Our Disturbing Scriptures: Bye bye, rebellious children.

A new post on the “Our Disturbing Scriptures” series is long overdue. Part of this was just due to a busy schedule; another part was (and this surprises even me) I couldn’t think of another good example to write about. Considering the contents of the Bible, which can range from dismembered concubines to the mass slaughter of an entire generation of Egyptian children, that’s saying something.

Anyway, during my vacation this past week, a new one came to mind:

“If a man has a stubborn and rebellious son who will not obey the voice of his father or the voice of his mother, and, though they discipline him, will not listen to them, then his father and his mother shall take hold of him and bring him out to the elders of his city at the gate of the place where he lives, and they shall say to the elders of his city, ‘This our son is stubborn and rebellious; he will not obey our voice; he is a glutton and a drunkard.’ Then all the men of the city shall stone him to death with stones. So you shall purge the evil from your midst, and all Israel shall hear, and fear.” (Deuteronomy 21:18-21)

Hear and fear, indeed.

I’ve been in churches most of my life, and I can’t recall when, if ever, I heard someone devote some serious time to unpacking this passage for an audience. Maybe that’s because, like me, they find it too harsh and unsettling to devote time to, and sometimes it’s easier to forget that passages like these even exist.

I understand the need for a child to be disciplined since it can ultimately breed maturity and character. But the death penalty seems to be too much, to say the least.

How were these parents, themselves flawed human beings, able to judge when their child had reached the point of no return?

Would the supposedly rebellious child have a chance to respond to and appeal the charges brought against him?

And if the death penalty had to be pursued, were there not faster ways of killing a person than throwing stones at them? Why drag out the punishment?

This seems like a brutal punishment, as if a crime deserving a spanking is instead being settled with a gun.

I can think of one possible explanation, though it’s not entirely satisfying:

If children didn’t honor their parents when they were young, those parents might not be taken care of when they’re older and in need their children’s support. God, by instituting this punishment, is trying to prevent an entire generation of elderly people from suffering neglect and abuse.

I leave other explanations open to the comments section below. (Also, I’ll try and do a better job of updating this blog.)

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Our Disturbing Scriptures: Abraham’s test.

You’re Abraham. Years ago, a strange deity invited you to leave your father’s land and travel to a place you didn’t know. You would be a blessing for all the families of the earth. And, despite your age, you’d have a child who would have children who would have children who would, in the words of this god, be numbered like the sand on the shore.

Years pass. Finally, your wife, against all odds and the detriment of age against her body, conceives a child. You name him Isaac. This baby grows into a child. And in his childhood, the god you’re following presents the startling request: “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I shall tell you.”

It’d be hard to have a series titled “Our Disturbing Scriptures” without mentioning the testing of Abraham in Genesis 22.

Because in this test, God orders Abraham to kill his little boy. And this again raises questions as to what kind of God we’re dealing with here.

You might say, “But it was only to test Abraham’s faith! God wasn’t going to let Isaac be killed.” (Yes, God intervenes at the last minute, informing Abraham that it was only a test, but that doesn’t change the nature of the test itself.)

Or you could point to Hebrews 11, where that book’s author informs us that Abraham reasoned God could raise Isaac from the dead and, therefore, carry out His promises.

Or you might argue that this whole story is a preview of Jesus as the sacrifice for the world’s sins. That is, Isaac wasn’t sacrificed and God provided an animal for the altar (in this case, a ram). On the cross, Jesus was sacrificed, and God is the Father. Isaac was saved at the last moment, Jesus was not.

All of that is important, but it doesn’t change the fact that, for these few moments, it seems like God joined the ranks of people who sacrificed children to their gods (a horrendous practice that the nation of Israel later adopted and God condemned).

Was there no other way? In all His creativity and wisdom, could God not have come up with another way to test Abraham’s faith, so Isaac wouldn’t forever carry the image of his father standing over him with a knife as he lay bound on an altar? And did Sarah (Abraham’s wife) ever find out?

I don’t have any quick answers, though I wish I did. I wish I could numb this story, but maybe the author (and perhaps God Himself) never intended for us to find ways to make this comfortable.

Maybe a life of faith requires that there be, at times, tension and discomfort between us and God. I imagine Abraham was quite uncomfortable (an understatement, to be sure) on the walk to the altar where his faith was proven genuine. 

I’m sure that burden lifted when God prevented Abraham from carrying the act to completion, but maybe this was a turning point for father and son. Maybe this was the moment when it fully hit them that the God of Abraham, who had bound their destinies to the fate of the world, was as unpredictable and, at times, cruel as He was powerful and trustworthy.

