23 Feb 2009

Toward an Understanding of the Old Testament God

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I try to make a religiously themed post every Sunday, but my other work took over my weekend. (I shudder to think what that says about my priorities, I know.)

For today’s post I want to move toward an understanding–i.e., I am not claiming I actually have it yet–of how the God of the Old Testament could issue commands like these (Lv 20):

1 Then the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, 2 “Again, you shall say to the children of Israel: ‘Whoever of the children of Israel, or of the strangers who dwell in Israel, who gives any of his descendants to Molech, he shall surely be put to death. The people of the land shall stone him with stones. 3 I will set My face against that man, and will cut him off from his people, because he has given some of his descendants to Molech, to defile My sanctuary and profane My holy name. 4 And if the people of the land should in any way hide their eyes from the man, when he gives some of his descendants to Molech, and they do not kill him, 5 then I will set My face against that man and against his family; and I will cut him off from his people, and all who prostitute themselves with him to commit harlotry with Molech.
6 ‘And the person who turns to mediums and familiar spirits, to prostitute himself with them, I will set My face against that person and cut him off from his people. 7 Consecrate yourselves therefore, and be holy, for I am the LORD your God. 8 And you shall keep My statutes, and perform them: I am the LORD who sanctifies you.
9 ‘For everyone who curses his father or his mother shall surely be put to death. He has cursed his father or his mother. His blood shall be upon him.
10 ‘The man who commits adultery with another man’s wife, he who commits adultery with his neighbor’s wife, the adulterer and the adulteress, shall surely be put to death. 11 The man who lies with his father’s wife has uncovered his father’s nakedness; both of them shall surely be put to death. Their blood shall be upon them. 12 If a man lies with his daughter-in-law, both of them shall surely be put to death. They have committed perversion. Their blood shall be upon them. 13 If a man lies with a male as he lies with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination. They shall surely be put to death. Their blood shall be upon them. 14 If a man marries a woman and her mother, it is wickedness. They shall be burned with fire, both he and they, that there may be no wickedness among you. 15 If a man mates with an animal, he shall surely be put to death, and you shall kill the animal. 16 If a woman approaches any animal and mates with it, you shall kill the woman and the animal. They shall surely be put to death. Their blood is upon them.
17 ‘If a man takes his sister, his father’s daughter or his mother’s daughter, and sees her nakedness and she sees his nakedness, it is a wicked thing. And they shall be cut off in the sight of their people. He has uncovered his sister’s nakedness. He shall bear his guilt. 18 If a man lies with a woman during her sickness and uncovers her nakedness, he has exposed her flow, and she has uncovered the flow of her blood. Both of them shall be cut off from their people.
19 ‘You shall not uncover the nakedness of your mother’s sister nor of your father’s sister, for that would uncover his near of kin. They shall bear their guilt. 20 If a man lies with his uncle’s wife, he has uncovered his uncle’s nakedness. They shall bear their sin; they shall die childless. 21 If a man takes his brother’s wife, it is an unclean thing. He has uncovered his brother’s nakedness. They shall be childless.
22 ‘You shall therefore keep all My statutes and all My judgments, and perform them, that the land where I am bringing you to dwell may not vomit you out. 23 And you shall not walk in the statutes of the nation which I am casting out before you; for they commit all these things, and therefore I abhor them. 24 But I have said to you, “You shall inherit their land, and I will give it to you to possess, a land flowing with milk and honey.” I am the LORD your God, who has separated you from the peoples. 25 You shall therefore distinguish between clean animals and unclean, between unclean birds and clean, and you shall not make yourselves abominable by beast or by bird, or by any kind of living thing that creeps on the ground, which I have separated from you as unclean. 26 And you shall be holy to Me, for I the LORD am holy, and have separated you from the peoples, that you should be Mine.
27 ‘A man or a woman who is a medium, or who has familiar spirits, shall surely be put to death; they shall stone them with stones. Their blood shall be upon them.’”

Whatever else you want to say about the LORD, it’s clear that He means business.

No, seriously. I really think that’s part of what is going on in the above.

If you don’t have kids, you may not agree with or understand what I’m about to say. But the one person on Earth on whom I am the hardest, the person that I am the “meanest” to, is my 4-year-old son. Now some of it is due to my mistakes (in losing my temper or being impatient), but a lot of it is intentional. In other words, heck yes I want my son growing up being a least a little bit afraid of me. I was afraid of my parents, and it was a good thing.

Why? Because even though they overreacted at times to what were really minor trangressions (compared to all the crazy stuff my friends did), they were fair about it and their rules really were for my own good. So when I say I was afraid of my parents, I don’t mean because my dad might come home drunk and take out his belt. No, I mean if I did a halfhearted science project in 5th grade I would get yelled at. NOT because “you’re stupid,” mind you, but because, “Why didn’t you put in any effort into this? Did you see how much work the other kids did?”

So the same with my son, if he talks back to my mom (i.e. his grandma) and she thinks it’s hilarious, I am still going to (verbally, not literally) slap the back of his head and say, “Whatsa matta wich you?”

I think that is the way we need to understand the God of the Old Testament. The children of Israel behaved like children when it came to their relationship with their Father.

Now I know, some of you are going to say, “So why don’t you stone your 4-year-old when he talks back?” I am admitting that the intensity of the above passages surprises me. But I must reiterate that the one person I really let “have it” when he has screwed up is my son. He’s a little guy, so don’t misunderstand: I don’t mean I do anything that would concern Social Services. But that’s my point; I actually spend a lot of my day criticizing / correcting what this little 4-year-old does. In contrast, if somebody else’s 4-year-old came up and literally stabbed me, I truly don’t think my reaction would be to scold the kid. (I’m thinking the kid would have to be about 6 or 7 before I would really be insulted.)

So, when he has really screwed up–like if he asks me for apple juice and I say, “OK one minute” and then he doesn’t wait but instead tries to fill up his own sippy cup and drops the ENTIRE bottle of apple juice on the kitchen floor so the sticky liquid flows under the stove and refrigerator–he is not happy with my performance for the next 10 seconds. He knows I am seriously mad.

OK now back to the children of Israel: They grew up in a sick, twisted world. There was lots of crazy stuff going on back then. Picture it this way: Sure you can be cynical about things, but generally speaking society gets more civilized over time. E.g. it would be inconceivable for police departments to spray down unpopular minorities nowadays, thought it happened in the ’60s. (Of course, it is still acceptable for the BATF to burn unpopular minorities, but that’s another matter.)

Now, work your way backwards. Every generation, humans just keep getting more bigoted and vicious and…well, they are a bunch of animals by the time you go back thousands of years.

Now in that context, the LORD decides He is going to personally deal with this situation. The human race, without His direct intervention, was going to hell. Now when the children of Israel were very immature in their relationship with Him, He had to–you saw this coming, right?–put the fear of God into them. That was the first order of business.

Last point: Some people understandably ask, “How could God possibly order the Israelites to kill pagan babies?” Well, He is the author of the universe, truth, beauty, love, mathematics, nature, and limericks. You don’t think He is “allowed” to setup the universe in such a way that people get killed?

Suppose your wife says, “Guess what honey, John Grisham is coming to dinner next week. Jill knows him and he’s in town.” Would you say, “Are you nuts? Do you know he makes his characters murder other characters in his novels? You think I’m allowing that fiend into our house?”

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