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Massacres and Mayhem - why I believe reason 3 (or why I still believe)

[reading time: 20 mins]

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A crisis of faith doesn’t really seem as intense in the 21st century as it once was . No throwing salt shakers at the devil (Martin Luther), no screaming at the sky for the divine reply, no strapping oneself to a mast in a storm tossed ocean (wait, there is Lieutenant Dan…). I guess to have a crisis of faith you have to have faith, or at least faith in something concrete enough to change your Monday morning (and every morning after that). Which then means such a faith, a faith for Monday as well as Sunday, if it did find itself in crisis, would be in real crisis. It would be a faith exhausted, shattered or bent by some severe doubt as to whether the God it had believed in was truly the God it had believed in: a God as heroic as first thought. 

I have had a few distinct crises of faith: one involved a girl, another full time church work (a strange but real irony - that church would bring on a crisis of faith - a story for another time), and another the massacres and mayhem of the bible. It’s the last one which seems, like a fire ant, to keep popping up and biting.

Here’s how it goes. Attend church, hear of God who loves you, sent His son to die for you, took the nails, the spear, the crown of thorns and miraculously busted open his own tomb. Read scholarly historical books for empirical veracity and surprisingly find much to hang your ‘this is reasonable’ hat on. Watch youtube vids of Christians debating Atheists and again find strong reason to believe - no crisis (yet) Keep attending, keep hearing of love and the heroics of God in Christ and then one day read:

And when the Lord your God has delivered them over to you and you have defeated them, then you must destroy them totally. Make no treaty with them, and show them no mercy. Deuteronomy 7:2

and

For it was the Lord himself who hardened their hearts to wage war against Israel, so that he might destroy them totally, exterminating them without mercy, as the Lord had commanded Moses. Joshua 11:17

and

Now go, attack the Amalekites and totally destroy everything that belongs to them. Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys. 1 Sam 15:3

Huh? Destroy them totally? Exterminate them without mercy? Put to death men and women, children and infants? That means…well what does it mean? In some of my reading scholars say the terms ‘destroy’ or ‘exterminate’ are hyperbole; that is, embellished descriptors to show the victory was big but not necessarily exterminatory. But this isn’t really coherent with the text because later on God expresses displeasure through Samuel that the Israelite king Saul had not completely destroyed the Amalekites: 

He took Agag king of the Amalekites alive, and all his people he totally destroyed with the sword. But Saul and the army spared Agag and the best of the sheep and cattle, the fat calves and lambs–everything that was good. These they were unwilling to destroy completely, but everything that was despised and weak they totally destroyed. Then the word of the Lord came to Samuel:11 “I am grieved that I have made Saul king, because he has turned away from me and has not carried out my instructions.” Samuel was troubled, and he cried out to the Lord all that night 1 Sam 15:8-10

You see my crisis? ‘God loves you and has wonderful plan for your life’ is the soundbite for churches everywhere and yet even a cursory glance over the old testament brings the massacres and mayhem therein to ones attention like an unexpected fist to the face. There are of course easy ways out. The first might be: ‘God is sovereign and can do whatever he wants whenever he wants and if he wants to command and equip a desert army to massacre and exterminate who are we to question’ with the subtext ‘glad it ain’t me or my fam on the receiving end...’. A second might be…silence. That is, just don’t read or preach or mention that icky massacre stuff back there - stick with John 3:16 and 1 Corinthians 13…you know ‘Love is patient, love is kind etc…’ A third way is to become an atheist or agnostic with the emote-logic being ‘well if that’s the God of the bible it’s probably just a god who is a man-made fabrication to justify political ends through genocide which means (coupled with modern science’s meta-narrative of blind chance mutating amoeba into men over millions of years) there is probably no god at all (or at least not one worth following - even out of interest).

Then there’s the hard way: continue to believe and love and follow and preach the just, holy, redeeming, angry, kind, patient, loving God of the bible who in judgement judges nations and…oh that’s right, takes the nails on a cruel cross. But how? How can you really keep believing and trusting when you’ve got ‘exterminate’ and ‘totally destroy’ as your key descriptors. 

