The Old Testament: Gruesome Tales or Stories with Deeper Meaning?

There seems to be a tension between God in the Old Testament and Jesus in the New Testament that we have a hard time resolving. We feel shocked by the behavior of God and his sometimes merciless demands, such as in the story of the Amalekites in 1 Samuel 15:3 and the Gibeonites in 2 Samuel 21, among others. We discuss if children should be protected from learning these stories and we are not sure if they are fit even for grownups.

Misinterpretation of God’s nature is not a new phenomenon:

7After the Lord had finished speaking to Job, he said to Eliphaz the Temanite: ‘I am angry with you and your two friends, for you have not spoken accurately about me, as my servant Job has.’”—Job 42:7 (NLT).

The same kind of problem seems to exist in the time of Jesus:

8 Philip said, ‘Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.’9 Jesus replied, ‘Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and yet you still don’t know who I am? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father! So why are you asking me to show him to you?’” —John 14:8-9 (NLT).

Why have we then failed to resolve the issue? Could it be that we have been studying the Bible mostly in order to find out how we should act, what is right for us to do, and what is wrong to do? This may have led us to a self-centered approach to the written word, causing us to look for written rules in much the same way the Jews of Jesus’ day did.

Maybe the Bible is not a book about how we should live, but rather a story of how God has acted down through history. Different writers have given their version of what was going on, sometimes described as events taken place, other times as stories illustrating some vital points. Our focus on what is “in it for me” may have overshadowed the deeper meaning in these stories. Perhaps we have been more concerned with the authenticity of the author and whether the historical details are exactly true, rather than thinking about what the written tale tells us about God. There could be hidden meanings that are waiting for discovery, ready to be found by those that really seek the truth, and not those just looking for arguments for their own ideology.

If we asked Jesus about some further advice on how to approach this matter he might have replied by quoting something he had said before: remember what I told you about heaven.

The Kingdom of Heaven is like a treasure that a man discovered hidden in a field. In his excitement, he hid it again and sold everything he owned to get enough money to buy the field.” —Matthew 13:44 (NLT)

By this I mean, continued Jesus, the truth is not obvious. It is hidden, only to be found by the ones willing to dig and seek. Something that looks to be only rotten pieces of wood could be a treasure found only by someone willing to dig deep. The stories about God cannot always be taken at face value. Instead, only those willing to dig and seek will find the true meaning.

Jesus always used stories and illustrations like these when speaking to the crowds. In fact, he never spoke to them without using such parables. 35This fulfilled what God had spoken through the prophet: ‘I will speak to you in parables.I will explain things hidden since the creation of the world.’” —Matthew 13:34, 35 (NLT)

Perhaps if we used this approach, we could come to some new explanations, rather than the standard ones we have learned to accept.

Let us try this principle on a rather troublesome story that has stirred most of us even though it has a happy ending:

Some time later, God tested Abraham’s faith. “Abraham!” God called. “Yes,” he replied. “Here I am.” 2“Take your son, your only son—yes, Isaac, whom you love so much—and go to the land of Moriah. Go and sacrifice him as a burnt offering on one of the mountains, which I will show you.” —Gen 22:1,2 (NLT)

All of us know this story, and we have been amazed by the strong faith Abraham displayed and the way he passed the test. We have had the impression that this is the standard for how strong our faith should be. As a father, I have sometimes wondered if I would have passed the test and every time I come to the conclusion that I would have failed. This has left me with a feeling of not being good enough and knowing that I will never be able to reach such a high standard. But then I don’t understand why God had to test Abraham. After all, God is almighty and knows everything. What kind of explanation would Jesus have given? Perhaps it would have gone something like this:

Late at night, after coming home from the mountain and about to go to bed, Jesus once again visited Abraham. Abraham said to Jesus: “That was sure a hard way of testing an old man.” Jesus replied: “That was no test, I know you so well that I don’t need to test you. It was my only way of giving you an insight that I have been looking forward to giving to mankind. You see Abraham, in about 2,000 years there will be another father, and a son to be sacrificed, but this time there will be no one to say stop. Now you know how much our love for mankind costs us and how much suffering we go through in order to save you. This insight you must tell to all those that want to know me. All who understand this will become one of my true children.” Then Jesus left.

So, maybe the story was not about us. Maybe there is a possibility to resolve the tension in all such stories if we just dig deep enough.

Aage Indahl is a Norwegian, born and raised above the article circle.

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash.

