WTF Bible Moments: Ananias and Sapphira

Sunday, April 05, 2015

There are a lot of WTF moments in the Bible. There's the one from the Old Testament where a guy tries to catch the Ark of the Covenant from falling and is zapped by God for it. "But wait," you think reading this for the first time, "wasn't he trying to help?" Then there's the one where some teenagers call Elijah "old baldy" and then God sends bears to maul the kids for it. Yeah, that seems a bit harsh, too.

Most of these WTF moments are found in the Old Testament, but there is at least one in the New Testament that leaves people scratching their heads -- the story of Ananias and Sapphira. You know how it goes, they are a little stingy with giving (as in they don't give 100% of their income to the church) and God strikes them both dead while Peter says "So there!"

We read this story and are shocked and disturbed by it. I mean, let's be honest, if someone you know was struck dead -- for any reason at all -- you would be shocked and disturbed of course, but you don't give 100% of your income to the church, and no one you know does either. So why are you not dead? Again, like with the bears and the bald guy story, the consequence seems shockingly out of proportion here.

The intent of the story is clearly not that we think, "Wow, God is being really unjust here," but that is exactly what we do think when we read this. If the point of the story was supposed to be something like, "All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had" (Acts 4:32), we are so distracted by the killing of this poor couple that this point is completely lost on us. Instead the story becomes about us questioning God's character. Is God like Jesus? What about Ananias and Sapphira?

A common approach to dealing with this kind of thing in the Bible is to either seek to explain why the violence is in fact good and right (the conservative approach), or to seek to show that what seems really violent was actually merciful and nice, and we are just misreading it (the progressive approach). In both cases, the approach is really kind of similar. It involves lots of "well, you have to understand that the Greek word here really means..." arguments, and in the end comes out to trying to make the problem go away so we can say that the Bible supports our view (regardless of whether this is a conservative or progressive view).

I can of course understand the appeal of this approach, but it is ultimately dishonest. Sure, there are times where we really do misunderstand, but then there are stories like Ananias and Sapphira which are... well... pretty much just what you think they are. It's a story about a God who is violent, and who kills disobedient people. The intent is to fill you with terror. The story says exactly that, "Great fear seized the whole church and all who heard about these events" (Acts 5:11).

So how do we make sense of this? Let's consider the context. These are a people who have a history of the prophets telling them that whenever someone is sick, or a natural disaster happens like an earthquake, famine, fire, and so on, that God was punishing them. If you got cancer back then the assumption was you did something bad. If a hurricane destroyed your house this must be because you were guilty and were being punished. If you were born with a deformity or mental handicap then this must mean you were cursed.

We don't think that today. It's a really awful thing to think. And the reason we know that, frankly, has a lot to do with Jesus changing how we see the disadvantaged, the poor, the sick, and the unclean. There is a major shift in the New Testament that pushes back against this view that suffering is deserved punishment for sin (a view that was not only typical of Judaism at the time, but also of Greco-Roman culture as well). We see the beginnings of this protest in the Old Testament in books like Job, the Psalms, and Ecclesiastes, and Jesus continues in that tradition of protest, taking it to a new level.

But changing a people's mind about something that they have believed for centuries does not happen over night, or even over a few decades. So we still do find in the New Testament examples of people holding on to the narrative of a punishing and violent God. Here in this story we see people applying the same explanation that had been given over and over when bad things happened -- someone has a crippling illness, someone dies of a heart attack, someone is assaulted by robbers, someone's roof caves in -- and their pre-scientific go-to explanation is always "God did that, so you must be guilty."

Maybe Ananias and Sapphira died of a heart attack. Maybe the story was exaggerated so much by the time it got to Luke that we can't really know the full details of what actually happened, but what I do think we can say is that this is an example of where the New Testament is still (to borrow a term from Girard) a text in travail, a text in labor pains. Just as the New Testament has a less than ultimate view of slavery, so in places it has a less than ultimate view of who God is.

As with slavery, this is where we need to learn to read on a trajectory, to recognize where the New Testament is headed -- in this case in understanding that Jesus shows us the ultimate revelation of God's heart and character -- and where we need to learn to plot a course that can take us beyond where they were able to get at the time leading us to where Jesus is pointing us.

