Using Bible stories to encourage people to be nice/wicked

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.1

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 :)

  1. He has much more claim to holiness than I undoubtedly, but even so this argument strikes me as specious ;) []

4 comments on “Using Bible stories to encourage people to be nice/wicked

  1. Bob MacDonald

    If you were arrogant we would not need to be told. Bastard – well – you might be in better company than many.

  2. Paul D.

    A few months ago, our pastor was preaching the story of Samuel and Saul. I started reading the passage to myself but interpreting with a different assumption — that whenever Samuel tells Saul “God said such-and-such”, that Samuel is just making it up in order to manipulate Saul. Because the text never seems to directly relay God’s instructions, it always quotes Samuel’s “hearsay” instead.

    The picture that emerges from that assumption is a very different one. It’s an Israel where the Levites are losing their grip on power and the control they exerted over society. Samuel is no pious man; he’s a petty control-freak who can’t even control his own children. But Samuel spots an opportunity to reestablish the authority of the priesthood: by introducing a king, but choosing someone who is easily manipulated and will do whatever the high priest says. And who does he pick? Saul is the worst possible choice, a man with no redeeming moral character. However, Saul is tall, good-looking, and leaves a good impression on people. He’s a celebrity on the stage, and Samuel is the producer.

    Of course, later on, Saul starts getting his own ideas and disobeying Samuel, and the whole experiment falls apart. Samuel tries replacing him with David, but that just ignites a civil war. Ultimately, he fails, and the long-lived authority of the priesthood is replaced with one despotic king after another, plunging Israel into a constant state of warfare and civil strife until their eventual dispersal and exile.

  3. jonathan robinson

    A slight misrepresentation of my suggestion, I was suggesting that the OT muscular approach to people who compromised Israel’s holiness would translate into a muscular approach to those things (of the flesh) in our lives which compromise ours, that should have been clear from the scriptures I cited. ;-) But maybe your innacuracy is a consequence of your new bombastic persona, yet another sad case of the JimWestification of a blogger. :-(

  4. Tim Bulkeley

    @Bob I think my poor old mum and dad would be shocked at the description ;)

    @Jonathan You know that during the marking season I don’t read the Addenda ;)