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Blood on God’s Hands?

Paul Hooker

June 30, 2013
1 Kings 18:20-21, 30-40; Mark 10:34-39

 The Old Testament passage this morning is actually the lection from this three Sundays ago – well, almost. I’ll explain the difference in a moment. It is the story of Elijah’s contest atop Mt. Carmel with the 450 prophets of Ba’al.  In the narrative prior to this morning’s reading, Elijah has been locked in spiritual combat with Israel’s king, Ahab, and his Sidonian princess wife, Jezebel, for the soul of the people. There is a drought. There is hunger and starvation. And there is the question: who can save us? Who will bring rain and crops and life and hope? Who is God in Israel?.          

            In the portion you heard, the matter is settled by an artificial trial—a kind of high-stakes County Fair competition: both Elijah and the 450 prophets of Ba’al set up altars, slaughter sacrificial bulls, and make preparations for whole burnt offerings, saving only that neither puts fire to the feast. After much prayer and solicitation—and no small amount of ridicule from Elijah—the prophets of Ba’al are forced to concede the obvious: their God is not listening. Elijah, on the other hand, after drenching the altar with precious water, has merely but to offer a single prayer, and fire falls from the sky to consume bull and wood and altar and water and any remaining doubts. “Yahweh is God! Yahweh indeed is God!” cry the people.

            And there, according to the Revised Common Lectionary, is where the text ends, in verse 39. Only, as you already know, there is one more line in the story. Verse 40 is the true end of the pericope:

Elijah said to them, ‘Sieze the prophets of Ba’al; do not let one of them escape!’ Then they seized them, and Elijah brought them down to the Wadi Kishon, and killed them there.

I don’t know why the Revised Common Lectionary elected to omit this verse, but I can guess. My own innards revolt when I read it. I find myself wincing at having to face, yet again, the bloodlust of Scripture. If it were this passage alone, perhaps it wouldn’t be such an issue. But the fact is that God appears either to sanction, condone, or even command Israel to commit violence against its neighbors throughout the Joshua-2 Kings narrative. And it doesn’t end there. Jesus doesn’t appear particularly concerned that his message brings “not peace but a sword,” setting family members against each other for the sake of the gospel. The vision of the apocalypse is cast as a great cosmic battle between the forces of good and those of evil. And—to be honest—there is even the sense that there is violence within the very being of God. It is, after all, God the Father who surrenders up God the Son to be nailed on a Roman cross, and who withdraws while the dying One cries out, “My God, my God, why?”

Why? Isn’t that the nagging question that bothers a lot of thoughtful people these days?  If God is good, then what do we do with all this evidence in Scripture of God’s violence? Is there blood on the very hands of God? 

             I can’t answer that question. I wish I could.  Lord knows, better minds than mine have tried, with—at best—limited results. What I can do is to enumerate some answers that aren’t—in the end—really answers. You’ve probably heard—or perhaps thought—at least some of them before.

            One is the idea that there is some sort of distinction between the God of the Old Testament and the God of the New, the God of violence and the God of love. The Old Testament God, the God who sanctions bloodshed is—in this answer—neatly confined to the pages of the past, while we live comfortably under the aegis of the New Testament God, that kinder, gentler God who graces and blesses all people with peace. The flaws in this answer are many and obvious, not least of which is the fact that the early Church declared this idea heretical. First postulated by Marcion in the second century, it argues that Israel and its sordid story are the works of a demiurge, a sort of lesser god with lower standards, while the story of Christ and the Church belong to the God of Light. Marcion edited the Scriptures to suit his predilections, lopping off the entire OT, the stories of God’s engagement in creation, God’s gift of law and covenant, and God’s gracious patience with a wayward people, treating them as though they didn’t happen or didn’t matter. While he was at it, he made some improvements to the New Testament, as well. He tossed out everything before Matthew, and for that matter, anything in Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John that recapitulated, referred to, or reminded him of Israel. Polytheism, replied the Church, and Docetism, too.  To do as Marcion did is to forget that Jesus was a Jew, grounded in the dust and dirt of Palestinian history, and to make of him a shimmering mirage, just beyond mortal reach. It is to disavow the past that makes us who we are.  No, the strategy of distinguishing between the gods of the testaments isn’t workable. The God of Israel is the God and Father of Jesus, and it won’t do to pretend otherwise.

            Another answer that isn’t an answer is the idea that God’s self-revelation is progressive, that what Israel understood about God was still under construction: a sort of childish or at best adolescent vision, subject to maturation and growth under the tutelage of Jesus and the subsequent wisdom of the Church. But in these latter days, in light of Jesus’ reinterpretation of God’s will as loving to all creation, we see God more clearly—which means, in part, less violently. That’s not all bad. There can be no doubt that the way we have understood God has changed—one might argue, grown—over the centuries, and that we do see God as larger than our Israelite forebears. They understood God as a parochial deity, concerned only for their well-being; we, on the other hand, see God as the One Lord of All. But in the end, this answer is a sort of Marcionism-in-sheep’s clothing. It suggests that, as we have grown in our understanding, we have out-grown Israel’s experience of God, and therefore discard it as irrelevant for us. And suddenly here we are, back to an edited canon, and the assertion that the God of Christian faith replaces the God of Israel and Judaism. Granted, it will be argued, it isn’t God who has changed, but we. But in the end, if we understand God better than the ancients, then why bother reading what the ancients wrote? No, progressive revelation isn’t the answer, either.

