then they will experience blessing, health and plenty, and if they sin they will experience suffering, sickness, and famine (see Deuteronomy 28). Job openly contests this, insisting that his sickness and suffering are not due to his sin. The Psalms likewise echo this complaint.

This became a common theme as Israel repeatedly found itself in exile, under foreign oppression, suffering famine and the ravages of war under Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Greece, and finally Rome. During that time, while some continued to hold to the law and insist that their suffering was due to their sin, others began to develop the idea of the suffering righteous. This is of course a concept that the New Testament picks up and applies to Jesus.

This time I'd like to present a further example relating to how people from other nationalities and races were seen, in particular in the context of interracial marriage. What is the "biblical" view of interracial marriage? Is the answer:
a) you should kill them
b) you should cast the women and children out
c) you should praise and bless them and see them as under God's shelter
The answer, as we will see, is "all of the above." This will be a longer post, but I think it is worth the time it will take to fully paint the picture of two very different perspectives found within the Hebrew canon.


Ezra-Nehemiah and interracial marriage

Let's begin with the book of Ezra. Ezra takes place after the Babylonian exile. The book of Ezra accounts how the king of Persia allowed the Israelites to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the temple. Ezra, a "teacher of the law" comes on the scene to find that many of Israelites had intermarried with the surrounding nations. In response he tears is clothing, rips out his hair in shame. He declares that because of their sin they have "been subjected to the sword and captivity, to pillage and humiliation at the hand of foreign kings, as it is today" (Ezra 9:7). What is that sin exactly? Ezra prays out loud,
We have forsaken the commands you gave through your servants the prophets when you said: "The land you are entering to possess is a land polluted by the corruption of its peoples. By their detestable practices they have filled it with their impurity from one end to the other. Therefore, do not give your daughters in marriage to their sons or take their daughters for your sons. Do not seek a treaty of friendship with them at any time" ... What has happened to us is a result of our evil deeds and our great guilt ... Shall we then break your commands again and intermarry with the peoples who commit such detestable practices? Would you not be angry enough with us to destroy us, leaving us no remnant or survivor? (v. 10-15)
The people all weep, fearing that God will destroy Israel because of its sin. Then one man suggests a solution "Now let us make a covenant before our God to send away all these women and their children" (10:3). Ezra then rises and puts all of Israel under oath to do this. Anyone who did not comply was to forfeit all their property.

The story Ezra does not tell is the fate of these women and children. It does not tell the story of the children rejected by their fathers. It does not tell the fate of the women who were cast out of their homes, abandoned by their husbands, sent into the night to fend for themselves. Did they die? Did they find shelter? Think about how life was for women and children in that time. Place yourself in their shoes. How would you feel if you were told you were "polluted" and cast away? Ezra does not tell us.

The book of Nehemiah tells a similar story, "On that day the Book of Moses was read aloud in the hearing of the people and there it was found written that no Ammonite or Moabite should ever be admitted into the assembly of God." (Nehemiah 13:1). Seeing that some of the men had taken wives from Ashdod, Ammon and Moab, Nehemiah tells us that he "called curses down on them" and "beat some of the men and pulled out their hair" (v 25). He then declares,
“You are not to give your daughters in marriage to their sons, nor are you to take their daughters in marriage for your sons or for yourselves. Was it not because of marriages like these that Solomon king of Israel sinned? Among the many nations there was no king like him. He was loved by his God, and God made him king over all Israel, but even he was led into sin by foreign women. Must we hear now that you too are doing all this terrible wickedness and are being unfaithful to our God by marrying foreign women?” (v. 25-27)
On top of the clear central theme of racism in Ezra and Nehemiah and the need to be "purified" of foreigners, it is hard to not notice a corollary theme of sexism: Women are consistently identified as being a corrupting influence over the men, and are the one who need to be cast out. Both Ezra and Nehemiah in their attempt to "purify" Israel from the corruption of foreign peoples can be traced back to Moses who declares,
"When the Lord your God brings you into the land you are entering to possess and drives out before you many nations ... and when the Lord your God has delivered them over to you and you have defeated them, then you must destroy them totally. Make no treaty with them, and show them no mercy. Do not intermarry with them. Do not give your daughters to their sons or take their daughters for your sons, for they will turn your children away from following me to serve other gods, and the Lord’s anger will burn against you and will quickly destroy you" (Deuteronomy 7:1-4). 
In the case of Moses this decree resulted in repeated commands for the Israelites to "utterly destroy" the men, women, and children of these foreign nations, killing "everything that breathes." Did these acts of genocide actually take place? Based on archaeological evidence the vast majority of biblical scholars doubt that they did. What is however clear is that the books of Ezra and Nehemiah appeal to these same texts to justify their policy of divorce and deportation of wives and children from their homes.


