Thursday, December 31, 2015

Dark Matter

A dear friend of mine was remarking on how he struggles with some of the darker passages of scripture - God commanding the Israelites to kill women and children. At some point, if you read the Bible, you have to come to grips with these sorts of things.

So let's consider a hypothetical situation. Grandma passes away, and in her effects you discover her diary, and begin reading it. You find page after page about what a kind, gentle man your Grandpa was, but then there's a date on which she wrote "John beat the children today." What do you believe about your grandfather in light of that?

Some possibilities come to mind.

  • Perhaps it was an expression. Families are full (or at least mine is full) of inside jokes and odd expressions that don't always mean what they say at face value.
  • Perhaps she meant it in a different context ("John beat the children [at backgammon] today").
  • Perhaps it was paternal correction in a time where corporal punishment wasn't considered evil (e.g. the children were playing with matches and grandpa taught them a lesson).
  • Perhaps Grandpa really was a child abuser and Grandma just ignored it most of the time but couldn't on that particular day.

No exegetical analysis of Grandma's diary is going to settle the question. It all falls back on two things. Your relationship with your grandfather and your relationship with your grandmother.

How did your grandfather treat you? Is one sentence enough to undo the lifetime of memories of him pushing you on the swing, teaching you magic tricks and building a bird house together?

What do you know of your grandmother? Was she the sort of woman who would let her children be abused? Didn't she take your brothers to task when they picked on you? Hasn't she always been stern, yet fair?

Similarly, what do we think when we see these passages of Scripture? Some possibilities come to mind.

  • Perhaps the Israelites attributed things to God that were not really His attributes. There are plenty of examples in the Old testament where God is depicted as being "evil" "angry" or having "wings." These are all recognized as literary devices.
  • Perhaps the author used God as an excuse to justify something the Israelites wanted to do, even though it was not His will. There are examples of this in the Bible as well. One example is the law permitting divorce, which Jesus explicitly points out as the case where God allowed men to make an unjust law because of the "hardness of their hearts."
  • Perhaps the actions themselves are expressions, not literal things that were done. For instance, in Psalm 137 the author says "Happy shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock!" - but in the psalm the "mother" is understood to be the city of Babylon and her "children" refers to her army.
  • Perhaps the actions are exaggerated to make the event seem more than it was. For instance the Canaanites were supposedly all killed, yet they return to fight again later. Likewise the Amalekites. Saying that the Israelites killed every living thing, down to the last child, was likely an exaggeration of a decisive victory.
  • Or perhaps God really is evil. and Jesus' and the prophets' exhortations of peace and love are all a ruse to snare gullible believers.

In the end you have to rely on your relationship with God and with His Church. What kind of a god do you think God is? How has the Church seems Him? What are the "fruits" of His believers?

If you have a personal relationship with God, you know what He is like, and these passages don't shake that. If you don't have a relationship, it's all a matter of which exegesis you want to believe. Much of what's available today is written by non-believers who wish to see things in a harsh light. For a more balanced view look to books like Light on the Dark Passages of Scripture by Mark Giszczak


Paul Sofranko was unable to comment for some reason, but he pointed me to this post that has similar (and different) points. Anything by Jimmy Akin is worth reading. Thanks Paul!

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