by Rachel Held Evans
From Chapter 3: “War Stories” in Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking On Water, and Loving the Bible Again:
“…The question of God’s character haunted every scene and every act and every drama of the Bible. It wasn’t just the story of Noah’s flood or Joshua’s conquests that unsettled me. The book of Judges recounts several horrific war stories in which women’s bodies are used as weapons, barter, or plunder, without so much as a peep of objection from the God in whose name these atrocities are committed. One woman, a concubine of a Levite man, is thrown to a mob, gang-raped, and dismembered as part of an intertribal dispute (Judges 19). Another young girl is ceremonially sacrificed to God after God grants a military victory to her father, Jephthah, who promised to offer as a burnt offering “whatever comes out of the door of my house to meet me when I return in triumph from the Ammonites” (Judges 11:31). Earlier, in the book of Numbers, God assists the Israelites in an attack against the Midianites, and tells the Israelites to kill every man, woman, and child from the community. They kill all except the young virgin girls whom the soldiers divide up as spoils of war. Feminist scholar Phyllis Trible aptly named these narratives “texts of terror.”
“If art imitates life,” she wrote, “scripture likewise reflects it in both holiness and horror.”
Rereading the texts of terror as a young woman, I kept anticipating some sort of postscript or epilogue chastising the major players for their sins, a sort of Arrested Development–style “lesson” to wrap it all up—“And that’s why you should always challenge the patriarchy!” But no such epilogue exists. While women are raped, killed, and divided as plunder, God stands by, mute as clay.
I waited for a word from God, but no word came.
It was as though I lived suspended in the tension of two apparently competing convictions: that every human being is of infinite worth and value, and that the Bible is the infallible Word of God. These beliefs pulled at me with the gravitational forces of large planets. I couldn’t get rid of them, and yet I couldn’t seem to resolve them either. The tension was compounded by a growing confluence of mis- givings I had about the absence of women in leadership in my church, the shaming of young women perceived to be immodest or “impure,” and the insistence that God is most pleased when women are submissive and quiet. My home had always been a place of refuge, where the voices of women were valued and honored, but as I graduated from high school and entered college, I began to wonder if the same was true for the broader Christian community to which I belonged.
When I turned to pastors and professors for help, they urged me to set aside my objections, to simply trust that God is good and that the Bible’s war stories happened as told, for reasons beyond my comprehension.
“God’s ways are higher than our ways,” they insisted. “Stop trying to know the mind of God.”
It’s an understandable approach. Human beings are finite and fallible, prone to self-delusion and sentimentality. If we rely exclusively on our feelings to guide us to truth, we are bound to get lost.
When asked in 2010 about Joshua’s conquest of Canaan, Reformed pastor and theologian John Piper declared, without hesitation, “It’s right for God to slaughter women and children anytime he pleases. God gives life and he takes life. Everybody who dies, dies because God wills that they die.” Piper’s dispassionate acceptance represented pure, committed faith, I was told, while mine had been infected by humanism and emotion—“a good example of why women should be kept from church leadership,” one acquaintance said.
And for a moment, I believed it. For a moment, I felt silly for responding so emotionally to a bunch of old war stories that left the rest of the faithful seemingly unfazed. But this is the deleterious snare of fundamentalism: It claims that the heart is so corrupted by sin, it simply cannot be trusted to sort right from wrong, good from evil, divine from depraved. Instinct, intuition, conscience, critical thinking—these impulses must be set aside whenever they appear to contradict the biblical text, because the good Christian never questions the “clear teachings of Scripture”; the good Christian listens to God, not her gut.
I’ve watched people get so entangled in this snare they contort into shapes unrecognizable. When you can’t trust your own God- given conscience to tell you what’s right, or your own God-given mind to tell you what’s true, you lose the capacity to engage the world in any meaningful, authentic way, and you become an easy target for authoritarian movements eager to exploit that vacuity for their gain. I tried reading Scripture with my conscience and curiosity suspended, and I felt, quite literally, disintegrated. I felt fractured and fake.
Brené Brown warned us we can’t selectively numb our emotions, and no doubt this applies to the emotions we have about our faith.
If the slaughter of Canaanite children elicits only a shrug, then why not the slaughter of Pequots? Of Syrians? Of Jews? If we train ourselves not to ask hard questions about the Bible, and to emotionally distance ourselves from any potential conflicts or doubts, then where will we find the courage to challenge interpretations that justify injustice? How will we know when we’ve got it wrong?
“Belief in a cruel god makes a cruel man,” Thomas Paine said. If the Bible teaches that God is love, and love can look like genocide and violence and rape, then love can look like . . . anything. It’s as much an invitation to moral relativism as you’ll find anywhere.
I figured if God was real, then God didn’t want the empty devotion of some shadow version of Rachel, but rather my whole, integrated self. So I decided to face the Bible’s war stories head-on, mind and heart fully engaged, willing to risk the loss of faith if that’s where the search led…
Read the rest in Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking On Water, and Loving the Bible Again.
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