The view of God we see in Ananias and Sapphira is the old Zeus/Mars/Yahweh, the warrior view of God, and it is a wrong understanding of who God is. It just does not line up with reality. God simply does not kill bad people. Maybe we even wish he did, but that is just not how life works.

The New Testament has an alternative understanding of a God revealed in weakness, a God found in the horror, shame, and failure of the cross. It is a vision of God that is, if you really can face it, scandalous and shocking. As Juergen Moltmann has pointed out, this vision of God is way more radical than any atheism. Yet somehow -- just as the cross leads to Resurrection -- it is an understanding of God that can lead us to life and hope that is stronger than death.

Hey look, this is a post about Easter. Bet you didn't see that one coming!

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29 Comments:

At 3:19 PM, Blogger gingoro said...

So this event never really happened? It is just a story made up by Luke from some rumors he heard or he had a bad nightmare and added it to Acts? DaveW

 
At 3:49 PM, Blogger Juan C. Torres said...

Excellent post as usual! My wife's about to start reading your books;)

 
At 3:49 PM, Blogger Juan C. Torres said...

Excellent post as usual! My wife's about to start reading your books;)

 
At 6:21 PM, Blogger Brad said...

Totally enjoyed this post. I have heard some charismatics take both the ark and annias/sapphira story on by saying that God is like a kajillion volts and they got fried when they touched the fence or whatever. Which only causes us to wonder like David can anyone do anything good for God without getting fried? And if God comes like He did in Acts will I get fried if I lie? Nevermind God's character. Just plain old self-preservation. How do I keep from getting zapped. Oh, what's that you say, stay away from the fence. Do things God's way. Like I said, it doesn't help clarify this much.

Granted in the OT cart story they (the priests) were supposed to carry it on their shoulders not roll it around on a cart. But that still doesn't solve the bigger issue of God is scary, ready to zap people. And Elijah and the youths were most likely not youths but grown men and bald head was like saying, you got nothing old man, no power. They were most likely insolent mockers of God. Even if that were the case, it still leaves us with, don't tick off God, don't get on His bad side, or God will get you.

I don't know about you, but I am not looking to pass that on to my kids. I want them to know sin is destructive, it hurts people, etc but not God might zap you if you do the wrong thing. What a topic!

 
At 8:04 PM, Blogger David Norling said...

Thank you for wrestling with these difficult stories. Your reading makes perfect sense.

 
At 8:30 PM, Anonymous Derek said...

"So this event never really happened?"

It's important to differentiate from an event and a person's explanation of that event. Did a hurricane wreak destruction in New Orleans? Yes. Was that because God was punishing the city for it's sin? That's an entirely different question. My answer is, no.

"Is it just a story made up by Luke from some rumors he heard or he had a bad nightmare and added it to Acts?"

The story reads very much like one that has been passed along orally, growing bigger and bigger at each telling. Luke likely just passed along the story as he heard it. We see similar things among Roman historians too. The idea of a "historian" back then in that pre-scientific time was very different from how historians work today.

 
At 9:24 PM, Anonymous Derek said...

Brad,

Yes, I feel the same.

 
At 10:57 PM, Blogger Jeremy Myers said...

A man recently told me that he thinks Peter whipped out a sword and killed them ... and then said "God killed them ... " Or more likely, "God told me to kill them."

Sort of outlandish, but not so far out there considering some of the other things Christians say God told them to do...

 
At 3:32 AM, Blogger Erik Merksamer said...

Derek, thank you. I love how you just matter of factly apply your conscience to Scripture. I have long wondered about "great fear seized the church" and how that seems so opposite to "perfect love casts out fear", for example.

I guess it is a matter of refusing to read the Bible "plainly". That does make it less accessible to us all, but I guess we have to accept that reality. It's been hard for me to deconstruct that I cannot just run with whatever my impression is of what I'm reading.

Thanks for helping that process.

 
At 9:24 AM, Blogger John Castleman said...

Annanias and Sapphira speaks to the same spiritual story and truth as Abram in Gen 14 refusing to 'hold back for himself any portion of the proceeds' and also as the Sin of Achan battle at AI story in Joshua ch 7 where he 'concealed' and 'hid from' and speaks to the spiritual meaning of the Tithe, our bringing the 'whole tithe' (our whole hearts) into His storehouse and not holding back from Him what He didn't from us - His very life. Its the story of God working purity of heart and motive and will in us since in the end, like Jesus 'at the cross' says, 'nevertheless not (any of my own selfish) will (to interfere with Yours) but Your (perfect/complete) will be done. Blessings.