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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/8649

The Children of Abraham, forgot the dialogue between God and Abraham on the fate of Sodom. They also forgot the flood story. they certainly ignored the promise of God that He would drive the heathen out of their villages with hornets as soon as the population of Israel demanded more space. They had the swords of Pharoah’s army and they were bound to use them.The lesson to be learned is—don’t run ahead of The Lord. A trait Adventism still has to learn. Running ahead is a far too common a trait.

The silence regarding Isaac’s character in all of this is quite deafening! i have never heard a sermon on the trust and faith of Abraham through this story. How much trust did a teenager or 20-something need to have? What does this tell us about Jesus the Son of God? I would have wondered if the “old man” was loosing his marbles or just hearing voices. After all, Abraham was probably about 120 years old.

I’m sure this won’t exactly be news, but God DID speak with Abraham again after the sacrifice was provided and explained the reasons for his command. Genesis 22:15-18: “And the angel of the Lord called to Abraham a second time from heaven and said, ‘By myself I have sworn, declares the Lord, because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will surely bless you, and I will surely multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore. And your offspring shall possess the gate of his enemies, and in your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed, because you have obeyed my voice.’” (Emphasis mine.)

This is far from a unique perspective, but I think a straightforward reading of this verse fits well in a context of a sort of ancient “feudal contract” in which Abraham provides absolute obedience and fealty, and God protects Abraham and his progeny and prospers them. God tested Abraham’s absolute obedience with a truly horrifying test. Abraham obeyed God, even when every ounce of his empathy, parental love, and conscience was screaming out against it. Abraham obeyed God instead of following the normal instinct of the human conscience which would rebel against such an act, and he PASSED the test. If he really wouldn’t have gone through with the murder, then he would have failed the test. The test was set up so that Abraham would have to trust God blindly, even to the point of murdering his son. His absolute obedience, to the point of child sacrifice, pleased God.

This sentiment is common among Christians I’ve known, and I think if we all take a large step back it should alarm and shake our moral foundations. What you’re saying, I think, is that even though you don’t know if you could do it, you would at least aspire to be willing to ritually murder your child if you felt God commanded you to do so. That is utterly horrifying. That most Christians don’t seem to find it horrifying is even more startling still.

Putting aside the obvious questions of how, exactly, Abraham, yourself or anyone else could be 100% certain that such a command came from God, how would you ever validate or authenticate such absolute trust in any entity? Frankly, I find it hard to reconcile that command with an all-good entity, full stop. Imagine any other agent with whom you had a relationship making a similar request. A boyfriend, father figure, pastor, priest or king. Can you think of any circumstance where you would find such a command, and obedience to it, moral?

People’s reactions, or lack of reaction, to this story absolutely blows my mind. But perhaps it shouldn’t. After all, the world is full of people who claim divine authority while committing what certainly appear to be immoral and vile acts. I’m sure the 9/11 attackers would claim that Allah commanded them to do the deed, and critically, what could you say to dissuade them?

This is the problem with so-called morality being based not in the harm or suffering we cause our fellow humans, but in the commands of an inscrutable deity. Who are we to say that God didn’t have just cause to murder millions in the flood, for instance? If literally anything God commands is right, and we don’t necessarily have access to the underlying reasons or moral justification for an apparently immoral act, where does that leave us morally? We simply must trust and obey. Just like Abraham. Trust and obey. Trust and obey. The recipe for moral atrocities the world over, from the Nazi officer “just following orders” to the abused girlfriend who loves and admires her boyfriend so much that she simply can’t question him. “I know sometimes it seems like he does bad things, but it’s all because he loves me!” That, friends, is why we must be absolutely certain that an entity is worthy of our trust.

When I read the Hebrew Bible I do not see from Yahweh’s actions a trustworthy actor. He appears to me to be similar to a feudal king. Certainly at times he helps his people, and at times he shows mercy. But often he punishes “crimes” which only hurt his pride with mass death. He punishes people for behavior which doesn’t appear to cause harm (stoning gay men for instance). And he jealously guards the absolute obedience of his chosen people, not unlike the hypothetical boyfriend I mentioned earlier. (Is it any wonder that Christianity is so linked to patriarchy? It’s all about hierarchical and unquestioning obedience.)

I fully realize that most of this will pass by without eliciting a reaction. But as a former Adventist who literally wondered, after participating in a play in which I was Isaac and my father Abraham, whether my father would be willing to murder me or not at the command of his God, I feel a moral compulsion to raise these points and offer an outsider’s perspective. Read the Hebrew Bible again, and in each situation dial up your conscience and consider the following: “If it wasn’t God performing this action, would I think it was morally right?” If the answer is no, then there’s a problem with the way we arrive at the conclusion that God is all-good. We cannot simply assert that God is all-good, based on theological or metaphysical assumptions, and then rationalize every instance of apparent harm or immorality he’s said to have caused in the Bible with impossible to verify appeals to divine moral justification. From an evidential standpoint, that really is no different than the girlfriend making excuses for the abusive boyfriend she unquestioningly trusts.

