The reading from Mass yesterday is among the most difficult to comprehend in the whole of scripture, ranking up with the episode in which God punishes Saul for not killing all the Amalekites and their animals (the priest Samuel had to slay the captured Amalekite king, you may recall). In our reading, King David makes the mistake of ordering a census, revealing his desire to know how many fighting men he has, and hence a lack of faith. David repents of this sin, and God offers him a choice between three penances. David chooses three days of pestilence, which causes 70,000 Israelites to perish. David laments this (it was his sin after all), and God recalls his angel of death.
One might look at this story in a "historical" way, and say that the writers were projecting divine instrumentality on mere natural tragedy after-the-fact. Fast forward to today, and we would likely condemn similar attempts that interpret events such as the famines in East Africa or the earthquake in Haiti as God's punishment for sin. Yet the Old Testament is more than just the simplistic (and God-libelling) retrospective interpretations of a primitive people. We believe that it is part of Divine Revelation, of salvation history, and that the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is the same as the God of Jesus Christ. And so it begs the question:
How do we relate to the God of the Old Testament, who is violent and angry, and even orders the Israelites to slaughter other tribes. How is a Christian supposed to understand these depictions of God?
First of all, it's essential we recall that for Christians the entire Bible, and the God it depicts, must be understood from the perspective of the fullness of the revelation of Christ. There is a key scene in Revelation where John (in his vision) weeps because there’s nobody who can read the sealed scroll. Suddenly a voice announces that the “Lion of Judah” can read it. Yet it’s not a lion nor a warrior that comes forward, but rather a lamb, “standing as though it had been slain” (Rev 5:6). Here we get the message: the meek, humble, crucified and risen Christ is our hermeneutic key to all scripture. Jesus is the ultimate revelation and interpreter of God, and God, he shows us, is Love.
In that light, then, how then do we understand passages in the Old Testament that have God ordering violent acts? First we must indeed recall the historical nature of biblical revelation. God was slowly educating humanity about himself, and this required adapting himself to their modes of understanding. God enters a world saturated in violence and has to carve out a space in which his voice can be heard. Sometimes using commands of military force or natural tragedies is the only way Israel can hear him or respond in moments of crisis. But this is merely provisional, pending the time of the definitive revelation in Jesus.
Today we might also view these passages as having poetic or theological value. As suggested by Origen in the 2nd century, one might see them as indicative of enduring spiritual truths. Israel’s enemies (Amalekites, Cannanites, etc.) represent analogously everything that is opposed to God’s will, certain forms of sin and evil that are so repugnant they must simply be eliminated. We might easily imagine what this might be for us: exploitation, lying, child abuse, and that epidemic contemporary scourge, pornography. Chesterton had an apt line about the latter: “it is not something to be argued about with one’s intellect, but to be stamped on with one’s heel.”
Ultimately, God sent his only Son to reveal himself as a loving Father. Before approaching difficult portions of the Old Testament, it is important to pray for the light of understanding. Only then will the scriptures unfold their spiritual depths and give us the nourishment we seek.
Adapted from a column I wrote for the March 2012 issue of the Messenger of the Sacred Heart.