April 2, 2016 – Making Sense of the Bible Week 5: Challenging Passages Part 1

John 11:17-45

        As we continue today with our sermon series based on Adam Hamilton’s book, Making Sense of the Bible, we are transitioning to address some of the more challenging passages of scripture and how to interpret these scriptures through the ‘lens’ of Jesus Christ – the Word of God.  The story read for us from the book of John indicates a God who treasures life to the point of raising Lazarus from the dead.  Yet many of the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament scriptures denote a God who is vindictive, violent, and destructive.  How do we as Christians reconcile these types of dilemmas created by challenging passages and stories?

First, I want to focus on the Old Testament, the Hebrew Bible, and some common questions folks raise, particularly concerning the book of Genesis.  First question: ‘Were Adam and Eve real people?’  We first need to consider that there are two Creation stories – Genesis 1 and Genesis 2.  “The first Creation story is something like a hymn, a creed, or a liturgy declaring that God exists, that God is the Creator of the world, that Creation is a good and beautiful gift from [God], and that human beings are created in [God’s] image” (Hamilton, pg. 193.) Genesis chapter 2 is an easy-to-read story of Creation, yet it is interesting to note that the names ‘Adam’ and ‘Eve’ are not mentioned in the first account.  In Hebrew, the name ‘Adam’ means ‘man’ and the name ‘Eve’ means ‘life-bearer.’ It appears these names are symbolic, allowing us to put ourselves into the story of the challenge they face concerning the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil (even the name of the tree appears symbolic.)

We have argued that the Bible was not meant to be a complete historical account of the beginning of our origins but allows us to put ourselves into the story. Think of your children. What is the first thing they want to do when you tell them not to do or touch something? That is the very thing that engulfs their attention! How about us? When we know something is wrong, do we not hear the voice of the serpent saying, ‘Is that what God really meant?’  So, to answer the question – Were Adam and Eve real people? Most likely they were not. These passages were written by authors who were prescientific, existing during the late Bronze and Iron Ages, and these stories most likely reflect the beliefs of those living in the Near East at the time.  Genesis appears to reflect the Israelites’ understanding during that time period.

Recall I said we would be wrestling with scripture, so I encourage you to challenge and be challenged by these discussions.  Next, I wanted to address the question asked by many children, “Were there dinosaurs on the ark?”  The simple scientific answer is ‘no’ as dinosaurs became extinct before Homo sapiens came on the scene. But perhaps there is a bigger question: Is the story of Noah an historical account?  Turn to the book of Genesis chapter 6 beginning with verse 5.  As we consider and compare this story to the one read for us from the gospel of John, it seems we are faced with diametrical opposites concerning God.  In the gospel of John we have Jesus who displays his value for life. In Genesis we have God who seems disgusted with humankind to the point of destruction.  The world described in Genesis is disturbing – humans committing horrible acts of violence against one another.  This situation caused God to regret creating humankind – God appears heartsick.  The story of Noah and the Ark appears long after a period that many believe this story was trying to explain. At the end of the Ice Age around 15,000 to 10,000 BC was a catastrophic melt down which caused massive world-wide flooding.  Written language in the Near East arrived around 3200 BC.  Interestingly enough there are many similar stories from other sources that are very similar to the Ark account.

It is possible the story of Noah and the Ark is presented in order to teach us important lessons.  How we treat one another is profound, to the point that God’s heart may be filled with pain.  The author states this, “When I read Genesis 6, I can’t help but think about the fact that in the last century, when humanity reached the apex of technological development (to that point), over 100 million people died by war and genocide” (Hamilton, pg. 204.)

Mainline scholars typically see the first 11 chapters of Genesis to be the foundational stories of scripture told to teach us about the human condition and about God who created us.  They are less functional as ancient history, per se.  While there are historical accounts of events and God’s interaction with God’s chosen people, these writings were not necessarily meant to be exact historical accounts but instead more archetypal stories.  “Think of the word ‘typical,’ meaning that whatever is being described is normative.  Think of the word ‘prototype’ – a pattern that others will follow. An archetype is the original pattern for all that follows. Through all of these writings we can find valuable teaching about God, ourselves, and God’s will for our lives.

Now that I have completely rattled your assurances of scripture, let us address another issue that has many questioning why we would serve God at all.  Why does God appear to be so violent in the Old Testament? How do we reconcile the accounts of genocide and punishment, with Jesus’ call to love our enemies?  The violence of scripture can be categorized into 3 areas: The death penalty, God’s anger and wrath in punishing God’s people, and God’s command to commit genocide.

There are numerous ‘crimes’ in the Torah that would require the death penalty: Sacrificing to another god, teens bad-mouthing their parents, working on the Sabbath, premarital sexual intercourse. A priest was to burn his daughter alive if she became prostitute. If a relative tried to get you to worship another god, you were to stone that person. How do these laws reconcile us to a loving God?

When looking at accounts of God’s anger and wrath against God’s people, the Bible has no shortage of accounts. Turn to Exodus 32:27-29. (As a bit of a warning, these scriptures are extremely disturbing. We will tread lightly but I believe you will get the gist of the stories.) [Read] I have a hard time accepting a God who would force me to strap on a sword and kill my family members.  Another account in 2 Samuel 24 tells the story of a time when King David decided to take a census of his fighting men and this displeased God. Look at 2 Samuel 24:15 – [read.]  God is miffed at David and takes out 70,000 people?  This does not sound like the God who sent Jesus to this world to die for our sins so we could experience eternal life.

As a human race, we abhor genocide.  Regardless of race, creed, religion, sexual orientation – we do not condone wiping out entire populations. Yet scripture describes such acts in detail.  Turn to Joshua 6:20b-21. [read] The Israelites destroyed entire civilizations beginning with Jericho. Men, women, children – thirty-one city-states were utterly destroyed in the name of God.  We talked about God’s heart grieving at the horror humans were committing on one another, yet these scriptures describe the very violence that makes God heart-sick. How do we reconcile such atrocities with a loving God?

We have spent the first part of this series examining the compilation of scripture, the complex process of putting together what we see as our Bible, and recognizing the biases and limitations of its various authors.  With all the inspired, divine influence, we must recognize the humanity of the Bible’s authors.  We understand that these authors hold to certain hermeneutics – their culture, theological assumptions, and the time in which they lived as the lens with which to reflect in scripture.  When we see these stories and raise immediate questions, our goal is to view them through the lens of Jesus Christ.

Jesus valued life. Jesus valued friendships and relationships with his followers. Jesus raised his good friend Lazarus from the dead.  Jesus commanded us to love God and love our neighbors.  When we sift disturbing scriptural passages through the lens or colander of Jesus, we find and can best understand the biases of scripture’s authors.

Have we not heard of numerous cases where those going to war claim that God is on their side in the midst of mass killing and destruction? Have we not seen those who claim to be God-fearers turn to violence without a second thought?  Are we not seeing the human condition acted out through hatred, mistrust, and a penchant for evil?  In the midst of that background of chaos comes a beacon of hope. In the midst of sorrow and pain comes the joy of following Jesus’ example to truly love God and love our neighbors.  These stories of battle conquests were most likely written to demonstrate the courage, resolve, and faith of their heroes “…in order to inspire later generations still struggling against their own enemies” (Hamilton 215.)  With this understanding, perhaps we can see fit to question those passages that are in direct conflict with the lens of Jesus Christ.  Should we simply ignore these scriptures? I don’t think so.  Perhaps these passages can serve as a caution to us as to how easily it is to fall to the lure of evil.  God’s definitive Word, Jesus Christ, will forever serve as our anchor, our colander, our lens with which to navigate scripture. Amen.

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