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Why is there such violence in the Bible?

A sermon preached by Rev’d Jan on Bible Sunday 2017, at the Benefice Eucharist.


Today we celebrate the Bible, our sacred text, which inspires and leads us as it has led the people of God for thousands of years. We also this year celebrate the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Reformation when the Bible was first translated into the vernacular so that anyone who would read could read it and understand it for themselves - before that it was mostly in Latin, or the original Hebrew and Greek languages.

But translating the Bible into everyday language brought its problems and drawbacks. One is that many more people read the Bible than have the tools to understand it - and they find it very confusing, difficult, and often even repellent.  Reading the Bible can put people off faith as much as draw them to it.

What the Biblical text means does not always leap off the page clearly and obviously. Sometimes it does - but which is which? And how do we cope with passages that seem contradictory? Today I’m not going to tackle the issue of science and the Bible - that would be a whole other sermon - but I want to look at the difficulty of the many passages of violence in the Old Testament (OT); battles, slaughter, commands from God to kill and destroy, exaltation about victory in battle when many enemies have been killed. There is even a verse which rejoices that the enemies’ babes in arms have been killed, and its expressed in a much worse way than that.

How can this then be the word of God who we think is a God of love and peace? Or maybe we have got that wrong?

We need to get to grips with the fact that some parts of the Bible are unpalatable - and to understand why and what we make of that. How does it affect our attitude to the rest? Because of course there are also deep treasures here, wonders, passages that give life, hope and joy.

Well, let’s look at the example of Jesus, who after all, is the real and living Word of God, that became flesh.

What was his attitude to the OT? It was the bible of the Jews of his day, they called it Torah, or in full, the Law, the prophets  and the writings. He would have known much of it by heart, in Hebrew. He read from the scrolls in the synagogue so we know he was literate. And he famously said, ‘do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfil them.’

Now why would anyone think he was there to abolish them? Why would that occur to them? It was because a lot of the time he seemed to take rather a cavalier approach to scripture. He shocked his contemporaries. He used to say - ‘you have heard that it was said…’and he would give a quote from the OT, ‘but I say to you…’ and he would then give his own interpretation of that passage, a radical reworking of the meaning. That earned him plenty of enemies among the teachers of the Law who thought they had the last word on what the Bible meant.

There are a few people like that about today still - who think they have the meaning of Scripture neatly tied up and under control. I think that’s a mistake. The word of God is living and active, says Hebrews, not dead and set in stone.

But coming back to Jesus, he challenged them to think about anger, not just murder; about lust, not just adultery, and so on. He went inside and underneath the surface meaning to find something much more challenging and significant - and much less legalistic.

He also did things that challenged the usual understanding of Scriptural law. So one day in the fields his hungry disciples were plucking grain from the wheat crop, rubbing off the husk and eating the wheat. According to a strict interpretation of the sabbath law that counted as work, and it was the Sabbath, so of course there were loud critics. Jesus answered them with an example from the life of David, one of the greatest and most respected figures, leaders of the OT - who when his men were desperately hungry, took the bread of the presence from the altar of God, holy bread, and gave it to them to eat. There is no criticism of this in the OT. And Jesus said to his critics - the Sabbath is made for our benefit, it’s not we are made to serve the sabbath. In other words, get things in proportion. Think about the reason behind laws. Don’t be so hung up on  rules and regulations, thinking that they will solve everything or please God. Rules and regulations can become inhuman. The Sabbath was meant to set us free, give much needed rest, not to be an added burden of religious observance.

So those are examples which show that Jesus felt free to take quite a critical stance to the text of the OT. It’s a good precedent. He did not switch off his brain when thinking about Scripture - he thought very deeply about it. And what he saw in there, was so much more life giving than what the lawyers and Pharisees saw. Jesus had no time for over simplistic or legalistic understandings of ancient texts from a different time, which needed to be carefully interpreted before you could say, this is what it means for us today.

‘Open my eyes O Lord that I may see the wonders of your law’ - that’s a prayer from the Psalms. It’s a great prayer for us to use.

When Jesus was asked to summarise the Law and the prophets - it was a well known game, a sort of challenge - one sentence - can you sum up the whole of our sacred texts in one sentence? - and rabbis used to play this game. Jesus said: yeah - love God and love your neighbour as yourself. That’s it.

Notice there is nothing in there about killing your enemies. Rather the reverse, especially as he went on to interpret ‘neighbour’ as meaning someone you might often think of as an enemy - but who needs your help. The parable of the Good Samaritan has lost its teeth today, but it bit deep and hard when he told it. Love your enemies, he went on to say. Everyone loves their friends. God expects much more of you, his people.

So that’s all lovely, but - what has happened to the apparently vengeful violent God of those difficult texts in the OT? Why is Jesus ignoring that completely? Why is he even contradicting that?

Well, two things to say.

One is, there are lots of places in the OT which show God as a God of love, compassion, mercy and justice. Lots. God has not changed; but our grasp of what God is, has changed - or it jolly well ought to have done.

As for the opposite stuff - well I think the only way of making sense of all that violent aggressive stuff is to say that it reflects the people who wrote those texts and their immature and primitive understanding at the time. Is Scripture inspired by God? Yes, God speaks though those who write Scripture -  but no, God does not override their own thinking, culture, education, understanding, will, to make them think or write something alien to themselves. Just as God never overrides our freewill. Human authors called by God, wrote as they understood at the time, and God the Holy Spirit worked slowly, gradually, patiently, over not days or months or years or decades but over generations, centuries, working to draw people into a better understanding of God, to begin to see that God does not will war, violence, cruelty, destruction but the opposite; peace, justice, kindness, love. When we get to the great prophets of the 8th century BC, Amos, Hosea, Isaiah, we begin to see these ideas expressed, but at the same time we learn that the people were very resistant, and they didn’t want to listen. Well, no surprises; looking at the world today who would think we were 2000 years on from a revelation of God as Prince of Peace, who said turn the other cheek, and who died for others - and who founded the largest religion in that same world - and yet?? Who’s listening?? Humans learn very very slowly, if at all. So it’s not surprising that biblical authors held on to old ideas, old concepts of god, that their thinking was not instantly redeemed, revised, switched over, to a God of love.

‘Open my eyes O Lord, that I may see the wonders of your law’ - help me not to keep my eyes clamped shut; and my views and opinions fixed and set in concrete.

The Bible is not just a book - actually its a collection of 66 books, their writing spanned I suppose over one and a half thousand years; the time they speak of is a much longer historical period. These many writings reflect cultures, people, history of a huge range, diverse, complex, written from many different perspectives and experiences and situations and written for many different reasons. To ask what the Bible says about some topic is rarely a simple question, but ultimately our faith is not in a book but in Christ, the Word of God, the full revelation of God. He is the lens through which we look at all of Scripture. He has given us some clues about how to understand Scripture. And whenever we think we know what it means, we must test our understanding against all of his teaching and his character. When issues rises which is not clear in Scripture or when there is nothing about it- plenty of modern life doesn’t appear there - we must go back to first principles. The principles of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. The heart of the gospel, the good news of God’s love.

Heaven and earth will pass away but my words will not pass away, said Jesus. Paul told the Christians in Colossae to cover themselves with God’s word, inside and out - let the word of Christ dwell in you richly - inside - and clothe yourselves with love - outside - and let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts - the very centre of you, the deepest parts of us. And our lives, our actions, how should we live? Do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus - in his character, in his nature, like him, as he would, that’s what ‘in his name’ it means.

Open our eyes O Lord to see the wonders of your life, your love, your peace, and open our hearts and minds and lives to your transforming Spirit.