A self-identified Christian responded to one of my blog posts by saying, “I worry when progressive Christians say that God is always good.” His point initially puzzled me. Whether we are conservative or progressive, Christians trust in God’s goodness. At least, that’s what I’ve assumed.
My critic suggested that God is good only to those who are on God’s side. Those who neglect, reject, or oppose God can receive savage, brutal treatment.
To make his point, he cited a series of stories about apparently God-sanctioned violence found in the Hebrew Scriptures.
What gradually dawned on me was that this commenter had found what he thought was scriptural justification for extreme military responses to enemies of the United States. He was reasoning that, just like the Israelites, we are on God’s side. So whatever we do to God’s enemies is justified. Conveniently, our agenda becomes God’s agenda.
By this misguided logic, we are free not only to kill Islamic terrorists. We can guiltlessly kill their families and friends.
My persistent emphasis on forgiveness, turning the other cheek, and loving our enemy had apparently struck my critic as a liberal political agenda. He either did not recognize or did not acknowledge that I was echoing Jesus’ own core teaching.
What concerns me here is not that an isolated individual harbors a perverse understanding of Christian doctrine. Instead, I worry that a distorted version of Christianity might be used to justify questionable military actions that we as Americans carry out on the world stage.
Ironically, the concept of the divine subscribed to by some resembles the view of the gods held widely in the ancient world. These gods lashed out in anger when humans failed to acknowledge them properly. But if you provided adequate sacrifices, they would back your agenda.
This is precisely the concept of the divine that the Bible seeks to displace.
Since my critic used stories from the Hebrew Scriptures to support his view that God can be cruel, I’ll draw on a story of chilling violence from those texts that is intended to demonstrate the tragic consequences of such a view of the divine. People sometimes call it the story of Jephthah’s daughter. (Judges 10-12)
We’ll start with some context.
Jephthah is a character found in the Book of Judges. That book records an in-between time in the history of Israel.
Under the charismatic leadership of Moses, a rabble of former Egyptian slaves had forged an ethnic identity during forty years of desert wandering. Under the monarchy, kings would draw territorial boundaries and achieve a national cohesiveness.
In the meantime, Israel existed in the form of loosely connected, self-governing tribes or clans.
When we first meet Jephthah, he is a cross between a warlord and a gangster. A rival tribe called the Ammonites has attacked Jephthah’s tribe to resolve a long-standing territorial dispute. The tribal elders turned to Jephthah as an obvious choice to lead a military response.
The text gives no hint that Jephthah was an especially pious character. On the contrary, he is habitually violent and predatory. The tribal leaders selected him for his credentials as a warrior without a thought to the depth or maturity of his relationship with the divine.
Jephthah more closely resembles an Ammonite leader than he does Moses. It stands to reason that his view of the divine is more Ammonite than Mosaic. This point is driven home by the deal that Jephthah strikes with God.
Jephthah says, “‘If you will give the Ammonites into my hand, then whoever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me, when I return victorious from the Ammonites, shall be the Lord’s, to be offered up by me as a burnt-offering.” (Judges 11:30b-31)
God did not initiate this conversation. God does not respond to Jephthah. And any Israelite hearing this story would immediately remember the story of the sacrifice of Isaac. The point of that earlier story is that the tribe of Israel is vastly different from surrounding tribes. Their God forbids human sacrifice. So clearly Jephthah’s proposal is a bargain that God would reject.
Victorious, Jephthah returns home. The first person rushing to meet him was his only child. The young daughter that he cherished. She asked for two months “to bewail my virginity.” (11:37) At the end of the two months, Jephthah executed her.
The point here is not that God is cruel. The point is that when we co-opt God into our own violent agenda, our own cruelty can reach soul-crushing depths. We will consume not only our enemies but also ourselves and those we love with violence.
When I hear some people insist that America is a Christian nation, I now worry that they may mean that God is on our side. I hear echoes of Jephthah.
But if Jesus teaches us anything it’s that God is on everybody’s side. In fact, we humans are the ones who divide ourselves up into sides. God’s aim is to overcome these divisions. That’s what Christ is about.
My dream is that we might be a Christ-like nation. A nation known for waging peace.
Phewwww!!!! You’ve said it all!
Evil read backwards means LIVE. It’s all the way we deal with it.
I just noticed to the side of my screen that you now have 1000 followers! I know the success of your blog is not measured in numbers of followers, but congratulations anyway! More to the point is my personal thanks for your lessons (as I call them) which are thought-provoking, challenging, and are helping me to explore a brand new understanding of christian life. Its early in the process but I feel like I’m being pointed in the right direction! Thank you.
Thanks, Liz! It’s inspiring to watch your growth and to be stretched by your insight and questions.
