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This Strange and Sacred Scripture

This Strange and Sacred Scripture: Wrestling with the Old Testament and Its Oddities

"This Strange and Sacred Scripture," is a provocative new book that deals with some of the difficulties of the Old Testament.
“This Strange and Sacred Scripture,” published by Baker Academic, is a provocative new book that deals with some of the difficulties of the Old Testament. It is also available at Amazon USA / UK.

Anyone interested in the Old Testament, especially those difficult passages and concepts found in it, cannot help but be drawn in by the title of this book. In This Strange and Sacred Scripture, Matthew Richard Schlimm tackles some of the most difficult questions regarding the Old Testament. While some Christians treat the Old Testament like an alien source from another planet, and while a number of atheists have used its “oddities” (as Schlimm puts it) to argue against belief in God or religion, Schlimm chooses to see the Old Testament as “our friend in faith” (p. 6). The friendship metaphor is applied throughout This Strange and Sacred Scripture and allows Schlimm to explore the Old Testament from a number of different angles. At the outset Schlimm argues that seeing the Old Testament as a faithful friend has several benefits: 1) friendship dispels loneliness and the Old Testament “reminds us that people of faith are not alone” (p. 7); 2) friends are fun to be around. Although there are difficult parts of the Old Testament, it is also a resource of great stories that bring joy (e.g., the story of Joseph); 3) friends are useful to have around. “They provide valuable information and ideas that allow us to navigate life more easily” (p. 8); 4) the best friends make us better people. Schlimm argues that “When the Old Testament is our friend, we become more holy, more aware of God’s presence in the world, and more concerned with justice and righteousness” (p. 8). Throughout the book Schlimm argues for other ways in which the friendship metaphor is a helpful way of viewing the Old Testament. For example, at times we disagree with friends, they can even make us feel uncomfortable, but we don’t give up on the friendship. At times our friends challenge our views which causes us to grow as people. Schlimm argues that the Old Testament has this same effect, as well as other effects, on people who befriend it.

This Strange and Sacred Scripture: Contents

After an opening chapter which explores whether the Old Testament should be viewed as an enemy (aka, Marcion and his children), a stranger (the way many in the church today treat the Old Testament), or a friend (the author’s proposal), Schlimm tackles the following subjects:

Chapter 2: Our Fleeting Moments in Paradise (Should Genesis 2:4-4:16 be read as literal history or as a poetic story?).

Chapter 3: Darkness Over the Face of the Deep (How should we read and understand Genesis 1? Is there a conflict with science?).

Chapter 4: The R-rated Bible (Schlimm looks at some of the troubling stories of the Old Testament such as Jacob’s unethical behavior).

Chapter 5: Killing All That Breathes (a look at violence in the Old Testament).

Chapter 6: Male and Female God Created Them (What does the Old Testament say about Gender equality and how should we approach difficult passages that seem to treat women as less than equal?).

Chapter 7: God Commands Us to Do What? (a discussion of some of the strange and obscure laws found in the Old Testament).

Chapter 8: Is the Law Engraved in Stone? (an examination of laws in the Old Testament that seem to contradict each other).

Chapter 9: Truth Is Many Sided (this chapter continues the discussion introduced in the previous chapter, but extends it beyond a discussion of laws in the Old Testament).

Chapter 10: Drowning in Tears and Raging at God (a look at difficult statements in the Book of Psalms).

Chapter 11: Great and Terrible is the Wrath of the Lord (a discussion of passages dealing with God’s judgment).

Chapter 12: The Old Testament’s Authority (in this final chapter, Schlimm discusses various approaches to the Old Testament’s authority and proposes his own).

Selections from This Strange and Sacred Scripture

Since it is impossible in this review to discuss every chapter of Schlimm’s book, I have selected a few points that I found either provocative, helpful, or in need of further treatment by the author. Hopefully this selection will whet the reader’s appetite to read This Strange and Sacred Scripture for him or herself.

The Story of the Garden Historical or Symbolic?

In his book, This Strange and Sacred Scripture, Schlimm argues that the story of the Garden of Eden should be read symbolically.
In his book, “This Strange and Sacred Scripture,” Schlimm argues that the story of the Garden of Eden should be read symbolically.

Some readers will find Schlimm provocative from the start as he suggests in chapter 2, “Our Fleeting Moments in Paradise,” that Genesis 2:4-4:16 should be read as symbolic rather than historical. Schlimm presents the following arguments. First, the Hebrew names in the text suggest a symbolic reading. Adam (human), Eve (life), Eden (delight), Cain (a word that sounds like other Hebrew words, especially the word “spear”), and Abel (fleeting breath), “begin to look much more like names of characters in John Bunyan’s allegorical story than the names of actual historical people” (p. 19). Second, talking snakes and trees that provide life or “the knowledge of good and evil,” suggest symbolism (pp. 20-22). 3) Third, the location of Eden which is geographically impossible to locate suggests a more symbolic locale (pp. 22-23). Fourth, and finally, the use of parallelism, repetition, wordplay and symbolic language suggest a poetic story (p. 23).

