David’s Weird, God-Induced, Ultimately Tragic Census

A araunah_davidnumber of candidates exist for “Worse Verse in the Old Testament.” For many, its Psalm 137:9 (the “smashing babies against rocks” verse), or any of the passages in which Yahweh directly orders Israel to “wipe out” every resident of Jericho (Joshua 6:17) or the Amalekites (1 Samuel 15:2, which specifies killing “children and infants”).

I’d like to add another to the list: 2 Samuel 24:1.

The Lord burned with anger against Israel again, and he incited David against them: Go and count the people of Israel and Judah.

This entire story is bizarre, if not disturbing. First, Yahweh is enraged for unspecified reasons against Israel, so he incites David to take a census, which – again, for unspecified reasons – is clearly a sinful act (Joab tries to talk David out of it, and David himself is repentant as soon as the census is complete). For David’s sin, Yahweh then punishes the entire country, killing 70,000 people. Which leads us to 25:16:

But when the divine messenger stretched out his hand to destroy Jerusalem, the Lord regretted doing this disaster and said to the messenger who was destroying the people, “That’s enough! Withdraw your hand.”

This isn’t one of those stories they teach you in Sunday School. The injustice of Yahweh’s actions is obvious and bewildering. Not only do 70,000 people die for David’s sin, but David only sins because Yahweh “incites” him to do it!

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The Toxic Assumption of the ‘Biblical Worldview’

Kinnaman_Lyons_Unchristian_smI’m working my way through unChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks about Christianity … and Why It Matters, the groundbreaking book from David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons of the Barna Group. It’s taking a little longer than I expected because, surprise!, it’s tough to get through a book based primarily on survey results and data.

It’s also a tough read because I find myself disagreeing with it more than I thought I would. The data is the data, of course, but the conclusions Kinnaman and Lyons reach seem a little off to me. It reminds me of hearing Republican Party leaders talk about how they need to change their “message” and “tone” after getting shellacked in the 2012 elections without seeming to understand that voters have decisively rejected their policies.

Likewise, Kinnaman and Lyons have compelling evidence that traditional theology and practice have failed yet seem to argue that what traditional evangelical Christianity needs is a different message and tone. It seems they can’t quite face the fact that their own data calls into question their own doctrines.

A key example of this is their presentation of the results when they asked if a respondent has a “biblical worldview.” Here’s how Kinnaman sets it up:

Of course, this [fact that the about 70 percent of Americans claim to have made a personal decision to follow Christ] raises the question of the depth of their faith. If that many Americans have made decisions to follow Jesus, our culture and our world would be revolutionized if they simply lived that faith. It is easy to embrace a costless form of Christianity in America today, and we have probably contributed to that by giving people a superficial understanding of the gospel and focusing only on their decision to convert.

I have no problems with this paragraph at all. But note that he’s talking about needing a deeper “understanding of the gospel,” which is interesting, given what comes next:

At Barna we employ dozens of tools to assess the depth of a person’s faith. Let me suggest one for our discussion: a biblical worldview. A person with a biblical worldview experiences, interprets and responds to reality in light of the Bible’s principles. What Scripture teaches is the primary grid for making decisions and interacting with the world. (75)

What happened here? In traditional evangelicalism, “biblical worldview” is something of a code for “conservative doctrine” that treats the Bible as a fully applicable roadmap for life in the 21st century, notwithstanding its final authorship no later than the 2nd century. By linking “deeper understanding of the gospel” and “biblical worldview,” Kinnaman has forced together two different arguments. Certainly a deep understanding of the gospel requires reliance on the Bible; no one disputes that, I hope. But Kinnaman is implying a deep understanding of the gospel requires reliance on a specific method of reading and applying what the Bible says, which is problematic. I would argue it’s one of the reasons why Kinnaman’s own data show young people  abandoning the church.

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Life: Kind of in the Way Right Now

You’ll have noticed by now that my usual rigorous haphazard schedule of blogging has gotten a bit off-kilter of late. My usual tendency is to try to post Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Sometimes one of those gets forsaken, and so I supplement with a Tuesday or a Thursday post. Sometimes, I have so much to say, I’ll even manage four or five posts in a week.