Brilliant, cutting,and relelvant! Thanks!
+Jake, I find myself more focused upon God being amongst us through His Son and His Spirit in our messiness than in the specifics addressed here. My sense is simply that God loves His creation and that He has (and always has had) a plan for it. For better or worse God chose humankind to be His agents, His instruments, His royal priesthood for the accomplishment of that plan. We are flawed and fallen but also chosen, blessed, taken and given by God and for the accomplishment of His plan. We, and His plan, remain a work in progress. With His help there is hope. Pax and love.
Can’t argue with the Incarnation!
Thanks for writing these thoughts. Lately I’ve been pondering the same about how today so many are confused about who God is. It seems clear to me that we all in some way try to use him to justify our own misguided views, when truly God has nothing to do with us playing his part. He is God. We are not. He is Love. He gave us his only son to show us that God loves everyone of us regardless of our right or wrong standing. Thank you again and it is so good to know you are not afraid to put your voice out their in your service to Him. I don’t know if this man who still lives with the failure of Adam understood what you meant, but someday he will surely learn you are right in this context.
Thanks, Phyllis. This passage from Isaiah 55 comes to mind is this: Your ways are not my way, nor your thoughts my thoughts. I suppose we’re all on a journey toward loving what God loves.
Thanks for writing this .
Pray all you want-heaven can’t hear you. It’s not going to stop the winter because you are cold. & it’s not going to make the earth smaller becuase you dont want to walk so far.
You pray for rain and it rains, but your prayer has nothing to do with it.
sometimes you don’t pray for rain and it rains anyway. What do you say then? If you want to have a better life, educate yourself and think carefully about the consequences of your actions. – Xun Zi (312-230 BCE)
Thank you, not only for tackling an issue like supposedly God-sanctioned violence, but also for doing it in the context of one of the most difficult stories in the Old Testament. Jephthah’s daughter is the sort of story can drive some folks away from the Church, because of the perceived cruelty of God. Thanks for including it in this context. A truly powerful message.
Thanks, John! It is a stinker of a story. I imagine you’re like me in finding the most difficult stories frequently worth the struggle.
God’s call to unity in diversity is an ongoing journey for humankind. Thank you for articulating this so well!
Thanks, Christie! I look forward to many good conversations!
Like you, I would like to think America was Christian “nation” but seriously have my doubts. I feel America is in serious trouble and judgement. Do many follow Jesus? yes. Are we still blessed? Yes. Is God’s hand still with us? Yes. But for how long? So many Americans live in direct contrast to God and the Bible and want nothing to do with either. Nor do they want anything to do with Christians, church or anything that closely resembles them. Many are at total odds with God and fight Him tooth and nail along with those of use who choose to live for Him. It is sad. We are like spoiled children who only want life our own way and think we know best. I believe for the most part that we, individually and as a nation, are destroying ourselves. We don’t need God to do it. He is simply letting our own bad decisions take their course. That’s what sin does and the enemy is enjoying watching it all. So much more to say but this is the main thought for now. God bless.
you’re very right
What puzzles me about the commentor’s understanding of God is that it ignores the entire New Testament, the new covenant established between the Father and the Son, every message and truth about God and humanity Jesus teaches and lives.
It is puzzling. And had I thought he was an isolated example of this sort of reading, I would have let it go as a peculiar comment. But he’s not alone. So, I find it puzzling and troubling. Thanks for reading and sharing your response.
Nice article and i have a question. it seems like nearly all religions since the dawn there is somewhere God/deity need blood/sacrifice for some reasons. example in very civilized religion like Christianity god want to forgive us sins but he cant just forgive, he kills his own son to forgive us. And we praise him for giving his BLOOD for us. Why not god just forgive sin without killing his son? and looking back some Israelites kings did human sacrifices to other gods which means it was a common practice in those societies.
Good question. I suggest you go to this link from Richard Rohr for the beginnings of an explanation about why this understanding of blood sacrifice is not something to which all Christians subscribe: https://cac.org/substitutionary-atonement-2017-07-23/
First, it seems a better interpretation of the Jephthah’s daughter story, is to understand that a burnt offering in Hebrew really means an ascension offering and this meant that his daughter was sent into temple service. This is why she bewails her virginity. It is not human sacrifice, though it does mean she will not marry. This makes more sense.
The second issue though is that of course God fights for his people and against His enemies. He swallows up those who disobey, he engulfed the world in the flood to destroy the wicked. But not because he is mean but because he loves his people and is reconciling all things in Christ. Those who do not love and fear God and follow his commandments, will be condemned. We must be careful not to think that we can be kinder than God.
This is a powerful message, thank you!