“It's right for God to slaughter women and children anytime he pleases…
God is God!”
– John Piper
It’s a test I’m certain I would have failed:
Get your son. Get a knife. Slit his throat and set him on fire.
I’d like to think that even if those demands thundered from the heavens in a voice that sounded like God’s, I’d have sooner been struck dead than obeyed them.
Regardless of one’s interpretation of this much-debated and reimagined text (which makes a bit more sense in its ancient Near Eastern context), the story of Abraham’s binding of Isaac should unsettle every parent and every person with a conscience. Yes, God provided a lamb, but only after Abraham gathered the wood, loaded up the donkey, made the journey, arranged the altar, tied his son to the stake, and raised the knife in the air.
Be honest. Would you have even gathered the wood?
I think I would have failed Abraham’s test. And I think you would have too.
And I’m beginning to think that maybe that’s okay….
Our discussion a couple weeks ago about Peter Enns and his interpretation of the genocide of the Canaanites got me thinking once again about how Scripture informs our conscience and how our conscience informs our interpretation of Scripture.
In the story in question, God leads the Israelites on a years-long conquest of Canaan, with instructions to kill every man, woman, and child of Canaanite ethnicity. “When you enter Canaan,” God tells Joshua, “the land I am giving you, as I promised to Abraham long ago, do not offer terms of peace, but kill everything that breathes—including women, children, and livestock. Leave nothing alive.”
Those who defend these stories as historical realities representative of God’s true desires and actions in the world typically respond to challenges to that interpretation by declaring: “God is God, and if God orders ethnic cleansing, we have no business questioning it.”
According to this view, God is glorified in seeing swords driven through the chests of curly-haired toddlers, in pregnant women being stabbed in the belly before being murdered themselves, and in old men and women begging for mercy but being denied it—just as God was glorified in the death of all the firstborn Egyptian males (Exodus) and in the taking of twelve and thirteen year old girls as spoils of war (Numbers).
An endorsement of such actions raises about a million questions, the most pressing of which is: if God ordained ethnic cleansing in the past, might God ordain it in the present or future?
The Puritans certainly believed so, and pointed to the conquest of Canaan in Scripture as justification for their decimation of the Pequot tribe, whom they designated “accursed seeds of Canaan.”
“Sometimes the Scripture declareth women and children must perish with their parents,” wrote Captain John Underhill of the 1637 massacre. “We have sufficient light from the Word of God for our proceedings.”
Belief in a cruel God, they say, makes a cruel man.
I have often been told by pastors and apologists that my misgivings about these biblical passages represent a weakness of faith, and that my persistent questions about suffering, evil, and violence in God’s name betray a deep distrust in a God who owes me no explanations.
“You have to take your emotions out of it,” a Reformed pastor once told me. “You’re letting the humanism so pervasive in our culture affect your sense of justice.”
“But why would the very God I believe imprinted us all with a conscience—with a deep sense of right and wrong—ask me to deny that conscience by accepting genocide as just?” I asked. “And how could I ever bring myself to worship a God who, if these accounts are true, ordained and derived glory from actions I believe are evil?”
“Stop right there,” the pastor said. “I want you to hear the pride in that statement: ‘how could I ever worship a God who…?’ That is not for you to decide, Rachel. God is God. You worship God because He’s God.”
God is God.
When people say this, what they seem to be saying is that God is power. And if God is power, God gets to define love however God pleases.
While I agree we can’t go making demands and bending God into our own image, it doesn’t make sense to me that a God whose defining characteristic is supposed to be love would present Himself to His creation in a way that looks nothing like our understanding of love. If love can look like abuse, if it can look like genocide, if it can look like rape, if it can look like eternal conscious torture—well, everything is relativized! Our moral compass is rendered totally unreliable. We have no moral justification for opposing Joseph Kony’s army of children, for example, because Joseph Kony claims God is giving him direction. If this is the sort of thing God does, who are we to question it?
This is a hard God to root for. It’s a hard God to defend against all my doubts and all the challenges posed by science, reason, experience, and intuition. I once heard someone say he became an atheist for theological reasons, and that makes sense to me. Once you are convinced that the deity you were taught to worship does evil things, it’s easier to question the deity’s very existence than it is to set aside your moral objections and worship anyway.
