Very Short Thoughts on the Tower of Babel

These are just the quick notes I took on the Tower of Babel incident while reading through Genesis 10-11 this morning.

  • The motivation for the tower of Babel is interesting. The one people wanted to unite in glory in resistance to God’s intention to bless the earth through their filling and diversification. It appears there was some clear awareness on their part that they were resisting this call.
  • God’s motivation is just as peculiar, if not more so. On one hand, at a prima facie level it appears that God feels threatened by humanity’s united power and wishes to stop them from what powerful things they could accomplish as one people. Yet this reading seems problematic, theology proper aside. It does not take into account what the people said in the previous verse, nor is it coherent. Why would a God who already performed creation and was able to confuse human languages feel threatened by mere mortals? I suspect God was more concerned with their particular plans to build a single metropolitan and continue resisting the call to spread out and diversify. As long as they had one language, nothing would be able to convince them to give up on this project and separate.
  • If we take Babel as mostly the story of God’s plans for blessing and humanity’s ongoing resistance (which would fit well into the Pentateuch as a whole), then there is clear application. God often calls us to do hard and uncomfortable things for our own good; indeed, this is mostly all He says to us! He may ask us to break certain cherished ties and go places, just as He will do to Abram in the next chapter. Yet the plan is always for the consummation and redemption of creation, and so every step is ultimately designed to bless us. The question on our part is if we will have the faith to simply do what He calls us to do, trusting that He actually does have our best interests at heart.
Very Short Thoughts on the Tower of Babel

Election, Israel, and Yahweh’s Consuming Fire

The Cure That Killed the Patient

The Old Testament can be a very scary place. You can’t disagree if you’ve read much of it at all, unless of course you like massive body counts and total destruction. From the frequent application of the death penalty to the bloody conquests of Israel over the Canaanite peoples, there is a lot to unsettle the stomach. I know from experience the strain this violence can create on attempting to have relationship with the God revealed in Jesus Christ during the New Testament.

What I find more disturbing, though, is how many people in popular theology these days are trying to handle this tension. Writers like Peter Enns and others have promoted dealing with these tough texts by more or less excising them from our theology. Because Jesus is the true Word of God and is so non-violent in the Gospels, they argue, the portraits of divine violence in the Old Testament must be distorted by bad Jewish theology. “God lets His children tell the story,” so they say.

As I explained in a recent post, this is a very problematic approach to the Old Testament. The God of the New Testament, the God who dwells fully in Jesus Christ, identifies Himself with Yahweh, the God of the Old Testament. Enns and Co. would agree with this. But what they miss is that Yahweh’s defining moment in the Old Testament is made precisely of the kind of very violence they say God must not have done based on Jesus. What is this defining moment? The Exodus. Over and over again in the Old Testament, God identifies Himself as the God who brought His people out of Egypt1. And there is no separating God’s saving Israel in the Exodus from the violent miracles involved2. So if the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ has any continuity at all with the God who led Israel out of Egypt, we cannot ignore Old Testament violence. And if He is not the same God, then we’re left in Marcion’s heresy with a completely unintelligible Christ and a foundationally misled New Testament.

Another Way? Maybe Holy Love

Of course, I’ve said as much as this before. What I’d like to address in this post is an actual alternative. Usually after dismissing the tea-strainer approach to the Old Testament, I and others who stand firm on this issue don’t have much of a positive response. If discounting the stories of OT violence as Israelite distortions is the wrong way to understand them, then what is the right way? Should we just swallow the whole without trying to comprehend what our God of love was doing then?

Obviously, apathy isn’t the way of faith, either. We need to try and apply what we know of God in Jesus Christ to what happened in the Old Testament, but we must do so with recognition that the “wrath of the Lamb”3 actually does exist. So how can we do this? I intend in this post to provide something of a way forward, with help from, again, T. F. Torrance, this time drawing mostly from his shorter book The Mediation of Christ.

What do we know of God’s love? We know that this love characterizes God in a deep way4, was revealed in the cross5, and is no more or less applicable to God than His holiness6. So what do these truths tell us? A couple of thoughts come to mind. First off, if holiness is as essential to God as Scripture indicates (and anything repeated three times like in Rev. 4:8 must be), and yet John can say, “God is love,” then these two “attributes” of God must be intimately related and connected, perhaps only two forms of one reality (especially if God is simple). God is not just holy and not just love, but is “holy love.”

What does holy love look like? For an understanding of holy love to “work”, that is, to do justice to what God has revealed of Himself in our history, the definition must be able to handle both Joshua and 1 John, the “Stone the blasphemers” and the “Neither do I condemn you.” So my attempted construction of this concept is as follows: Holy love is love so powerful and incomparable that it stands above all lesser loves, endlessly opposing them for not being loving enough. A holy love cannot compromise with hatred or self-love, but instead burns against them like a fire. Holy love is a freely devoted living for the beloved, which is so for the beloved that the lover must contradict anything which threatens the beloved, whether other people or the beloved herself. So to the beloved in herself, holy love appears like this: “You reveal the path of life to me; in Your presence is abundant joy; in Your right hand are eternal pleasures”7. But to whoever threatens the beloved, holy love appears as a “consuming fire”8.

