What do we tell our children about the violent OT God?
Before I answer that question, I want to propose a thought experiment which will highlight how important this issue is, not only for us, but especially and primarily for our children. The image of God you teach them will set them off in the direction of truth or in the direction of error.
So, let’s begin.
Here is a simple thought experiment. I apologize in advance for the graphic image, but we need to take a RAW and REAL look at the IMPLICATIONS of what we have wrongly believed about God. Until we are brutally honest about these implications, we, along with our children, will labor with a bipolar view of God which cripples our “faith in” and “intimacy with” Him.
So, here is the thought experiment.
Imagine Jesus angrily entering a bathroom where a young girl is bathing and playing in the tub. Jesus sneers down at the child in disgust. He then reaches down and pushes the girl’s head down underneath the tub water. Jesus then continues to hold her little face underwater while her arms flail wildly about in panic, grasping and gasping for air. As the water gradually fills her lungs, she eventually slows her thrashing and then stops moving altogether. She is dead.
Now check your response.
Your understandable reaction is, “NO, that’s outrageous and blasphemous. Jesus would NEVER do that. How dare you propose that!”
Now, let me ask you another question. If we can’t believe this of Jesus, then HOW on earth can we tell our children that Jesus did that exact same thing (or its homicidal equivalent) in the Old Testament, and not only to one child, but to EVERY child in the world during Noah’s day, to EVERY firstborn child in Egypt, to EVERY child in Sodom and Gomorrah, and to ALL the enemies’ children killed by Israel pursuant to God’s command in the Promised Land incursions.
So, what do we tell our children? That Jesus is a child-killer? May it never be! And yet, we do THAT very thing whenever we read our children Noah and the Flood storybooks without ever explaining the truth about the passages involved. And, usually, that is one of the very first stories we read to them about God! No wonder their little eyes open wide in terror when they hear this story.
And then, to make things worst, we add to it by reading the OTHER Old Testament stories in which GOD COMMITS WIDESPREAD KILLING OF CHILDREN:
–Jesus killed a nation full of Egyptian firstborn infants and children during the well-known Exodus story.
–Jesus killed a huge city full of children of all ages in Sodom and Gomorra (not to mention all the other children killed at God’s express command in the various Biblical bloodbaths, including even rebellious Israelite children under God’s “no exception” stoning law).
–God has 42 children mauled by bears. In 2 Kings 2:23-24, some youths tease the prophet Elisha, and God sends bears to dismember them. (Newer cosmetic translations say the bears “maul” the children, but the original Hebrew, baqa, means “to tear apart.”)
NOW, THAT’S JUST CHILDREN. CONSIDER THE HUMAN LIFE GOD IS ACCUSED OF TAKING BELOW.
–God drowns the whole earth in Genesis 7:21-23, God drowns the entire population of the earth: men, women, children, and fetuses.
–God kills half a million people 2 Chronicles 13:15-18, God helps the men of Judah kill 500,000 of their fellow Israelites.
–God kills 14,000 people for complaining that God keeps killing them.
In Numbers 16:41-49, the Israelites complain that God is killing too many of them. So, God sends a plague that kills 14,000 more of them.
–Genocide after genocide after genocide. In Joshua 6:20-21, God helps the Israelites destroy Jericho, killing “men and women, young and old, cattle, sheep and donkeys.” In Deuteronomy 2:32-35, God has the Israelites kill everyone in Heshbon, including children. In Deuteronomy 3:3-7, God has the Israelites do the same to the people of Bashan. In Numbers 31:7-18, the Israelites kill all the Midianites except for the virgins, whom they take as spoils of war. In
1 Samuel 15:1-9, God tells the Israelites to kill all the Amalekites – men, women, children, infants, and their cattle – for something the Amalekites’ ancestors had done 400 years earlier.
–God kills 50,000 people for curiosity. In 1 Samuel 6:19, God kills 50,000 men for peeking into the ark of the covenant. (Newer cosmetic translations count only 70 deaths, but their text notes admit that the best and earliest manuscripts put the number at 50,070.)
–God orders 3,000 Israelites killed for inventing a false god. In Exodus 32, Moses has climbed Mount Sinai to get the Ten Commandments. The Israelites are bored, so they invent a golden calf god. Moses comes back and God commands him: “Each man strap a sword to his side. Go back and forth through the camp from one end to the other, each killing his brother and friend and neighbor.” Around 3,000 people are then brutally killed.
