The nasty bits of the Bible

Over the last year or so,partly as a result of working on a few thoroughly ‘nasty’ biblical texts with Christian, Jewish and Muslim colleagues in scriptural reasoning groups, I have become much less puzzled, and in some ways less bothered, by the presence of certain kinds of nastiness in the Bible. The Flood. The large-scale slaughters of innocent people in wars. The famines and sieges when parents eat their children. Etc. (Most recent trigger for these thoughts was preaching on Hosea 14 and looking back at the end of Hosea 13). These are terrifying texts to the point of being unreadable; there is no way of making them ‘nicer’; but they are, after all, no worse than the history books or the world news. That is simply how things are. It’s not material suitable for children or those of a sensitive disposition, but nor is the world news. And the injustice of it, including the particular vulnerability of children and the destruction of animal life along with human life, is also simply how things are.  So when people attack the Bible and say ‘how can God punish innocent people for what others do?’ my response tends to be ‘but we know this is what happens, this is just how it is; we (or, especially, people with power) mess up, and other people and other living things (especially people and living things without much power) suffer. It doesn’t take a specially vindictive and twisted miracle’. At least some of the ‘nastiness’ of the Bible, I suspect, appears so if you expect the Bible to describe, in an edifying way, a perfectly moral universe. I suspect that it is, on the contrary, grimly realistic – nowhere more so than in depicting a God who does not generally act to remove the innerworldly consequences of bad or stupid (or for that matter good or wise) actions. There’s something about the inevitability, the horror and the senselessness of suffering that these ‘nasty’ texts seem to capture and refuse to lose sight of – and, very often, to lament.

I can’t help thinking that it takes a particularly twisted kind of brain to use them for ‘theodicy’ – ignoring the senselessness in a drive to make sense. Ascribing this ‘suffering-because-you-or-other-people-mess-up’ to God is not an explanation, still less a justification for suffering. At most, I think, it says: these things happen, and (believe it or not) God still is.

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