With this understanding of holy love in mind, the second part of this post will attempt to examine the specific Old Testament problems. At this point, I’ve nearly hit 1000 words, which is the max attention span of the average blog reader. So even if you could read more, I think I’d prefer to split this post because I have quite a bit more. I’ve only laid the groundwork for the rest of what I have to say. I guess try to think about what I’ve said so far until part two comes ’round.

Election, Israel, and Yahweh’s Consuming Fire

Rare Steak and the Death Penalty

Execution. Such an awful and yet, according to many people, necessary thing. Where one life was taken, another must be. When dealing with death, people usually get touchy, so there’s no mystery behind the death penalty being controversial. I mean, some of the most heated issues in popular debate involve death (abortion, euthanasia, animal rights, police shootings, and war come to mind off the top of my head). So that the death penalty is also so divisive is no surprise.

What may be a surprise to some Christians is that even within Christianity, the death penalty is very controversial. Even though I grew up with almost exclusively pro-execution believers, I soon found out on getting older how much variety there is. Christianity even has hardcore pacifists, and apparently most of the early church fathers were anti-capital punishment. I found this quite surprising, so I’ve done a little debate and investigation.

Personally, my mental jury is still out. Both sides have plausible arguments, and I find some from each side compelling. But I just wanted to address here one particular argument I used to use, which I’ve realized is flawed.

In my old death penalty debates, the Old Testament Law would often come up. Even though the Law required the death penalty, my opponents said, we are no longer under the Law, so we do not need to execute anyone. The death penalty was abolished for us with animal sacrifices and food regulations.

While I responded with multiple arguments, one I used was that the death penalty came from God before the Mosaic Law, and so couldn’t have simply gone away along with the Law. When was this? Some of you may be familiar. In Genesis 9, the Flood is over and God is establishing a covenant with Noah and his family. On God’s part, He will never destroy the inhabited world again. On humanity’s part, God says this:

I will require the life of every animal and every man for your life and your blood. I will require the life of each man’s brother for a man’s life. Whoever sheds man’s blood, his blood will be shed by man, for God made man in His image.

Genesis 9:5-6

Here God sets up the death penalty way before Moses. So when the Law became unnecessary for believers, the death penalty probably did not because that law came from a covenant made before the Law with every human being who still lived.

But, there is a wrinkle in this argument. Immediately before giving the death penalty, God commands Noah, “However, you must not eat meat with its lifeblood in it” (v. 4). So in the same breath that God set up capital punishment in His covenant with people, He also restricted eating meat which still has blood inside as part of that same covenant.

This regulation obviously poses a problem. If we use this passage to maintain the validity of the death penalty, should we also forbid eating really rare steaks, and any other meat which still has blood inside? Both of these laws go back before Moses. They are both part of the covenant made Noah and his family, and we are all their descendants. So these two laws seem to be inseparable. The text seems to imply that if we accept one, we must accept the other, and if we say one is obsolete, we must say the other is, too.

This doesn’t prove that the death penalty is out, though. Even if we think the covenant with Noah no longer applies to us, we might find another reason for capital punishment. But this revelation certainly takes some of the bite out of the Biblical evidence for the death penalty.

Or does it? There is the uncomfortable possibility that these laws do still apply to us. After all, they were never revoked. The New Testament never says they are obsolete like the Law of Moses. Plus, God’s end of the deal (never to destroy all the human world again) is apparently still in force. Even more uncomfortably, the New Testament might actually tell us that the blood law still applies. Consider this: one of the first decisions of the apostles was the Jerusalem Council, which addressed the question of whether Gentile believers (that’s us) have to follow the Law. Here’s part of what they said:

For it was the Holy Spirit’s decision—and ours—to put no greater burden on you than these necessary things: that you abstain from food offered to idols, from blood, from eating anything that has been strangled, and from sexual immorality. You will do well if you keep yourselves from these things. Farewell.

Acts 15:28-29

We all agree that at least two of the things the council said—namely that we do not have to obey the Law and that we must abstain from sexual immorality—still apply to us today. So what about the commands related to food? Well, Paul seems to indicate that we are allowed to eat food sacrificed to idols as long as we understand that idols are nothing and as long as this does not violate our conscience (Rom. 14:13-23, 1 Cor. 8). So apparently at least one of these restrictions doesn’t apply anymore. And for the rest? Who knows?