 
At 2:16 AM, Blogger gingoro said...

"It's important to differentiate from an event and a person's explanation of that event."
Agreed. But it is very improbable that two people just happened to drop dead, at more or less the same time, when putting money into the offering, unless there was some common external cause.

"The story reads very much like one that has been passed along orally, growing bigger and bigger at each telling. Luke likely just passed along the story as he heard it."
Then why is the story of the death and resurrection of Jesus not just another oral story that grew bigger and bigger with each retelling? In other words where do the stories end and actual events begin or is it just where ever you want them to?

 
At 6:28 PM, Anonymous Derek said...

Juan, David, Erik, thanks for the kinds words & encouragement. Glad the post is helpful :)

 
At 6:29 PM, Anonymous Derek said...

Jeremy,

Oh my.

 
At 6:35 PM, Anonymous Derek said...

Gingoro,

"it is very improbable that two people just happened to drop dead, at more or less the same time"

Yes that would be unusual, certainly.

"why is the story of the death and resurrection of Jesus not just another oral story that grew bigger and bigger with each retelling? In other words where do the stories end and actual events begin or is it just where ever you want them to?"

This my friend is one of the central questions faced by those who story the historical Jesus, especially those who do so from a perspective of faith, and who do not rule out a priori the possibility of miracles. If you want to read a book on this as think as the NYC phonebook, I'd recommend NT Wright's. I've also found Ben Witherington's work helpful.

My main focus is not the historical study of Jesus, so I will defer to their work here and let them answer that question. My focus is on an ethical reading of Scripture, and this text is clearly one that raises ethical problems for many (myself included) as it paints God in a bad light.

 
At 5:29 AM, Blogger SteveO said...

Doesn't this really come down to a matter of the "fairness of God?" Of course some would explain that we don't want God to be fair because all have sinned, if God were fair there would be no unmerited grace and all would perish.

The fairness of God question opens up a can of worms. Jesus heals the man who was blind from birth. Was this man blind due to his sins or the sins of his parents? No, he was blind in order that God may be glorified by his eventual healing. What? Doesn't God have enough glory without subjecting that poor man to a lifetime of suffering? Where's the fairness in that?

Where's the fairness when an innocent child dies from leukemia? It's been said that one of the strongest arguments of the atheist is the "omnipotent god" who idly stands by and does nothing while mankind suffers.

Regarding suffering Paul says, "I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us." (Romans 8:18) Does this mean that in the end all things even out because all suffering evaporates in the face of eternal life? If one were to quantify human suffering numerically, even the largest number disappears in comparison to infinity. When you do the math the end result is the same for everyone who is saved.

For God to be fair doesn't He have to give everyone a fair chance to hear and understand the gospel? What if Annanias and Sapphira where still saved even though they experienced this ignominious punishment of death? What if you were celebrating at the wedding feast of the Lamb and you met these two? What would you say? "Hey guys, thanks for giving us a warning of what not to do because most of us have behaved similarly." To which Annanias replies with a big grin, "Sure! Glad to be of service," and we all laugh. Then Sapphira replies, "By the way, have you met our good friend Judas here?"

 
At 7:44 AM, Blogger kent said...

SteveO,
i think we've run up against a question for which those who interpret the bible in a linear fashion don't have sufficient answers. as you stated, the problem exists in the fact that evil exists, god is all-powerful, and god is love according to most western christians. if he is all powerful, he could do something about evil, and if he is love, he would do something about evil, but the fact that evil occurs either means he doesn't care enough to stop evil from happening or he is not capable of stopping it. therefore, we ultimately have to choose omnipotence or love, but he cannot be both which is what western theology asks us to accept. ignoring this problem by pushing his goodness to afterlife is not compelling to me because it devalues this life.

 
At 6:43 PM, Blogger SteveO said...

Kent,

I view it as a math problem where nothing even comes close to equaling infinity. If we can think in terms of a grand cosmic scale, from the incomprehensible view of eternity, with a "God's eye view," then logically and mathematically, that absolutely changes everything!!