Here’s how it played out for me recently. I heard the ladies bible study struggling through some part of Judges and to be honest I felt their pain - the pain of thousand year old mayhem. I also felt the resonance of doubt and then I felt something else: the yearning to know, to really know how the blood of the massacres coheres with the blood of the cross and ‘God so loved the world’  and to come out the other side with a faithful vibrancy in the God who creates, judges, loves and bleeds and is still the hero. 

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Here’s how it went stream of consciousness style: gathered around our kitchen bench, a favourite meeting place, a couple of remnant KYB-ers hanging around after the study, the Judges story of the Levite and his concubine still resonating its violence and brutality (Judges 19-21) ‘it seems so harsh’ with the subtext ‘and unfair and disturbing’ and the further sub-text ‘so unChristian’. Halfway through choccy mud cake from Coles and there I am trying to remember the books and articles I’d read about this, wanting to come up with at least a quarter decent answer. Internal voice: say something about the holiness of God and the seriousness of sin. Say something else about the chaos of Judges and how ‘every person did as they saw fit’ Judges 21:25 and, a la Lord of the Flies ‘saw fit’ equaled massacring each other and sending body parts mule-express to postal addressees everywhere. Said it. Nothing to report...

And now thinking think stuff. Thinking ‘glad you aren’t studying Joshua 11:17 (exterminate them without mercy) or Deuteronomy 7:2 (show no mercy)’ Thinking ‘this is why pop-rock churches just stick with John 3:16 and 1 Corinthians 13’ Thinking  ‘I remember one guy from a church years ago going: ‘well if this is God you can keep Him’ Think ‘I remember that might have been me’ Thinking ‘But then I came to resolution, a resolution of some sort I just wish I could articulate it properly…’ Thinking ‘I really shouldn’t be eating chocolate cake this late'

End stream. 

Here’s where my reasoning went after the discussion was done. It went to prayer. And the prayer was basically ‘help’. Help me to understand and feel and worship in these verses. Help to see how you are still the Hero because they do seem harsh and cruel. Help me to not to forget in all this you took the nails and that’s gotta mean something profoundly decent. Help me to see. 

The key questions seemed to be these: how can this go together: the command to exterminate with the command to love? How can the felt story of the God who commands destruction cohere pleasantly in the heart with the God who redeems on a cross? Is God Friend or Foe? Father or Nemesis? Are the hands that comfort the hands that destroy? 

Some like to make much of the logical contradiction, or the intellectual contradiction, but the real contradiction is the relational contradiction. The nucleus of Christianity is person-shaped; that is, God-in-man shaped. It is Jesus shaped. The incredible claim of Christianity is God became a relating person. Smarties call this the incarnation but I call it capital R Remarkable: God becomes man and relates in human sweat, human blood and human tears - He relates comprehensively. And once the cross is pulled down, and the tomb busted open, the relating continues through the Counsellor who is also the one who stirs up a presencing love which expresses itself with the cry ‘Abba’ Father ‘ deep, deep in our hearts. This is the thing that makes us sons and daughters and friends as well as followers and disciples. Its the thing that takes creeds and doctrines and turns them into the Monday morning encouragements of ‘Immanuel' - God with us at brekky lunch and tea. 

But how can I be a son and friend to 'do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys’.

It’s incongruity at its worst because it’s the incongruity of ‘daddy has blood on his hands and I might be next’. So what to do…and what to think…and what to feel? Initially just the chill of ‘what the’ and the intellect and the memory trying to remember which book or website had this one covered. Then the proverbs 2 inspired prayer. ‘please help me understand’ (because understanding is a gift) and then a trickle of thoughts which soon gathers into a stream of other thoughts and verses.