Ruth and interracial marriage

That is one narrative found in the Old Testament. Let's turn to consider another narrative that tells the opposite story, found in the book of Ruth which, based on the genre and style, many scholars date as a post-exilic book (i.e. as a book from the same time as Ezra and Nehemiah). Ruth is the story of Moabite woman who was married to an Isrealite.

Recall above how Nehemiah quotes Moses as declaring "no Ammonite or Moabite should ever be admitted into the assembly of God" This likely is a reference to Deuteronomy 23 which states "No Ammonite or Moabite or any of their descendants may enter the assembly of the Lord, not even in the tenth generation ... Do not seek a treaty of friendship with them as long as you live." (vv. 3 & 6)

As the story begins, Ruth's husband has died, and her widowed Jewish mother-in-law Naomi is preparing to leave Moab and return to Judah. She urges her two daughters-in-law to return to their own mothers in the hopes of finding husbands. Ruth's sister-in-law agrees, but Ruth is hesitant. Naomi says to her "Look, your sister-in-law is going back to her people and her gods. Go back with her.” (Ruth 1:15), but Ruth clings to Naomi and in one of the most intimate passages in Scripture says these moving words,
“Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord deal with me, be it ever so severely, if even death separates you and me.” (Ruth 1:16-17)
After this Ruth and Naomi travel to Bethlehem where Ruth meets Boaz who shows her kindness. Ruth bows down before him and asks “Why have I found such favor in your eyes that you notice me—a foreigner?” (2:10) and Boaz replies to her,
“I’ve been told all about what you have done for your mother-in-law since the death of your husband—how you left your father and mother and your homeland and came to live with a people you did not know before. May the Lord repay you for what you have done. May you be richly rewarded by the Lord, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come to take refuge.” (vv 11-12)
The Lord, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come to take refuge. That is certainly strikingly different from how Ezra and Nehemiah, not to mention Moses, would have regarded a Moabite woman. But the story does not stop there. It goes on to tell of how Boaz and Ruth were married and had a son named  Obed who was the father of Jesse, the father of David. Thus the book of Ruth ends by declaring that this Moabite woman was the great-grandmother of king David.

So here we have a counter-witness, likely from the same time, that tells a very different story of inter-marriage. One that, even in its tender and intimate tone, directly confronts narratives of Ezra and Nehemiah. If Ruth was indeed written at the same time, this brings up some striking possibilities: Imagine the reaction of an Israelite man who was forced to send away his wife and children would have had reading the words of Ruth "Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay" and recalls the tears on his wife's face that day he sent her away or the terrified and heartbroken screams of his children. What might have been the reaction of the elders and rulers upon reading of Ruth the great grand-mother of king David whose "holy seed" they awaited in a coming Messiah to rule Israel? Would that coming messiah destroy the nations as Joshua did and as some of the prophets declare? Or would the new Joshua (which is the name of Jesus in Hebrew) instead be a "light to the nations" as other prophets declare in contrast?

The fact is, the Hebrew Bible does not present just one perspective, but instead presents us with differing perspectives, each claiming to represent God's own view. Returning to our multiple-choice question of what the "biblical" view of interracial marraige is, we have seen that Moses says the answer is (a) kill them, Ezra-Nehemiah declared the answer was (b) cast the women and children out, and finally Ruth makes the case against both that the answer is (c) praise and bless them and see them as under God's shelter. The fact that we find these competing perspectives side by side within the canon calls us to deliberate between these competing views. Rather than spoon-feeding us a single answer, the multi-vocal nature of the Hebrew Bible calls to enter into the struggle ourselves, to make choices between right and wrong as moral adults. Do we side with Ezra and Nehemiah or with Ruth? Which narrative will we embrace? Which understanding of holiness will we adopt as our own? Finally, as Christians we are inclined to ask: Which narrative most reflects the heart of Jesus? Which are the texts that shaped his own view towards the foreigner, towards those who were regarded as "unclean" or as enemy Gentiles?

There are of course many other examples of these conflicting perspectives in the Hebrew Bible. Next time we'll consider the example of the prophets disagreeing and contradicting one another.

(Note: I owe the insight of the contrast between Ezra-Nehemiah and Ruth to Karl Allen Kuhn in his Having Words with God. It's a great book, go check it out!)

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The Jesus Lens: Can we question the New Testament?

