(The weekly GPS Small Group Guide can be downloaded in .PDF format from the individual sermon page, found at http://www.cor.org/worship in Sermon Archives)
The Bible and the Violence of God
A Grow-Pray-Study guide for small groups
This guide uses the Scripture readings from the daily “GPS” study guide. Group members may read the daily readings before the group meeting, or read the verses aloud when the group meets. The group may subdivide into two or three smaller groups, each discussing a set of the daily readings and the matching questions on page 2, or the entire group may discuss those questions together. We pray that, whatever pattern of study you choose, the Holy Spirit will weave God’s Word into the life and heart of each group member.
There are disturbing stories in the Bible (e.g. Exodus 32:25-28, Joshua 6:15-21). But even in Israel’s earliest days, God’s love was the key to other stories (e.g. Genesis 22:1-13, where God taught Abraham that, unlike other Canaanite deities, he did not want children killed in sacrifice). Egyptians and Canaanites didn’t think their gods loved them. When God revealed his character to Moses, though, “compassionate and merciful” were the key characteristics.
Isaiah 58:1-8, Micah 6:6-8
When Jesus said to love your neighbor, many in his day wanted to limit that to their Israelite neighbors—and even then, it was a hard ideal to live up to. The prophets Isaiah and Micah saw that. They said God didn’t want God’s people to practice violence (physical, social or economic) toward other people. Pious rituals were no substitute for simply treating people well.
The New Dictionary of Biblical Theology said, “Isaiah articulates a new and powerful vision of redemption in which violence is absorbed and transformed. In Isaiah 52–53 the heralding of Israel’s divine warrior returning to bring Zion’s deliverance (52:7–12), suddenly gives way to a description of a suffering servant of Yahweh (52:13–53:12).” Isaiah saw that God does not win by increasing the level of violence. Instead, God takes it onto himself and changes it into a redemptive force.
Jesus said, “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: You must love your neighbor as you love yourself.” (Matthew 22:37-39) Jesus did not ignore or discard the Hebrew Scriptures. But he did identify the ones of its many different strands that gave the truest picture of God’s purposes for the human family.
1 Peter 3:8-17
Many scholars see 1 Peter as a written version of the instruction the early church gave new converts before their baptism. If so, then clearly the principles in these verses were not just for “advanced” Christians—this was the way of life God called all of them to. Our social context is different from theirs—but the inner life God wants to grow in us is still the same.
Jesus told his disciples, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9). These verses tell us why Jesus came to live and die as a human being, so they tell us about the basic character of the God we serve. In some Bible stories, God seems angry, brutal or unloving to us. They may reflect human misunderstanding, shaped by ancient culture, or perhaps loving acts that seem violent to us because of our partial understanding. But when we trust Jesus as the ultimate Word of God, they will not lead us to fear or reject the God who came in person to be “lifted up” on the cross so we can have eternal life.
To access the Family Activity suggested in this week’s GPS, download the printable GPS from www.cor.org/guide.
Lord Jesus, by coming into this world, you brought light and clarity into our understanding of who you are and what you expect from us. We understand you and your love for us better, and we also understand that we are to live our lives in a way that shows caring for others. Strengthen our faith and our character; lead us forward to completeness as we live our lives in you. Amen.
What movie genres are your favorites? Despite our Christianity, why are some of us so drawn to and entertained by movies that contain violence? What is it about the triumph of good over evil that is so satisfying? Could that be what drew ancient people to believe in a warrior-like God?
QUESTIONS FOR REFLECTION AND STUDY
- Read Exodus 34:5-10. God told Moses that he would punish the guilty, but he also said that he was compassionate and gracious, abounding in love and forgiving. In what ways have you experienced God’s love and forgiveness? God also made a covenant (a promise) to the Hebrews. Have you experienced God as one who can be trusted when he promises to love you and forgive you? The people saw God as a warrior. Can God be both warrior and compassionate and loving? Do we, as humans, tend to have more than one side to our character?
- Read Isaiah 58:1-8, Micah 6:6-8. As we read the Old Testament prophets, one dimension of their writings is the images they contained of the coming Christ. As you read these passages, where are you able to see such an image? What was the problem with the Hebrew sacrifices and rituals? What did God really want them to do? Instead of being just, merciful and humble, in what ways were the Hebrews offending God? In what ways might our own lifestyles be offensive to God?