I must admit that I have also wondered at times if the account in Genesis 2-4 was to be taken as history or as symbolism. Talking snakes and special trees do seem to lean in that direction. In spite of Schlimm’s arguments however, I still find myself in the historical camp for several reasons. First, while it is true that the names have great meaning to the story, this is no less true of other stories in the Old Testament (Abraham, Moses, Hannah, etc.). The significance of certain names does not mean the text is not historical. Second, the use of parallelism, repetition, wordplay, and symbolic language also occurs frequently in Old Testament texts that are historical. Third, if the story in Genesis 2:4-4:16 is to be taken symbolically, then what are we to make of the genealogies of Cain (Gen. 4:17-24) and Adam (Gen. 5)? In other words, at what point does Genesis transition from symbolic story to history, and how is that indicated in the text? Fourth, although Schlimm argues otherwise, I find Paul’s statements in the New Testament regarding Adam and Eve (e.g., Rom. 5; 1 Tim. 2:13-14) to refer to real historical people. Romans 5 is particularly important along this line. Paul compares Christ (a historical person) to Adam and says that what was done in Adam was undone through Christ. I would like to hear more from Schlimm on how he would reconcile a symbolic reading of Genesis 2-4 with the genealogies of Genesis and the New Testament references to Adam and Eve.

Violence in the Old Testament

violenceBecause violence in the Old Testament is a topic I am concerned about (see my series on Violence in the Old Testament here), I was especially interested to see what insight Schlimm might offer. Schlimm divides his answers into 5 different responses. Response 1: Description is not Prescription (p. 64). In other words, just because a violent act is described in the Bible doesn’t mean we are to imitate it. Response 2: We are not God, and therefore we don’t have the authority to act as God does in certain situations (such as executing judgment on sinners). In conjunction with this argument, Schlimm also points out that sometimes God fights, so that his people don’t have to. Further, he notes that the biblical perspective is not one-sided. God isn’t always pictured as being on the side of his people. Instead, God is on the side of righteousness, justice, and holiness. Schlimm’s third response is based on “The Problem of Application” (p. 70). Not every biblical text applies to our individual lives. “We are not its only audience. It speaks to people in many cultures, times, and places” (p. 71). In the midst of this discussion, Schlimm looks at Psalm 137:9 and under what circumstances it may speak to a believer. I found his explanation of this difficult passage very helpful. Response 4: “The Right Word for the Right Situation,” deals with the fact that the Bible presents different perspectives on various topics (like violence). Schlimm provides some helpful questions to ask of the text. Rather than simply asking, “How should we live out a particular text in our individual lives, we should also ask questions like: “How do different biblical texts provide a conversation with one another?” “Which texts speak most directly to us in our context?” And, “Where do we most closely align with the biblical text? Where do we diverge? Why?” (p. 74). Schlimm’s fifth response is an honest one: “We Don’t Have All the Answers.” Here he calls for humility and prayerful questions when approaching difficult texts (pp. 76-79).

Schlimm ends the chapter with a brief discussion of the herem texts (this word is frequently translated to “utterly destroy” and refers to God’s command concerning the Canaanites and Amalekites). He provides the following arguments: First, this practice was directed toward the Canaanites to uproot idolatry from the land (Exod. 22:20; Deut. 7:1-4). Second, “this practice of herem ensures that people don’t go to war for personal gain” (this is because the spoil is devoted to God). “Third, this practice recognizes God as the military victor of Israel’s battles.” He also points out that some texts in the Bible describe one-time events. Ultimately, Schlimm states, “these passage nevertheless should always leave us uncomfortable” (p. 80).

Truth Is Many Sided

Matthew Richard Schlimm author of "This Sacred Scripture." You can check out Schlimm's website at: http://www.matthewschlimm.com/
Matthew Richard Schlimm author of “This Sacred Scripture.” You can check out Schlimm’s website at: http://www.matthewschlimm.com

Chapter 9 begins with the question, “Does the Old Testament contradict itself?” (p. 139). Schlimm does not gloss over the issues with a defensive “no” or a glib “yes,” instead he takes a constructive approach by looking at the complex nature of the Old Testament and the theological and ethical tensions within it.  Three analogies guide his approach. He contends that the Old Testament does not offer a sales pitch, but rather a conversation. He states, “The Old Testament refuses to act like a half-honest sales rep. It doesn’t give readers just one perspective. It shows things from different lights and from different angles. It doesn’t present every viewpoint under the sun but, it does recognize the complexity of truth ” (p. 141). One example of this complexity is the difference between the Deuteronomic teaching that the righteous will be blessed and the wicked will be cursed, and the Book of Job (or some of the psalms) which reflect that the opposite can also be true. Schlimm observes that, “While it’s possible to see the Old Testament’s teachings on this topic as contradictory, it’s also possible to see them as ongoing dialogue about complex truths” (p. 143).

The second analogy Schlimm uses is the difference between math problems and artwork. He argues that the Old Testament is more than a math problem with a fixed solution that never changes. It is more like an artist that “captures truths that are far more complicated than any math equation” (p. 148). This analogy of course has its limits. God is a God who never changes and there are eternal truths contained in the Old Testament (e.g., one God, God’s holiness, etc.). Schlimm is in agreement with me on this as the next metaphor demonstrates. The final analogy contrasts a “one-size-fits-all” garment (like a hospital gown) with tailor-made clothes. Schlimm admits that in some respects the Old Testament reflects some truths that are “one-size-fits-all” such as, loving God with all that we are or our neighbors as ourselves. However, he cautions against the attitude that the entire Old Testament can be viewed this way. By “tailor-made” Schlimm means that some truths “work for certain people in certain situations” (p. 151). He illustrates this with the verses from Proverbs 26:4-5 which appear contradictory unless it is realized that wisdom must be applied to know which advice to follow (v. 4 or v. 5). He concludes the chapter with a hypothetical conversation between Ruth and Ezra over whether God’s people can marry foreigners and the contrasting perspectives represented by the books that bear their names.