And it’s at this point that they, and we, have to ask ourselves: Are we willing to trust a God who makes us shudder?

Our Disturbing Scriptures: the Flood.

The book of Genesis starts with a pretty cool God. In the first couple of chapters, God fashions the world and makes mankind in His image, taking delight in the entire thing and calling it “good.” He invents work, gardens, and sex (very good, indeed!)

But, just six chapters into this book, God gets frightening.

I’m talking, of course, about the Flood which is said to cover the earth, sparing no one in its wake save for Noah, his wife, their three sons, and their three daughters-in-law. Animals find shelter in the ark. Eventually, the water subsides, and mankind starts over. God promises to never do that again and makes a rainbow as the physical sign of that promise.

People died horribly. The water is going to hold their bodies like a graveyard; perhaps as Noah looked over the side of the ark, he could see his ship cutting through a row of corpses. No children’s story here.

The text tells us this happened after the Lord saw the wickedness of man and regretted ever making them to begin with, which is scary in itself. If He regretted making them, could our actions lead Him to regret us? Could my actions lead to God’s regret over me?

Is this really the best way to start this book? After six chapters, God is initiating large-scale death.

Maybe you’re not unsettled by this. After all, the text says that mankind, through its evil, brought this disaster upon itself. God is just. We are not. That’s what happens when justice confronts injustice.

I understand that explanation, and I believe it has merit. In the scheme of things, I hope God is pissed at what’s wrong with our world and is willing to do something about it. I think He’d have a cold heart if He saw our state of affairs and didn’t feel a thing.

But I also sympathize with people who just shifted in their seats or those who would rather cut this part of the book out altogether. These types of stories don’t seem to jibe with the God who so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son (John 3:16) or the God who doesn’t delight in the death of the wicked (Ezekiel 18:23).

Jesus said we could search the Scriptures to find him, but it’s hard to see the cross-bearing, life-giving Messiah in a sea of floating bodies.

So maybe a starting place for both your journey through the Scriptures and this blog series can be this: The God of the Bible is scary.

Maybe that’s why we’re told that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, because the God who rescued Israel and made covenant with them is very dangerous*. He’s unpredictable and can’t be tamed. He doesn’t shy away from punishing evil, and He certainly doesn’t fit into anyone’s preconceived notions about Him.

The Flood account flies in the face of people who argue that God only does nice things. That same dangerous God also displays a surprising amount of patience toward people who deserve punishment, much to the dismay of those who delight in justice but not in mercy.

That last thought might sound strange given the topic, but God didn’t have to wait to initiate the Flood. Maybe the disaster didn’t come immediately because He was waiting for people to turn to Him and away from their evil; at the very least, He waited for Noah and his family to build an ark in which they, and the animals, could find safety.

This is the same idea that Peter presents to his readers in 2 Peter 3:9:

“The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish but that all should reach repentance.”

So maybe the real surprise of the Flood is not that it happened but rather, how long it took God to finally act.

Those are my initial thoughts. Time for yours. Are you disturbed by this biblical account? Do you think this story contradicts “God is love”?

*If you don’t believe me, just remember that part of His rescue of Israel involved destroying Egypt, including firstborn children. After the Exodus, would any of the Egyptians have thought of God as nice?

NOTE: I thought about touching on whether this was a global or regional flood, but I decided against it because I wanted to keep things on point instead of opening the possibility for a discussion on creationism and evolution. Besides, there are people who are much more qualified than me to lead that discussion.

New Series: ‘Our Disturbing Scriptures’

There it is. The name of my new blog series.

The Bible is a disturbing book (and if you don’t think so, chances are, you’re not actually reading it). It’s disturbing in the sense that it challenges our preconceived notions about God, ourselves, and life. That’s a spiritual way of looking at it.

But the Bible is also difficult in the regular sense of the word. It’s hard, confusing, and scary. Its narratives are unsettling, to say the least, but we’ve somehow managed to either ignore them or make them safer. Case in point: the Flood.

God tells Noah that He’s going to visit mankind with catastrophe. People are going to drown in this flood. And what do we do? We turn it into a children’s story. Apparently hearing about large-scale death is a great way for your kids to end the day.

So I want this series to deal with some of those difficult topics. I’ll choose some; feel free to shoot me a message with suggestions for more. Hopefully, we’ll grow together in knowledge and worship.

Justin