We have been reading the book of Judges in our Bible Reading Group at Church recently. And, although I warned the group that this book carries an 18 certificate, many people have been shocked by the violence and, particularly, how much that violence is attributed as being the will of God.
So this brings us to some thorny questions.
Did God really tell people to commit genocides?
If yes, then what sort of God is this? And how do we reconcile him to the God we see and believe is manifested in the person of Jesus - who told us to love our enemies?
If no, then doesn’t it undermine the authority of scripture to say that this was a misunderstanding by ancient peoples of the nature of God?
To explore these questions, we need to do some more work.
We need to understand the culture in which the book of Judges is set.
In ancient times, all people lived within tribal cultures. And one’s tribe meant everything in those days. It was both your identity and your security. No one could exist independently outside their tribe.
And tribes had their own gods and goddesses which people, in those times, followed and believed that these deities guided and protected them. The gods told them when to go into battle to gain territory that they needed or to defeat a threatening neighbouring tribe. And, if the gods went into battle with them, they would be victorious. And, if they didn’t and they lost, this must because they had offended the gods in some way.
Furthermore, if they won the battle, the tribe needed to wipe out the other tribe – first, to avoid the possibility of a revenge attack and, secondly, in honour of their god.
But – and here’s the interesting thing – God, in Genesis, called Abraham to be the father of a new tribe, a new nation, that would be different from other tribes. That would not be just interested in self-preservation but that would be a blessing to other tribes, to all tribes.
This is an extremely radical notion – as the Holy Spirit breaks through and calls Abraham to this amazing and very countercultural role.
But, of course, it is a challenge for Abraham and other leaders of the Israelites to communicate this vision and to change the prevailing culture.
And this is why, in the book of Judges, we read that God is accredited when Israel is victorious in battle and when they wipe out their enemies. The Israelites are just behaving according to the culture of their times. They are doing just the same things that the neighbouring tribes do.
So we should not be surprised to find these barbaric stories. But we should, at the same time, be shocked and repulsed by them. Because they are shocking and repulsive stories. And if we didn’t feel shocked and repulsed when we read them, then there would be something seriously wrong with us.
The violence is barbaric but, understanding the context, it is not surprising.
What is surprising is that, in the midst of this slaughter and squalor, are new ideas emerging about serving and blessing others, about a world that says No to violence, about a world of equality, justice and compassion.
We see this in Deuteronomy (another Old Testament book) where God calls his people to care for widows, orphans and refugees. And in Leviticus (also an Old Testament book) where God tells his people to leave the edges of unharvested fields for the poor and where God calls people to love their neighbours.
Understanding scripture in this deeply contextual way does not undermine the authority of scripture.
Even though I take this approach, the Bible has authority in my life because I read it every day and accept the weight, power and influence it has in my life – and how God speaks to me through it. But it also means that I think carefully about the words I read, I consider different interpretations and wrestle with the text to gauge a true and Godly understanding.
For me, a benchmark is always to come back to the person of Christ and to ask does this interpretation fit with the person and character of Christ?
As Christians we believe in a Trinitarian God – so that if something is true of God the Father then it is also true of God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. We cannot have a vengeful, genocidal God the Father without having a vengeful, genocidal God the Son. We cannot have a self-sacrificing, non-tribal God the Son without having a self-sacrificing, non-tribal God the Father.
Reading the Bible with the understanding that it portrays our human condition and our relationship with God, in a whole range of both glorious and disconcerting ways, has really helped me to understand scripture better and to have a fuller appreciation of the nature and culture of God.
I hope this will be your experience too.