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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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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If Trayvon Martin Were a Fetus, Christians Would Be a Whole Lot More Upset

Man still has one belief, one decree that stands alone:

The laying down of arms is like cancer to [his] bones.

— The great philosopher Dave Mustaine

A legal expert stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to gain eternal life?”

Jesus replied, “What is written in the Law? How do you interpret it?”

He responded, “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.”

Jesus said to him, “You have answered correctly. Do this and you will live.”

But the legal expert wanted to prove that he was right, so he said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”

— Luke 10:25-29, Common English Bible

Who is my neighbor?

Is my neighbor the unborn child no one will ever meet, killed by her mother before ever seeing God’s sun?

Are my neighbors the parents down the street, struggling to pay bills, postponing doctor’s visits because they cannot afford health insurance, which is not provided by the employers who provide them the part-time jobs with which they can barely stay afloat?

Is my neighbor Trayvon Martin and the thousands of other victims of gun violence, slain in a nation with the highest rate of guns per capita in the world?

To which Jesus replies, “Yes, my child. But the real question is: Are you their neighbor?”

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Friday Psalm V: 137

Well, not the most uplifting psalm today; in fact, it contains one of the most disturbing verses in the entire Bible:

1 Alongside Babylon’s streams, there we sat down,
crying because we remembered Zion.
2 We hung our lyres up
in the trees there
3 because that’s where our captors asked us to sing;
our tormentors requested songs of joy:
“Sing us a song about Zion!” they said.
4 But how could we possibly sing
the LORD’s song on foreign soil?

5 Jerusalem! If I forget you,
let my strong hand wither!
6 Let my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth
if I don’t remember you,
if I don’t make Jerusalem
my greatest joy.

7 LORD, remember what the Edomites did
on Jerusalem’s dark day:
“Rip it down, rip it down!
All the way to its foundations!” they yelled.
8 Daughter Babylon, you destroyer,
a blessing on the one who pays you back
the very deed you did to us!
9 A blessing on the one who seizes your children
and smashes them against the rock!

Well, that’s wonderful. The NIV has Verse 9 as: “he who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks.”

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