- Read Isaiah 52:7-53:9. Who is the suffering servant spoken of by Isaiah the prophet? We (with the benefit of hindsight) can see through the veil of words into the promise of God redeeming us from sin. Does realizing that the Old Testament book of Isaiah, written 600-700 years before Christ, held this powerful image about redemptive suffering make Jesus more real and credible to you? Did God defeat evil in the world by escalating violence? How did God do it? What does this tell you about the nature of God? How would God have us address evil when we meet it in ourselves or in others?
- Read Matthew 5:38-48. When Jesus came, he raised the bar to a higher standard than what was in the Law of Moses. Instead of the proportional standard of retaliation (which was a hard enough for the ancient Hebrews to accept), Jesus challenged the people even more. Which of the “greatest” commandments were these new standards based upon? How do these standards apply to our everyday lives in our workplace and family setting? Think of some of the people you really don’t care for. How can you act more kindly toward them? Is Jesus calling us to extend “mushy love” or phoniness?
- Read 1 Peter 3:8-17. Here in 1 Peter we read that, if we do as Jesus asks, if we return evil with good, if we earnestly seek peace, we will be “inherit a blessing.” How do you think we will be rewarded? We also hear that it is better “to suffer for doing good than for doing evil”. How might we suffer from doing evil to those who do evil to us? “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect…” To what are these verses referring? How should we conduct ourselves in religious discussions? If during these discussions, we are lack respect and humility, what effect might that have on how other people perceive our faith?
- Read John 3:13-19. “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9). Given this statement, how would you describe God’s true character? As the “Saturday” GPS above says, “In some Bible stories, God seems angry, brutal or unloving to us. They may reflect human misunderstanding, shaped by ancient culture, or perhaps loving acts that seem violent to us because of our partial understanding.” But with Jesus Christ, we gain clarity. “Light has come into the world” and with that light, clarity. Why do some people “love the darkness”? How has Jesus brought greater light into your life?
From last week: Did you sit down with a spouse or friend and list some Biblical passages that are hard for you to understand? Did you re-read these passages together? Did you ask yourself what these passages might show about how God has worked with people through the ages, and how that relates to Christ’s saving work? Did you come to understand these passages any better?
FOR ADDITIONAL INSIGHT
From Pastor Hamilton’s sermon, August 26, 2012:
“The biblical authors were people of their time, culture and historical contexts. They saw, heard and understood God’s will in the light of, and through the filter of, their times. The people in the ancient world, including the biblical authors, lived in a violent world, and they heard God in the light of the world they lived in. For instance, the ancient Near East always portrayed gods as warriors. War was a fact of life. Justice was swift and retributive. It would have taken remarkable insight and inspiration for people, even the followers of Yahweh, to have seen beyond this…We learned last week that Jesus Christ is the definitive Word of God, the most complete picture of who God is. So as we read the Old Testament, we ask, ‘Does this passage align with the nature and character of God revealed in Jesus Christ?’ In the light of this idea we conclude that the violent pictures of God in the Old Testament tell us more about the people who lived in the time these passages were written than they tell us about God. .
When I read these stories I see their humanity and their historical context coming through. There is a concept I find important in making sense of the Bible called ‘progressive revelation.’ The idea is that, progressively, over time in the scriptures, we find the people coming to understand more and more clearly what God desired of them until it reaches its apex in Jesus Christ. This is why I believe the Old Testament is incomplete without Jesus. He gives us the clearest picture of God–he is God’s word made flesh….
When I read these stories I attempt to separate out the biblical authors’ worldview from the story itself. I read them in the light of the larger biblical witness about God as he is seen in the rest of the Old Testament and the New Testament.
I still read these stories listening for God to speak through them. They are part of the Bible. I look to hear God in two ways in reading them: A. What do they teach me about what I am not supposed to be and do as a God follower? and B. Are there biblical principles that line up with Jesus that I see when I read these stories?
So when I read in Exodus 32 the story of the Israelites worshiping the golden calf and the judgment that took place as a result, I ‘park’ the story of Moses having the Israelites slay their brothers, sisters and neighbors. I recognize it as a part of the story that is inconsistent with the picture of God in Jesus Christ–so I park it. But then I ask, setting this issue aside, how does this story reveal something about my life or about God? Where do I find myself in the story? The truth that I see when Moses finds the Israelites worshiping the golden calf and turning away from God is my story. How easy it is to worship my own golden calf. We find it hard to worship a God we can’t see, but easy to worship the things we can see and feel and touch. Like those Israelites, I have a tendency to stray from God and worship my own golden calves. And in God’s judgment I see God’s jealousy for my worship and love….
