Sunday, 16 June 2013

It ain't necessarily so.

Nathan said to David, ‘Now the LORD has put away your sin; you shall not die. Nevertheless, because by this deed you have utterly scorned the LORD, the child that is born to you shall die.’ Then Nathan went to his house. The LORD struck the child that Uriah’s wife bore to David, and it became very ill. 2 Samuel 12

This is the Word of the Lord
Thanks be to God. 

This what we heard in church this morning
What are we to make of Bible passages like this?
David has an affair with Bathsheba and, when he discovers she is pregnant, he arranges for her husband - the loyal soldier Uriah - to be killed in battle. When accused by the prophet Nathan, David repents of his sins and Nathan pronounces God 's judgement. The words the Bible writer puts onto Nathan's lips might be paraphrased like this:

God has forgiven you David, 
but someone has to pay so God is going to kill your innocent child.

And that's what the Bible tells us God did.
What sort of a God is this? People who insist that the Bible is literally true, speak about God's commitment to justice. God has given humanity rules about behaviour and warned that there are consequences for those who disobey. David disobeys God and must face the consequences. Even though David is sorry, the price still has to be paid. But because God has great things planned for David (and presumably not for the newborn baby), God carries out the judgement on the baby.

But what sort of justice is that?

We are left with a choice. 
If this account is literally true, if this is how God behaves, then we need to take God very, very seriously and to do so out of fear. When we do things wrong God will forgive us, but someone will have to pay - possibly an innocent person. Of course this is the mainstay of a good deal of traditional Christian thinking, both Catholic and Protestant. God will always punish sin, but out of God's mercy God sends his Son to pay the price for us on the Cross. This is known as penal substitution theory and it is not without its problems. Not least amongst them is the one which got the Revd Steve Chalke into so much trouble when he described it as 'cosmic child abuse' (what Father would do that to his Son even for the sake of justice?). It has also led to an unhealthy preoccupation that Jesus was fixed to the Cross with our sins. There is another discussion to be had about whether our destructive behaviours cause suffering to God, but that is different from being shown a Crucifix and told "This is your fault".

Our other choice is to decide that the account in 2 Samuel of God slaying an innocent child is simply not true. All well and good, but where does that leave us with the authority (or otherwise) of the Bible? Can we trust anything we find there? Or are we just choosing the nice bits and ignoring the parts we find distasteful? Not necessarily.

Every part of the Bible was written out of a particular culture with its assumptions and mores, which is why we find unhelpful passages about women, slaves, gay people and so on. And every part of the Bible is also an exercise in women and men trying to work out what God was doing in a particular situation. Words are put into the mouth of God to express their conclusion. Example: Israel goes into exile in Babylon. Why? How could that happen? It must have been because Israel was unfaithful to God, and so we find God saying "Because you have been unfaithful to me ..." In 2 Samuel, it is unthinkable to the writer that the utterly Holy God could continue to consider David the Lord's Anointed One after David's distinctly unholy conduct. And so the writer has God punish the child instead to satisfy a holy God's distaste for sin and commitment to justice. But it ain't necessarily so.

Sadly there is another reason why these texts occur, which is still around today. Some people want God to be like that. They want God to be vengeful and full of righteous wrath. Not towards themselves of course, but they can produce a list of people to whom they believe God should behave in that way. This is why there is such a strong commitment to a belief in Hell in some people's minds: a Hell for other people go to. Or even, a Hell where people get what they deserve.

The scandalous, outrageous reality of God's love is that we don't get what we deserve. 

If Christians are to continue to find inspiration and revelation within the Bible, they have to read it with intelligence. We do no honour to the Bible when we read passages like the one from 2 Samuel literally.

Mystics throughout the ages have discovered that God is love, and God simply loves us.