This Strange and Sacred Scripture: Conclusion

Schlimm concludes this book with a look at the various kinds of authority and how we should approach the Old Testament. He notes those who would say the Old Testament should have no or limited authority in our lives and it is clear he disagrees with this position. Next he points to those who treat the Old Testament like a drill-sergeant. “It tells us what to do and we do it. No questions asked” (p. 200). He notes at least 3 problems with this approach. 1) It gives an incorrect impression of God. If God loves us, why would the Bible address us as a drill-sergeant as opposed to a loving teacher? 2) New Testament Christians didn’t follow the Old Testament this way. For example, they didn’t observe certain laws such as circumcision and food laws. 3) The drill-sergeant model is susceptible to misuse and can portray unhealthy images of dominance and submission.

inerrancySchlimm then examines the “Inerrant-Infallible” Model. He writes, “Many have found the language of inerrancy and infallibility appealing. Insofar as their main concern is to say that the Bible as a whole is reliable when it comes to thinking about God, humanity, and creation, I don’t have a bone to pick with them” (p. 201, author’s emphasis). However, he continues by stating that words like “inerrant” can cause various problems to arise. His objections include: 1) it suggests we are dealing with sentences that can have a true or false value; 2) it causes readers to focus on the wrong things; 3) it means we need to wrestle with “odd ancient expressions like ‘the four corners of the earth’…and whether such expressions are error free” (p. 201); 4) infallibility can suggest the Bible will never let people down yet we know the devil can quote it and that we need the Holy Spirit and other people to make adequate sense of it; 5) the only writings which can be considered error-free are boring. Clearly some of these arguments are not as compelling as others. Although he finds argument 5 the “most damning” (p. 202), I find it the least convincing. Similarly, argument 4 is based more on the devil’s wickedness and people’s sinfulness than it is on any inherent problem with the Bible.

After examining the view that the Bible is a “way of becoming closer to God” and noting that all of these ways of looking at the Bible fall short, he proposes “A Better Model;” the one he has utilized throughout the book: the Old Testament as friend. Schlimm argues that, “Seeing the Old Testament as our friend in faith explains how we can be firmly committed to Scripture, even as we express questions, doubts, and possible disagreements with it. He notes that some may find this a weak model of biblical authority but asks the question: “Yet who has more power over us than our closest friends?” (p. 205).

This Strange and Sacred Scripture: Evaluation

Schilmm has provided a very stimulating look at the Old Testament. I admire his desire to share its value with those who are willing to read this book. I share his commitment to the Old Testament and his conviction that there is much there to enrich our faith. Schlimm doesn’t duck any of the difficulties with the Old Testament. He faces the problems squarely and provides some good answers and food for thought. Certainly each chapter could be a book in itself and so the treatment here is only a beginning. At times one can feel the incompleteness of the treatment, but such is the case with a book this size. Schlimm’s arguments regarding the potential problems of viewing the Bible as inerrant will certainly rankle some evangelicals (at times I felt the discomfort), but his reverence for God and his respect for the Old Testament is clear on every page. While I don’t agree with all of his conclusions, Schlimm has written a stimulating book that provides some answers to perplexing difficulties, while at the same time challenging the reader to view the Old Testament in new ways. This Strange and Sacred Scripture is written in a very accessible style. I not only recommend it, it is my hope that it will stimulate many to a deeper appreciation and study of the Old Testament.

This Strange and Sacred Scripture: Wrestling with the Old Testament and Its Oddities is available at Baker Academic and Amazon USA / UK

(Special thanks to Baker Academic for a copy of This Strange and Sacred Scripture, in exchange for a fair and unbiased review).

The Deuteronomic History and Violence According to Fretheim

The Deuteronomic History and Violence According to Fretheim

Deuteronomic History is available at Amazon USA / UK
Deuteronomic History is available at Amazon USA / UK

I realize to some of my readers the title for this article may be perplexing. What is the Deuteronomic History, who is Fretheim, and why should I care? Let me begin by answering the next to last question first. Terence E. Fretheim is the Elva B. Lovell Professor Emeritus of Old Testament at Luther Seminary and he is the author of many books on the Old Testament. Now that you have a brief introduction to Fretheim’s identity, I’ll let him explain what the Deuteronomic History is. “The deuteronomic (or deuteronomistic) history is a shorthand designation of fairly recent vintage for the books of Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings, with Deuteronomy often recognized as the introduction to them” (Fretheim, Deuteronomic History, p. 15). In my last article in the “Violence in the Old Testament Series” entitled “Fire From Heaven: Is God’s Judgment Just?,” I took issue with Fretheim’s interpretation of Elijah’s slaughter of the priests of Baal. While doing some reading on 1&2 Kings for my next (long overdue!) article on Violence in the Old Testament, I pulled an old book off my shelf by Fretheim (the one you see to the right), and began to read a fuller explanation of his understanding of violence in the Old Testament, especially as it relates to the Deuteronomic History. I found some of Fretheim’s explanations very interesting and helpful. So to be fair to Fretheim, as well as to offer some helpful explanations about violence in the Old Testament, I wanted to share his insights with those who may not have read his book on the Deuteronomic History (thus my answer to the last question above).