For me, the much simpler explanation is that the Biblical stories were written by sincere ancient people who were trying to understand the suffering they encountered and relate to the god of their people. It’s a nationalistic narrative, featuring a nationalistic god.

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In many different cultures, STORIES were way people learned about life.
Take Aesop – a Greek – who LOVED to tell animal stories. Yes, they were and
are entertaining to children, but they have OTHER LAYERS of instruction.
These Layers are – how to live, how to act, who to become, who NOT to become.

The Bible is also STORIES. Stories told to learn about Life. How to live, How to act,
How not to become the wrong type of person.
They are also about Finding God. Some story tellers were More Successful than others.
As we see with Mrs. Job, Job’s Three Friends, and Job himself.
We do NOT see God’s MERCY in the destruction of Civilizations – the constant evil
activities of prior to the Flood where no one was safe. God’s MERCY in the destruction
of the Canaan Civilization with its murder, mayhem, offering of Human Child Sacrifice –
some being burned alive.
The cruel Assyrians – God did send Jonah, and the repentance effect did last around
75 years. The Babylonians – evil, cruel. The influence of Daniel and his 3 friends, and
God, finally got the attention of Nebuchanezzar [who wrote a chapter in Daniel]. But had
no effect on his grandson who died at the feast.
Daniel and others influenced Cyrus, Darius. Story is told that Alexander had a dream when
went to Jerusalem, so left them “alone”.
On the other hand, God tried to call the Philistines, the Moabites, others, even Egypt by
sending messages through His prophets.
As awful as the dispersion of Jews was through out the then world, they did have opportunity
to SHARE their religion with their neighbors.
Even in Solomon’s time, Jewish sailors made it to South Georgia leaving their graffiti on rocks –
their “Kilroy was here” scratches. What else, we don’t know.
Yes, the O.T. stories have Many Layers of Teaching in them. Not JUST the entertainment.
But “God’s Unfailing Love, Mercy, Kindness which endures forever to the Children of Men.”

Niteguy2: I’d invite you to think critically about the way you label entire civilizations and people groups as “cruel,” “murderous,” and “evil.” That same simple and prejudicial language is often the first step leading toward ethnic persecution and genocide. Tutsis were labeled “cockroaches” before the Rwandan genocide, Jews have been called animals and sub-human, as have Africans, and basically any minority group you’d care to name throughout history. Indeed, even in the Bible, these blanket proclamations of the guilt and complete irredeemability of entire people groups seem to come before the genocide of groups such as the Amalekites. It’s a human thing to label and persecute outgroups, to reduce their humanity so that we can feel better about the violence we inflict, but in the Bible and in the minds of Christians it goes beyond human faults, and when attributed to God himself, takes on a moral imperative. THAT is truly frightening.

“And Samuel said to Saul, ‘The Lord sent me to anoint you king over his people Israel; now therefore listen to the words of the Lord. Thus says the Lord of hosts, ‘I have noted what Amalek did to Israel in opposing them on the way when they came up out of Egypt. Now go and strike Amalek and devote to destruction all that they have. Do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.’” (1 Sam 15:1‑3)

Note the reason given by God in this narrative for the Amalekites’ destruction–that they opposed Israel militarily. There is not even any moral sins listed. We’re talking about “warfare” but the response from God and his people to an attack is literally vengeance through genocide. You can get more context about the original encounter and God’s feelings about this in Exodus.

Exodus 17:14-16: “Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Write this for a memorial in the book and recount it in the hearing of Joshua, that I will utterly blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven.’ And Moses built an altar and called its name, The-Lord-Is-My-Banner; for he said, ‘Because the Lord has sworn: the Lord will have war with Amalek from generation to generation.’”

Please remember that these entire people groups summarily destroyed by God and his people are made up of infants, women and children. Fundamental to this is also the idea of blood guilt. Meaning that children are morally culpable for the actions of their parents. I don’t know about you, but I also find that core idea to be immoral. I find it impossible to reconcile these actions and the sickening descriptions of the people themselves with a “God of love.” If you can reconcile them, I honestly don’t know what to say.

