We are working our way through the Pentateuch right now in the Old Testament class that I am taking. I have spent the weekend reading and reading about the book of Numbers. This book definitely does not qualify as a light, entertaining read. At all.
Although this book is a continuation of the Exodus story that we’ve already read in the books of Exodus and Leviticus, I found the narrative in Numbers to be even more disturbing than the two previous books were. Part of this may just be the cumulative horror I am experiencing at re-reading these is catching up with. Part of it is that the stories are becoming even more violent as we continue on.
It’s been almost 25 years since the last time I read the Bible through cover to cover, and I don’t think I’ve spent much time at all reading Leviticus, Numbers, or Deuteronomy during those years since then. It’s a clear reminder to me as I read them again now where the idea of an angry, punishing God comes from. Not only do we have the detailed descriptions of animal sacrifice, we also get the descriptions of mass killings by the Israelites of various other peoples and the mass killings of the Israelites by God.
All of these descriptions of violence are disturbing to me on so many levels, but I find the stories of how God repeatedly kills large numbers of the Israelites for their infractions the most disturbing. In Numbers, many of these mass killings come about because people questioned whether Moses really had greater access to God than anyone else. According to the stories, any questioning or complaining of any kind seems to provoke such anger in God that thousands of people wind up dead.
This violent, bloody, angry God is not one that I can imagine wanting to worship. It probably doesn’t help that by all descriptions, I would not be a person of any value to the God that is described here. I am a gentile, not an Israelite. I am a woman—and worse yet, a woman who has never borne children, which seems to be the only redeeming purpose for a woman’s existence. I am a lesbian. And I ask too many questions, have too many doubts, and am not naturally very obedient. At best, I would be of no value to such a god. More likely, I would have been obliterated early on in the story. It’s hard to choose a god who would treat me like that.
I am well aware that most people’s concept of God—not just among Christians, but also in rabbinic Judaism today—has shifted a good deal from what is described in Numbers, although there do appear to be those within the more fundamentalist circles who still view God in much the same way. I am also aware of the argument that the text describes the concept people had of God at the time the text was written (which may have been much later than the events described), but it is still disturbing that people conceived of their God—purportedly the same one that Christianity worships today—in such a way. What is it, I wonder, that causes people to choose this kind of image of God?
What does it mean for me to reject this kind of image of God? I know that there are those among my childhood faith tradition who would say that I am creating a God of my own invention because I am refusing to believe that God is as he is described in these texts. There may even be some truth to that. I’m sure they would describe me as being unfaithful to God’s revelation of himself in the Bible and would therefore deem me a heretic. There may be some truth in that too. I don’t know.
What I do know is that the God that I encounter personally bears no resemblance to the God that I find described in these texts. Is it wrong to put more weight on my own experience of God than in that which was described by people thousands of years ago? Did God change? Is the God that I have encountered the same one that they knew? Is God always a product of our imaginations based on the cultural context in which we encounter God?
I don’t know the answers to any of these questions. I won’t even pretend to. At the end of the day, right or wrong, all I know to do is to rely on what I have personally experienced of God because anything else feels like a betrayal of relationship.
I sure am glad that I only have one more book in the Pentateuch left to go, though. I know there is still much more violence, bloodshed, and angry God stories to come in the rest of the books that make up the Old Testament, but I know that there are bright spots in there too where a God of compassion, mercy, and love is described. I’m more than ready for a few bright spots!
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