My point in all this is that the covenant God made with Noah and his descendants definitely complicates the death penalty debate, even though I myself used to use that covenant for this very purpose. In this particular covenant, separating the law against eating blood with the law requiring the death penalty seems impossible. Moreover, there is at least some possibility that both do apply. So all of this warrants more careful research. In everything, we have to make sure that we are “rightly dividing the word of truth” (2 Tim. 2:15 KJV). What all applies to whom? When, where, why, and how does every verse and law apply? May the Spirit lead us into all wisdom on these matters.

By the way, even if the blood law does apply, we don’t have rule out all rare meat. Based on the way meat was handled then, the point of the law appears to have been that the blood in an animal has to be drained before eating. Getting every last drop of blood out was not necessary, or all that feasible.

(As a concluding side note, this issue is particularly interesting to me because there are immediate, albeit not major, practical applications in our diets and politics. Should we support or oppose the death penalty when we vote? Are we allowed to steaks that are really, really rare? These questions need answering for us to do certain parts of life in accordance with God’s will.)

Rare Steak and the Death Penalty

When God Doesn’t Seem Good: Living with Tough Texts in the Bible

God isn’t always easy to trust. I don’t just mean in the daily lives of living out of faith. I mean even based on what we know of Him, it can be tough to trust Him to be good. Prime example:

This is what the LORD of Hosts says: ‘I witnessed what the Amalekites did to the Israelites when they opposed them along the way as they were coming out of Egypt. Now go and attack the Amalekites and completely destroy everything they have. Do not spare them. Kill men and women, children and infants, oxen and sheep, camels and donkeys.’ “

1 Samuel 15:2-3

Think about that for a moment. Here God, our God revealed in Jesus Christ, says to kill all of the Amalekites without mercy. Even the children and infants. This is not, either, the only time in the Bible that God gives such commands to Israel. There are many tough texts in the Bible, especially in the early Old Testament.. What do we make of that when Jesus said, “Let the little children come to Me,” and John said, “God is love?” Can these things possibly even mesh at all?

According to a growing number of people, the answer is an obvious “no.” Popular thinkers and writers like Peter Enns and Rachel Held Evans are willing to relegate these instructions to the projections of the Israelites onto their God. The character of Yahweh in the Old Testament, as many will now tell you, is a picture of God distorted by the cultural sins and prejudices of ancient Israel.

On one hand, this sounds good. It would be nice to say, as Enns does, that “God lets His children tell the story,” and leave all the uncomfortable bits in the trash bin of Israel’s sin. But is this really viable? Is this a truly Christian way of reading Scripture? I don’t think so. We have to be willing, as far as I can tell, to let God tell His story through His method, namely the Bible, gore and all.

How can we understand these difficult texts, then? How do we reconcile in our minds the God who died for all the Amalekite children and the God who had them executed? Some people don’t try and just live in denial of the tension. Some people divide God’s will into two, with God’s house divided against itself as He pursues both His love for people and His love for His glory. But a truly Christian way of handling these difficult parts of the Bible requires Christ, namely seeing all of Scripture through the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ. Jesus Himself said that all Scriptures point to Him, and that He fulfills their meaning and purpose.

How does this relate to these hard verses? According to people like Enns, the love of the Cross undermines them. If Jesus is love to such an extent, then Yahweh the Warrior must not be pure revelation but human corruption. Yet this seems dangerous to me, mainly because I believe Jesus and the Apostles treated the entire Old Testament revelation of God as an infallible authority and assumed that portrait in their theology. This even includes His holy wars.

If that “solution” doesn’t work, what does? How do we reconcile these two different views of God? Well, I still point us to the Cross, but in a different way. Instead of undermining the Old Testament violence, I believe the Cross gives us reason to trust God in spite of such things. Yes, God seems to have ordered the wholesale extermination of the Amalekite people, but we should let the Cross teach us that God’s love is even at work here, not that it didn’t happen by God’s plan. Whatever judgment He was willing to inflict on the Amalekite people and children, He willingly suffered Himself for their salvation. If God can perform the ultimate act of love within the horror of His own Son’s unjust crucifixion, surely He can love in anything else.

Ultimately, this all calls for faith. Do you trust that God is good? I do, honestly. I don’t always understand Him, but I trust that He is good. Moreover, I trust that He is good in the revelation He gave us. I trust that He gave us a reliable picture of Himself, even in the tough texts in the Bible, and that this somehow flows with His all-consuming love. How can this be? I don’t have a clue, but like Mary I trust His promise and wait patiently to see what He will do. And even in that I do struggle with this. This is one of the questions that can keep me up at nights, forcing me to surf the web for smart believers with fresh insights. But even then, I wait patiently for God to answer, even if that will not happen before Jesus returns. I can trust Him in the wait, because Jesus proved His love. My prayer is that you can, too.

When God Doesn’t Seem Good: Living with Tough Texts in the Bible