Wednesday, November 6, 2013

An Angry God: Some Biblical Evidence

In a previous post I posed the question: Is your God angry? I'm convinced that for many people, both Christians and non-Christians, what comes to their minds when they think about God is a being who is basically angry, wrathful, vengeful, and ready to unleash the fury at the slightest misstep.

I'm also convinced that this is a deeply flawed and inaccurate view of the God portrayed in Scripture and that furthermore, this sort of view is damaging to people and ultimately undermines the radical, scandalous, self-sacrificial, inclusive love of God as ultimately revealed and demonstrated through the person and work of Jesus Christ.

But more on that in future posts.

In this post I simply want to recognize that God really does seem angry to some people. And that's actually not without some reason and justification (whether right or wrong). Here are just a few examples from the Old Testament that many find (or could find) troubling ...

In Exodus 32 the Israelites pretty much immediately break the covenant stipulations they'd just entered into and agreed to with God by making a golden calf and worshiping it. Initially God is going to simply wipe them out and start all over with Moses. But Moses intercedes in prayer, begging God to relent and turn away from the furious wrath he's ready to unleash. God agrees. But then Moses comes down the mountain and finds all kinds of revelry in the camp and burns with righteous anger. Then he says this in verses 27-29:

Then he said to them: "This is what the LORD, the God of Israel says: 'Each man strap a sword to his side. Go back and forth through the camp from one end to the other, each killing his brother and friend and neighbor.'" The Levites did as Moses commanded, and that day about three thousand of the people died [i.e. were killed!]. Then Moses said, "You have been set apart to the LORD today, for you were against your own sons and brothers, and he has blessed you this day."
Of course, idolatry is bad and a direct violation of the first two of the Ten Commandments (see Exodus 20:1-6). But being set apart and blessed by God for killing your own sons, brothers, neighbors, and friends because they messed up?

In Leviticus 10:1-3 Aaron the priest's two sons are killed by God because "they offered unauthorized fire before the LORD, contrary to his command" (v. 1). It's not clear what exactly that means or what exactly they did wrong. But whatever they did, it cost them their life: "So fire came out from the presence of the LORD and consumed them, and they died before the LORD" (v. 2).

I think it's safe to assume that while we may not fully understand exactly what they did wrong here, they, as priests, had surely been clearly instructed in the proper procedures for offering approved fire before God, doing sacrifices, and leading the people in worship. Nevertheless, being consumed by fire and killed instantly for a mistake?

In Leviticus 20 there are a list of punishments for various sins. I'll let you look up the entire list for yourself. But noteworthy for the purposes of this post is that the death penalty is prescribed for anyone who curses their father or mother (v. 9), commits adultery (v. 10), engages in incest (vv. 11-12), homosexual sex (v. 13), beastiality (vv. 15-16), and anyone who is a medium or spiritist (v. 27).

Not discounting the fact that many even today (including me) would find all or at least some of these activities questionable, wrong, or downright sinful, would we kill someone for doing any of these things?

In Deuteronomy 7 (especially verses 2-6) and then again in Deuteronomy 20 (especially verses 16-18) we find God commanding the total destruction of an entire people. The rationale given for this is to protect the Israelites from falling away and breaking their covenant with God (as they were prone to do as we've already seen). Yet the idea of God ordering the total destruction of an entire people -- literally God-sanctioned genocide -- is troubling to many. Many people ask, How does that square with Jesus' commands to love our enemies, do good to those who hate us, bless those who curse us, and pray for those who mistreat us (see Luke 6:27-28 and Matthew 5:38-48)?

Finally, a story I have personally been asked about multiple times, is the story of poor Uzzah in 2 Samuel 6. The Ark of the Covenant was being brought back to Jerusalem. There was much celebration as one might expect. But suddenly the oxen stumbled along the road and Uzzah instinctively reached out to steady and stabilize the Ark to keep it from falling. Bad mistake and his last one: "The LORD's anger burned against Uzzah because of his irreverent act, therefore God struck him down, and he died there beside the ark of God" (v. 7). Even King David was outraged. It says in verse 8: "Then David was angry because the LORD's wrath had broken out against Uzzah."

Careful Bible readers may note that David, Uzzah, and the rest of the crew had only themselves to blame because they weren't following the proper, God-instituted instructions for transporting the Ark (see Exodus 25:10-15 and Numbers 6:5-6, 15). But still. Uzzah was trying to do a good thing and prevent the Ark from falling to the ground. Did he really deserve to be killed instantly?

With stories like these and whole host of others that could be mentioned (including some from the New Testament like Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5:1-11) it's no wonder many people's default view of God is an angry, wrathful, vengeful tyrant. Outspoken atheist Richard Dawkins has notoriously said:

"The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it, a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully" (from The God Delusion, taken from this website).
And that's not just the view of outspoken atheists like Dawkins. In the early to mid second century of the church there was a bishop convinced that the God of the Old Testament was not the same God revealed through many of the teachings of Jesus Christ. Marcion developed a dualistic view of an angry Old Testament God and a loving New Testament God. He rejected all of the Old Testament and much of what we now call the New Testament, forming his own (quite popular and successful by most accounts) rival sect to Christianity and developing his own (actually it was the first) canon of authoritative writings.

It was largely in response to this Marcionite Canon that the early church began working to figure out which texts were deemed authentic and authoritative. Reaching that consensus would take another couple hundred years, but it was clear from the start that Marcion had strayed far from the largely accepted orthodox views and he was expelled as a heretic. Eventually his movement died out.

Nevertheless, it's interesting that even that early in church history there were people questioning the continuity between the seemingly angry God of the Old Testament and the loving God revealed through the person and work of Christ in the writings of what would become the New Testament.

Without a doubt there are some difficult passages to be found all throughout Scripture. I don't claim to have all the answers (see point number 6 in my previous post) and I'm not really planning on attempting to respond in an apologetic sense (meaning to offer some kind of defense) to the passages noted in this post. My point here was to simply acknowledge that there are some really hard passages, and that furthermore, it's understandable given these types of passages why many would view God as angry.

For what it's worth, I do believe that understanding the historical and cultural context and background, literary genre, theological themes, and ultimate trajectory of Scripture and the cosmic redemptive story God's unfolding in history, among other things, can go a long way to helping us better understand and come to more informed views and conclusions about some of these difficult texts (indeed, I would say that goes for all of Scripture). That's part of what I do week in and week out in my preaching and teaching.

But that's not the point of this post. In this post I simply wanted to acknowledge that if people think God is angry, I can understand why. In future posts I'll begin suggesting a way forward.

In the meantime, what do you think? How do you understand some of these difficult passages in the Bible?

4 comments:

D.C. Cramer said...

"How do you understand some of these difficult passages in the Bible?"

I don't. As with a lot of the Bible, I don't understand it.

Sam Ochstein said...

Me either, Dave. Me either.

Nate said...

Good answer, Dave.

Sam Ochstein said...

Nate, thanks for leaving a comment. Perplexing stuff indeed!