When a Bible Story Appalls Us

How do we handle the Bible’s grim stories?

Over the last year I’ve made a practice of reading some of the books of the Bible I seldom pay attention to. For example, 1 and 2 Chronicles, Leviticus, and Numbers. It has given me several surprises. Some have been pleasant; others not.

In the latter category stands Numbers, chapter 31. It recounts an appalling story, at least to my sensibilities. It tells of a raid that the Israelites make on the Midianites, a raid that takes on the cast of genocide.

The Israelites are nearing the end of their 40-year exodus wanderings through the desert. They are camped on a plain of Moab, ready to cross the Jordan River and enter the Promised Land.

As they prepare for this momentous move, they take care of some unfinished business. Moses organizes an army of Israelite warriors and sends it off to massacre the Midianites. (In the story the Midianites and the Moabites seem at times to be conflated. They are called both.)

The purpose of the raid is vengeance. The Israelites are to avenge an incident recounted in Numbers 25, where a group of Moabite and Midianite women entice the Israelites into some sacrifices to their pagan gods. The Israelites’ participation violates the First Commandment that Israel is to worship no other god than the God who has freed them from slavery in Egypt.

The Israelites attack and slaughter all the Midianite men and boys. They also slaughter any women who are married and have borne children. However, unmarried, virgin women are separated out and carried off captive as personal booty of the Israelite soldiers. The soldiers also carry off vast quantities of the Midianites’ treasure.

If one were to substitute ISIS for the Israelites and the Yazidis, Shiites, and Iraqi Christians for the Midianites, you would feel you were reading a news story fresh out of the Middle East today.

Why is this story even in the Bible?

What makes the story even more appalling is that the text says in its opening sentences that God himself orders this attack. For Jews and Christians like myself raised upon the many other passages of the Bible which proclaim God as loving, merciful, and compassionate, then we are going to ask: What is this appalling story doing in the Bible? How do we come to terms with it?

The answer is easy if you believe that all religion is violent and intolerant at heart. Many despisers of religion so argue. I know because some of them have told me. But that’s not an answer a believing Jew or Christian can give. So I must wrestle with the questions. I also must wrestle with them as a pastor for they are questioners that parishioners will sometimes bring to me. Let me share some thoughts on a tentative answer.

First, I start by recognizing that the Penteteuch (the first five books of the Hebrew Bible) is a composite work. Editors at some point stitched together stories from a variety of sources to create the integrated narrative that we have today. So the question I start with is: Why did the editors who compiled the Penteteuch consider it important to include this story?

One answer might be because it happened exactly as they write it. Maybe God did command it as the text says. The writers of the Bible show themselves unusual in acknowledging the darkness in their stories as well as the light. Take the story of King David’s adultery with Bathsheba and his murder of her husband Uriah (2 Samuel 11-12). How many times will you find the crimes of Pharaoh inscribed on the walls of Egyptian temples? Only his glorious exploits are recorded.

But if the incident happened exactly as it is told, then we are going to have to acknowledge there is a dark side to God. We do not understand God as well as we think.

Are we dealing with a primitive concept of God?

A second approach is one that has deep roots in Christianity. It stretches back to Marcion in the second century. This is the attitude that the picture of God in the Old Testament is imperfect compared to the picture we get in the New Testament. We hear it all the time when people talk about the God of the Old Testament being a God of wrath while the God of the New Testament is a God of love.

This approach will argue that the editors of the Penteteuch are still operating with this more primitive understanding of God that we find in the Old Testament.

But that doesn’t hold water for me when I recall that the editors of the Penteteuch also present us with some of the most sublime pictures of God in the whole Bible. They include the majestic picture of God the creator in Genesis 1. He creates with loving power a cosmos of order and beauty.

Also we have the amazing revelation of God at the burning bush on Mount Sinai. The dialogue between God and Moses (Exodus 3-4) contains some highly exalted views of God, especially the revelation that the name of God is the mysterious I AM. And again during his dialogue with Moses (Exodus 34) on the peak of Mount Sinai, we are presented with another sublime description of God as the merciful and compassionate one.