I tried for many years to follow the pastor’s advice and disengage my emotions and intellect and keep them a safe distance from my faith. I tried to click into robot-mode when walked into church. But disengaged is no way to live. Disengaged is no way to believe. A disengaged faith is not really faith.
So I kept asking questions…
When Rob Bell released Love Wins, a book that made a compelling biblical case against the exclusivist theology that all non-Christians will be condemned to eternal conscious torment in hell, the Southern Baptist Convention released a resolution that stated: “Being troubled, even deeply troubled, by the implications of the biblical text does not give us a reason to abandon the text or force it into a mold that rests comfortably with us. It should be our goal to let the Bible be the source and shaper of our doctrine.”
In other words, Christians cannot allow their instincts or conscience to inform their theology, only Scripture.
But as I argued in a post from 2011, this rationale represents a major inconsistency in Baptist teaching:
If the members of the Southern Baptist Convention truly believe that only those who place personal faith in Jesus Christ will be saved and that no concessions to this belief should be made on the basis of its troubling moral implications, then for consistency’s sake, they must also vote to condemn the teaching of the age of accountability.
The age of accountability refers to a belief that children under a certain age, (usually twelve or so), will be granted salvation regardless of the religious affiliation of their parents. Most Baptists I know believe in the age of accountability, and even the SBC's Baptist Faith and Message makes it implicit in its statement that people are not morally accountable until 'they are capable of moral action.'
And yet this concept is never explicitly stated in Scripture, nor does it appear in any of the historic Christian creeds. The age of accountability is a concept born from the compassion of the human heart, from a deep and intrinsic sense that a loving, good, and just God would not condemn little children or the mentally disabled to such suffering when they could certainly bear no responsibility for their faith. It is a theology created by discomfort…
...The very formation of the Southern Baptist denomination—rooted in support of slavery—reflects the disastrous consequences of confining morality to that which is explicitly stated in Scripture to the neglect of the conscience. Conscience should be tested with Scripture, certainly, but it should never be silenced by it.”
My point is this: It is intellectually dishonest to say Christians make moral judgment calls based on Scripture alone. Conscience, instinct, experience, culture, relationships—all of these things (and more) play important roles in how we assess right from wrong.
Most of us condemn slavery in spite of Colossians 3:22, genocide in spite of Deuteronomy 20:17, and women-as-property in spite of Exodus 20-21.
I suspect this has something to do with being conformed to the image of Jesus Christ, not the Bible, something to do with God’s presence both inhabiting and transcending the pages of Scripture, something to do with having a God-given conscience, interpreting with wisdom, and going with your gut. And I suspect it has something to do with love.
When I visited Amish Country during my “year of biblical womanhood,” I had dessert with a sweet, grandmotherthly lady in her enormous, bustling kitchen. As we feasted on Shoe Fly pie, my guide pointed out that there was an extra leaf in the woman’s table. It was for family that had left the Amish way of life, my guide explained, to the nodding head of our bonneted host. According to the religious rules, such family should be shunned and forbidden from sharing a table with their parents, brothers, and sisters. And so this woman added an extra leaf to her table, so that technically she wouldn’t be eating with her shunned family members…even though she was.
I’ve long been fascinated by the stories of people who defied—or “worked around”—their religion in the name of love, and these stories are plentiful among parents. I once heard from a mother who defied her pastor by ensuring that her daughter received the depression medication she so desperately needed. I know of a father who, though he had once been convinced parents of LGBT children should “hand them over to Satan” as recommended by John MacAruthur, just marched in his first pride parade right alongside his gay son. And then there is this mom—a conservative Southern Baptist who bravely defended the experiences of her transgender child.
These are people of conviction, people whose faith is important to them and who long for the approval of their religious leaders and the favor of God. And yet they risked all of that for love.
I guess I'm just not convinced that such actions reveal a lack of faith, nor am I convinced that these people would be better off if they disengaged their emotions in the name of obedience.
I am not yet a mother, and still I know, deep in my gut, that I would sooner turn my back on everything I know to be true than sacrifice my child on the altar of religion.
Maybe the real test isn’t in whether you drive the knife through the heart.
Maybe the real test is in whether you refuse.