Yesterday, today and for ever, You are the same, you never change
We sing songs with words like these almost every week in church. And yet it highlights an uncomfortable truth about God that we might avoid in our work with young people and children: that the God of grace and forgiveness whom we meet in Jesus in the New Testament is the same as the God who can seem so vengeful and jealous in the Old.
Indeed, we have become quite skilled in the practice of adapting, editing and sanitising parts of the Old Testament so that we can avoid anything too difficult. We tell the story of Noah and the ark by focusing on the few that were saved, rather than the many that were lost. We march around the walls of Jericho and cheer when they fall down, yet we gloss over the fact that the Israelites kill everyone and everything in the city (apart from Rahab’s household). We enjoy the contest between Elijah and the prophets of Baal without hearing about Elijah killing his 450 opponents.
It could be argued that we don’t need to explore these passages with young people and, in particular, with children. After all, there is so much to encounter with Jesus that we could leave these difficult passages for later in their Christian life. Yet this approach feels inadequate, that we are not helping children and young people meet with God in all his fullness, and in doing so, we might short-change those with whom we walk, or get in the way of their faith formation.
The bad old days
There is no denying the difficulties that lie in much of the Old Testament. They come to the fore when exploring the stories of the Israelites conquering the land that God had promised them, as they burst into Canaan, laying waste to the cities of Jericho, Ai and Hazor, destroying people, animals and property, all at God’s command.
God’s instructions about entering the Promised Land are laid out in Deuteronomy 20. Moses outlines God’s plans for warfare and distinguishes between attacking cities within the Promised Land and those which are “far from your land”. For those cities far away, the Israelites have the option of offering peace terms and are given limits to what they can do if and when they attack. On the other hand, cities inside the Promised Land are to be offered no mercy - God’s people are to spare “nothing that breathes”.
We should be encouraging the children and young people that we work with to keep coming back to these stories to wrestle with them again
There is a reason for this complete destruction. God knows that his people will be led astray if they leave anyone in their new homeland who doesn’t follow him. The stories of Israel travelling from Egypt to Canaan are full of God’s people turning against him. Under the influence of the Canaanites, Amorites or Jebusites, the Israelites would pick up their religious practices and turn their back on God once more.
Nevertheless, the insistence on the death of anything that breathes seems extreme - would leaving donkeys or sheep alive lead the Israelites to start following Baal or Asherah? Many Christians find parts of the Bible such as this deeply troubling. Today, such behaviour is looked on as severe and unwarranted, with the actions of ethnic cleansing in recent conflicts rightly being condemned and the architects of such actions captured and put on trial. So, what separates the Israelites’ actions from atrocities committed in the Bosnian war or second world war?
A just war?
Some argue that the command to clear the Promised Land of the tribes already living there is specifically for the Israelites and not to be seen as a precedent to be repeated. They point out that, as God is the creator of all, land is his to do with as he wishes. Also, the people of Canaan were all sinners and the Israelites were the instruments of God’s judgement and justice (and Israel doesn’t escape that judgement and justice either).
Israel was at this point a theocracy (a nation ruled by God) with Moses, and later Joshua, as God’s prophet. If Israel were to allow anyone not conforming to the conventions and rules of their nation to remain, these people would drag the Israelites into idol worship and evil. (The people of God already have a poor track record when wandering in the desert, so it is possible to see why this might be necessary.)
The result of these arguments is the justification of the clearing of all peoples already living in the Promised Land, being underpinned by a sense of God’s justice and holiness. In a culture of grace and forgiveness (a culture that is rooted in New Testament theology), Christians can sometimes miss the unerring holiness of God, God who cannot stand sin and who called Israel to be his shining light to the nations. And herein lies the main problem for many about the actions of God in the Old Testament. As people living under the new covenant of Christ’s death and resurrection, we can lose sight of God’s holiness. A just and jealous God can appear alien to us, accustomed as we are to the forgiveness of Christ open to all.
Similarly, the story of the exile can appear harsh to our New Testament eyes. Israel has moved from a theocracy to a monarchy, because that’s what other nations were - note the influence of outsiders on the people of God, just what
God was trying to avoid. After David and Solomon’s shining (for the most part!) example, the kingdom fractures and successive kings ignore God, following idols and engaging in evil religious practices. God uses the empires of Assyria and Babylon to punish his people, sending most of them into exile.
Yet, like the story of Lazarus and the rich man (Luke 16:19-31), God’s people have had enough warnings. They have had prophet after prophet warning them to turn back to God. They have had so many second chances and been told exactly what they need to do to make things right again. But, apart from one or two exceptions, the kings and their people have remained stubborn. How long do we expect God to put up with this rebellion?
We have become skilled in the practice of adapting, editing and sanitising parts of the Old Testament so that we can avoid anything that is too difficult.
There are other reasons why the God of the Old Testament can seem extreme and capricious. There is a huge culture gap between the society of God’s people in the iron-age near east and our own. Practices such as those proscribed by God in Deuteronomy are not unusual in the ancient near east. We might also look to our own reading of certain passages: do we know why they were written and to whom? What genre of writing are they? Are we attributing them a weight that they should not have? More radically, there are those who view the Old Testament not as a history of God’s word, but as a reflection of the writers’ understanding of God’s will, written during or after the exile to help God’s people remember who they are and what God has done for them. For those in captivity in Babylon or Persia, it would have been attractive to remember a time when Israel was victorious and prosperous. People who hold this view see, rather than a literal or historical truth, an allegorical or moral truth to the stories.
How then can we help children and young people to access the stories of God and his people from the Old Testament? First of all, perhaps we need to recognise that there might be stories that are better left for later in a child’s faith development, and those stories might include some of the more familiar ones. For example, should we explore the story of Noah with younger children?
Secondly, we need to explore how sanitising stories - particularly when we seek to neutralise (consciously or otherwise) the seeming violence or unfairness of God in the Old Testament - can affect the picture of God a child or young person builds up. For example, if we miss off the gruesome and bloodthirsty ends of some of the Psalms, do we rob those in our groups of the chance to see that God can take on anger and injustice and turn it round into his perfect justice?
Thirdly, we should get used to saying: “I don’t know.” God is so deep, wide, big, complex… almost any positive adjective you can think of that we cannot possibly fully understand who he is, or what his plans and purposes are. God is ‘other’; we are made in his image and yet we cannot begin to understand the completeness of who he is. We might decry the actions of God in the Old Testament as unfair, but our own concept of ‘fairness’ is deeply flawed - we might think we’re impartial, but our own selfishness impacts our view.
That’s not to say that we should throw our hands up in the air and declare everything too difficult. Every time we come back to a story from the Old Testament, God reveals himself a little bit more, he helps us to understand more of his plan and his purposes. We should be encouraging the children and young people that we work with to do the same, to keep coming back to these stories to wrestle with them again. This way, we’ll be giving children and young people the tools to grow in faith long after they leave our groups and head off on their lives with God.