First the trickle: So really? Loving to kill, via sword and fire, a whole people group? Loving even to kill one person with the sword? Loving to ’show no mercy’? Here’s the thing though, the ‘thing' in this little article being a question-story, or rather a story with a question at the end. Say you live in peaceful neighbourhood: the grass is always green, the edges always trimmed and the name on the street sign is a pretty name like ‘Honeysuckle St’. Happy kiddies play handball on the quiet street and blow pretty bubbles from home made bubble wands. But then, down at number 6 Honey Suckle, an evil man moves in: his portable hard drives loaded with child porn and his camera bag toting a zoom lens which won’t be focussed on the neighbourhood lorikeets. He worships a strange and ugly metal bull-god which he sets up in the front yard (freedom of religion you see) and from then on, amongst the wattles and the honeysuckles, an ugly metal, fanged, gargoyle-headed horror overlooks the street. At the feet of the gargoyle the man sets up an altar and writes in scarlet ‘child sacrifices here’. 

At first you think all this is just some creepy reality TV set up. But as you live with the man you realise this is no TV show. You’ve heard him threaten, you’ve seen him intimidate, you’ve reported him to the police but they can’t do anything until a crime is committed. You begin to wonder about moving but instead you decide to buy a handgun. Then one night you hear a scream. You grab your gun and rush out onto Honeysuckle and two doors down there is a struggling toddler held down on the altar. The gargoyle is leering and the evil man’s hand is upraised with a hideously long knife. The sin of the man has reached its ugly fullness. There is no time to do anything but fire. What is the loving thing to do? 

How about this? What if, many years before, you somehow knew this guy had homicidal, pathological, sociopathic tendencies (and he liked it) and you decided that he deserved an opportunity for modern therapy. So you, being an extraordinarily beneficent neighbour (you do live on a street called Honeysuckle...and like it), pour thousands of dollars into the best therapists money can buy: the latest techniques and medicines are his, the best Psyches (even better than Oprah) are his. Money and time are spent on the guy - he even gets to pat baby zebras (animal therapy) while listening to flutes playing Mozart (music therapy)

But it makes no difference - there is still the struggling toddler old held down on the altar, gargoyle leering, evil man’s hand upraised with a hideously long knife. The sin of the man has reached its ugly fullness. There is no time to do anything but fire. What is the loving thing to do? 

How about this? While you are spending thousands on therapy the man is surfing and hosting child porn sites and gathering quite a following of other like-minded individuals. Since a lot of your neighbours have now moved out (they like living on Honeysuckle as well…just not that much) all the child porn, child killer psychos have moved in and when not roasting baby zebras over an open fire are busy plotting how they can get their next child sacrifice. Which they do. Except this time the screams are from ten altars on Honeysuckle and you, by now having upgraded your weapons, rush out with a gatling gun. The sin of the men and his psycho groupies has reached its ugly fullness. There is no time to do anything but fire. What is the loving thing to do? 

Or How about this? (I’m nearly done - I promise.) All of Honeysuckle becomes an enclave in which depraved child porn, child sacrificing men and women (and even their kids - the one who somehow skip the altars) happily and horrifically systemise their ‘worldview’ into a culture of sexual and physical atrocities now encompassing generations. In this culture the definition of ‘good’ entails a lustful night (and day) brutalising children for the ‘pleasure’ of their gargoyle god. In this culture children who survive the altars are taught their privilege as an adult is the privilege to abuse and assault each other and their children in the service of their ‘god’. All children will grow and ‘mature’ into evil men and women without hope of redemption. Their culture, has by all definitions, reached the fullness of depravity. There is nothing redeemable about it.  Then the enclave begins to raid and terrorise other neighbourhoods with the wicked intent of full domination and enculturation of anyone in their realm of influence. The rest of the country has, by now, upgraded its weapons. They rush aircraft into the air. There is no time to do anything but fire. What is the loving thing to do?

How about this (I did say nearly done…). Just as you are about to press the button and go thermonuclear for the sake of the rest of the world and children everywhere when Oprah Junior shows up and begins a whole series on how the guy who used to hand out free bubble mix to the Honeysuckle kiddies and paid for therapy for dudes suffering with child porn addiction couldn’t possibly be the same guy who’s about to nuke a whole culture of child terrorists. The atheist bloggers write about how this just proves the loving guy on Honeysuckle was a crazy despot and was probably going to cause other people to be crazy despots as well. And church-goers everywhere stick to 1 Corinthians 13 and John 3:16. 