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Many people have proposed the need to interpret Scripture through a Jesus-shaped lens. Some recent proponents include Peter Enns in Inspiration and Incarnation, Christian Smith in The Bible Made Impossible, Eric Seibert in Disturbing Divine Behavior, as well as Wayne Jacobsen in his video series The Jesus Lens, and many others.

It's an attractive proposal, but as soon as we attempt to practically apply it we bump into a lot of questions as to what this would look like in practice. The first question is what one means exactly. There are basically two camps here: 

One uses the Jesus lens to show how all Scripture points to Christ and thus would argue that troubling texts like the commands to commit genocide are actually good and loving (Wayne Jacobsen for example takes this approach). Others would instead use the Jesus lens as a way of evaluating which texts reflect Christ and which do not and conclude that genocide and Jesus are incompatible (an example here would be Eric Seibert). So while I have a deep appreciation for Wayne Jacobsen in many regards (there is a lot of great stuff in his series!) I disagree with him here, and instead take the approach of Eric Seibert.

This still leaves us with the question of application: how does this second approach of using a Jesus lens to critique religious violence play out in practice exactly? This is of course a huge topic, which I will be addressing in detail in my forthcoming book, but the value of a blog like this is it allows for a conversation to take place and thus for theology to be interactive, communal, and collaborative. With that relational goal in mind I'd like to address a question that was asked in the comment section of a recent post here.

Re: using a Christocentric hermeneutic to critique OT (or even NT) texts... once you make the decision to use Christ's way of using Scripture as a way to make judgment calls on whether, for instance, Numbers 31 accurately reflects who God is, then one has to call into question how we can be sure that the Gospels themselves are fully accurate in their portrayal of Jesus. Should they be considered 100% reliable, or do certain parts need critique as well... and if we do critique a NT portrayal of Jesus, what reliable yardstick must we use?

Reading theologically, our primary focus needs to be on ethics and discipleship, so by asking "are they 100% reliable?" I don't take this to mean "are they historically reliable in regards to science and miracles?" (a question that modernism seemed to get stuck on) but rather "are they completely reliable as a guide to life and behavior as we seek to follow Jesus today?"

Of course the expected answer would be "Yes they are!" but this very quickly gets us in trouble. Consider Jesus statement "if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off." Raise your hand if you have obeyed this 100%. Gosh, that's funny, I don't see any hands (or should I say mean amputated stumps?). How about where Jesus says "If anyone 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." Which of you who are parents hate your kids? Would you want to go to a seminar on parenting where they taught you to hate for Jesus (and also taught your kids to hate you, too!). I don't think so. 

So when reading Jesus it becomes imperative that we not simply and uncritically apply what he says without question. In fact, taking Jesus literally would clearly lead to abuse--hatred, chopped off body parts, and so on. We thus need to really think through how we can apply the teaching of Jesus in a way that is not hurtful. While I don't know anyone who has chopped off a limb, there are quite a few people who have been told by their pastor or priest to stay in a physically abusive domestic environment because Jesus would want them to.

The point of all of this is that we must question as we read the New Testament, we must seek to understand, otherwise if we instead simply blindly accept and obey without understanding this will inevitably lead to abuse and hurt. Obedience is not possible without understanding. So we must approach the text critically, we must question. Anything less is morally irresponsible. Jesus' own practice of questioning Scripture models this for us, and it applies equally to our reading of Jesus. The main thing Jesus is trying to do with his provocative statements of "love your enemy" and "hate your family" is to get us to think, to get us to question our assumptions of how the world works and what justice and power are like.

Now there's more to be said here. For example I have not addressed the New Testament in regards to the issues of slavery, child abuse, and state-sanctioned violence, all of which it does not seem to speak out against in a way that we would want to today. That brings up the question: do we follow the NT in what it affirms (and thus we can keep slaves as long as we are kind to them) or should we go further in the trajectory it begins which leads us to abolish slavery, not hit our kids and outlaw capital punishment. 

I would argue for a trajectory approach here. So again, we see that we are not viewing the NT as 100% reliable if that means they are the final word as to Christian practice. In that regard, let's again have a show of hands of who here owns slaves? Nobody. We now call that human trafficking. It's the other things that we are inconsistent with--corporal punishment and how we see the legitimacy of the state to torture people or to kill them in the name of justice, claiming to be a "Christians nation" as we do.