I suffered a great evil on the day I was born from one who by comparison to me was vastly superior in intelligence and power. I only weighed 6 pounds and in his fingers he held me upside down by my feet and smacked my behind. I was so startled I gasped for my very first breath. The doctor knew what was best and all that evil and all those tears from that pain have been wiped away. I don't even remember it.

Following on from the above cited verse in Romans, "For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God."

 
At 8:53 AM, Anonymous Derek said...

I'd like to offer some thoughts on my hermeneutical approach here:

It is common, for both conservatives and progressives,when it seems ethically troubling to us, to make the text say something it does not. I've done it too. So conservatives will typically argue that even though it seems bad, it is actually good (violence is needed etc), and progressives will typically argue that it does not really say that bad thing and is instead nice. Others of us more in the middle end up doing a mix of these.

What I'm trying to do instead is begin by facing the text as I think the author intended it to be understood, even when it seems morally troubling.

Now in the case of A&S, If someone is killed in front of you for an a minor infraction, this brings about horror, terror, intimidation. That's why we struggle with this. It seems wrong, immoral. Just like NT texts that say things like "be kind to your slaves" and tell slaves to be "obedient" rightfully trouble us.

What I want to make room for is for us to be able to discuss how we are troubled morally by these texts, and to allow for that struggle to happen rather than think we need to resolve it or make it go away. I want us to be able question texts like these. Not to try to act like they are actually nice or moral (which in this particular case I think there is really no way to do), but to really face these texts and the real moral problems they bring up.

What I am saying here with A&S is that this is an example of a text that represents a bad/wrong/immoral understanding of who God is. I don't think we can honestly read it in a way that makes that not so. I wish we could. I wish we could say "The OT has problems, but the NT is perfect" but I don't think we can. Most of the NT is amazing, but there are little parts like this where we still see the old yucky understanding of God lingering. That is the reality of the NT, and I think it's important to face that, and to then ask "How can we take a book that is not inerrant, and still read it as inspired Scripture?" What does that look like? How can we do this in a way that leads us to Jesus-shaped lives?

That's a conversation, so it's fine if you disagree with me on points. I hope you don't just take what I say and swallow it without questioning it. Instead we need to engage and wrestle and struggle with the text together, and do so in the name of Jesus and in the name of compassion and goodness.

 
At 8:51 AM, Blogger SteveO said...

If the deaths of A&S were like a light switch being turned off, no pain, no suffering, I don't think of that as violent... But still quite troubling. I wonder, was there a memorial service of sorts for them? There was congregational fear, but was it followed up with pastoral teaching, counselling, comfort and support? We don't know because we weren't there and the writers obviously never thought to give us a follow up report.

Having a deep relational experience and understanding of the goodness of God, the troubling passages don't bother me as much as they used to. While I understand how those with this same relational understanding need to apologize, explain or gloss over the troubling passages, and I have the shared sense that the NT is amazing, it's important to be honest and there are two things far more troubling to me...

One, people who misrepresent the goodness of God by lifting passages out of the context in which they were written and using them to justify behaviors inconsistent with the mind of Christ.

Two, the unfairness of those who truly suffer violence in many forms in this life now. Why do innocent children suffer greatly from incurable (violent) disease? Why the constant suffering from violence with dysfunctional families, dysfunctional economies, dysfunctional cultures and dysfunctional nation states? Is this not more troubling than a few 2000 year old passages of Scripture? The only explanation that makes sense of this is that our current life is not all there is. There is hope for a future we cannot fully understand. We need to have an abiding faith in the goodness of God and that all things will work together for good.

 
At 1:05 PM, Anonymous Derek said...

Steve,

"Why do innocent children suffer greatly from incurable (violent) disease?... Is this not more troubling than a few 2000 year old passages of Scripture?"

The trouble here is that when we read this Scripture to shape how we see God, and then apply the view that when people suffer it is punishment for their sin (which is the view found here which was a common assumption at the time, and found all thru the OT), this means we see those children as being punished, or we see ourselves as being punished when we suffer.

This is a really hurtful and toxic view. So my aim is to help people to read Scripture in a way that leads towards love, and away from hurtful views of God and ourselves like this.