Ok so the whole question-story may seem like a nice little flight of fancy but kind of devoid of any scripture right? Nope, it may not have followed the specifics of scripture but it most certainly it followed its contours. And the contours are consistent with God’s love and mercy and justice, His ’repent, turn, don’t be destroyed therapy’ over many centuries to insistently evil people, and finally to ‘what is the loving thing to do?’ Take a look. 

The child sacrificing porn psychos on Honeysuckle are sweeter versions of the Canaanites in the bible.  The people there were subject to extreme judgement because of extreme depravity: they were so cruelly vile, so terribly sinful and so irredeemably depraved that…’there is no time to do anything but fire, what is the loving thing to do?’ 

The Canaanites are first mentioned as inhabiting the land in which Abraham was a nomadic wanderer and to which his descendants would one day escape. In Gen 15:16 Abraham is told  In the fourth generation your descendants will come back here, for the sin of the Amorites has not yet reached its full measure.”

The Amorites, here a sub-group and a metonym for the Canaanites, are mentioned has having sin that has not yet reached it’s full measure. But what was their sin? Surely it wasn’t as bad as the child porn psychos on Honeysuckle? It was worse, as shown in an article by Clay Jones over at the Christian Research Institute where he notes that some of the horrors of the Canaanite’s sinfulness were exhibited in'rampant idolatry, incest, adultery, child sacrifice, homosexuality, and bestiality’. The article uses a combination of biblical references and historical data and the excerpts below paint a horrific picture:

Idolatry. The Canaanites worshiped other gods, which the Old Testament frequently denounced as no more than sticks or pottery made by human hands that could not “see or hear or eat or smell” (Deut. 4:28 NIV)…The Canaanites took seriously the testimony of the Old Testament witness of Yahweh and His revelation, if for no other reason than intentionally to transform the scriptural depiction of Yahweh into a castrated weakling who likes to play with His own excrement and urine…

Incest. Like all Ancient Near East (ANE) pantheons, the Canaanite pantheon was incestuous. Baal has sex with his mother Asherah, his sister Anat, and his daughter Pidray, and none of this is presented pejoratively...In the larger Ancient Near East context, it is helpful to consider that in an Egyptian dream book dreams of having sex with your mother or your sister were considered good omens.

Adultery. Canaanite religion, like that of all of the ANE, was a fertility religion that involved temple sex. Inanna/Ishtar, also known as the Queen of Heaven, “became the woman among the gods, patron of eroticism and sensuality, of conjugal love as well as adultery, of brides and prostitutes, transvestites and pederasts.” As University of Helsinki professor Martti Nissinen writes, “Sexual contact with a person whose whole life was devoted to the goddess was tantamount to union with the goddess herself.”

The Canaanites even remake the God of the Bible, El, after their own image and portray Him ceremonially as having sex with two women (or goddesses). The ceremony ends with directions: “To be repeated five times by the company and the singers of the assembly.”

Bestiality. Probably the ultimate sexual depravity is intercourse with animals. Hittite Laws: 199 states, “If anyone has intercourse with a pig or a dog, he shall die. If a man has intercourse with a horse or a mule, there is no punishment.”As with incest, the penalty for having sex with animals decreased about the fourteenth century BC...From the Canaanite epic poem “The Baal Cycle” we learn: “Mightiest Baal hears / He makes love with a heifer in the outback / A cow in the field of Death’s Realm. / He lies with her seventy times seven / Mounts eighty times eight / She conceives and bears a boy.” There were absolutely no prohibitions against bestiality in the rest of the ancient near east. In fact, in an Egyptian dream book it was a bad omen for a woman to dream about embracing her husband, but good things would happen if she dreamed of intercourse with a baboon, wolf, or he-goat. In short, their sexual fantasies involved everything that breathes.