Let me end with the question of the yardstick we must use as we evaluate what it means to faithfully follow Jesus today in the 21st century, especially when this takes us beyond where the NT itself stopped in the 1st century. I'd suggest that the yardstick is what the Anabaptists call the "hermeneutic of obedience." That is, as we as a community seeking to follow Jesus and his way of enemy love put this into practice in our lives, we will be able to evaluate from that life of discipleship what faithfulness to Jesus needs to look like. We look at the fruits, the results of the life we are living as to whether it produces flourishing and peace or whether it results in harm and damage. That's our yardstick, and that is the yardstick that Jesus' first disciples used, too.

That's my proposal. But since our yardstick is one formed together in Jesus-shaped community, this is something that we need to work through together, in a dialog not a monolog. So let's talk about it together in the comments!


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Is the Bible a treasure in a jar of clay?

Saturday, January 04, 2014

Paul says we are like jars of dirt that contain a priceless treasure. We hope others can see Christ in us, even though we am broken and flawed as a human beings. There is something beautiful inside that jar of clay.

Could we say the same about the Bible? That is contains Christ inside a jar of clay? That despite the fact that it is flawed, just as we are, that it can also be redeemed just as we can?

We may be tempted to disown the violence in the Bible, but instead we need to own it as ours, own it with a spirit of repentance and humility. Not owning it in the sense of calling evil good, but owning it the same way we own our own hurtfulness. We need to lovingly face the dark parts of Scripture, just as we lovingly face our own darkest parts.

Just as we have found a way to understand ourselves to be broken but still accepted and loved nevertheless, we need to find a way to see the Bible like that too. Neither tossing it out, nor denying it's problems, but lovingly facing it.

Loving ourselves does not mean we call everything good in our lives. It can mean repenting, changing. Loving the Bible also does not mean calling everything in it good, but just as we are being formed into Christ's likeness, so we can see in Scripture a progressive growth towards Christ-likeness. We need to keep moving in that direction.

If the Bible is a witness to a people's growing encounter with God--who is most fully revealed in Jesus--then that relational encounter is the real thing, and the book is merely a witness to it. The purpose of the Bible is to serve as a witness to that encounter with Life so that we may also participate in that encounter, so that we may know the one who is Life. If that's all true then we need to keep moving closer to Christ, to keep growing. To do that is to be faithful to the spirit of Scripture whose purpose is to point us to Christ.

But Christ is not stuck in a book. We do not have a relationship with a book. That book cannot contain Christ or exhaust all there is to know of his way. The Bible is meant to lead us to the living Christ, and not tether us to the past. So to get stuck in the place where the last page of the Bible ends would be to not continue to grow and move with Jesus, and to do that is to be unfaithful to the aim and telos of Scripture. To do that is to miss the Spirit.


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Questioning religious violence: How to write your own Psalm of complaint

Wednesday, January 01, 2014

In my last post on facing violence and hate in the imprecatory Psalms I focused on a problem with the Psalms that we need to honestly confront: the ugliness of hate. We need to face it in the Psalms and we need to face it in ourselves, and what these Psalms show us is that we can come to God, even with our darkest ugliest parts. If we can find the courage to face that ugliness—in these Psalms, and in ourselves—then we can make space for God's light to meet us there in the dark.

This time around I’d like to focus on psalms of complaint, or as the are more commonly known, psalms of lament. One of the most common words we find in those psalms is “Why?” spoken as both an accusation, and as a cry of desperation:

Why, Lord, do you stand far off? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble? (Ps 10:1)

God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, so far from my cries of anguish? (Ps 22:1)

Why do you hide your face and forget our misery and oppression? (Ps 44:24)

An equally common phrase is the question/accusation “How long?”:

How long will you defend the unjust and show partiality to the wicked? (Ps 82:2)

How long, Lord, will the wicked, how long will the wicked be jubilant? (Ps 94:3)

These psalms of complaint frequently accuse God of injustice. They complain of their unjust suffering, while the wicked go about their lives carefree.

I envied the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked.
They have no struggles; their bodies are healthy and strong.
They are free from common human burdens; they are not plagued by human ills.
Therefore pride is their necklace; they clothe themselves with violence.
From their callous hearts comes iniquity; their evil imaginations have no limits.

They say, “How would God know? Does the Most High know anything?”
This is what the wicked are like—always free of care, they go on amassing wealth.
Surely in vain I have kept my heart pure and have washed my hands in innocence.
All day long I have been afflicted, and every morning brings new punishments.
...
When I tried to understand all this, it troubled me deeply
Ps 73:4-8, 11-14, 16

The law promises the opposite. It declares that the righteous will be rewarded with wealth, health and prosperity while the wicked will be cursed with sickness, poverty, and suffering (see for example Deut 28). That was the promise. The assumption of the law then was that if you were sick and suffering, if your were oppressed, if you were poor then this was because you were being punished by God for your sin. These psalms are complaints of those who were afflicted, sick, and suffering who cry out that this is not true, that the system of blessing and curses simply did not work. As the above Psalm 73 declares, in fact they observed the opposite was the case: the wicked prosper while the righteous suffer.

