Local News: This Tuesday's Mission Mississippi Prayer Breakfast will take place from 6:45 to 7:45 a.m. at Jackson's Galloway United Methodist Church. The purpose of these bi-weekly prayer breakfasts is to foster greater denominational and racial unity within the Body of Christ in the metro-Jackson area. For more information, call 601-353-6477.
Earlier this month, Christianity Today publicized recent controversial statements from Messiah College professor Eric Seibert, wherein he discusses how the Bible has been used to endorse many immoral causes over the years. While many Christians explain this by saying Scripture is being misused or distorted in such events, Seibert said, "At times the Bible endorses values we should reject, praises acts we must condemn, and portrays God in ways we cannot accept." To put it more simply, immorality is not just what happens when the Bible is used wrongly; in Seibert's words, the problem "runs right through the pages of Scripture itself."
Of course, such things have been said of the Bible before, but it is unusual to hear them coming from an evangelical. Concerns about what God, in the Old Testament, commands (mass warfare) and allows (polygamy as well as slavery, including masters physically harming their slaves) have long been raised by Christians and non-Christians alike. What's certain is that this is an issue that warrants thoughtfulness and sensitivity.
Recently, this examiner received an e-mail from a reader requesting an article exploring the violence depicted in the opening books of the Bible. Specifically, the questioner had Numbers 31:17-18 in mind, which says, “Now kill all the boys. And kill every woman who has slept with a man, but save for yourselves every girl who has never slept with a man.”
The difficulty of these types of passages was brought home to this examiner a few years ago when visiting Kigali, Rwanda. Our group toured the Genocide Memorial Museum, which pays tribute to the approximate 1,000,000 people killed in the 1994 Rwandan genocide. Walking through the halls of the museum, one gets an overwhelming sense of tragedy—the countless lives cut short, many of them children, the brutality that is captured on video, the traumatic memories of survivors, etc. We can’t comment on stories of people groups being wiped out in an ivory tower, detached from reality. In real life, such events are profoundly tragic and traumatic.
1. The context
Of course, it would be impossible to comment on this passage from Numbers in isolation; it must be understood in the context of the entire book of Numbers. This book chronicles the wanderings of Israel in the wilderness before entering the Promised Land. In chapter 31, Moses is about to die. One of God’s last instructions to him is to arm Israel for battle to make war against the Midianites. The Midianites had led Israel into idolatry, which resulted in the outbreak of a plague sent by God against Israel, and God is commanding retribution be made against them.
No treatment of the opening books of the Bible (Genesis through Joshua) can ignore the fact that God did, in fact, command Israel to engage in warfare against the people inhabiting the Promised Land. Their orders were often to totally eradicate the populations with no exceptions. In the Numbers passage, the sole exception was unmarried women. Sometimes even animals were included in the destruction; other times, the Israelites were allowed to take “plunder”. All of this makes readers wince, as it should.
One thing to bear in mind, though: The closing chapter of the book of Joshua emphasizes that it was not Israel wiping out the inhabitants of the land, then trying to put a religious spin on their savagery. It was God destroying these cities, and he was using Israel as his tool. The conquest of the Promised Land was in no way a contest between equal military powers. Israel, always outnumbered, overpowered, outmatched, won because God was fighting through them. In one account, we read that God threw hailstones down on Israel’s enemies, and more people died as a result of that than through Israel’s sword. In another account, we read that God miraculously prevented the sun from setting for a full day, to enable Israel to win its battle. The opening books of the Bible are about God executing punishment, not about religious terrorists doing it in his name.
Two questions need to be addressed: 1) How does all of this violence perpetrated by Israel square with other Biblical passages that teach us that God is love? 2) Can the violence depicted in the Bible be used to justify modern day acts of war and terrorism?
2. God is a God of love and justice
This examiner recalls several years ago sitting in class the first night of Old Testament Survey at Belhaven University. Dr. Paul Long introduced the course by saying that the “big picture” of the Old Testament is that “God is a God of love and justice.” A more succinct summary of the Old Testament is hardly possible.
That God is love is not a uniquely New Testament teaching. Throughout the Old Testament, Israel sings to God, “Give thanks to Yahweh for he is good; his love endures forever.” Israel’s conquest of the Promised Land itself was an example of God’s great love for Abraham, and his keeping his promise to give the land to the Israelites forever. Why, then, would God command something so unloving as the destruction of entire people groups?