Homosexuality. Some [ancient] manuscripts talk about “party-boys and festival people who changed their masculinity into femininity to make the people of Ishtar revere her.” We should also remember that the problem with the Canaanite city of Sodom wasn’t just sex among consenting adults: the men of Sodom, both young and old, tried to rape the visitors (Gen. 19:5)

Child sacrifice. Molech was a Canaanite underworld deity represented as an upright, bullheaded idol with a human body in whose belly a fire was stoked and in whose outstretched arms a child was placed that would be burned to death. The victims were not only infants; children as old as four were sacrificed. Kleitarchos reported that “as the flame burning the child surrounded the body, the limbs would shrivel up and the mouth would appear to grin as if laughing, until it was shrunk enough to slip into the cauldron.”

For anyone in this society, young or mature, there could be no happy endings. Things were going from bad to worse as can be seen in the constitutional laws changing over the years to allow more and more debauched acts. God tells Abraham ’the sin of the Amorites has not yet reached it’s full measure’ which meant that their sin had not yet got to a point where His fearsome righteousness would demand wide-scale judgement. It also meant there was the gracious opportunity over some 400 years for reform. But no reform came. 

Over 400 years the debauchery went from worse to worse. Molech’s leer deepened. In the world of leadership literature the quote ‘an organisation takes on the personality of it’s leader’ has become a bit of a truism. What kind of personality does a nation have that takes on the personality of Molech or Baal or Asherah? 

What made things worse was because of the religious innateness of human beings the belief system was intrinsically evangelical. It was passed on from father to son, mother to daughter and neighbour to neighbour until eventually not only was there no righteous person left, there was no hope anyone could repent, reform and become righteous in God’s eyes. 

Enter the Israelites. A people spectacularly delivered from slavery and oppression. A people through whom God intended to bless the whole world for it was through these people God’s grace would be offered. They were to be a people dedicated completely to him heart and soul. They were to be a righteous people who were to follow the His precious laws - the expression of His holiness intersecting with their culture. And that holiness had at its heart a call to love God and neighbour, to spurn evil and, when stumbling in sin, to claim forgiveness in the blood of lambs and bulls that would one day by completely subsumed by the blood of God himself when He became Christ Jesus the lamb. The very laws of God had within them the means of grace - the sacrificial system - when Israel did sin. And now, soaked in God’s grace, the people approach the front yard of Molech, the consumer of babies and children.. What will happen? A peaceful intermingling? A lovely experiment in multiculturalism? Nope, it won’t just be the new curries and sushi the Israelites partake in, it’s the stuff they’re warned about in these verses:

When you enter the land the Lord your God is giving you, do not learn to imitate the detestable ways of the nations there. Let no one be found among you who sacrifices his son or daughter in the fire, who practices divination or sorcery, interprets omens, engages in witchcraft, or casts spells, or who is a medium or spiritist or who consults the dead. Anyone who does these things is detestable to the Lord, and because of these detestable practices the Lord your God will drive out those nations before you Dt 18:9-12

Here’s the thing. Sin imbues the world with an ugly complexity. Human beings, beautiful and willingly free, wilfully brutalise the beauty of freedom. Desire, once flowing powerfully like a river contained within it’s banks, breaks out of it’s boundaries like an angry flood. Instead of desire powerfully clinging to one woman or one man in God-ordained marriage, desire smashes its way into hungry relations with animals. Where wheat and wine were cause of celebration and gladness to the God of all gods they become drunken thanks-giving to ugly gods of incest and murder. Where a man once looked into the sky and into the cosmos and saw a sermon commending the one true God he sees only inspiration to build wood and metal images and then to watch babies smoulder in ‘worship’ to these ‘gods’. 

It’s easy to go with the whole ‘live and let live’ argument but there was no live and let live in Canaanite culture: there wasn’t even ‘die and let die’ there was ‘kill and let kill’, ‘rape and let rape’, ‘abuse and let abuse’. And then it was all systematised into a religion which somehow made such behaviour worship. And which, like pretty much all religions, ‘evangelised’ thus expanding it’s child burning culure further and further afield. So now here are God’s chosen people, chosen so that other people might be blessed, about to encounter the Canaanites. What happens next? 

