The Bible is much more than a book of stories and rules from the past. It’s rich with a relevant message God has for us today. Join First UMC El Dorado for worship as we discover how to engage with the Bible like never before and how to apply it to our lives each and every day.
- August 17 – Making Sense of the Bible
- August 24 – The Old Testament in Fifteen Minutes
- August 31 – The New Testament in Fifteen Minutes
- September 7 – Is the Bible God’s Word?
- September 14 – Violence, Suffering and Other Troubling Issues
- September 21 – How to Study the Bible
Exodus 32:27-28, CEB
27 Moses said to them, “This is what the Lord, Israel’s God, says: Each of you, strap on your sword! Go back and forth from one end of the camp to the other. Each of you, kill your brother, your friend, and your neighbor!” 28 The Levites did as Moses commanded. About three thousand people were killed that day.
Joshua 10:40, CEB
So Joshua struck at the whole land: the highlands, the arid southern plains, the lowlands, the slopes, and all their kings. He left no survivors. He wiped out everything that breathed as something reserved for God, exactly as the Lord, the God of Israel, had commanded.
Here at First United Methodist Church, we encourage you to read your Bible. We will give you a Bible if you need one. Any Sunday that you are here, come see me after worship and we will give you a free Bible. We want you to be people of the book. This book matters and I hope that it defines your life.
If you start reading your Bible from the beginning you will soon find yourself saying, “This is a bit confusing.” There are some passages that, when you read it, cause you to say, “How do I make sense of this?” Especially in light of what I have learned Jesus said and did and yet, God seems so different here.
We don’t have time in a single sermon to address all of these areas, but today, I hope to help you think about a variety of these passages through the lens of one of them––God and violence.
Sermon Notes and Scripture Study
I invite you to open your bulletin to a place where you can take notes during the message today. Today, I hope that you will hear:
- Something new or find new questions
- Perspective on your life or something in your life that gives additional meaning to the message today.
- Guidance about how to live as a disciple of Jesus.
I invite you to write down some of the things that you hear in the sermon today and take your bulletin home as a tool to grow in your faith outside of worship. You can reflect on what you heard today, pray for people of our congregation and read scripture to prepare for worship next week.
Will you pray with me? O God, use these words to speak good news so that as individuals and as a congregation we will fear nothing but sin, desire nothing but you and live as part of your kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. Amen.
God and Violence
Most often, the question comes like this: Why does God seem so compassionate, loving, gracious and merciful in the New Testament, but in the Old Testament God seems angry, perhaps unjust and at some points just terrible?
Minority Report and Generalizations
I first want to pause and say that asking the question in this way oversimplifies the issue. There are approximately 23,000 verses in the Old Testament and we are talking about several hundred of these that portray God which would cause us to ask this kind of question. Over and over again in the Old Testament, we hear God portrayed as merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
Likewise, in the New Testament, while the picture of God portrayed by Jesus is loving, compassionate, merciful and forgiving, we still have some pretty harsh passages when it comes to parts of the New Testament. For example, the Book of Revelation, when we talk about the last judgment.
We can’t just make broad generalizations and say that the Old Testament shows us about God in one way and the New Testament shows us about God in another way. We can say that a majority of the verses that can be challenging when considering violence and God are found in the Old Testament.
One of those examples is found in the scripture passage for today from the Book of Exodus
Moses on the Mountain
In this story, the people of Israel have been released from slavery, God has led them through the Red Sea and they are on their way to the promised land. They are at Mount Sinai. Moses has gone up to the top of the mountain and is speaking directly with God. He is there for forty days and forty nights receiving the law and the Ten Commandments.
Israelites ask for a god
Meanwhile, the Israelites are at the bottom of the mountain and they haven’t seen Moses for weeks. They are having a difficult time. They come to Aaron and say, “Moses has said we are to worship this invisible God, but we are used to having God’s that we can see. Make us one. We need to see what God looks like so that we can worship him. We don’t know when he will come back or if he is coming back.”
Aaron Makes a god to Worship
Aaron says, “Okay, give me your jewelry and I will melt it down and make a god.” What was Aaron thinking? This is what he does––melts down their jewelry and makes a golden calf. The people come and bow down before the golden calf and begin to worship. They start a feast, to celebrate, there is wine and some of them have a little too much wine.
Moses convinces God to have Mercy
Moses is up on Mount Sinai and God says, “Do you know what I am hearing? The people have made a golden calf for themselves saying that this is the God that brought them out of Egypt. I’ve been watching these people and I know all about them.
I can’t believe it.
I am going to kill them all.”
Moses says to God, “Please don’t kill them all. If you did, what would the other nations say about you? These are your people.” Moses is pleading for God to be merciful. The overwhelming message of scripture is that God is more merciful than we are, yet in this passage we have Moses more merciful than God. He has to convince God not to kill the Israelites. It is kind of an interesting story.
Moses is Angry
Moses is coming down the mountain carrying the Ten Commandments and when he sees the people of Israel dancing and worshiping the golden calf, he gets mad, throws down the Ten Commandments, breaking them. Then we come to the passage of scripture from today, from Exodus 32:26-27:
So Moses stood at the camp’s gate and said, “Whoever is on the Lord’s side, come to me!” All the Levites gathered around him. Moses said to them, “This is what the Lord, Israel’s God, says: Each of you, strap on your sword! Go back and forth from one end of the camp to the other. Each of you, kill your brother, your friend, and your neighbor!”
On that day, they killed three thousand of their friends, neighbors and family members. This is about the same number of people that were killed on 9/11 in the World Trade Center.
