when scripture stands my hair on end

Posted: March 13, 2017 in Uncategorized

The old testament first started getting hard for me when I pushed past the process of just clipping out the familiar stories taught in Sunday School and started to read the surrounding material.  I was a junior high Sunday School teacher, and I started noticing how the curriculum sometimes kept us within a carefully sculpted set of verses – and that the stuff before or after those verses contained material that was, to me, shocking.  I think the first of that was the business of God saying to His people at some battle that they were to kill every living thing – not just the soldiers, but even the women and (I think) children, and for sure all the animals.

I didn’t like the curated nature of my lesson plans; since my kids weren’t grade-schoolers and we were Southern Baptists (proud to be Bible students), I took the time to read that hard stuff with them too.  I didn’t want them to end up like me, a full-fledged adult who’d been in church since infancy, not knowing that there were parts of scripture that are downright confounding and upsetting.  I didn’t try to explain it away.  Oh, I’ve heard the explanations from Bible scholars, but to be honest a lot of those only work for me if I remain a level removed from the story – if I read it only as a story, if I consider it only intellectually.  If I don’t put myself in the shoes of the actual living human beings being asked to slaughter every living thing I encounter in a city – or in the shoes of the people who never met this God, and see the Israelites coming to kill me right now.

I didn’t question the character of God in those Sunday School classes where we covered that hard material.  I just warned my students:  don’t be arrogant.  Don’t suppose you have God all figured out.  As near as I can tell, He CANNOT be fully understood – not even close.  All I know is He is good, and I trust that we will understand this more on the other side.  But let’s not pretend that we understand every nuance of every story, every angle of His motivations.  Let’s not try to tie Him up with a pretty bow – He doesn’t fit in a box.  God is God.  He is big beyond our understanding, and not everything He does is going to make sense to those of use who are not infinite, not all-knowing, not all-seeing, not all-present.  

This has continued to challenge me in the years since, and was part of why I got downright scared for awhile last year on my first time around of listening through the Bible in a year.  There is some stuff in the old testament that is somewhere between difficult and impossible to digest, at least for me.  I listened, and I wondered if I was going to lose my ability to believe scripture at all.  It felt like a very dangerous thing I was doing, walking out on the edge at 50 years old to see if God’s Word could stand upon closer examination.

That’s what listening has been for me – a much closer examination.  I really THOUGHT all these years that I’d been reading and studying with great belief, but listening through has shown me how fully I kept myself distanced from many of the hard parts.  When I listen, I am inside the story.  I am standing beside the people, or I AM the people.  Maybe I’m God’s people, figuring out how to do what He asks.  Maybe I’m the other people, dealing with God’s people as they pass through my world.  I see it in color.  I feel the emotions.  I measure the complexity of the situations.  It’s not just a text.  It’s not an intellectual exercise.  It is actual living, breathing human beings, very different from me because of their time and culture, but also the same as me because of their humanity.  The reading is, in some parts, shattering.

I thought about all of this again this morning while I shoveled snow, listening in the book of Numbers as the business of “clean” vs. “unclean” is carefully delineated.  That’s another thing that is hard to understand.  I mean, some of it makes sense – it is basic hygiene and sanitation – public safety for people who didn’t have microscopes.  And some of it makes sense in a different way – instructing the people that they belong to God, and using some very vivid reminders of the importance of living according to this fact.  Some of it is instructional for how my own sin splashes around and hurts a ton of people around me, some of whom I notice, and others about whom I am utterly oblivious – how dangerous sin is.  There are a lot of angles that help in interpreting what God was doing there, but also there are hard spots.  Things that, as far as I can tell, will mostly lead to people treating each other in unkind, unfair ways, which doesn’t seem to jive with my own experience with the living God – I’ve never experienced an ounce of unkindness or unfairness from Him.

I navigate this with more peace now than I did the first listen in 2016.  Part of that is sticking with that first strategy I used when teaching the kids – using a baseline that God is good, and that I am simply not going to understand everything about what He’s up to.  Part of it is also the new relationship I have with scripture at going-on-15-months of a more aggressively intimate relationship with it through listening.  My view on God has not moved a bit, but while I haven’t lost my ability to believe scripture as a whole, for sure I perceive and interact differently with it now than I did when I started that project.  The way I process it is not the same.

Brian Hardin, the pastor who reads aloud on my Daily Audio Bible phone app has helped me with that.  You know the story where a woman gets brutally raped to death by a bunch of men, and her travelling companion (I don’t remember if he was her husband or her lover) cuts her body up into pieces and sends those pieces to what was then considered I think the 4 corners of the earth?  Brian Hardin helped me with that one.  He pointed out:  nowhere in the text is God dragged into this awful story.  This one made its way into the text because of the horror of it.  We know about it for the same reason you know who I mean when I say the name Jeffrey Dahmer.  It was current news, and it was so big and so terrible that it made it into the text.  I don’t have to try to extrapolate God-stuff from the shocking content of that story.  I can just let it be the story.  I can just note that gory, sickening things happened back then too – this is not new to our culture.  But I don’t have to fold this brutal tale into what defines me as a Christ-follower.

Brian is not always helpful.  There’s a bit in there somewhere (in Deuteronomy, maybe?) about what to do when a man thinks his wife is cheating.  The solution makes me shudder and leaves me asking God WHAT THE HECK IS THAT ABOUT every time I encounter it.  When I got to that passage while listening through this second time, I waited with anticipation, hoping that Brian would say something, anything that would make it less troubling for me.  He let it go without comment, to my disappointment.  But maybe that’s just fine – maybe I need to keep wrestling with God over the things that stand my hair on end or leave me protesting wildly.  God’s got better answers than Brian, am I right?  And also at 50 I also understand:  answers to questions is not the be-all, end-all that I once thought it was.

Someone – I think it was my pastor – said recently that we need to look at the old testament through the lens/filter of the new testament – that as we consider the character of God, we note that the life of Jesus Christ is the best and clearest picture for us of that character.  That helps me.  That makes me know that where God seems brutal or unfair in the first part of the book, I’m missing some pieces in my understanding, since that view doesn’t jive with the God I encounter in the new testament, which can be hard to take but not in that WHAT WAS THAT kind of way.

I don’t have some silly idea that if I keep slogging through this stuff I’m going to get it all figured out – I’m quite sure that my understanding won’t be complete until I’m beyond this world, in God’s presence, where I’m seeing not “as in the glass, darkly”…but with full revelation.

Meanwhile, the wrestling is good, and keeps getting better as I go.

  1. I find the OT more relevant today than ever. Maybe not the annihilation of people by God, by other people in their hatred for a people group. The folks God chose to bring the lineage of Christ through; or the folks God chose to use as leaders in the Bible……mostly flawed folks that I can relate to.

    The thought for me with the OT/NT is to read the OT with a lens of pointing toward a Savior. Scripture confirms Scripture NT/OT and OT/NT.
    Sticky parts in the Bible for me remain sticky as I trust God. He wrote a book and I believe every Word of it. I continue to learn, study, trust, and believe.

    Thanks for always teaching me with your thoughts K.

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