Fretheim’s Views on Violence in the Deuteronomic History

Terence E. Fretheim
Terence E. Fretheim

At the end of his discussion on the destruction of Jericho in Joshua 6, Fretheim pauses to present his views on violence in the Deuteronomic History (his full discussion can be found on pp. 68-75). He begins by framing the issue, of which I will share one small quote that sums up the problem as he sees it: “A perceived theological sophistication leads us to object to the idea that this God, whom we define largely in terms of love and mercy, could be associated with (or even command!) such violence” (p. 69). Next, Fretheim enumerates 6 explanations sometimes given in defense of the violence found in the Old Testament. Due to space considerations, I will not list them here, but I am in agreement with Fretheim that the explanations are inadequate (see pp. 69-71 for more detail). Finally, Fretheim lists his 7 explanations for the violence recorded in the Deuteronomic History. The rest of this post will dwell on these 7 explanations.

1. His first statement is brief, so I will quote it in full. “God has chosen to be dependent on human beings in the achievement of goals in the world. Even where divine activity so fills the scene as it does in this text [meaning Joshua 6], the human element is not missing” (p. 71).

2. Fretheim’s second point builds on his first. He states, “God works in the world with what is available, i.e., with human beings as they are, with all their foibles and flaws, and within societal structures, however inadequate.” He continues, “God does not perfect these aspects of the world before working in and through them….Thus the results of such work will always be mixed, and less than what would have happened had God chosen to work alone. Hence, as an example, there will be violence associated with God’s work in the world because, to a greater or lesser degree, violence will be characteristic of those through whom the work is done” (p. 71).

These first two explanations are very similar to what I argued in a previous post in this series (The Pooh Principle: Violence in the Old Testament Part 8).

3. Next Fretheim argues that our perception of serving God is informed by the historical context we are in. Therefore he states, “It is very difficult to evaluate such perceptions because our context is not that of Israel’s” (p. 72). I believe this to be a very important point. Critics often argue against the violence in biblical stories from a 21st century perspective, often forgetting that had they lived in the context of ancient Israel their outlook would have been very different. We cannot expect God to work in 13th century Israel (or pick another century), the way he might choose to work in 21st century America or Western Europe.

4. Fretheim makes several significant points in this assertion. First he notes that, “Israel gave a twofold theological rationale for waging wars against the Canaanites the way they did” (p. 72). God did not want the false religious practices of the Canaanites to influence Israel (Deut. 7:1-5, 16) and second, Israel was to be God’s instruments of judgment because of the Canaanites wickedness (Deut. 9:4-5). Fretheim points out that, “Divine judgment in the OT was thought to be enacted within history, and not in some after-life. This made for a decisiveness of action that was not common in NT literature. Nevertheless, apocalyptic writing and the NT have an even more severe understanding of judgment; consigning the wicked to the eternal fires of hell. Thus, whether in the promised land or in heaven, utopia might be thought possible only by means of radical surgery” (pp. 72-73).

Fretheim’s insight about the Old Testament’s “this-worldly” viewpoint and thus the decisiveness of judgment is significant. But as he also points out, the New Testament is even more severe in describing judgment. This is important for all of those who argue that God, through Jesus, projects a less violent attitude. It seems to me that God’s character, whether we are speaking of mercy or judgment, is consistent in both testaments. Although it is true that the Old Testament emphasizes a physical judgment in this world, and the New focuses more on spiritual judgment (although not exclusively).

The other significant insight by Fretheim in this section is that, “Israel did not understand judgment in a narrow way” (p. 73). By this he means that the punishments visited on the Canaanites were also pronounced against Israel as well, and eventually carried out. He also notes that the Old Testament not only speaks of God giving Israel the land of Canaan and thus destroying, or driving out, the Canaanites, it also speaks of God doing the same thing for other nations (e.g., Deut. 2:5, 9, 12, 23). This is very significant, as it shows that God does not play favorites. God worked in other nations in similar ways to Israel, and if the Canaanites could be driven from the land because of their wickedness, so also could Israel.

5. Fretheim’s next point is that, “One simply has to recognize that with Israel’s world being the way it was, war (along with other trappings of government) was necessary for Israel’s survival” (p. 73). He does, however, argue that Israel may have been mistaken in respect to the severity of the wars against the Canaanites. Admittedly  the conquest of Canaan was an offensive war, at least in the initial stages, whereas most of Israel’s wars were defensive. However, I am not convinced that Israel was “mistaken” regarding the severity of the wars with the Canaanites given that Israel was following God’s commands. In this aspect then, I am in disagreement with Fretheim.

6.  The last two points that Fretheim makes I find particularly poignant. I quote him at length here. He writes, “That God would stoop to become involved in such realities as war is finally not a matter for despair, but of hope. For God to be absent from such aspects of the life of the world would be to give the world up to its own violence. But, God being involved in the evil of the world means that evil is not the last word. What a greater tragedy war would be if God were not involved, struggling in that human violence to bring about good ends….Moreover, because of the presence of evil in this world, for God to work toward redemptive goals inevitably involves conflict and violence; the forces of evil will not surrender voluntarily” (p. 74). Again, I argue a similar point (but with less elegance) in my post “The Pooh Principle.”

