Just in case anyone thought I had given up reading through the Bible and getting disturbed by it, I promised I’d blog about it from time to time so here’s another installment.
1 and 2 Kings are tough going. I mean, they’re good for action and they’ve got more plot than many parts of the Bible, but if you’re trying to read them from a devotional, “What is God’s message for me?” perspective, they’re tough. There’s a lot of bloodshed; the body count is high. Sometimes I can’t figure out what the heck it all means.
For a lot of it, I’ve gotten through it by remembering that it comes out of a violent culture, that it tells the stories of flawed human beings, often battling for control of a throne. In fact, there’s a lot of 1 and 2 Kings that would fit right in with Game of Thrones. Maybe HBO should start adapting the Old Testament. There’s more than enough violence, gore, and nudity to meet their usual standards. Just last night, somebody brought Jehu a bunch of human heads in baskets. Wouldn’t that be fun to film?
Keeping all that in mind, I’ve tried not to be bothered by the basketsful of severed heads, although God seems to approve of the action. I coped with it when Solomon, for example, pretty much waded through a river of blood to get to the throne, cutting down anyone who is a rival, might be a rival, might be related to someone who might be a rival …. Even though Solomon is obviously God’s personal choice for the throne of Israel and God gives him the gift of wisom, I try not to hold God responsible for that bloodbath. The Bible doesn’t, after all, claim that God told Solomon to kill all those people, and maybe I should just suck it up and accept that those murders (along with Jehu’s Baskets o’ Heads and several hundred other murders carried out by both the good AND bad kings of Israel and Judah), are just part of what it took to be king back in those days.
But the kind of story that’s harder to rationalize is the kind where God Himself seems to be the one racking up the body count. Let’s take the opening chapters of 2 Kings.
These chapters feature Elijah, one of the more colourful characters in the Bible. Elijah is a prophet who doesn’t mind speaking truth to power (I like that) so he sends a message to King Ahaziah telling him, King, you’re going to die of your injuries (from falling out a window), and BTW, you should have consulted me in the first place instead of looking for messages from false gods and their prophets. The King, wanting to get this straight from Elijah, sends an army captain with 50 men to bring him in. Elijah, who’s sitting on a hill, calls down fire from heaven and immolates the captain and his 50 men. The king sends out another 51 guys and once again “the fire of God fell from heaven” and burned them up.
King Ahaziah may not have been one of God’s faithful kings but you have to admire his determination, or just his willingness to keep losing expendable soldiers, so he sends out another 51 redshirts to capture Elijah. The third captain falls on his knees before Elijah and obsequeously begs the prophet not to kill him, and God tells Elijah it’s OK, he can go with this guy. So he goes and delivers the same depressing message to the king, who promptly dies.
It’s pretty clear what’s happening here — the king originally intends to bring Elijah in to punish and/or imprison him, maybe even kill him, because why else send out 51 armed men to bring in one hairy prophet? But after two bolts of divine lightning and 102 dead men, the king decides to handle Elijah with more care.
Respect for prophets is also a theme in the next chapter, where Elijah’s protegee Elisha, fresh from seeing his master taken directly up to heaven and receiving a double portion of Elijah’s spirit, runs into forty-two youths who taunt him about his bald head. You remember this one, right? Elisha calls down a curse in the name of the Lord, and two bears come out of the woods and maul the 42 rude young men. I mean, I’ve been annoyed by disrespectful teenagers too — I’ve been a high school teacher my whole life — but this seems like some serious overreaction.
By Chapter 2 of 2 Kings, the body count of deaths we can attribute directly to God (assuming that bear-mauling was fatal, which given the state of emergency medical care at the time seems like a safe assumption) has reached 144. And none of these people seems to have committed a particularly heinous crime: they were at best following the king’s orders and at worst a bit rude and disrespectful to a man of God.
So what’s the takeaway lesson here? The relevance to our day? I like to sing the song “Days of Elijah,” but am I really singing about the Days of God Frying People With Fire from Heaven?
Possible lessons: Treat Prophets with Respect, and God Takes Stuff Like This Seriously. But then I contrast this to the story in the NT of Jesus, who is rejected by the people of a town He visits. I mean, these people wouldn’t listen to the Son of God Himself, and the disciples, having read their 1 & 2 Kings, suggest Jesus pull out Elijah’s old fire-from-heaven trick and torch this disrespectful town. And Jesus basically tells them, No, that’s not how we do things around here.
Or is that just not how we do things around here anymore?
It’s hard to tell.
I’m still wrestling with Scripture. I was greatly helped by an insight in Peter Enns’ book Incarnation and Inspiration, which I read (and reviewed) during Lent. He quotes a Jewish teacher he knew who told him, “For Jews, the Bible is a problem to be solved. For Christians, it’s a message to be proclaimed.”
Right now, the Jewish approach may work a little better for me, especially as it’s mostly the Jewish Scriptures that are giving me headaches. The end of my Bible-in-a-year project is in sight, but the end of the wrestling is not.