God, within tightly controlled geographical boundaries, after 400 years of grace, commands wrath upon the people of Canaan. Old, young, sexually abused animals, everything.  Which brings us back to our shock-verses:

And when the Lord your God has delivered them over to you and you have defeated them, then you must destroy them totally. Make no treaty with them, and show them no mercy. Deuteronomy 7:2

and

For it was the Lord himself who hardened their hearts to wage war against Israel, so that he might destroy them totally, exterminating them without mercy, as the Lord had commanded Moses. Joshua 11:17

and

Now go, attack the Amalekites and totally destroy everything that belongs to them. Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys. 1 Sam 15:3

The time for grace is over. The day of redemption has been ignored by the Canaanites. There is now only destruction. But what happens next is even more shocking. The Israelites, over time, eventually become worse than the Canaanites - a direct consequence of only partially obeying the divine mandate to devote everything to destruction within the boundaries of the promised land. Pretty much all the shocking sins of the Canaanites become the sins of God’s ‘holy’ people: Idolatry, rampant adultery, bestiality, divination and even the burning of babies flows through the spiritual veins of the Israelites. Even wise King Solomon enthusiastically builds an altar to Molech for his foreign wives. (1 Kings 11:7) Eventually God says of His people:

Your older sister was Samaria, who lived to the north of you [Israel] with her daughters; and your younger sister, who lived to the south of you with her daughters [Judah], was Sodom. You not only walked in their ways and copied their detestable practices, but in all your ways you soon became more depraved than they... Ezekiel 16:46-47

He then goes further on and says of Judah that Judah’s sins are only as half as bad as Samaria’s and because Judah’s sins were so much more vile they actually made Samaria appear ‘more righteous’ (Ezek 16:51-52). That’s a really, really scary thing. God says his people living in Samaria are so sinful they are as bad as Sodom and that his people in Judah are so bad they make the guys in Samaria (who are like Sodom) look ‘good’. How sickeningly atrocious would people like this look - people who are doing things even the depraved people of Sodom would find shocking? And if this is what’s happened to the people who were supposed to be agents of gracious reform, what hope is there for anyone on earth? 

And all that makes me wonder some things, what if God had allowed it to go on…and on? What if one generation constantly outdid the one preceding in the depravity stakes?  Would I even be here? Would any of us be here, at least in a ‘civilised’ way. What kinds of disease vectors would all that awful profanation have taken?  And if I was here what kind of person (or animal) would I be. What kind of value system would I have…and be teaching to my children (when I wasn’t torturing them in red hot metal).  What would the world look like as horror after sinful horror metastasised into everything it touched?

I must admit I used to kind of cringe when I saw ancient songs like the one following (not quite a Hillsong fave…)

How long will the enemy mock you, O God? Will the foe revile your name forever? Why do you hold back your hand, your right hand? Take it from the folds of your garment and destroy them! Psalm 74:10-11

I just couldn’t imagine how anyone could pray or sing something like that. But if the battle song was aimed at the Canaanites who were still around when the psalm was written, or at their baby-burning Israelite proselytes - proselytes who now emulated their role models who portrayed 'Yahweh as a castrated weakling who liked to play with His own excrement and urine' - then it makes sense a warrior poet would get all het up and combat-roar 'Why do you hold back your hand, your right hand? Take it from the folds of your garment and destroy them!’ I never used to get such psalms but I kind of do now. And perhaps this is also why some psalms actually give thanks for God’s judgement on the nations.

When you, O God, rose up to judge, to save all the afflicted of the land. 

Selah. 

Surely your wrath against men brings you praise, and the survivors of your wrath are restrained Psalm 76:9-10

Whether it’s judgment using a chosen nation, or thunderous mega-storms, or fire and burning hail, or earthquake and wind there is a ferocious grace in God’s judgement. It saves the afflicted and potentiates a new beginning for a people willing to accept grace and repent from a people unrestrained refusing over and over again to be corrected, to repent and be reformed.  Repent…that’s a beautiful word. Goes well with grace. And that’s the thing about God, the spectacular holiness of His character, His hatred of evil is perfectly balanced with the magnificence of His love. And that’s where I want to finish I want to finish with three surprising protrusions of grace into the massacres and mayhem of the Old Testament:

Surprise No 1. God, even in the face of extreme and horrific sin, takes no pleasure at all in the death of the wicked. "As I live, says the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live” (Ez. 33:11). This is from the mouth of the same preacher who earlier proclaimed that Samaria was worse than Sodom and yet was only half as bad as Judah. And yet God says his pleasure is not in judgement but ’that the wicked [i.e. baby killing, idol worshipping, animal abusing wicked] should turn from his way and live’. That’s very surprising. Most of us would probably be jumping on the  capital punishment band wagon way before God does, certainly not waiting 400 years. 