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Death is the lot of each and all. God also died for all. We don’t know the end of the story. Remember that these were the tribes that passed their children through the Fire. Please read Ps 22, Then Ps 23,followed by Ps 24. Yes death is the lot of all, so can Grace be. We have to wait for the end of the story. As Graham Maxwell used to say. if I read the stories of Israel
I must turn immediately to the Gospels.

I understand your viewpoint Thomas, but respectfully, the same defense of “we don’t know everything, we must trust and wait” can be used to excuse literally any immoral action. I can no longer meet injustice and suffering with a shrug and a hopeful platitude. If I see suffering and evil, or accounts of what appear by all known metrics to be suffering and evil., I will call it out boldly. Perhaps I am mistaken. Perhaps there is a God who has utilitarian reasons for his apparently unjust actions. But I don’t see these reasons plainly, just as you don’t. The same children whom you claim were the reason for the Amalekites’ destruction were murdered in cold blood by Israelite soldiers at God’s command. In fact I have trouble coming up with morally justifiable reasons for some of God’s actions in the Hebrew scriptures, even in principal. In such a scenario, I will act as I would when it came to any other person or agent. I strive to judge character by the actions I can see. According to that standard, I would happily befriend and respect Jesus, I would call Yahweh a capricious, jealous and immoral God of judgment and warfare, and I would stare in wonderment at those who claim they are the same entity.

are juatory.

We were half way to Manila when the ambulance brought in two Japanese wounded. they had been beaten bloody, Eyes swollen I was a private medic on duty in admissions. A Major was the admissions officer. He began by twistingtheir legs. I spoke up and said, Major what are you doing. He said, I am examining for fractures. I said, We don’t examine our boys that way. He said,You are out of order. but he Stopped.He was on my case for the rest of the war.

Respectfully, Tom… how is this story germane to the discussion? Maybe it’s my own denseness.

Thanks…

Frank

Matt…

A good book that speaks to the issues you raise is, The Bible Tells Me So, by Peter Enns. A different take than the literalist and fundamentalist views that seems to dominate the discussion.

Jesus himself seems to second some of what you raise regarding the OT. His sayings about loving one’s enemies overturns the teaching of the OT. Additionally, his response to and rebuke of his disciples desire to call down fire on the Samaritans while using Elijah as precedent, reveals a view of God that is at best only hinted at in places in the Hebrew scriptures, and in actuality seems to subvert much of it.

I think Enns book deals with these issues thoughtfully and well.

Thanks…

Frank

When the Bible takes on a surreal place in our life, we seem to think that every word and every story has dropped straight out of heaven, if not written by God, then “channeled” by 'Him" through worthy individuals. The fact that people wrote those books - people who had a message and/or and agenda never comes into account. If anything, the OT demonstrates how NOT to interpret God, given how Jesus represents HIS FATHER.

The book of Job gives us pretty clear hints that the Hebrews had the wrong idea about God; but instead of learning that lesson, we try to justify the unjustifiable. Not until Jesus came on the scene, did we learn that “God makes the rain fall on the just and the unjust” alike; and, that God is not a “respecter of persons” - the FATHER of us all. - a God of love, who suffers along with us when the hardships of life befall us all.

Many have read the Bible, looking for the magic code that places them on the inside track for blessings of health and wealth, or some special status, qualifying their salvation. Others use it as Aladdin’s lamp, expecting their every problem to be solved in their favour.

Jesus, on the other hand, was a realist warning his followers that what was happening to him, will also be in store for those who take his words to heart; and that while life on earth is a place of tears, it’s all worth it as love brings its own rewards. God’s kingdom is not an exclusive nation, as the Hebrews thought, or a club - a church - or denomination that is accessed by any sort of membership. The people of God are known “by their love for one another”.

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Your response to my entry was to infer that I was blood thirsty and a racist. None of which is true. I was the first to bring Blacks into the Graduate School a Roman Catholic at that. I was the first to bring Blacks into the New Dental School at. Augusta Ga. Why blame God for the sins of men and nations. That is and always has been my view Old Testament included.

What are you talking about?? I said or inferred none of those things. I think you meant to respond to Matt.

Frank

Thomas; I apologize if you thought I was attacking you personally, it wasn’t my intent. When I referred to the way people tend to use blanket words to refer to people groups I’m speaking generally of a trend I’ve seen among humans who are consciously or subconsciously dehumanizing people. I didn’t mean to be accusing you specifically, but pointing out a trend, and one that I think sometimes applies to Christians seeking to defend gods actions in the OT. I agree that there are many immoral actions performed by humans in the OT stories, but I’m attempting to draw a distinction between human actions and actions and commands specifically attributed to Yahweh. Those actions alone are how I attempt to determine his character.