Divine Violence, Part 1
Let burning coals fall on them! Let them be flung into pits, no more to rise! Psalm 140:10
There are a number of methods to interpret what we read in the Bible and other sacred texts. One common method, although it is relatively recent in Christian history, is the literal interpretation. This assumes that God dictated the Bible as opposed to inspiring it, as Timothy states in his Epistle. “It is in the Bible, therefore God said it, so I believe it,” is a common sentiment of those who apply a literal interpretation. Others follow a historical reading, meaning they see the Bible as a historical record that may or may not have current relevance beyond recording events from long ago. Another method of interpretation is the allegorical or metaphorical, which bypasses questions of factuality and seeks the story-within-the-story the reading attempts to impart. For example, Jesus used parables in his teaching, which are not factual accounts but are relatable stories with an important moral lesson. There is a use for each type of interpretation, depending on the scripture passage and our stage in life, but I find the metaphorical reading most useful for spiritual growth and understanding.
One concern that turns many away from the Bible is the violence recorded, requested, and alluded to throughout its pages. Particularly for those who read the Bible literally, God appears to play favorites and sometimes violently so. For example, as the Israelites were seeking their freedom from slavery, God caused a series of plagues to fall upon the people of Egypt in order to convince Pharaoh to grant them their freedom. The tenth plague brought death to all the firstborn in Egypt, both children and livestock. As a firstborn myself, I find this very disconcerting! Not only were the plagues caused by God, but God purposely hardened Pharaoh’s heart following the previous plagues so that Pharaoh would not set the Israelites free. A literal reading of Exodus would mean that God not only caused thousands of deaths to innocent people and animals to send a message to Pharaoh, but God was manipulating Pharaoh in such a way as to prevent him from relinquishing. One must be a nimble biblical apologist to reconcile the literal Biblical record with what we want to believe is a loving and just God.
In the creation story of Genesis, after creating every living thing on the earth, God created humankind and pronounced the whole of creation “very good.” This story does not distinguish the Israelites as better than non-Israelites, although much of the Bible refers to them as God’s “chosen” race (never mind that most of the Bible was written by these chosen ones). My point is that a God who created all things and all peoples and pronounced them “very good” seems unlikely to take sides in squabbles among God’s creation, let alone initiate or support such violent and fatal action against either side. The Psalms are full of accounts of exactly that sort of vicious favoritism, either requested by someone feeling offended or granted on their behalf. My belief is that God’s part in these stories is either a misunderstanding on the part of the author or an allegorical truth-sharing using a non-factual story.
Fortunately, there is another way to understand such texts without portraying God as arbitrary or violent toward innocents. As followers of Jesus, who was unquestionably non-violent, we need another option. A metaphorical reading, while not taking a position on the literal or historical accuracy of the passages, leads one to ponder how the message applies to one’s own life. For example, we can read the story of the exodus as the story of our own struggle to free the true and pure part of ourselves from the ego-self and its bondage to materialism. Pharaoh represents our ego, and the Israelites are our true self. The various plagues represent the numerous attempts we make to free ourselves from the addictive consumer-mentality of our culture. There are many plagues because we must persist with sustained efforts at self-change. The death of the first-born can represent the “death” of some of our “first-born” ideas about life and God that are either wrong or that we have outgrown, many of which we inherit from ancestors. Those ideas and beliefs can be stubborn entities, like Pharaoh, that do not easily relent.
Such metaphorical, internal violence is one thing. The very real and tragic violence in our world is quite another. I will reflect on that next week.
This is the 32nd in the series of Life Notes titled, Praying With One Eye Open.
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 See 2 Timothy 3:16.
 Exodus 12:29.
 See Exodus 11:10.
 Genesis 1:31.