The “Sunday School answer” is that the peoples had angered God with their sin and were receiving punishment from him. If God’s using Israel to punish the Midianites and others is inconsistent with his loving nature, then a person would have to argue that the existence of hell itself is inconsistent with God’s loving nature. Scripture presents God as being both loving and holy. His holiness and love cannot be divorced from each other. The apostle Paul reminds us that the wages of sin is death. If God were strictly fair with us, the first sin any of us committed would’ve been our last, for God would’ve struck us dead on the spot. When we commit an act of disobedience against God, we—from the divine vantage point—forfeit our right to live.
It is accurate to say that God is love because, as we can see, people seldom ever do get zapped on the spot. The few Biblical examples of people dying immediately after sinning (Uzzah after touching the Ark of the Covenant, Aaron’s sons after offering unauthorized fire on Yahweh’s altar, Ananias and Saphira after lying about their offering to the church) stand out because they are so rare. As R.C. Sproul said in his classic book, The Holiness of God, we don’t perceive grace as “amazing”; we presume a right to it. If we understood the extent to which sin—all sin—is “cosmic treason”, we’d be less shocked when God executes harsh justice (as was the case with the Midianites) and more shocked that he spares us time and time again.
Going back to the Numbers passage, the Midianite women had been singularly responsible for seducing Israel into idolatry. At the advice of Balaam son of Beor, they had wooed the Israelite men, and lured them to worshipping other gods. Why would Moses instruct the Israelite army to kill all of the Midianites, except the unmarried women? All of the women involved in that deception were punished, though the virgin girls were allowed to be spared.
In Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis said we sometimes run across things in Scripture we can make nothing of, and in such cases we shouldn't worry, but trust that when we are mature enough to understand them, God will help us. Rushing headlong into a premature understanding of the text could, he said, do more harm than good. Why would the young boys not be exempt from these mass destructions in Numbers? The “Sunday School answer”, it seems, as to why they too were killed is that they would grow up and turn Israel to idolatry, or that they would grow up and seek to avenge their fallen family members, turning against Israel. Those answers don’t lessen the shock involved though. This is an example of something we’ll never fully understand this side of heaven.
3. Putting on a New Testament Perspective
Of course, it would be very easy to spout out all of this about God’s justice unfeelingly, callously, as if we could shrug off human tragedy whenever we encounter it by saying, “They’re fallen sinners, so they probably deserved it anyway.” If reading of all the carnage in the Old Testament makes us wince, we must remember that it makes God even more so. The supreme example of God’s vengeance against sin—the cross of Jesus Christ, his dear Son—is also the supreme example of God’s love for humanity. God doesn’t take any delight in anyone’s death, and it is not his desire to punish sinners. If it were, he’d have never sent his Son to die for sinners in the first place.
Jesus’ atoning death wasn’t just for people alive in the first century or for people to come after; it was “retroactive” as well. Jesus died for the Hittites, Amorites, Girgashites, Midianites, etc… who were killed by Israel. The Old Testament tells us only of their “temporal” punishment; we do not know anything about their eternal destiny and we may hold out hope that Christ’s blood will open heaven’s doors to them. We may especially hope that all of the little ones who were killed are with Christ, just as we hold out hope that infants within unreached people groups who die today are included in God’s plan of redemption.
Above all, we mustn't read passages of God's justice towards ancient peoples and think we have been spared because we are "better" than them. Christ once referred to a group of people who'd recently been killed when a tower fell on them, asking the crowd, "Do you think they perished because they were worse sinners than the rest of the people of Israel?" Christ's answer was that they were no worse than anyone else, then he said, "I tell you, unless you repent, you too will all perish."
Can we justify modern day acts of terrorism and bloodshed on the grounds that Israel exterminated their opponents? No. God’s instructions to Israel regarding claiming the Promised Land were instructions given to them for a specific season and for a specific time in history. One doesn’t see Israel going around routinely exterminating all of its neighbors once they were settled in the land. This was a one-time judgment God wanted execute on the peoples of the land; it wasn’t meant to set a precedent for random bloodshed.
When his followers interpreted Old Testament passages in such a way as to justify their own violent, malicious wishes, Jesus had no tolerance for it. When his disciples once suggested calling down fire on Jesus’ enemies, Jesus rebuked. “The Son of Man came not to destroy men’s lives, but to save them,” he said. That is the heart of the gospel. Jesus came to seek, save, and redeem the lost, not to exterminate them.
There is only one God presented in Scripture—the God of love and justice. Often, accounts of God’s unadulterated justice shock us, and they are intended to do so. Thankfully, there is a refuge. We don’t have to stand before God’s terrifying holiness and bear the consequences of our own unholy lives. Jesus is presented to us as the Savior. He saves us from the punishment that it would be fair for God to mete out to us due to our sins. In Christ, God’s wrath is replaced by his love as we pass from being sworn enemies of God to beloved children of God.