Scripture (or in this case the Apocrypha) has a "thing" about severed heads (Judith with the Severed Head of Holofernes, signed Muhammad Zaman, Iran, Isfahan, c. 1680 AD photo from Wikimedia)
There’s quite a bit of talk at the moment in the world I inhabit about two related issues:
- Neo-Atheists attack Scripture claiming it advocates genocide, portrays God as a monster etc., for the sake of simplicity I’ll focus on one issue, the claim that God commands genocide. I’m supervising a Master’s thesis on a topic related to this, and I have therefore noticed blog posts on such topics frequently over recent months.
- Well-meaning Christians who extract nice (or sometimes not so nice) “messages” from Scripture, moralising the heck out of texts that have no interest in morals. This one came for a head for me in two ways, students who extract unlikely but edifying messages from passages set as assignments, and a friend who is trying to wind me up by suggesting that the 2 Kings 10 passage I dealt with in a recent podcast advocates a muscular Christian approach to people who get in the way of our holiness.
The passage in 2 Kings 10 is a classic for the Rottweilers and Moralisers. It tells with apparent approval of the bloody sequel to Jehu’s bloody coup d’etat, a particularly memorable focus is the seventy heads of Ahab’s sons which Jehu ordered and were duly delivered to his door in convenient carrying baskets. This to the suspicious readers provides yet more evidence that the God of the Bible, or at least of the Hebrew Bible, is a bloodthirsty tyrant. To the moraliser it offers opportunities to spiritualise and at the same time develop a “suitably” muscular Christianity rabbiting on about the need to be ruthless in combatting those who imperil our “Christian walk” (as Ahab imperiled Israel’s faithfulness to Yahweh’s covenant).
Both sets of extremist are up the pole and have failed to read the text. (BTW Jim West recently unmasked me as an “arrogant bastard” so I am trying hard to live up to the new image in the tone of my remarks – do let me know if you think I succeed?)
The common claim these two sets of poor readers make is that God wanted Ahab’s children slaughtered.
But, did God want that? In 2 Kings 9:7 the “detail” that the sons should be killed is added by a student in Elishah’s class. It was not part of the prophet’s instructions in 2 Kings 9:3. Similarly in 1 Kings 21:21f. Elijah adds this “detail” to what God had told him in 1 Kings 21:19.
So, time and again it is over-zealous humans, not God, that seek such violent solutions. Furthermore, as Jonah recognised God is: “gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in mercy, and one who relents concerning threatened judgment.” So if the offspring of those gentle and kind parents – Ahab and Jezebel – had repented, even they would have been spared. Even if God had pronounced the death penalty!
So, if the Bible text in this case does not advocate mass murder as a form of power politics, nor exhort us to greater spiritual exercise (and you will see from the above that I do not believe it does): What is the Christian message of this bloody text?
Go listen to my podcast 2 Kings 10: a really nasty text as a test for the 5 step process to hear my answer :)