–The Amorites are destroyed by sword and by God’s rocks. In Joshua 10:10-11, God helps the Israelites slaughter the Amorites by sword, then finishes them off with rocks from the sky.
–God burns two cities to death. In Genesis 19:24, God kills everyone in Sodom and Gomorrah with fire from the sky. Then God kills Lot’s wife for looking back at her burning home.
After reading these stories, our children’s view of God is now so tainted, so chilled, so terrorized, so horrible, so quenched, that they have no interest in learning about God at all. Instead, they want to join Adam and Eve in hiding from His monstrous wrath.
So, WHAT should we tell them about all this Old Testament violence?
Simple, we tell them that the Old Testament characters didn’t understand that Satan was an enemy of God, that they wrongly thought Satan was just doing what God told him to do, and that Satan was just God’s official mister of wrath, His left hand of judgment so to speak.
We tell them that the Old Testament saints mistakenly joined the images of God and Satan together at the hip and that this caused them to sometimes describe something evil or destructive as having been done or said “by the Lord,” when in truth it was done or said, “by Satan.” (For the OT saints, the term “the Lord” sometimes included Satan’s works in their functional definition of God).
We tell them that the Old Testament writers wrongly thought BOTH good and evil came from God, that BOTH healing and sickness came from God, and that BOTH killing wrath and restoring love come upon us EXCLUSIVELY from the hand of God********but then we tell them that Jesus came from Heaven to correct this idea and to show us God was ONLY and ALWAYS good.
We tell them that Old Testament prayers wrongly “begged God to stop” oppressing the people, while New Testament prayers rebuked Satan directly while praising and affirming the goodness, love and protective power of God from all Satanic activity.
We tell them that what the ancients called the wrath of God in the Old Testament is what WE call the works of Satan in the New Testament.
We tell them that Jesus came to show us that Satan was BOTH our enemy and His enemy and that we are always to resist Him steadfast in the faith.
We tell them that ALL death, disaster, sickness, oppression, and destruction comes from the work of the devil, but that ONLY love, light, protection, rescue, restoration, and healing come from the heavenly Father.
We tell them God is only and always good and to trust on His love, light, and power for all things.
We tell them Satan’s evil is temporary and will not last beyond this life in Heaven, and that there will be a future generation who rises up and finally ENDORSES and ENFORCES Satan’s complete defeat here on earth which Jesus has already accomplished over him in both Heaven and Hell.
We will tell them that as we read the Old Testament, we must then allow the Holy Spirit to reveal where Satan secretly lurks hidden in the story, sort of like the old “Where’s Waldo?” game where the child has to locate the redstripe-shirted Waldo who is secretly embedded somewhere in a very busy and complex picture.
Then, as they grow, we will teach them a better way to read the Old Testament, a non-literal way which the church fathers used to honor the character of God by purging away all character distortions from the Old Testament’s “by the letter” readings. We will show them a better way to read the Bible, the Emmaus way where Jesus guides us through ALL Scripture by His Holy Spirit, explaining along the way the wonderful things we need to know about His Father’s goodness while correcting any and all Old Testament distortions which say otherwise.
All of the above proposals include my personal approach which I used on my own seven children. The key is to start and focus in the New Testament. Build that foundation FIRST, and THEN start to go back to the Old Testament stories, always with a view to “cull out” allegorical truths about Jesus and His Kingdom from those passages. I had to do a lot of on-the-spot editing when I would read them Bible stories, but it sharpened me and strengthened them. I can’t love God for them, but I can present a clear picture of God which won’t impede or mislead their faith.
What is explained in the Emmaus passage below is what we passionately want for our children. We want them to have “burning hearts” which KNOW Jesus through a spiritual reading of Scriptures, RATHER than hard hearts which never truly know Jesus because of a strictly literal, “by the letter,” reading of Scripture. 2 Corinthians 3:6 commissions us as “able ministers of the New Covenant” to read Scripture by “the living Spirit” rather by the “the dead letter.” As the church father Origen said, “Ignorant assertions about God appear to be nothing else but this: that Scripture is not understood in its spiritual sense, but is interpreted according to the bare letter.” Origen, On First Principles 4:2.1-2, 4.
“And beginning at Moses and all the prophets, Jesus expounded unto them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself… And their eyes were opened, and they knew him; and he vanished out of their sight. And they said one to another, Did not our heart burn within us, while he talked with us by the way, and while he opened to us the scriptures ?” Luke 24: 27, 31-32.
Below is a helpful link about how to spiritually read and better understand the Old Testament.