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The Biblical Game of Thrones and God’s Body Count

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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.

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7 thoughts on “The Biblical Game of Thrones and God’s Body Count

  1. Thank you for having the courage to state your doubts and help others of us who can’t quite reconcile with the automatic Adventist answers acknowledge our own. With Robert Browning, “rather I prize the doubt, low kinds exist without.”
    Btw, may I ask what Bible reading plan you’re using?

    • It’s an ESV Study Bible Reading Plan that I got from the YouVersion Bible app on my iPhone. It mixes chapters from the Old and New Testaments each day, which is good. Next year I’m going to design a New Testament reading plan for myself and give myself a break from the OT.

  2. Hi Trudy,

    I enjoyed reading your recent article on Adventist Today, but was unable to respond on that site because I am not authorized to do so according to them.

    I am a recently retired academy Bible teacher (35 years) and I definitely understand what you are saying about your experience of reading the Bible without filters and metatheology. It is challenging and stretching. I find the story of Passover in Exodus clashing terribly with my concept of God as One who never uses the power of co-ercion (that is Satan’s realm). But the firstborn of all living Egyptians and animals???? Is there some explanation?

    In my first year of retirement I read James L. Kugel’s “How to Read the Bible” and “The God of Old.” A Harvard scholar and a believer in Judaism, he writes with a great deal of knowledge about Catholic and Protestant approaches to Scripture also. While I don’t necessarily buy everything he writes, he opened my mind to new ways of thinking about Scripture.
    I also have been reading a lot of Karen Armstrong’s work: just finished her “History of God” and found her short book “The Bible” a worthwhile read.

    So keep up your good work. Fun to read about your family and life in Newfoundland. I’m a BC born Canadian who just several years ago renewed my Canadian citizenship so I’m a “dualie” now.
    Warmly,
    Jim Robertson

    • Thanks for the comment, Jim (I find the registering and logging in on Adventist Today quite un-user-friendly, and can see why some people don’t bother commenting there). I am going to check out some of the book titles you’ve mentioned — I’ve read Karen Armstrong but the others are new to me.

      The story of the Passover is one of many Bible stories that makes sense to me if read metaphorically — if you build your kingdom on abusing and oppressing others, it will come back to destroy you in the end — but is kind of horrifying if read literally. A friend with a more liberal approach to Scripture suggested another reading that intrigued me … she thinks the deaths of the firstborn were actually carried out by the Hebrews as a kind of terrorist attack … hence the need for the blood on the doorposts to identify the homes that wouldn’t be attacked. Very different way of looking at it but I am getting more open to different ways of looking at Scripture …

      • Thanks for your reply. My continuing challenge is to hold onto both “trusting faith/belief” and “honest critical thinking.” The tension certainly keeps me from becoming complacent. I have long enjoyed the lines from TS Eliot’s poem, East Coker: “Home is where we start from. As we grow older/ The world becomes more complicated/ Of dead and living. . . . Old men ought to be explorers/ Here and there does not matter/ We must be still and still moving/ Into another intensity /For a further union, a deeper communion/
        Through the dark cold and the empty desolation, / The wave cry, the wind cry, the vast waters/ Of the petrel and the porpoise. In my end is my beginning.”

        Blessings on your life and writing. I look forward to reading more of your material.

  3. Yeah, the Old Testament in general is pretty hard to reconcile with an all-good God or a literal, inerrant view of the Bible. Numbers and Leviticus were especially onerous for me. There are two reasonable responses:

    1) Conclude that the Bible is the inspired word of God written down by imperfect men. One lesson from that might be: humans can only know God imperfectly, so accepting Jesus’ salvation bridges that gap in human understanding.

    2) Conclude the Bible is not the word of an all-loving God, or even a very reliable book of morality, since the rules are based on loyalty to God rather than acts of goodness.

    I chose the second option, but the first option is a million times better than holding onto a literal view (despite the evidence).

  4. It is interesting that it is promoted using a variety of source such as
    Internet, Media and other modern methods. This was true during the parting of the Sea of Reeds during the Exodus from Egypt and with the Egyptian
    plagues. Laboy rediscovered Enoch’s basic design and named it “The
    perfect Symbol.

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