Sunday, 19 July 2015

My vision of a bipolar God.

There is this side of God that I will not fully understand. And like Jacob who wrestled with an angel, I too wrestled with the mysteries of the God of the Old Testament. It has always been a mystery to me and sometimes it gnaws at me like a migraine that comes and goes in the night. I guess the Bible does not lack characters who were confounded by God’s commandments and questioned His motive. Some even argued with Him.

Abraham stood as an advocate for Sodom when God wanted to wipe them out. Moses resisted the calling to lead his people out of Egypt. Job lamented to God; a lamentation somehow co-authored by God and the ageless tempter. Jacob struggled with the angel for his blessing and Jeremiah was angry with God. And one cannot forget the belly-hibernating Jonah who openly rebelled against God. Even the Psalmists cried foul against God’s relentless and harsh punishment of His own people.  In Psalm 88:14, the afflicted bemoaned with this dirge-like refrain, “Lord, why do you cast off my soul? Why do you hide your face from me? I have been afflicted and ready to die from my youth; I suffer your terrors; I am distraught.”

For me, my wrestling is not so much as an advocate, a rebel, a lamenter or a deserter but as an earnest seeker. More relevantly, it is to understand God and to understand why or how the God of the Old Testament and the God of the New Testament could be so diametrically different. In the Old Testament, God is seen as less than compassionate. Most times, He is busy dispensing with both distributive and retributive justice. And it was the latter dispensation (retributive) that is most disconcerting to me. One author observes that, “sometimes it was argued that the God of the Old Testament was a God of vengeance and punishment while the God of the New Testament was a God of forgiveness and mercy.”

If the Bible was not divided into the Old and the New Testaments, with Calvary as its defining and redeeming line of departure, I dread to think of what retributive justice God would have in mind on the human race in our postmodern, values-redefining era, where the sins of our time would have made even Sodom and Gomorrah look like an act of child’s truancy. I guess the Book of Revelation gives us a peek-a-boo glimpse of that coming retributive justice?

What’s more, this postmodern era that we are living in not only openly rebel against God, and have made idols of anything and everything, some are even enthroning themselves as the gods of the New Age. We are therefore not just living in the godless age, we are also living it all up with personal flair and panache. It seems like the tower of babel today stands taller (and more defiant) than the one that God had tore down millennia ago.

Maybe, we have to thank the new covenant for the retributive judgment withheld till the last days. God is no doubt waiting for all to hear the gospel before He drops the divine guillotine on his impenitent creation. But this still does little to explain His character and actions in the Old Testament as oppose to the New. Professor emeritus John Dominic Crossan puts it this way: "The problem of the Christian Bible is that its God is portrayed both violently and violently; its Christ, proclaimed as the human image of that God, is also portrayed both nonviolently and violently; and therefore Christians are called to a life of political confusion at best, or religious hypocrisy at worst. (Suspect the peace donkey, expect the warhorse.)"

And here is where I am trying to wrap my mind around as I plow through the first 39 books of the Bible.

If we start with Moses, we see a God who does the most inexplicable of things. He hardened Pharaoh’s heart just so that he could show his glory and power to the Egyptian people - and to the mortal exasperation of His own people I guess. And he hardened Pharaoh’s heart repeatedly (read Exodus 4:21; 7:3;11:10, 14:14) All this engineered obstinacy just so that God could release the ten plagues with the last one being the most heartbreaking of all, that is, the killing of the innocent firstborn. Imagine the screams and wailings of mothers that deathly night!

Then the Bible narrates a disturbing story about God attempting to kill Moses in Exodus 4:24-26; his sins against God notwithstanding. If not for the timely intervention of Moses’ wife Zipporah, by an act of vicarious circumcision, I can’t imagine the fate of the  deliverer of God’s people from Egypt. Here is the extract of this very short and somewhat disjointed three verses, “And it came to pass by the way in the inn, that the Lord met him, and sought to kill him (Moses). Then Zipporah took a sharp stone, and cut off the foreskin of her son, and cast it at his feet, and said, Surely a bloody husband art thou to me. So he let him go: then she said, A bloody husband thou art, because of the circumcision.”

From here, we proceed with child sacrifices and on this, we are all familiar with Abraham offering his son Isaac as a show of his faith to God (Gen. 22). We know the ending to that, God’s angel intervened and spared Isaac from the plunging blade of his father. But the fate of Jephthah’s daughter was not that lucky and the story began with a vow from King Jephthah who promised God that he would offer “whatever comes out of the doors” of his house as a sacrifice to Him if he delivered the people of Ammon into his hands (Judges 11:30-32).

When victory was secure, what walked into his doors was none other than his daughter. She was there to celebrate her father’s victory with timbrels and dancing. Poor girl, she begged her father to give her two months to “bewail her virginity” with her friends. When the time came, she offered herself as a burnt offerings to God. This time God’s angel did not intervene.

There are other narrations in the Bible that stretched to breaking point my limited understanding. For example, it is written in 1 Samuel 16:14 that God sent an evil spirit to torment Saul as his spirit departed from him. Eventually, Saul was tormented to death. Surely, Saul had fallen out of favor with God due to his sins of idolatry – amongst others. But to send an evil spirit to torment His once-favored-and-blessed earthly king to death is quite incomprehensible for me.

At this juncture, I am not surprised to read passages in the Bible about the sovereign God causing or allowing evil (refer to Isaiah 45:7 – “I make peace and create calamity”; Amos 3:6 – “If there is calamity in a city, will not the Lord have done it?” and Micah 1:12 – “But disaster came down from the Lord”).

