Question: We have a group of guys that are going through your book “Is God to Blame” and a question came up that I would be curious how you would look at it. In the beginning of the book you ask the question “do you really think that God kills babies to teach parents a lesson?” If we look at 2 Samuel 12 God does just that.
I would just be curious to hear how you would start this discussion or address this situation in the Old Testament? Any direction would be helpful. Thanks.
Answer: Thanks so much for your excellent question. I’m presently completing a book addressing all the portraits of God commanding violence or appearing to act violently in the OT (called, “The Crucifixion of the Warrior God”). It will end up about 600 to 700 pages long. I mention this as a way of confessing that my answer to your question today will be just the tip of the iceberg of all that needs to be said. It will, in fact, just be a bare outline of the view I defend in my book, but without all the arguments supporting it. So please accept this response for what it is. It points in the direction of what an adequate answer would look like, but it is not itself an adequate answer. When the book comes out — hopefully within a year and a half from now — you’ll get a much fuller and more compelling response.
With that provision, I’ll say four things in response to your question.
First, even if one accepts that Yahweh killed David’s newborn child as a punishment for David’s sin, there is no warrant for universalizing this episode and drawing the conclusion that God is behind the death of ALL infants. We find this account in Scripture precisely because it’s exceptional.
But I don’t believe that we who follow Jesus are necessarily obliged to accept the interpretation authors in the OT give to events, and this leads to my second point. The NT teaches us to base all of our thinking about God on Jesus (see posts here, here and here for example). In contrast to the way God spoke in the past, the author of Hebrews teaches, Jesus is the one and only “exact representation of God’s being” (Heb. 1:3). He is the one Word of God (Jn 1:1) and the one image of God (Col. 1:15). When Philip asked Jesus to show them God the Father, Jesus said, “If you see me, you see the Father. Why then do you ask, ‘Show us the Father’?” (Jn 14:7-9). John 1:17-18 even suggests that no one really knew God until Jesus. This is why Paul and the author of Hebrews refer to the law and other aspects of the OT as a shadow, while Christ alone is the reality (Col. 2; Heb. 8; 10).
Jesus himself said that he had a testimony that was “weightier” than John the Baptist (Jn 5), even though he regarded John to be the greatest prophet prior to him (Mt 11) — which means, Jesus’ revelation trumps everything that preceeded him. Jesus even went so far as to say that no one really knows God except him and those he reveals God to (Mt. 11:27). This would include all OT authors. This is also why Jesus felt free to reject aspects of the OT revelation. For example, he replaced the law of the OT that commanded “eye for an eye” (found 3x’s in the OT) with his command to “love your enemies” and “turn the other cheek” (Mt. 5). What makes this particularly interesting is that the “eye for eye” command — called “the lex tallionis” — is the foundation of OT justice. In overturning this, Jesus was overturning the very foundation of OT justice!
The bottom line is that, however we explain violent portraits of God in the OT, and even if we can’t explain them, we must never allow anything we find in the OT to compromise or in any way qualify the revelation of God we have in Christ. Jesus isn’t part of what God is like. The fullness of God’s deity was in Christ (Col. 2:9). And Jesus reveals a God who chooses to die on behalf of enemies rather than to use force against them. Since I can’t imagine Jesus killing a baby for any reason, I feel confdent telling a grieving mother that God did not kill your baby.
Third, and closely related to this, in Jesus we find God revealing himself by condescending to become a human and then by becoming our sin (2 Cor. 5:21) as well as our curse (Gal. 3:13) on the cross, thereby taking on an appearance that is far uglier than he actually is — the semblance of a guilty, God-forsaken criminal! Since Jesus reveals what God is truly like, he reveals what God has always been like. Which means, when we read the OT, we should read it with the awareness that God is an “incarnational” and “sin-bearing” God. That is, we should read it knowing that God sometimes reveals himself by humbly stooping to take on the limited and fallen humanity of people and to bear their sin by taking on a semblance that is uglier than he actually is.
When God reveals himself in this manner, the portrait itself doesn’t directly reflect with complete accuracy God’s true charcter, just as the guilty, God-forsaken appearance of Jesus on the cross doesn’t directly reflect God’s true character. What reveals God’s true character on the cross — and, by extension — in all portraits where God appears less beautiful than he truly is — is the fact that God would humbly stoop, out of love, to take on this appearance.
So, as I will argue at length in my forthcoming book, “The Crucifixion of the Warrior God,” whenever we find portraits of God in the OT that fall below the character of God revealed in Christ — esp. all portraits that have God commanding or engaging in violence — we should see a reflection of the cross in them. That is, we should view these portraits as as an example of God humbly stooping to enter the limited and fallen worldview of the authors. They reflect God meeting people where they are, working through the limited and fallen worldviews that they hold, in order to bring humanity to the place where he could reveal what he is really like — which is what he does in Christ.
Fourth, and finally, on the cross we see God taking responsibility for all the sin of the world, as though he was guilty of it — though in fact, he is guilty of none of it. It looks as though God did what he merely allowed. Since Jesus reveals what God is always like, we should read the Bible with the understanding that God may appear to do what he merely allows. In my book, I have two chapters of material demonstrating that, as a matter of fact, biblical authors frequently depict God doing things when the narrative itself makes it clear God merely allowed it. For example, in Ex. 12 Yahweh says he will slay the firstborn children of Egypt, but the narrative makes it clear that he simply did not prevent “the destroyer” (12:23) from killing the children. And if we base all of our thinking about God on Jesus, we should envision God weeping whenever he feels he must allow evil to run its course, since Jesus weeps as he announces a judgment coming on Jerusalem (Lk. 19).
In this light, I view all judgments involving violence to be a matter of God withdrawing his protection — always with a grieving heart — and thereby allowing the ever-present “thief” who comes “only to kill, steal and destroy” (Jn 10:10) to carry out the evil that is in his heart. I thus believe that, in response to David’s sin, God allowed Satan or some other destructive cosmic power to take the life of his newborn. Because the biblical author did not have the full revelation of God that we have in Christ, he ascribed this violence directly to God. But as we read this narrative in the light of Christ, I believe we should understand that this was something God merely felt he had to allow, and he did so with a gieving heart.
We find Paul re-reading the Old Testament in the light of Christ along these lines. In 1 Cor. 10:5 he refers to the “grumblers” who were slain by the “the destroying angel” in the OT — referring to the judgment of Korah and his followers when the earth opened up and some rebels fell into it and when fire came down from the sky and incinerated others. If you read the OT account of this judgment, however, there’s no mention of a destroyer. It simply looks like Yahweh did it. And I don’t doubt that the author of the OT narrative believed Yahweh did this. But in the light of Christ, Paul had more insight into how God judges than people in the OT had.
With a grieving heart he allows evil to run its course, but he does not kill.
As I said at the beginning, you’ll find a much more compelling case for this way of reading the OT when the book comes out. But I trust my abbreviated response here was of some help.