            More subtle is a third approach to the question. It understands that the stories of Israel’s conquest of Canaan or Elijah’s execution of the prophets are written from a perspective inside the community and culture of ancient Israel, a culture that was neither squeamish about violence or romantic about the possibility of peaceful relations with its neighbors. In such a setting, God frequently acts to protect Israel from being overwhelmed by the forces arrayed against it by commanding and even participating in the total eradication of the enemy—every last man, woman, and child of them. Hebrew has a word for this command: herem. For God to command, or at least to support, herem, is in this way of thinking, an act of grace and love toward Israel on the part of Israel’s God. The New Testament and its culture, goes this argument,  represent a far more cosmopolitan culture in which Israel has come to understand that its God is not merely the parochial deity of Jerusalem but the creator of all that is. The world view of violence changes, and God no longer sanctions it. Helpful, and to certain extent, true. But there are still problems. One is that the New Testament can be no less ready to see God authorizing, or at least acquiescing in violence than the Old. A reading of the Revelation to John would convince anyone of that. And then there is that strange passage from Matthew 10 that Sarah read for us earlier. Perhaps Jesus doesn’t really mean that he comes to “bring a sword”; perhaps that is a metaphor for the sort of theological and interpersonal divisions that will rend his followers from their families and friends. Even if that’s the case—and I suspect it is—the metaphor is still violent and deeply unsettling. And then there is the violence of Jesus’ own death, a crucifixion that appears to be the will of the Father and a cup that the Father will not allow to pass from the lips of a pleading Son. Violence seems to leak out of the cultural confines of ancient Israel and seep over into the world of the Church.  And we haven’t even gotten into the violence written into every page of twenty-plus centuries of Church history!

            So what are we to do with this problem? As I said, I come to this point unable to offer an answer that will satisfy even me, let alone you. But I do think there are some things that, while they are not answers, are observations worth making and perhaps even clinging to.

            The first is that God transcends our answers. Anyone who reads Job knows that already. All of the carefully-worked-out explanations of suffering and heartache that Job’s so-called “friends” muster to account for the injustice and misfortune Job experience dissolve like so much cotton candy before the monument of God’s world-shaping, world-shattering power, leaving a sweet taste but no substance. So it is with this problem. None of the answers work, and they all fall away, leaving us still holding that terrible question about God and the violence in God’s story. We are no closer to understanding God.

            So we must acknowledge the obvious: that God is, on this point as with so many others, a mystery. I know that sounds like a cop-out, but it’s not. The fact is that the God who creates the world in all its terrible and terrifying beauty is not contained in comfortable assumptions that agree with the digestion of urbane sophisticates like us. That’s probably a good thing. For, if we are honest about it, we would face the truth about ourselves: that beneath our urbane sophistication there bubbles and gurgles a cauldron of murderous rage that is only too ready to express itself in divinely-sanctioned forms. The good news is that God is large enough to encompass even that murderousness, that ugliness, and to absorb it into the movement of God’s eternal will. Indeed, I think, even into God’s own being. That’s what I think is happening on the cross. On the cross, God the Father gives up God the Son to the violence of the world God has created, and withdraws from him—nothing else captures the truth of Jesus’ cry in Mark 16:24: “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” Theologian William Placher has said it better than I can:

We trust that the distance between Jesus crying out in abandonment on the cross and the one he had always before called his Father mirrors some sort of distance within God—although we cannot imagine what terms like “distance within God” can mean. A kind of space lies within the triune God—a space potentially inclusive of the space of sinners and doubters—and yet this space is no desert but a spiritual garden of mutual love and glorification. In the incarnation, the Three show that there is always a space within God large enough for the whole world, and even all its sin: the Word’s distance from the one he calls Father is so great that no one falls outside it, and the Spirit fills all that space with love.[1]

            And that leads me to the second observation: that violence, even—no especially—the violence in the heart of the being of God, is never the final word. On the other side of the bloodshed of Israel’s divinely-sanctioned conquest of Canaan is the story of a people struggling to be faithful to the God they understood as gracious to them beyond their deserving. On the other side cross is the resurrection. On the other side of the apocalypse is a new heaven and a new earth, where there is neither mourning nor crying nor pain, and where the dwelling of God is with the very likes of us. On the other side of the atonement is the space in the being of God made into an Eden-like garden of love. On the other side of the breaking of bread and the pouring of the cup is the communion of the people. Violence has a place in the movement of God among the human race, but its place is neither permanent nor final. We do well to remember that.

            On September 11, 2002, exactly one year after the attack on the World Trade Center towers, I was watching a documentary on PBS, one of those retrospective, “what-have-we-learned” sort of things. I don’t remember anything about it except for one moment. The filmmakers interviewed a Catholic priest, an Italian, to judge from his accent, who looked into the camera and said, “When the towers fell, I thought I saw the face of an old friend.” I was surprised, and the thought went through my mind was that the priest had literally seen the face of one of the victims of that terrible, violent morning. But then, as I continued to listen, I realized that he was speaking metaphorically, not physically. “I saw the face… of religion,” he said.

            He was right, of course. Every religion—certainly including our own—has the capacity to turn fervor into fury, righteousness into rage. We may call it herem, or crusade, or jihad, but violence in the name of God it is, all the same. We do not do our faith justice when we try to compartmentalize the violence, to bury it in a safe place so we can pretend it isn’t there.  It will not do us any good to forget it, or paper over it, or believe ourselves too sophisticated to fall under its spell. The only faithful thing for us to do is to lay it before God who, finally, is bigger than the violence—who, from the beginning, already knows all there is to know about it. In the end, after all, that’s where it belongs.

[1] Placher, William, The Triune God: An Essay in Postliberal Theology. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2007. P. 155.