Ancient Israelite Violence and The Christian View of The Old Testament
Some atheist friends of mine are having a discussion about this verse in Leviticus:
If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall surely be put to death; their blood is upon them. (Leviticus 20:13)
Naturally, they are horrified, and question how anyone could follow a God that commands killing people like this.
Their problem, I think, is that they haven’t contemplated just how much killing goes on in the Jewish scriptures, and so they haven’t experienced their horror at a large enough scale. If they had, they would be asking much tougher questions, and provoking much more interesting answers.
What is the Christian understanding of the Old Testament? What are we supposed to do with it? What does it mean to have it as part of our scriptures?
It seems like the simplest way to address that question is with a story.
Imagine that you are an early American pioneer, traveling westward towards Oregon, with a wagon train full of people eager to settle the new frontier. The journey begins well, but as you reach and begin to cross the treacherous mountains, winter descends. Soon you are stranded in a blizzard, barely making progress, trying your best to survive and move forward. Week after week, you trudge on, growing sicker and more hungy every day. One member of the party becomes so weak, he has to be carried on a stretcher by several of his friends.
Finally, one night, no one can go any further. The food has run out, most of the people are so tired they can barely walk, and everyone has lost hope. As you all huddle together for what may be your last night on earth, a brightness penetrates your feverish mind.
What follows is the most troubling and fearsome vision you could ever imagine. In the midst of monstrous sights and images, the voice of God comes to you, and begins to tell you the way forward. You wake up in the morning with a message for the entire camp. And the first step is a horrific one: you must let the weakest member of the party die, and then consume his corpse.
It is a terrible moment. But it hardens everyone’s determination for the battle for survival which begins. Step by step, you deliver God’s instructions, and the difficult choices are made. The dead are eaten, frostbitten fingers and toes are cut off, and you issue commands more strict than those of any dictator.
Somehow, miraculously, your party survives. You make it through the blizzard, over the mountains, and into the Oregonian promised land. There, you begin to build a new society on the principles that came to you that dark night. Everyone carries with them the scars of their experience, but the intense determination that comes from the journey they’ve been through. And the story of your survival is passed down again and again, to help each new generation understand the difficult decisions and sacrifices their ancestors had to make.
Fast-forward to the present. Oregon society has grown and flourished, first building on the principles delivered to you in the storm, then gradually developing other methods of organizing and regulating civilization. Your vision has been written down in the history books as a foundational element of Oregonian culture.
People have different opinions about this vision. Some people think you were suffering snow-induced hallucinations. Others think it was truly a miraculous communication. The first group has to deal with difficult questions about where your ideas and determination came from. The second group has to deal with difficult questions about God’s real stance on eating corpses.
But everybody agrees on the following facts. The instructions from that vision insured the survival of your community. Without them, everyone would have died. And yet, eating corpses and cutting off fingers isn’t the way in which society should operate now.
This is similar to how Christians view the Old Testament. It contains a set of laws given to an ancient desert tribe, to help them survive and flourish. Some Christians feel that these laws were developed by humans in response to difficult situations they faced. Others feel that God delivered those laws, altering his commands to the world that existed.
The first group has to deal with difficult questions about the true uniqueness of some of these ancient ideas. The second group has to deal with difficult questions about God’s real moral stance on killing.
But everybody agrees on the following facts. Those laws and instructions formed a society unique in the history of the world, one that survived with a resilience that is difficult to imagine. Through conquest, war, and near destruction, they remained steadfast in their cultural identity and commitment. And yet, those laws and instructions aren’t the kind of thing that should run a society today.
There are legitimate questions, like whether God is a pragmatist who makes ethical decisions based on the situation. But nothing in that discussion changes anything about the heroism and significance of those accounts. And nothing changes its value for us today.
The value is this. By seeing the difficult choices and struggles and sacrifices our ancestors faced, we learn. We learn what it means to be human, what it means to make difficult decisions and suffer for it, what it means to see what we value ripped away. And in that process, we discover what it is that truly matters.
This is always an individual thing, and every individual faces it. Jesus faced it in the wilderness, where he was led to be tested. In those empty spaces, he confronted all the stories and archetypes that came before. He saw the kings and the prophets trace out their lives and their downfalls. He saw the priests and the law-breakers struggle for power. He saw leader after leader face their enemy, only to discover the weakness within themselves. And in confronting each of those images, he saw what it was that was truly unique, truly meaningful in all of them.
And then he left the desert to go live that out. Not as a life course plotted out from the Levitical commands, but a life course driven by the courage, determination, and sacrifice he saw written there.