7. Fretheim’s final point relates to point number 6. He notes that by involving himself in the violence of war, “God takes the road of suffering and death. Through such involvement, God not only uses flawed human efforts, but also absorbs the effects of their sinfulness and thus suffers violence” (p. 74). To my way of thinking, this is similar to that much greater act of Jesus on the cross when God willingly absorbed the violence and hatred of this world in order to redeem it.

Fire From Heaven: Is God’s Judgment Just?

Fire From Heaven: Is God’s Judgment Just?

Elijah calls down fire from heaven
Elijah calls down fire from heaven (1 Kings 18:38). Image from http://michael2011.blogspot.com/

I am currently teaching through the Books of Kings and we have been looking at the ministry of Elijah. This portion of Scripture (1 Kings 17-2 Kings 2) contains a number of stories that disturb believers and unbelievers alike. One of the major themes of these chapters is idolatry. A number of the stories focus on Elijah’s battle to re-establish the worship of Yahweh, Israel’s God, over the worship of Baal. A number of violent incidents are recorded in these chapters. After Elijah calls down fire from heaven, demonstrating that “the Lord, He is God,” he commands the people to seize the prophets of Baal and execute them (1 Kgs. 18:40). Another story within these chapters relates how an unnamed prophet rebukes Ahab for showing mercy to Ben-Hadad King of Syria, insisting that he should have killed him (1 Kgs. 20:38-43). Returning to Elijah, we read of him once again calling down fire from heaven, this time to incinerate two companies of 50 soldiers each (2 Kgs. 1:9-15). Perhaps the “icing on the cake” in terms of violence, concerns Elisha’s (the successor to Elijah) curse of the young boys who are mauled by two she-bears (2 Kgs. 2:23-24). Not only do these stories raise the ire of many atheists, but one can also find certain Bible commentators who seem embarrassed by these stories, even offering apologies! What then are we to make of these stories? Are they examples of a brutal, unjust God? Do they give us just one more reason to reject the Bible as advocating “religious fanaticism?” I will look at the objections raised by some as I examine each of these stories (including future posts), while offering responses for you the reader to consider.

The Execution of the Prophets of Baal

Although this picture is supposed to represent Elijah's execution of the prophets of Baal, there is at least one inaccuracy. The story says nothing about burning any cities. The blogger also comments on the laurel wreaths worn by the slain as a symbol of peace--another inaccuracy.
While this picture is supposed to represent Elijah’s execution of the prophets of Baal, Derek Murphy makes two mistakes in his interpretation of it. First, it is not a fort being burned in the background as Murphy alleges, it is Elijah’s altar. Second, Murphy comments on the laurel wreaths worn by the slain as a symbol of peace. The prophets of Baal are not depicted with laurel wreaths, nor are they positively represented as “peaceful” in the story in 1 Kings 18.

As noted above, following the contest on Mount Carmel, when Yahweh rains down fire from heaven, Elijah orders the execution of the 450 prophets of Baal. One blogger commenting, not only on the story, but on an artistic rendering of it reproduced here (on the left), writes, “Elijah, being the most holy and most loyal, simply did what any conservative religious person of faith would do when threatened with extinction in the face of other, more popular religious  movements: kill all trespassers. Israel was being punished by God because Israelites were worshipping Baal. Solution? Kill the priests of Baal. Burn their temples, destroy (or steal and put in Christian churches) their artifacts. This pattern is repeated throughout the history of the Jews and the Christians, who often did the same thing to Pagan counterparts” (Derek Murphy, read the whole article at http://www.holyblasphemy.net/elijah-kills-the-prophets-of-baal). There are several problems with Murphy’s objections. First, some of his comments are directed toward the artistic rendering of the account and do not accurately reflect what is written in the story (see my comments under the picture). It is one thing to take issue with the story, but basing an argument on artistic inaccuracies, or on a misinterpretaion of the picture itself, is no way to establish the validity of a position. Second, Murphy’s main point in the article seems to be that the motivation for slaughtering the prophets of Baal merely had to do with Baalism becoming more popular than worship of Yahweh. So when Christians and Jews feel that their religion is threatened, they respond by killing their opponents. However one interprets other events in history, such an argument distorts the context of this story. The issue is not “your religion’s becoming more popular than mine so I’ll kill you,” the issue is idolatry. I realize that to an atheist, idolatry is a poor excuse to execute people. I will deal with the rationale behind this later in this article.

A bronze statue of Baal discovered at Ugarit from the 14th-12th centuries B.C.
A bronze statue of Baal discovered at Ugarit from the 14th-12th centuries B.C. Baal was worshipped as the storm god who could rain down fire from heaven by hurling lightening bolts.