That does not mean we do not trust God. It rather means that we find a God revealed in Jesus who is truly good who deserves our trust. So I do appreciate how you are holding on to God in the face of the suffering we see in the world. I want to do that too. Still, a part of doing that involves allowing for us to question stories (like A&S) that show us a hurtful understanding of God. Even ones in the NT.

 
At 8:51 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

 
At 8:58 PM, Blogger Jesse Flynt said...

I read disarming scripture by the way. Can't say I agree with all of it, but the over arching themes are actually very difficult to dispute with any emotional or intellectual integrity. I liked it, it eloquently stated all the things I secretly thought but never dared to say, even to myself.

 
At 9:27 PM, Blogger Jesse Flynt said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

 
At 9:27 PM, Blogger Jesse Flynt said...

Yeah, I like you derek, you're a straight shooter who is not afraid to say what he's thinking (I wonder how long it took for you to get to that point in life). I can't help but notice the text never says GOD killed them, only that they fell down dead. This may seem like a silly distinction but I always kind of thought it was not a tale about two people who made one mistake and incurred the wrath of God, but about two people who had no true love in them, just envy and deciet until the truth caught up to them. The timing and cicumstances all seem a little eye rollingly over the top, but there is an important salvageable lesson here. People will always find us out (the gay bashing bible thumper who has a wife and three boyfriends; the 'tithe, tithe, tithe' preacher who embezzles money). When they are exposed, all their supposed righteousness will be their demise, they assisinated their own character. Indeed, it's like falling out dead.

 
At 4:11 PM, Anonymous Derek said...

Thanks Jesse,

I think we can make sense of this story, find ways to read it as making a good and moral point. However, what the story lacks is grace. That is, it lacks that thing that draws you to it, thinking "what is this amazingly wonderful thing here?" the way stories of grace do. It's that that draws me to the Gospels over and over, like a moth to a flame. I just don't see that kind of wonderful amazing God-spark in this story.

I think that's the reaction a lot of us have, and part of what makes so many of us stumble over it. The question is: should our response to this be to seek to find ways to like it (like trying to find ways to "enjoy" eating our broccoli) or is it okay, and perhaps even good, for us to say "hey I don't see Jesus in this"

 
At 4:00 PM, Blogger Jesse Flynt said...

Yes. I think that's an important thing to be willing to do with scripture. Otherwise we treat it like a paper pope, and it should not take this position in our hearts or actions. It is one thing to consider in regards to a much larger total picture in the world, our conscience, and within scripture itself. However, I do think we run the risk of selling legitimate scripture short. That said, it's always been very difficult for me to envision Jesus entering these people's home and having the exchange with them that Peter did. On the other hand, the Grace I see here is the Grace rejected by Anannias and Sapphira. Then again the lesson here seems to be love God in spirit and in truth 'or else.' if the lesson here is to be afraid; is that a good reason to enter into the Grace of God? No, that's not Grace freely or sincerely received. Its enough to make a recovering fundamentalists brain explode.

 
At 4:18 PM, Blogger Jesse Flynt said...

Yes. I think that's an important thing to be willing to do with scripture. Otherwise we treat it like a paper pope, and it should not take this position in our hearts or actions. It is one thing to consider in regards to a much larger total picture in the world, our conscience, and within scripture itself. However, I do think we run the risk of selling legitimate scripture short. That said, it's always been very difficult for me to envision Jesus entering these people's home and having the exchange with them that Peter did. On the other hand, the Grace I see here is the Grace rejected by Anannias and Sapphira. Then again the lesson here seems to be love God in spirit and in truth 'or else.' if the lesson here is to be afraid; is that a good reason to enter into the Grace of God? No, that's not Grace freely or sincerely received. Its enough to make a recovering fundamentalists brain explode.

 
At 7:10 PM, Anonymous Derek said...

Well said Jesse.

 
At 12:28 PM, Blogger Mike Gatliff said...

So here are a couple questions to ponder, especially in light of Jesse's comment and concerns:

1. Where in the text does it say that God killed Ananias And Sapphira?

2. Do Peter's actions in this situation reflect what Jesus taught the Apostles about how to approach people who are caught up in a sin? Did Peter follow Jesus’ instructions on shepherding the church in the way he dealt with Ananias and Sapphira? Does it reflect what the Apostles themselves wrote under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit about how to help people caught in a sin?

 

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