Can Judaism or Christianity explain away God’s violence?

Battle of Joshua with Amalekites Nicolas PoussinWhen I think of the “Jewish Bible” (or “Tanakh,” to be more accurate), I think of the classic Sunday school tales that Jewish and Christian children alike are taught: Adam and Eve and the Forbidden Tree, Noah’s Ark, Jonah and the whale. It wasn’t until after becoming a Christian that I got around to the less popular, more disturbing passages of the Old Testament: the offering of Lot’s daughters to be raped by a mob, the massacre at Canaan, descriptions of dashing enemy infants’ heads on rocks. Christians, at least, have the New Testament to (not always satisfactorily) explain away the sickening bloodshed God himself authorized.

Apparently, in the centuries between the canons, God underwent a personality transplant before introducing Jesus, who offered a more inclusive, less violent covenant (until the crucifixion, anyway). Christians explain that the new covenant fulfills the old; the purpose of the Old Law, and by extension the flawed examples of those who followed it, was to highlight our sinful nature. I’d say the Old Testament definitely gets that message across. What troubles me is how Judaism might explain away or justify this divinely decreed violence. We have no “new covenant” to fulfill or otherwise eradicate or excuse it.

What does this say about our morality compared to our Creator’s? Most human beings find genocide abhorrent, and won’t be inclined to study the “context” of these verses that seem like a portrayal of a very angry, tyrannical god. Once again, Jewish culture is not just my only option for claiming Judaism, but maybe even the preferred option. Of course Jesus seems nicer by comparison.

But even Jesus has undergone cultural makeovers through the ages, and has radically different personalities depending on who you talk to. I have friends who were raised with the radically exclusive (“No one comes to the Father except through me”), table-flipping, family-values-stomping Jesus (“If one loves his father or mother more than me, he is not worthy of being my disciple”). Conversely, some of my college friends embraced the long-haired, non-judgmental (“Let he who has not sinned cast the first stone”), “All you need is love” hippie Jesus. Can they both be the same person, or is one camp of belief more wrong than the other? What if they’re both wrong?

I wonder if some groups identify with the side of God they need the most. People who grew up with fire-and-brimstone sermons only are missing the side of God’s love. People who learned only about love and grace are missing the judgment and justice side of the coin. People need a God of anger and love just like children need loving parents who aren’t afraid to discipline when needed. But these two sides of God remind me of those sinks with two faucets: you can have scalding hot water or freezing cold, but you can’t adjust both temperatures so they come out of one spout, creating the ideal temperature. Yet, both faucets are part of the same sink. And God’s relentless compassion and relentless anger are both part of the same book.

I’ve made people in bible studies and small groups very uncomfortable with these questions, and I certainly don’t ask them to cause a stir for the fun of it. I hate being “that person” to challenge a faith that brings comfort and purpose to so many, but I do for two reasons: 1) These are the passages that are often the beginning of a journey out of faith to atheism, and 2) Because other people might have the same questions, but are too afraid to ask. I am determined to understand this thing that is literally under my skin – I have religion etched into my DNA, which, for me, is enough of a reason to keep wrestling for a lifetime.

If you liked this post, you might be interested in checking out Confessions of a Prodigal Daughter.

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About Beth Caplin

Just an author, blogger, and editor working hard so my cats can have a better life.
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5 Responses to Can Judaism or Christianity explain away God’s violence?

  1. Sam the dude says:

    Isn’t there a bit in the Christian bible where Jesus says he’s come not to bring peace but a sword? Doesn’t seem that hippy to me.

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    • Beth Caplin says:

      That Jesus would fall under the anti-family-values kind. I never understood how some people could easily gloss over that part.

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      • Sam the dude says:

        Beth
        How come he’d fall into the anti family values section? (Not always the brightest tool in the box).

        But as to your point. I don’t understand it either , but I looked it up and it’s there . I remember at university a few Christian friends encouraged me to read the gospels. When they asked me what I thought, my first question was : what happened to Jesus’s wife? They said he wasn’t married. At first I didn’t believe them, as no rav I know would advocate celibacy, but sure enough after re reading the gospels don’t say he was, although Jesus did have brothers at least.

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  2. njmckay says:

    From my own studies of the bible, it seems to me God (and Jesus) have multiple sides to them, there is the vengeful, as well as the forgiving and compassionate side. Look at King David, and after all of his sins, God still forgave him. Even human beings have multiple sides to them, it makes them more complex. I like your analogy of children both loving and being a little afraid of their parents and discipline. It works well here. It is important to study all of the bible, the good and the bad, the old testament and new. You can’t focus only on the passages that fit your ideals, while ignoring the others that can contradict it. Then again the bible seems to have many contradictions to it. I always have to keep in mind that despite the bible being the ‘word of god’, it was still written by humans, and complied at later dates. I always found it interesting that there were texts omitted and wonder how different the bible could be if they were all included.

    I enjoy your posts, please keep up the questioning, you won’t learn anything if you don’t ask the questions. 😉

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