Several other responses are important to the objections raised by Murphy. First, the context of the story clearly shows that the initial aggressor (in terms of slaughtering prophets) is not Elijah, but Jezebel. 1 Kings 18:4 begins, “For so it was, while Jezebel massacred the prophets of the Lord, that Obadiah had taken one hundred prophets and hidden them, fifty to a cave, and had fed them with bread and water” (NKJV). This “cutting off” (literal rendering) of the Lord’s prophets forced those who were left to be hidden. When Elijah appears on Mount Carmel, he is outnumbered 450-1. If the prophets of Asherah had shown up (1 Kgs. 18:19–which apparently they didn’t), Elijah would have been outnumbered 850-1. At this point in the story, the people are not on Elijah’s side (1 Kgs. 18:21); he is clearly alone. Elijah is not operating from a point of numerical strength! These observations are important because the Israelites, or their godly leaders, are often pictured by atheists as the bullies on the block who outnumber and outgun their opponents, when actually, the opposite is true (not only here, but in other stories as well). To be clear, I am not arguing, “I better kill you before you kill me” to justify the execution of the prophets of Baal, I am only establishing the proper context. Again, the motivation behind the execution is more than self-preservation (although I would be surprised if even atheists would not seek to defend themselves against an aggressor!).

fretheimWe should not be surprised when atheists attack stories like this when even some Bible commentators seem apologetic about Elijah’s actions. For example, Terence E. Fretheim seems to want to excuse God by blaming Elijah and his times for the execution of Baal’s prophets. He writes, “Yet human violence is in evidence here as well (v. 40). This should not be explained away, but neither should it be considered necessarily just, even if it is understood to obey the law (Deut. 13:1-5). Once again…God does not act alone; but God works in and through that which is available, with human beings as they are, with all of their flaws and foibles” (First and Second Kings, Westminister Bible Companion, pp. 106-107). Although I appreciate many of the insights from Fretheim’s books, I believe he has missed the mark here. He himself admits that the Law prescribes the death penalty for false prophets (see Deut. 13:1-11).

The Wisdom and the Folly is available at amazon.
The Wisdom and the Folly is available at amazon.

Dale Ralph Davis’s remarks are more on target. Here are a few comments that he makes on this passage. “This Kishon slaughter [the river where the execution took place] was not an act of personal revenge but of capital punishment in line with the Torah [the Books of Moses]….Remember Israel was a theocracy; what we call church and state functioned as one. And here Elijah simply carries out Israel’s constitution, the provisions of Yahweh’s covenant law, relating to solicitation to apostasy” (1 Kings, “The Wisdom and the Folly,” p. 241). Davis continues, “The problem is not with Elijah or the Old Testament but with us. We react the way we do because, in our subliminal view, apostasy is not that big a deal. We simply don’t understand Yahweh’s violence against rebellion in his people. He uses surgery not breath mints on cancer. The problem is not God’s lack of refinement but our lack of sanctification….The nasty episode at the Kishon testifies that we have little horror of sin and calls evangelical Christians in particular to repentance” (p. 242).

Idolatry is a serious matter
Idolatry is a serious matter

I am in agreement with Davis on many points, but particularly his statement that we (meaning many in our contemporary western society) don’t see apostasy as a big deal. Certainly this is Richard Dawkin’s point of view when he writes about God breaking into a “monumental rage whenever his chosen people flirted with a rival god” which resembles “nothing so much as sexual jealousy of the worst kind” (“The God Delusion,” p. 243). Dawkin’s reaction demonstrates the naivete or the ignorance of the atheist who sees no harm in idolatry. In a previous post in this series entitled “The Necessity of Judgment: Violence in the Old Testament Part 5,” I examined in some detail the biblical concept that God is the Giver and Source of life. Since God is the source of life, any choice that excludes God is a choice for death (see the article for a more indepth treatment). This is why God is adamantly opposed to idolatry and the worship of false gods. Idolatry leads to death. Therefore, God seeks to protect people from idolatry by destroying those who, not only persist in idolatry themselves, but who also lead others into idolatry, such as the prophets that Elijah executed. Davis’s assertion that sin is no big deal to many today, is at the heart of the problem. Sin is tolerated, excused, denied, ignored, or glorified by many in our society, therefore, few are willing to hear the message that sin is dangerous and deadly. The title of an article by Clay Jones states the problem clearly: “We Don’t Hate Sin So We Don’t Understand What Happened to the Canaanites” (Philosophia Christi, vol. 11, no. 1, 2009, pp. 53-72. Click on the link provided to read the entire article). Jones pinpoints the problem on the first page of this article when he writes, “Could it be that because our culture today commits these same Canaanite sins we are inoculated against the seriousness of these sins and so think God’s judgment unfair?” (p. 53).

Looking at the immediate context of the Elijah story, as well as the overall biblical context, brings clarity to the story of Elijah’s execution of the prophets of Baal. It also challenges our passivity or acceptance of idolatry in our own lives. This story is not the only one that speaks of fire from heaven. In our next post, I will look at 2 stories: the unnamed prophet who condemns Ahab for sparing his enemy (1 Kgs. 20:38-43), and Elijah’s destruction of two companies of soldiers by calling down fire from heaven (2 Kings 1).

Robert B. Chisholm Jr’s Comments on Violence in the Old Testament

Robert B. Chisholm Jr’s Comments on Violence in the Old Testament

Robert B. Chisholm Jr.
Robert B. Chisholm Jr.

This past summer I had the pleasure of conducting an interview with Robert B. Chisholm Jr., department chair and professor at Dallas Theological Seminary. The interview was primarily about his new commentary on 1&2 Samuel (you can see the entire interview here). However, I did take the opportunity to ask him about his views on Violence in the Old Testament. As part of my on-going series, I thought I would repost his comments on this topic. Bob’s comments particularly focus on the idea of justice and the biblical concept “you reap what you sow” (see my treatment of this idea here). I have reproduced Bob’s comments as they originally appeared in the interview. The only change I have made is to include Scripture references that were not part of the original interview so that the interested reader does not need to look them up. If it’s been awhile since you’ve read these comments, or if you’ve never read the entire interview, I hope you enjoy the following recap.

