Bible in the Fireplace
Several years ago, I set aside my home-grown theology and started down a Christian path. I hoped that the religion of my culture and my ancestors would offer some comfort and meaning in a lonely, chaotic world. I watched The Passion of the Christ and blogged about the Holy Trinity. I read a wide variety of perspectives on Christ, from Rick Warren to Deepak Chopra. I prayed at length, seeking God’s will for me, begging him to tell me how best to serve his glory.
Ultimately, I began to explore the mystical traditions of the Episcopal church of my heritage. I attend Holy Eucharist at least weekly, not only at my local parish but also in the great cathedral in San Francisco. I took a retreat in a mountainside monastery, participating in corporate worship three times a day. I say grace at meals with my son. I started recited the Daily Office and passages from the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer each evening, and meditate upon their teachings.
Yet today, I suffer a deep crisis of faith with the potential to drive me away from Christianity permanently.
The issue stems from an egregious sin of omission on the part of Christianity itself. Despite its fervent teachings about God’s grace and forgiveness in the Gospels and the Epistles, it does little to offset the hideous crimes perpetrated in God’s name by the fathers of Israel.
The mystery begins with the passage recently popularized by a historical novel called The Red Tent. In chapter 34 of Genesis, Jacob is the father of 12 sons who later form the 12 tribes of Israel. Jacob’s daughter Dinah becomes lovers with the prince of a neighboring city. Unhappy with the turn of events, her brothers and father convince the king of the city to have all his men circumcised as a condition for accepting Dinah’s marriage to the prince – a request which verse 13 calls “deceitful”. Even after the king complies with their “agreement”, Dinah’s brothers go on a cruel revengeful rampage.
“Two of Jacob’s sons, Simeon and Levi, Dinah’s brothers, took their swords and attacked the unsuspecting city, killing every male… The sons of Jacob came upon the dead bodies and looted the city where their sister had been defiled. They seized their flocks and herds and donkeys and everything else of theirs in the city and out in the fields. They carried off all their wealth and all their women and children, taking as plunder everything in the house.”
After leading his band of thugs on their monstrous frenzy of deceit, murder, and thievery, without showing any remorse, Levi goes on to have descendents who carry on the family’s beliefs and traditions. One of them is Moses. The Moses story that a regular churchgoer hears on Sunday mornings tells of his heroic guidance that leads the Israelites out of bondage and into freedom. It’s a dramatic tale filled with hope and promise.
I made the mistake of actually reading what happens next. In chapter 2 of Deuteronomy, the descendents of Jacob’s crime family have tried to pass through an area called Heshbon, whose king, Sihon, won’t let them pass.
“When Sihon and all his army came out to meet us in battle at Jahaz, the Lord our God delivered him over to us and we struck him down, together with his sons and his whole army. At that time we took all his towns and completely destroyed them – men, women, and children. We left no survivors. But the livestock and the plunder from the towns we had captured we carried off for ourselves.”
Heshbon is just one example; the stories of Moses and his successor Joshua are packed with the methodical elimination of neighboring tribes. In the 20th century, it’s called genocide. In the Bible, such horrific behavior is rewarded with celebratory songs and praiseful retellings such as those in the books of Psalms and Acts.
I suppose a true believer would claim that all the residents of Shechem’s city and Heshbon were evil, and that the Israelites, as God’s “chosen people”, had the duty to carry out God’s plan for the world by eliminating those who stood in the way of their attaining the promised land. But saying “God told me to do it” doesn’t excuse the crime, any more than the MPs at Abu Ghraib should be excused for torturing prisoners under the orders of their superiors.
All the creatures of the Earth are God’s children. I know that to be true. In the nations destroyed by the Israelites lived moral, decent, loving humans. There were craftsmen laboring through an honest day’s work. There were priests offering counsel to the sick and needy. There were women nursing their newborn children. The Heshbonites and their like may not have heard about the “God of Abraham,” but they bore the strong internal moral compass that all people have. Without a doubt, sinners and criminals lived among them. But the Israelites don’t bother with trials or tests nor consider the humanity of their foes. Moses’ followers ruthlessly murder entire populations in their quest for habitable land, and use God as their excuse.
Much later, along comes Jesus, the Messiah, who saves us all from the sins of the world. He offers new hope that God’s grace falls upon all who are willing to receive it. He is the light of the world, the lamb of God, our savior. The New Testament is filled with glorious beauty, delightful parables, and very thoughtful passages about a God of love and forgiveness.
According to W.R. Inge, an early 20th century English clergyman who wrote and lectured extensively about Christian mysticism, most mystics focus their attention on the New Testament, especially the very poetic Gospel of John. A mystic contemplates and meditates upon the teachings of Jesus himself and the apostles such as Peter and Paul. I suppose somehow they are able to ignore the horrible backstory or find forgiveness for the sins of the distant fathers of their faith.
I could do the same, if Jesus does. But instead, he calls us to openly worship the God of Abraham, in whose name the egregious atrocities were performed. “There he was transfigured before them,” says Matthew 17. “His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light. Just then there appeared before them Moses and Elijah, talking with Jesus.” Jesus is best friends with the perpetrator of genocide.
Of course, Christ disputes some points of Jewish law. He criticizes the leading priests of his day in public and overthrows the tables in the temple. He seems to offer something newer and better than what came before. The Gospels and the later Epistles of Paul contain a powerful message of change.
But far more important than the content of the Bible is its eerie silence on what I’ve come to view as its most critical issue. Jacob tells his sons they have caused him great trouble, but he never comments on the morality of their actions. Moses delivers the 10 commandments, which say “Thou Shalt Not Kill”. But nowhere does he fall on his knees and beg forgiveness for the mass murders committed by his army. Jesus, Peter, and Paul talk about a forgiving and loving God. But nowhere do they condemn the barbarism of their ancestors. There is no passage that I have found where Christian Scripture says, “those guys got it wrong. They didn’t quite understand the word of God. They made a mistake.” Levi, Simeon, Moses, Joshua and their kin committed horrible, evil deeds, yet God seems to bestow his grace upon them eternally and simply ignore their violations of his sacred law.
The Book of Common Prayer commands Christians to beg forgiveness for their sins. “We confess that we have sinned against you,” it asks us to say, “in thought, word and deed – for what we have done, and for what we have left undone.” Yet something very important is “left undone” in the Christian Bible itself. The disgusting family secrets – the ruthless crimes of murder, plunder, deceit, and genocide – get repeatedly brushed under the rug while the criminals are venerated.
I expected that reading and learning more about Christian tradition would cast light on the mysteries of God. Yet the deeper I dig, the more completely wrong it all becomes. The Bible has started to seem like generation after generation of prophets recording their hallucinatory visions, scribes selectively justifying or twisting the scriptures of the past to suit their personal tastes, and narcissistic conquerors using the name of God for personal gain.
I have tossed my Holy Bible and Book of Common Prayer into the fireplace, ready to ignite the flame that will eliminate them from my life forever. If there were some chapter or passage within them, some modern analysis or sermon, some simple idea which could persuade me that there really is enough useful wisdom in them to overshadow their errors, I might refrain.
Christians, how do you justify the fact that Jesus and the apostles gloss over the heinous crimes of the Old Testament while proclaiming God’s grace? How do you honestly pray to the God of Abraham when you know that such incomprehensible horror has been committed in his name by the very people praised endlessly in the Holy Scripture from which you read? How do you reconcile this bizarre mystery?