This desire that the wicked repent and live explains why God engages in extended dialogue with Abraham over Sodom which has just had it’s best citizens  young and old, try and rape two angels. The dialogue is all about preventing judgement if only 10 righteous people can be found - they can’t and so the city is destroyed but not before all of them have been given ample warning and opportunity to repent. Later, when God’s people have become as bad as Sodom, God says he would relent from judgment if only one righteous man could be found Jeremiah 5:1. 

God’s desire that ‘the wicked turn from his way and live’ also explains why God waited so long between the time of Abraham and the time of Joshua to act against the Canaanites and when one of them, a prostitute called Rahab, repented she was transformed from a whore into royalty.  In fact she would one day end up in the bible’s family tree as being a direct ancestor of Jesus. The reason for the repentance was the awe of the God who had so powerfully delivered Israel from Egypt and a heart-fear that her only hope was to turn to Him by protecting the spies. And this is significant because it means that the reputation of a God who had judged the Egyptians was evangelical - it preached a sermon in and of itself of the reality of the living God and the need to humble  oneself (unlike Pharaoh) and repent. 

Even in Samuel’s time the reputation of the God who delivered through the red sea was still doing it’s evangelical work. The ark of the covenant has been captured by the Philistines and was wreaking havoc all by itself in their midst. Tumours are breaking out and Dagon their home-made god keeps getting smashed down. Finally the expert Philistine priests are called in and they say of God, as they come up with a plan to return the ark:

Perhaps he will lift his hand from you and your gods and your land. 6 Why do you harden your hearts as the Egyptians and Pharaoh did? When he treated them harshly, did they not send the Israelites out so they could go on their way 1 Sam 6:5-6

Some four centuries after the Israelites have been delivered miraculously from Egypt the Philistines, a Canaanite sub-group, still remember and know the whole story and in knowing the story are given the opportunity to respond and repent. 

In another surprising move, and in the midst of wickedness, God sends a prophet even to the pagan city of Nineveh because of his pity for its inhabitants, “who do not know their right hand from their left” (Jon. 4.11) They turn, they repent and God relents even as Jonah decides to whinge because he went to all the trouble of prophesying wrath and it never happens because of the repentance of the people. 

Much later, in fact about 1ooo years later, Nehemiah says this of God:

You sent miraculous signs and wonders against Pharaoh, against all his officials and all the people of his land, for you knew how arrogantly the Egyptians treated them. You made a name for yourself, which remains to this day. Nehemiah 9:10 

The reputation of God - the name - remains even to the day of Nehemiah. Which meant that ‘the name’ and the reputation which rested (literally in fire and cloud) upon the Israelite nation was a constant call to repent -  a constant call to ‘turn from their way and live’ because of the awesome reputation of God but the Canaanites as a whole would not. 

Of course there’s still the issue of kids being killed which would have been horrific to witness no matter how necessary it was but William Lane Craig has a good answer:

Moreover, if we believe, as I do, that God’s grace is extended to those who die in infancy or as small children, the death of these children was actually their salvation.  We are so wedded to an earthly, naturalistic perspective that we forget that those who die are happy to quit this earth for heaven’s incomparable joy.  Therefore, God does these children no wrong in taking their lives.