Here is my question followed by Bob’s answer.

I am currently writing a series of articles on my website entitled “Violence in the Old Testament.” This seems to be an important topic given the publications of books by the “new atheists” such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchins. Christians are often embarrassed about the violence in the Old Testament and many shy away from reading and studying it. I know this is a big topic but do you have any comments you’d like to share on this subject, especially as it relates to the books of 1&2 Samuel?

This is also a topic of great interest for me and I hope to do more writing on it in the days ahead. At the 2011 national meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society, I delivered a paper entitled: Fighting Yahweh’s Wars: Some Disturbing Acts of Violence in Judges-Samuel. It should be published soon; I’m still working on the logistics of where. I study six different episodes where God endorses violence. I am not as apologetic as some and prefer to give God the benefit of the doubt. It’s a messy fallen world filled with a lot of evil people and sometimes God rolls up his sleeves, so to speak, and enters into the fray as the just Warrior-King. Here’s the conclusion to my paper: A close reading of these six accounts reveals that in each case the act of violence involved the implementation of divine justice against the object. In two instances (Adoni-Bezek–Judg. 1:5-7, and Agag–1 Sam. 15:32-33) an individual was treated in a way that mirrored his crimes against others. In four cases a people group (the Amalekites–1 Sam. 15) or representatives of a people group (the Moabite king Eglon–Judg. 3:14-25, the Canaanite general Sisera–Judg. 4-5, the thirty Philistines murdered by Samson–Judg. 14:15-19) were, at least from Yahweh’s perspective, the objects of violent acts of justice in response to crimes committed or intended (in the case of Sisera) against Israel. In Goliath’s case (1 Sam. 17), David refused to view the Philistine’s taunt as simply a verbal assault against Israel’s army. Yahweh identifies with his people and so he was the ultimate target of the Philistine’s slander. Consequently, David’s victory over Goliath was an act of justice that vindicated Yahweh’s honor by punishing a blasphemer.

Though these violent acts are disturbing at an emotional level, they are, as acts of justice, gratifying at a deeper, more elemental level. Ultimately, it is not worth living in a world in which there is no justice. Such a place would be nothing more than a jungle in which superior strength breeds arrogance and evil, and the strong take what they want, dishing out pain and suffering with reckless abandon. But justice, to truly be justice, must be implemented fully and appropriately. To use a contemporary example, when the Harry Potter saga finally reaches its climax, Nagini, Bellatrix Lestrange, and, of course, Voldemort cannot just die; they must be killed the “right way” for justice to be satisfied and for some sense of moral equilibrium to be realized. Bellatrix cannot be pitied as long as the image of a dying Dobby persists in the mind’s eye.

So it is in the biblical story: Those who cut off the thumbs of others or make mothers childless eventually discover that what goes around comes around. Those who attack, oppress, and abuse Yahweh’s people eventually pay the price in “the right way.” Those who dare defy the living God and challenge him to step into the arena may end up a decapitated torso. And though the scene may make one want to vomit, in the end the image prompts a sigh of relief and more. As the psalmist declares: “The godly will rejoice when they see vengeance carried out; they will bathe their feet in the blood of the wicked. Then observers will say, ‘Yes indeed, the godly are rewarded! Yes indeed, there is a God who judges the earth!’” (Ps. 58:10-11) In conclusion I leave you with this scene: “Then I saw heaven opened and here came a white horse! The one riding it was called ‘Faithful’ and ‘True,’ and with justice he judges and goes to war” (Rev. 19:11). Even so, come Lord Jesus!

For a list of some of Robert B. Chisholm Jr’s works click on the links here for Amazon USA / UK

The Pooh Principle: Violence in the Old Testament Part 8

The Pooh Principle: Violence in the Old Testament Part 8

Winnie-The-Pooh-psd58477I should make one thing clear from the start. When I use the word “pooh” I am not speaking of the cuddly bear that we all know and love from the childhood stories created by A. A. Milne, and later popularized in animated form by Walt Disney. No, rather than using the harsh sounding “poop” common in the American vernacular, I am using that gentler form of the word as expressed by my English friends. Poop is what Americans find in their children’s dirty diapers, pooh, on the other hand, is what the English find in their children’s dirty nappies. Although it may be an unpleasant subject to dwell on, pooh provides a good introduction and analogy for this installment of Violence in the Old Testament.

photo from http://www.disneybaby.com/blog/laugh-of-the-day-self-professed-worlds-best-father/
photo from http://www.disneybaby.com/blog/laugh-of-the-day-self-professed-worlds-best-father/

As a father, I could theoretically choose to never change a dirty nappy (diaper). I could let my young child go through its early life laying in the mess that it created. Of course, this would certainly raise objections by others, but first and foremost, it would suggest that I am not a very loving or caring father. On the other hand, as a loving father I would certainly choose to change my child’s nappy no matter how often he filled it with pooh. Neither the frequency nor the quantity would prevent me from performing the loving duty of a father. Furthermore, even though I didn’t make the pooh, and am in no way responsible for its production, yet I would still choose to remove it. Part of the hazards of the removal process may mean that I end up smelling like pooh, and even get some on me. This might cause people to misjudge me. Perhaps they will think I stink, or perhaps they will spot some pooh on me and assert that I am a filthy, unwashed, walking lump of bacteria. Nevertheless, as a loving father, I will persist in removing the pooh.