There are so many treasures in these stories. I don’t want to throw them out! I want you to read them. But I want to give you permission to wrestle with the violent, unchristian strands of these stories.
There’s one more lesson I take from these passages where the Bible seems to so contradict the good news of God seen and heard in Jesus Christ: It is possible for well meaning people of faith, including biblical heroes and authors, to ascribe to God our own values, biases and will. This still happens today.
It happens when we find strands like the violent passages and build our faith and actions around them, rather than hearing the dominant message of scripture. We create a faith that is thoroughly shaped by our culture, in which God looks like us. So in the realm of politics both major parties are certain God would vote with them. I think of the “prosperity gospel” which some preachers preach in which God wants us to be rich and prosperous–a ‘gospel’ perfectly attuned to materialistic American culture. God is preached as desiring wealth for his people….
All of which leads me to recall the admonition of the Apostle Paul in Romans 12:2: ‘Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.’ Once more, we must judge our theology and even the rest of scripture in the light of the word of God revealed in Jesus Christ. He alone is the inerrant, infallible Word of God.”
What is a Prophet? A Jewish Perspective
Many people today think of a prophet as any person who sees the future. While the gift of prophecy certainly includes the ability to see the future, a prophet is far more than just a person with that ability.
A prophet is basically a spokesman for G-d, a person chosen by G-d to speak to people on G-d’s behalf and convey a message or teaching. Prophets were role models of holiness, scholarship and closeness to G-d. They set the standards for the entire community. (Note: observant Jews avoid writing any Name of God casually because of the risk that the written Name might later be defaced, obliterated or destroyed accidentally or by one who does not know better.)
The Talmud teaches that there were hundreds of thousands of prophets: twice as many as the number of people who left Egypt, which was 600,000. But most of the prophets conveyed messages that were intended solely for their own generation and were not reported in scripture. Scripture identifies only 55 prophets of Israel. (Note: The Talmud is a central text of mainstream Judaism, considered second to the Torah. It takes the form of a record of rabbinic discussions. The whole Talmud is over 6,200 pages long, written in Aramaic and quotes the Hebrew Bible at least once a page with the Hebrew version in use at the time. The Talmud contains the opinions of thousands of rabbis, many of whom are left unnamed, on a variety of subjects, including law, ethics, philosophy, customs, history, theology, lore and many other topics. The rabbis often argue with one another in a civilized manner on the pages. The Talmud has two components: the Mishnah (c. 200 CE), the first written compendium of Judaism’s Oral Law; and the Gemara (c. 500 CE), an elucidation of the Mishnah and related Tannaitic writings that often ventures onto other subjects and expounds broadly on the Hebrew Bible.)
A prophet is not necessarily a man. Scripture records the stories of seven female prophets, listed below, and the Talmud reports that Sarah’s prophetic ability was superior to Abraham’s.
A prophet is not necessarily a Jew. The Talmud reports that there were prophets among the gentiles (most notably Balaam, whose story is told in Numbers 22), although they were not as elevated as the prophets of Israel (as the story of Balaam demonstrates). And some of the prophets, such as Jonah, were sent on missions to speak to the gentiles.
According to some views, prophecy is not a gift that is arbitrarily conferred upon people; rather, it is the culmination of a person’s spiritual and ethical development. When a person reaches a sufficient level of spiritual and ethical achievement, the Shechinah (Divine Spirit) comes to rest upon him or her. Likewise, the gift of prophecy leaves the person if that person lapses from his or her spiritual and ethical perfection.
The greatest of the prophets was Moses. It is said that Moses saw all that all of the other prophets combined saw, and more. Moses saw the whole of the Torah, including the Prophets and the Writings that were written hundreds of years later. All subsequent prophecy was merely an expression of what Moses had already seen. Thus it is taught that nothing in the Prophets or the Writings can be in conflict with Moses’ writings, because Moses saw it all in advance.
The Talmud states that the writings of the prophets will not be necessary in the World to Come, because in that day, all people will be mentally, spiritually and ethically perfect, and all will have the gift of prophecy.
This week, make a list of people who you don’t really care much for and who you are likely to see this week. Every morning, pray for each of these people by name. During the week, as you come across these people, make an effort to be kind, thoughtful and helpful. Next week, share with the group what you found in this exercise.