How does this make sense?
Clearly the people had done something incredibly stupid, but did the priests really take their swords and kill their brothers, friends and neighbors? Is that the heart and character of God? Is this God’s will?
How do we make sense of this in what we find in the scriptures where Jesus says you are to forgive over and over. He shows mercy and grace to sinners and prays for his enemies and he asks us to love our enemies. How do these two things fit together?
What we also have a difficult time understanding are the passages that have to do with the picture of war in the Old Testament.
Again, there are about 23,000 verses in the Old Testament and we are talking about several hundred of them. This is not the dominant theme in the Old Testament
Conquest of the Land of Canaan
The book of Joshua contains the majority of passages of war in the Old Testament and tells of the conquest of the land of Canaan. The Israelites have come through the wilderness for forty years They are on the edge of the land of Canaan and about to take it over. It is not actually one country, it is a region made up of a variety of city-states. You would find a king over a city with 500 or 15,000 people who live in that city. They are a variety of peoples and races. God commands Joshua and the Israelites to attack these various cities and live in the Promised Land.
Walls of Jericho
So we have the story of the Israelites arriving at the city of Jericho and God tells them to march around the city of Jericho every day and on the seventh day the walls will come tumbling down. This part we tell in Sunday School and Vacation Bible School. It is a great story.
Wipe Out 31 City States
Then they send the troops in and wipe out everything as a sacrifice to God. They kill every man, woman, child, donkey, cow, sheep. The Hebrew word describes a whole sacrifice to God, something that is destroyed so that only God receives it. The entire city is destroyed. This happens over and over in city-states across in the land until you find that Joshua and the people of Israel have destroyed 31 city-states and left nothing breathing in any of those places.
War Crimes and Genocide
When this happens in modern warfare, it is called a war crime. It is okay to engage combatants, but killing non-combatants is not okay. If you were to wage war this way, you are brought before the Hague and charged with war crimes. If you killed every person of a particular race or people, we call that genocide today.
Here we find God commanding this to Joshua in the scriptures.
Abraham, Isaac and Jonah
Here is the idea of sacrificing human beings to God and yet in the story of Abraham and Isaac God says, I am not the kind of God that wants you to sacrifice people. Then in the story of Jonah who is sent to the people of Nineveh to call them to repentance. He finally does make it there by way of a great fish and when he makes it there he preaches repentance and the people repent. Jonah is mad about this, I knew you would forgive these people. God says, of course, I care about them.
You can see the challenge here. We find two very different pictures of God presented in the scriptures. Even in the Old Testament.
So we have an idea of the challenge. There are a wide variety of solutions or ways to address this challenge. I want to offer you one way to consider these and other challenging scriptures while also saying that this is not the only way to look at this issue.
Bible as Human and Divine
In some ways the Bible is both human and divine. It is a collection of writings by particular people in a certain time and place, with their own preconceived ideas. The Bible contains words through which God breathes and there are words that speak to us and grip our hearts. The Bible is shaped by human beings in a particular culture. They hear God’s word and yet they are listening to that through the lens of the world in which they live.
Jesus is the inerrant and infallible word of God
God came to us in human flesh in the birth of Jesus to show us God’s character and will. Some people will talk about the Bible as the inerrant and infallible word of God.
Jesus is the inerrant and infallible word of God.
Every other word about God is interpreted through Jesus Christ, the Word of God.
Jesus as colander
Jesus is the clearest picture of God and in some ways acts as a colander. You know how this works, you put your vegetables or pasta in here. What comes out through the holes is what you set aside and what remains is what is good.
When you read the scriptures, you might consider using Jesus as the colander. He is the Word that judges all other words about God. If something doesn’t line up with Jesus then we are going to ask questions about that other thing. Jesus sums up all the teaching of the law by saying that you should love the Lord your God with all of who you are and love your neighbor as yourself.
One of the other ways of addressing this issue is one that was taken by a Christian named, Marcion in 140. He concluded that the Old Testament describes a different God than the one of the New Testament so he left off the Old Testament all together. Also, anything in the New Testament that sounds like the Old Testament should be cut out––take out our scissors and cut it out. What he had left was a Bible which had no challenges for him.
The church said, this is heresy. You have thrown out something that God has used to reveal God’s self to humanity. We don’t throw out the Old Testament
You might think of the entirety of the Bible like the El Dorado Oil Field in the 19 teens. There is a plot of ground and you know that there is oil everywhere. There is just a trickle of oil in some places, steady production in other areas and then there are these amazing wells that produce incredible amounts. This is what we find in the scriptures
We find oil all over these pages. God speaks and there are things for us to hear on every single page of the text even though in some places we may have to work harder to hear God’s word. Then in some places it just hits you, like in the gospels when you see Jesus on the cross and then find the empty tomb and you have this blinding picture of God.
The good news is that God speaks throughout the entire Bible and there are treasures everywhere in the text.
Call to Action
So when you come to the difficult passages of the Bible, read them in light of Jesus Christ. When there are places that don’t line up, recognize the difference with who God is as portrayed in Jesus and what may reflect a particular time and place that the eternal will of God. Then, say, I am still going to read the story because in these words God speaks.
I have spent a great deal of time wrestling with the words of scripture. I love the Bible and I see in it God speaking. This is the book that has shaped my life. Yet, there are places where I say, This can’t be who God is, if God is most clearly revealed in Jesus Christ.
I invite you to read more of the Bible and to say,
“I see the good news here so clearly and yet, I have trouble seeing it over there.”
In the end, I define all words about God in the light of Jesus Christ.