Although this analogy may have its limitations, and I hope that I will not be considered irreverent in using it, it is a somewhat light-hearted way of introducing a very serious topic. If we draw parallels to the story above, then God is the loving father and the pooh is sin. Just as a father chooses to change a dirty diaper, so God has chosen, in His love, to deal with our sin. God didn’t make the sin, nor is He responsible for its presence in our world, but He has chosen to deal with it and remove it. As a result, God takes the chance of smelling like sin, and even getting sin on Himself. Consequently, people may misjudge God and attribute things to Him that are not actually true. Allow me to explain how this analogy reveals an important biblical truth about God and sin.

War and Salvation History

salvation-historyLet me begin by noting that the story of the Bible presents a certain view of history. The story is all about God acting in history to bring salvation to a world lost in sin. German theologians have coined a certain phrase to express this idea: Heilsgeschichte, which simply means “salvation history.” Although God can and does work in miraculous ways through nature, according to the Bible, He has also chosen to work in and through human beings who are sinful and imperfect in order to save them. Therefore, if God is going to do anything in this world, He is going to do it in the context of a sinful environment.

One of humankind’s worse sins is War. War is a great evil and war, bloodshed, and enmity between people are all a result of sin. “War appears to be an ever present reality of historical existence, both ancient and modern” (Peter Craigie, The Problem of War in the Old Testament, p. 43). Therefore, if God is going to work in human history, then He must stand in some kind of relationship to war.

World-War-Two-Soldiers-TrainingAs an example, let’s look at World War II. For many years while Hitler took control of Europe, consigned Jews to concentration camps, and bombed Britain, America stayed neutral and did not enter the war. Many Europeans thought that it was immoral for America to allow Hitler to commit the atrocities he did without taking a stand against him. Following the bombing of Pearl Harbor, American finally joined the war effort against Nazi Germany and Japan and together the allied forces defeated tyranny.

Someone standing aloof from history could make the judgment that it was immoral of America to idly stand by, as some Europeans did. On the other hand, another person might argue that war is always wrong and it was, therefore, immoral for America to enter the war. Atheists use similar arguments against God. God can be accused of letting people and nations get away with the worst crimes. What a terrible God who allows evil to run rampant in our world. However, as soon as God is pictured in the Scripture as a Warrior, He is accused by these same atheists of being a moral monster! The point is simple: God can no more idly stand by than America could during World War II. War is a fact of our existence; a terrible fact, yes, but anyone who gets involved in our world will not be untainted by it. Craigie therefore concludes: “We perceive, though not always clearly, that war is a form of evil human activity in which God participates actively for the purposes of both redemption and judgment; in this participation, God is the Warrior” (The Problem of War in the OT, p. 43).

The fact is, God’s participation in war makes God look bad. It can even make God look morally bankrupt, but God is willing to take that chance in order to save sinful human beings. Greg Boyd puts it this way: “God in his love, appears as ugly as our ugly hearts require him to be, and as beautiful as our redeemed hearts allow him to be” (Greg Boyd “How Do You Reconcile the wrath of God in the Old Testament with a Loving God?” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b5CkCGR9YI4). This same idea is asserted in Scripture. In 2 Samuel 22:26-27 (which parallels Ps. 18:25-26) David states, “With the merciful You will show Yourself merciful; with the blameless man You will show Yourself blameless; with the pure You will show Yourself pure; and with the devious You will show Yourself shrewd” (NKJV). A lot depends on one’s point of view!

What God and Nanny McPhee Have in Common

nanny-mcphee-returnsBoyd illustrates the above idea by referencing the movie “Nanny McPhee.” In the movie, a young father (Colin Firth), following the death of his wife, is at his wits end in dealing with his seven rebellious children. Nanny McPhee arrives in order to instill obedience and respect for authority. When the children first meet her she is the ugliest old hag imaginable. However, as the children learn respect and obedience, Nanny McPhee’s ugly features begin to disappear, until, by the end of the movie, she morphs into the lovely Emma Thompson! The point is that Nanny McPhee was never ugly, she was only perceived that way by the rebellious children. When the children have their, shall we call it “sin,” dealt with, they see Nanny McPhee for the beautiful, loving person she really is.

War, and other sin, can make God look pretty ugly because of His choice to participate in our world. This idea has Scriptural precedent. Isaiah says the following about the suffering servant: “He has no form or comeliness; and when we see Him, there is no beauty that we should desire Him. He is despised and rejected by men…Surely He has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; Yet we esteemed Him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities; the chastisement for our peace was upon Him…and the Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all” (Isa. 53:2-6). The apostle Paul writes: “For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him” (2 Cor. 5:21). Indeed, these Scriptures affirm, that like the loving father who is willing to smell like pooh and even get some on him, our Savior was willing to take on our sin. It made Him look unattractive, it even caused people to misjudge Him, according to Isaiah, but He did it for love’s sake. It was our mess, but He took responsibility for cleaning it up.

Once we realize the tremendous love expressed through Christ’s death on the cross, just like Nanny McPhee, He no longer appears unattractive and revolting, but He becomes the most beautiful Being in all of Creation. It depends on our point of view. The atheists see an ugly God because their vision is clouded by their own rebellion, but if they were to submit to His cleansing power, their vision would be transformed and they would see the Lord in all of His beauty (Ps. 27:4).