A familiar pattern of these psalms of complaint is that they often turn to praise at the end, and because of this there is an unfortunate tendency of many people to simply discount the complaint altogether. It is viewed as a lapse in faith, a failing on the part of the psalmist until he pulled it together at the end. I remember a friend of mine who was a DJ on a Christian radio station telling me that they had a policy of banning any song that expressed doubt or struggle that did not end on a happy note of faith and trust. This reflects our fear that as people of faith we cannot make room for struggle and doubt unless it is immediately resolved.

But consider the verdict of God in the book of Job: Job is afflicted even though he was blameless. Job bitterly complains to God that this was unjust. His friends rebuke him, counseling him instead that he should repent for his sin. Job refuses. In the end God rebukes Job’s friends, and declares that Job is right.

“I am angry with you and your two friends, because you have not spoken the truth about me, as my servant Job has” (Job 42:7)

Now surely the point of this is not that God is literally admitting that Job is right when he accuses God of being a sadistic oppressor. Something deeper is going on here that we need to grasp because it is central to a healthy expression of faith. This is captured in a line from the Switchfoot song “Yesterdays” (which, incidentally, I believe they picked up from a little line in a book by theologian Nicholas Wolterstorff mourning the loss of his son) :

Every lament is a love song.

The book of Job, even its bitter accusations, is a love song. God recognizes that love, and says that Job is right, even in his anger, and his pious friends are wrong. The Psalms of complaint are love songs. When Jesus quotes Psalm 22 on the cross “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” that was a love song, too. Every lament is a love song.

These Psalms demonstrate something very powerful: Questioning and doubt are not only an acceptable part of faith, they are an essential part of it. The fact is, the vast majority of the psalter is taken up with these psalms of complaint. They are not some rare exception, they are a common expression of what the prayers of a faithful people sound like in our broken world.

WRITING OUR OWN PSALMS OF COMPLAINT IN JESUS’ NAME

These Psalms model for us that the Hebrew faith is one that allows for questioning, wrestling, protesting as an expression of faith. So what would it look like if we read the Bible like this too? How might it help us as we struggle with passages where God is portrayed as commanding things that strike is as profoundly immoral, such as the genocide narratives where God is portrayed as commanding people to mercilessly slaughter “everything that breathes” including small children and infants? (see for example 1 Sam 15). If the Psalms question the law as we have seen, can we question these troubling texts that seem to clearly be in conflict with the God Jesus reveals?

It’s important to recognize that making this move would mean going beyond where the Psalms themselves go. The Psalms themselves continue to reflect the ethos of the law which declared that the just would prosper and the wicked would suffer. They do not question the justice of this, but instead complain that it was not being upheld, calling upon God to uphold it. The Psalms therefore do not propose mercy and love for enemies, but call for God’s wrath. The psalmist does not regard himself in Paul’s terms as a sinner in need of mercy, but instead as blameless and righteous.

So based on the Psalms alone we cannot yet question such biblical passages that command genocide. For that we need Jesus. We need to take the model of faithful questioning and protest that the Psalms provide, and add to this the very different understanding of God’s true nature revealed in Christ which leads us to question these depictions of God that look very little like Jesus, and very much like the way all of the pagan religions of the time viewed their gods as violent tribal deities who caused plagues and sickness unless their wrath was appeased by sacrifice.

Note too the way that enemy peoples and races are portrayed in these Old Testament passages as wicked and evil. This acts to dehumanize them, thus justifying their indiscriminate slaughter. That violent view of what God was like shaped the ancient Israelite’s understanding of God’s character, and this resulted in their expectation of a coming of a messiah who was a warrior who would destroy the enemy gentiles, not a messiah who would show those gentiles grace and forgiveness.

As Christians who are instead to be nurtured by the image of God revealed to us in Christ’s enemy love, we need to learn to question these primitive views of justice and of God. The Hebrew Bible itself opens a door to allow for this protest, this questioning, as an act of faithfulness. We need to have the moral courage to speak out against depictions of God in the Bible that act to dehumanize people and justify violence. We need to learn to write our own psalms of complaint in Jesus’ name.

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