The editors of the Penteteuch are not incapable of any more exalted view of God than a vengeful tribal deity.

Is the story a morality tale?

A third option is that they tell the story as a kind of morality tale. Hebrew religion demanded a strict monotheism, an exclusive devotion to the God who had covenanted with them at Mount Sinai. The great danger to this monotheism was religious syncretism.

One way religious syncretism crept into Israelite life was through intermarriage with non-Israelites. Spouses often enticed their partners into participating in the worship of their own gods. The classic example is King Ahab’s marriage to the Phoenician princess, Jezebel. Jezebel seeks to supplant the worship of God by importing the worship of her native god Ba’al. (1 Kings 16:31-33).

In the incident recounted in Numbers 25, it is Moabite women who entice the Israelites into the worship of their pagan gods. The story therefore highlights the constant danger of religious syncretism creeping into Israel through inter-marriage, or in this case, through sexual fraternizing with Israel’s neighbors.

The editors may have included the story of Numbers 31 in the Penteteuch to warn its readers about the risks of religious syncretism by sexual engagements outside the boundaries of the Israelite people. We encounter a similar fear about the dangers of assimilation through inter-marriage in the post-exilic policy of Ezra requiring Israelite men to divorce their foreign wives (Ezra 9-10).

If this is the case, it will not be the first or last time when religious leaders have used the name of God to enforce social or religious solidarity.

The important question: How do we understand Biblical inspiration?

I incline towards option 3, but I am not sure it really answers the question that troubles us most. Why does the text say God ordered the attack? How is this consistent with the picture of God unfolding in the rest of the Bible?

To tackle this question, we may have to tackle the issue of the divine inspiration of the Bible. This is a widespread belief among Jews and Christians. But what can we legitimately assert if we adhere to it?

When Christians assert the doctrine of divine inspiration, what they usually say is that the Holy Spirit so guided the process of composition of the Bible that it provides a trustworthy revelation of God’s character, purposes, and will. But Christians like myself would also assert that that does not mean the Spirit dictated the composition. The authors and editors of the Bible were not God’s amanuenses who wrote down what they heard the Spirit speaking directly into their minds or ears.

The composition of the Bible was a very human process, involving human authors and editors who worked out of their own specific cultural contexts. If the Spirit was inspiring their work, he was doing so in a divinely subtle way.

If this is correct, then the composition of the Bible involved an undetectable partnership between the Spirit and the human authors/editors. Undetectable in that the human partners would not likely have been aware of any divine influence. That the text was inspired would have been detected only after the process was complete. It would have been evident in the impact that this text had on nurturing faith in the communities who read and cherished it.

But God’s human partners in this process would have always been fallible, morally flawed human beings, as all of us are. They did their best to bear witness to the God they had come to know in not only their personal lives, but in the history of their people, and for Christians, most especially in the person of Jesus Christ.

This means that there is a possibility for inadequate perceptions of God and God’s will to be included in the Biblical text. The corrective on these inadequate perceptions is not a gift of infallibility, but the presence of a plurality of theological viewpoints in the text. That plurality corrects inadequacies through the give and take of dialogue and debate. There is wisdom, for example, in the fact that the church canonized not just one gospel, but four.

So as we read the Bible we must keep alert to the fact its witness to God is a mixed one. We can never read any one passage as an authority in isolation from all the rest of the Bible. We must join in this dialogue by bringing our own challenges and questions to the text and listening to alternate interpretations.

When I do this, I find that the picture of God that I get from Jesus’ teaching is dramatically different from the picture I encounter in Numbers 31. So I cannot read Numbers 31 without challenging its picture of God. This does not mean I am able to reconcile Numbers 31 with Jesus’ teaching. It simply means that the key to reconciling Numbers 31 with the gospels still eludes me.

If any of you my readers have thoughts on this dilemma, I welcome hearing from you.


One thought on “When a Bible Story Appalls Us

  1. James, Thank you for your thoughtful comment. I especially like what you say about how we sometimes look with horror at the youthful things we say or do. As we grow older, our understanding grows maturer. At least I hope it does. And that can be a helpful way of looking at some passages of the Bible.


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