Surprise No 2. God feels and weeps and pleads. God isn’t a force, He’s a face. God has a personality and a heart. Just drink in some of these verses - verses depicting either God himself or God through His preaching prophets reacting to the Canaanite-like sin of His people:

In all their distress he too was distressed, and the angel of his presence saved them. In his love and mercy he redeemed them; he lifted them up and carried them all the days of old. Yet they rebelled and grieved his Holy Spirit. Isaiah 63:9-10

Therefore I said, “Turn away from me; let me weep bitterly. Do not try to console me over the destruction of my people Isaiah 22:4

“I revealed myself to those who did not ask for me; I was found by those who did not seek me. To a nation that did not call on my name, I said, ‘Here am I, here am I. ’All day long I have held out my hands to an obstinate people, who walk in ways not good Isaiah 65:1-2

“Your own conduct and actions have brought this upon you. This is your punishment. How bitter it is! How it pierces to the heart!” Oh, my anguish, my anguish! I writhe in pain. Oh, the agony of my heart! My heart pounds within me, I cannot keep silent. For I have heard the sound of the trumpet; I have heard the battle cry. Jeremiah 4:18-20

It’s hard to distinguish sometimes between the voice of the prophet and the voice of God. “Thus says the Lord’ flows through all of Jeremiah though, but it’s a pretty safe assessment to assess the sentiment of the prophet as the sentiment of God and that sentiment is ‘oh my anguish’. Of course later in the New Testament, in three separate verses, we see God in Jesus weep over recalcitrant Jerusalem. And this doesn’t make Him weak to me - it makes Him mega attractive to me because it shows God feels and truly does not take any joy in the death of the wicked. 

Surprise No 3. God can somehow turn the Valley of Achor into a doorway of hope. What on earth is the Valley of Achor? Or to be more precise where on earth is it? The valley of Achor appears in Joshua 7:24 and it ain’t a nice valley. It’s a valley that if you could find today you would find the bones of a guy called Achan and his whole family. You see Achan kept a bunch of treasure from Jericho for himself in disobedience to God’s command not to. As a result of this ‘sin in the camp’ Israel lost the next few battles and good soldiers were killed in these battles. Eventually Achan was found out and was taken to the valley of Achor and there, with his whole family, was stoned to death. I really struggled with this when I read it. But then, after not a little turmoil (cause I’m committed to the whole bible not just John 3:16) I found this verse in Hosea 2:15 written hundreds of years later: 

There I will give her back her vineyards, and will make the Valley of Achor a door of hope. There she will sing as in the days of her youth, as in the day she came up out of Egypt.

Now I don’t know what stuff was lurking in Achan’s heart or why his family had to die as well but if the a valley of judgement can become a ‘door of hope’ than that’s very cool. It’s cool because it means the stones falling on Achan and his family are not the last chapter. There’s another chapter to be written that recontextualises judgement into hope. But how? How can a valley like that become a door of hope? I know of only one answer in the bible. And it’s the same answer to the following conundrum-passage:

And he passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, “The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished Exodus 34:6-7

Do you see it, the conundrum? How can the Lord be compassionate and gracious, forgiving wickedness and yet not leave the guilty unpunished? How can justice be served and yet people preserved? There is only one answer in all of the bible and its the biggest surprise of all…except we already know and are shamefully accustomed to the answer.  But it’s still a great answer. How can the conundrum be solved? Only in the man Jesus Christ screaming out ‘it is finished!’ from a rugged old cross on a hill called Golgotha. Here every objection from every atheist is answered. Justice and Love conflate in Jesus who is God come to take the bullet for all of us. And what a bullet. Every idolatry, every baby sacrifice, every insulting blasphemy involving excrement, every horrific sin more than paid for by the infinitely valuable bleeding son. 

The real question of massacres and mayhem in the bible then becomes ‘Why would God himself become the victim?” Why would God himself be massacred? Because He loves with a furious love and He comes for us even in our most helpless and evil state. There’s no story like this and never has been. That’s why I still believe. 

That’s where I want to finish, and for our own good or our own destruction, what we do here is where we will all one day finish. 

Isaiah 65:1-2...I said, ‘Here am I, here am I. All day long I have held out my hands to an obstinate people, who walk in ways not good, pursuing their own imaginations’

PS And see here for how far God really goes in three years of miracles, preaching and service...



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