Scripture holds out difficult passages to contemplate

Fr. Ron Rolheiser, omi


February 22, 2016

A colleague shares this story: Recently, after he presided at a Eucharist, a woman from the congregation came up to him with this comment: "What a horrible Scripture reading today! If that's the kind of God we're worshipping, then I don't want to go to heaven."

The reading for that day's liturgy was taken from Chapter 24 of the Second Book of Samuel where, seemingly, God gets upset with King David for counting the number of men he had for military service and then punishes him by sending a pestilence that kills 70,000 people.

Is this really the word of God? Did God really get angry with David for doing a simple census and kill 70,000 people to teach him a lesson? What possible logic could justify this? As it stands, literally, yes, this is a horrible text.

What do we do with passages like this and many others where God, seemingly, demands violence in his name? To cite another example: In his instructions to Joshua when they enter the Promised Land, God orders him to kill everything in the land of Canaan, all the men, all the women, all the children and even all the animals.

Why? Why would God so grossly want all these people destroyed? Can we believe God would do this?

There are other similar examples, such as in the Book of Judges, where God grants the prayer of Jephthah the Gileadite on the condition that he sacrifices his own daughter on the altar. Texts like this seem to go against the essence of the nature of God as the rest of Scripture reveals it.

God in Scripture is sometimes seemingly arbitrary, heartless, violent and demanding violence from believers about the lives of anyone not among his chosen favourites. If one were to take these texts literally, they could be used to justify the type of violence that extremist groups like ISIS and al-Qaida carry out under the belief that God loves them alone and they are free to kill others in his name.


Nothing could be further from the truth, and nothing could be further from the meaning of these texts. These texts, as biblical scholarship makes clear, are not to be taken literally. They are anthropomorphic and archetypal. Whenever they are read they could be preceded by the kind of disclaimer we now often see at movies: No real animals died while making this film. So too, no real people die in these texts.

First, these texts are anthropomorphic; in them we attribute our own emotions and intentions to God. Hence these texts reflect our feelings, not God's. When Paul tells us that when we sin we experience the "wrath of God," we are not to believe that God gets angry with us when we sin and sends positive punishment upon us.

Rather, when we sin, we punish ourselves, begin to hate ourselves and feel as if God has gotten angry with us. Biblical authors frequently write in this genre. God never hates us, but, when we sin, we end up hating ourselves.

These texts are also archetypal; they are powerful, primordial images that explain how life works. A man once came up to me Sunday after a liturgy, when the reading had proclaimed God's order to Joshua to kill all the Canaanites upon entering the Promised Land.


The man said: "You should have let me preach today. I know what that text means: I'm an alcoholic in recovery - and that text means 'cold turkey.' As an alcoholic, you have to clean out your liquor cabinet completely, every bottle. You can't have even a single drink. Every Canaanite has to be killed.

"Jesus said the same thing, except he used a softer metaphor: New wine, new wineskins." In essence, that's the meaning of this text.

Even so, if these texts are not literal, aren't they still the inspired word of God? Can we just explain them away because we feel them inconvenient?

Two things might be said in response: First, all individual texts in Scripture must be seen within the larger, overall framework of Scripture and our overall theology of God. As such, they demand an interpretation consistent with the nature of God as revealed overall in Scripture.

In Scripture as a whole, we see God is all-loving, all-merciful, and all-good; it is impossible to attribute bias, callousness, brutality, favouritism and violence to God.


Second, Scripture is binding and inerrant in the intentionality of its message, not in the literalness of its expression. We do not, for example, take literally Jesus' command to "call no one on earth your father," or Paul's command, "Slaves be subject to your masters."

Context and interpretation are not rationalizations, they are sacred duty. We may not make Scripture unworthy of God.