But this semester, my class is at 8 a.m. Mondays, which means I have no flexibility in the mornings to sit and write a post. I have to be out of the house by 7:30. On top of that, the class sis so writing-intensive, I’m taking two study nights a week, and a study night guarantees a 1 a.m. bedtime. Which means getting up early to write something is quite difficult. So that leaves Wednesdays and Fridays for posting.

I enjoy blogging, and I think it helps me process and retain what I learn in class, so I’m not about to stop. Nevertheless, the blog will be a little slower, at least until May.

Why Your Great-Grandchildren Are (Probably) Safe from God’s Wrath

“The Lord! The Lord!   a God who is compassionate and merciful,
very patient,
full of great loyalty and faithfulness,
showing great loyalty to a thousand generations,
forgiving every kind of sin and rebellion,
yet by no means clearing the guilty,
punishing for their parents’ sins
their children and their grandchildren,
as well as the third and the fourth generation.

— Exodus 34:6-7

golden_calf

Walter Brueggemann contends this is an ancient credo, the earliest formulation of a particular attempt by Israel to outline the properties of Yahweh. It occurs within a perilous context, right after the story of the golden calf, when Moses argues with Yahweh, trying to convince him not to destroy Israel for its idolatry at the base of Mount Sinai. This passage in particular comes during the sequence in which Moses asks Yahweh to reveal himself to him, and Moses must hide in a rock while Yahweh passes by and shows him his back.

There’s an uncomfortable tension in this passage, isn’t there? On the one hand, Yahweh is “slow to anger” – Brueggemann says this phrase literally is entertainingly translated “has long nostrils” that apparently allow plenty of time for the anger to subside before it comes snorting out – and full of forgiveness. On the other, he is somewhat vengeful, “visiting the iniquity of the parents” on as many as four generations of innocent children.

We had some lengthy conversations about this in class yesterday, and it’s striking how much we westerners want to reconcile this apparent contradiction. My classmates wanted to water down the meaning of “vengeance” or argue that what appear to be contradictions are actually the result of changing contexts or argue that love requires, not precludes, discipline. Certainly these last two points are true; I don’t know anyone who argues otherwise. But I don’t see them as applicable here. The context is the same, as these are two halves of the same credo, and lovingly disciplining a person for an offense is different than disciplining his great-grandchildren for it.

Now these two halves are not placed in equal balance against each other. Yahweh’s love endures 1,000 generations, his vengeance only four. That’s important to understand. Even so, it’s difficult if not impossible to reconcile “merciful and gracious” with “visiting the iniquity upon the children.”

I’d argue Israel recognized this, too. Which is why the second half of this phrase is almost immediately jettisoned from the rest of the nation’s testimony about Yahweh as presented in the Old Testament.

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Not a Tame Lion – but a Good One

the-last-battle-1When looking at the question of God’s sovereignty vs. what we understand to be good and loving, we could do worse than looking to C.S. Lewis, who addressed the question briefly in The Last Battle, the final book in his Chronicles of Narnia series.

The argument advanced by the neo-Calvinist wing of the evangelical movement is that God being sovereign can act how he wants, and that those actions by default, regardless of how they are perceived by us mere mortals, are good and loving.

My response – and that of Rachel Held Evans and others – is that such an argument allows the subversion and redefinition of the very concepts of love and goodness. If God cannot be trusted to act in a way that comports to commonly understood definitions of love an goodness, those terms have no meaning. That doesn’t mean we should always be able to understand what God is doing, and I don’t doubt we may somehow misinterpret actions that really are loving and good if we knew the whole picture as God does. But it does mean we can and should question portrayals of God, in the Bible and elsewhere, that turn him into a genocidal monster or a bloodthirsty maniac or a capricious wielder of natural disasters.

In The Last Battle, the crafty ape Shift has coerced the confused donkey Puzzle into wearing an old lion’s skin and telling the other animals the donkey is really Aslan, Narnia’s creator and the Christ figure of the series. Shift then sells the animals into slavery to Narnia’s old archenemy Calormen, forcing the free talking animals to work for Calormene soldiers as they cut down the talking trees and float them downriver to the sea for trade.

When Narnian King Tirian and his old friend, a unicorn named Jewel, stumble upon two Calormene soldiers mistreating a talking horse, they lose their cool and kill the soldiers. After fleeing, they reassess the situation:

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