Apart from sending evil to possess Saul and drive him to self-destruction, God also sent a plague to wipe out 70,000 (via pestilence) of his own people in 2 Samuel 24:15 just because Kind David took a census of Israel and Judah under the instructions of God (contrasts this with 1 Chronicles 21 where it was written that it was under the instructions of the devil that King David carried out the census). God even  sent his angel in an attempt to destroy Jerusalem but relented later with this countermanding order, “Enough! Withdraw your hand.

In Ezekiel 20:25-28, God again pronounced wrath, judgment and death on his own people. Here is an extract of it, “because they had not observed My ordinances, but had rejected My statutes and had profaned My Sabbaths, and their eyes were on the idols of their fathers. “I also gave them statutes that were not good and ordinances by which they could not live; and I pronounced them unclean because of their gifts, in that they caused all their firstborn to pass through the fire so that I might make them desolate, in order that they might know that I am the LORD.”

And what is most confusing is how God was described to have taken pleasure in the destruction of his people. In Deuteronomy 28:63, it is written: Just as the Lord has found great pleasure in causing you to prosper and multiply, the Lord will find pleasure in destroying you. You will be torn from the land you are about to enter and occupy. For the Lord will scatter you among all the nations from one end of the earth to the other. There you will worship foreign gods that neither you nor your ancestors have known, gods made of wood and stone! There among those nations you will find no peace or place to rest. And the Lord will cause your heart to tremble, your eyesight to fail, and your soul to despair. Your life will constantly hang in the balance. You will live night and day in fear, unsure if you will survive.

Alas, the epistemological torment does not end here. To date, no theologians, however scholarly or enlightened, could provide an adequate explanation for the divine massacres of Jericho City (Joshua 6) and the people of Canaanite (Joshua 11). Joshua 6:21 reads, “and they utterly destroyed all that was in the city, both man and woman, young and old, ox and sheep and donkey, with the edge of the sword.”

Now, no theologians or Bible scholars worth its salt would dispute with you that the command to slaughter wholesale came directly from God. Clearly, Joshua and his army heard it right the first time round. It was a battle command from the top of the very top. So, the heart-wrenching question here is: why…why even the children, which included innocent babies, were not spared?

I know this has been argued before and defended countless of times by biblical apologists and scholars. It always starts off with the different cultural-era defense - for indeed they lived in different times. Those times of old were less civilized, even barbaric. One writer expresses it this way: "It is with civilization that human "savagery" becomes an agonizing part of the human condition. As civilization dawns, the ground of human existence turns an unearthly shade of red." 

Mm...maybe we are different now. We do have democracy, rule of law and efficient institutions (and not to forget...postmodernist liberal values too).

And from there, the apology goes somewhere along the lines of cultural and religious contamination because those babies will one day grow up and intermarry with God’s people and encourage them to worship their idols. And finally, the best defense is that the babies would have been sacrificed anyway by their own parents since they practiced child sacrifices at that time.  In addition, there is no cause for concern for the eventual fate of the slain babies or children because their place is in heaven. So, a heavenly fate is infinitely better than one on earth for these babies.

Now after digesting all that, one would just have to ask a question: What if it was your own child? What if it is your loved ones who are victims of this divine-sanctioned mass killing? Somehow, everything becomes less armchair-ish or theoretical when it comes to the fate of one’s loved ones hanging in the balance.

Of course, at this point, let’s face it: God is God. He is sovereign full stop. He does as he pleases, then and now. That much is his privilege because He created it all. Everything we have or possessed, our children and our lives, even the air we breathe, owes it to God. So in the end, the Lord gives and the Lord takes. And the more appropriate question is this: Do I have a problem with it? In some ways, Job knew that feeling.

Well, worded as such, I really do not have a problem because I do not actually have a say. Who am I to question my Creator? Yet still, the cognitive dissonance, even on a preconscious state, would nevertheless agitate with this question, “But how do you reconcile a compassionate, loving and forgiving God at Calvary with the violent God of the Old Testament?”

While the chasm cannot be effectively bridged, I believe that these two scriptures in the Bible will assist in some ways. Isaiah 30:18 says that God is a God of justice and 1 John 4:8 says that He is a God of love. God is both justice and love throughout the Bible and if I read it chapter by chapter, I would experience the lows of His justice and the highs of His love. Jesus himself is portrayed as a God of love at Calvary and a glorified ruler of exacting justice when he returns.

I therefore cannot cherry pick the God that goes well with my soul without accepting the God that may send shivers down my spine. His long-drawn retributive justice in the many acts in history may entail many things that I cannot fully understand but it is my redemptive hope that it is His defining love at Calvary – the unconditional surrendering of Himself to His murderous creation – that is the final act of enduring justice for me, that is, the act of ultimate reconciliation of God with His creation. The Bible therefore ends in the middle for me and not at the end. It is therefore not the divine violence as narrated in the beginning and at the end that should be the focus of my attention and faith. It is the once-and-for-all, God-for-mankind sacrifice at Calvary that is the game-changer for me; that is, the crossroad where justice and love meets and where love took justice's place and justice is fully paid.

Let me end with the words of John Dominic Crossan about how he sees the intimate and empowering crossroad:

Justice is the body of love, and love is the soul of justice. Separate them and you do not get both – you get neither, you get a moral corpse. Justice is the flesh of love, and love is the spirit of justice…Justice without love may end in brutality, but love without justice must end in banality. Love empowers justice, and justice embodies love. Keep both, or get neither.” Cheerz.

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