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Brutality at Home

Brutality at Home
by Dave E. Matson


God could be equally brutal to his own people whenever his temper flared, as it often did. Lot's wife was killed for merely looking back. Was God trying to protect a deep, dark secret, or did his anger simply flare up because the woman disobeyed his petty command?


Abraham is suddenly required to sacrifice his only son to God (Genesis 22:1-12). I guess God had a burning question about Abraham's loyalty despite his supposedly omniscient mind. The poor kid must have had quite a fright upon being tied up and laid upon the altar! (There are certain clues in the text, and elsewhere, that have caused Bible scholars to believe that in the original version of this story Isaac was sacrificed! Much later, they argue, when human sacrifice fell out of favor in Israel, the story was touched up. King Josiah of Judah put an end to child sacrifice being practiced near Jerusalem.) The working brain realizes that the omniscient mind, which God supposedly has, does not have to test anyone. It already has the answers!


God kills two of Aaron's sons because they offer "unholy" or "strange" fire in their censers (Leviticus 10:1-2). I can't imagine that those two were deliberately trying to displease God. But, they were a bit premature in offering the burning incense, only to find that God has a short fuse. God sent a fire that burned them up. A patient teacher he was not!


God sends an epidemic to kill many of the Israelites who craved a little meat in their monotonous diet in the Sinai. But God does have a sense of humor. He smothers them with an endless flock of quail, their source of meat, before his germs do their work. That is how God handles complaints about his "cooking" (Numbers 11:33). It was bad enough to complain about the diet of manna, but if you added how much better things were back home in Egypt-- that really lit God's fuse! The least indiscretion could light God's fuse, which was always short.


A man is put to death for gathering sticks on the Sabbath (Numbers 15:32-36), and that is in accordance with God's law. God doesn't have much tolerance, even for minor infractions. This law was never repealed despite claims about the New Testament succeeding the Old, so be careful the next time you go camping on the weekend. Beware of gathering sticks on the Sabbath! That will get you the death penalty according to biblical law.


The working brain immediately recognizes the absurdity of this law and rejects the idea that God had anything to do with it. Common sense tells us that a just and good God is not going to kill people over such trivial, symbolic matters. In truth, the Sabbath was not taken very seriously by the Israelites until much later, around the time of their captivity (596/597 BC); the law requiring strict observance was simply back-dated into the early accounts which were written up about then.


God kills three men and their entire families in addition to 250 others because they challenged Moses' authority (Numbers 16:1-35). Freedom of speech and the right to peaceful protest are alien concepts in the Bible. When the people as a whole complain to Moses about the above killings, God's fuse is lit once again and he sends an instant epidemic! Aaron frantically rushes into the midst of the people with an incense burner to perform the purification ritual, but 14,700 Israelites die before his incense takes effect. Aaron then finds himself on the boundary between the living and the dead (Numbers 16:41-49)! This is such a bizarre story that it deserves to be quoted from a modern translation:


The next day the whole community complained against Moses and Aaron and said, "You have killed some of the Lord's people." After they had all gathered to protest to Moses and Aaron, they turned toward the Tent and saw that the cloud was covering it and that the dazzling light of the Lord's presence had appeared. Moses and Aaron went and stood in front of the Tent, and the Lord said to Moses, "Move back from these people, and I will destroy them on the spot!"

The two of them bowed down with their faces to the ground, and Moses said to Aaron, "Take your fire pan, put live coals from the altar in it, and put some incense on the coals. Then hurry with it to the people and perform the ritual of purification for them. Hurry! The Lord's anger has already broken out and an epidemic has already begun." Aaron obeyed, took his fire pan and ran into the middle of the assembled people. When he saw that the plague had already begun, he put the incense on the coals and performed the ritual of purification for the people. This stopped the plague, and he was left standing between the living and the dead. The number of people who died was 14,700, not counting those who died in Korah's rebellion.
(Today's English Version
: Numbers 16:41-49)


If Aaron really ran into the middle of the assembled people, they being the whole community, and if he later found himself on a straight boundary line between the living and the dead, then about half of the community must have died. (That seems to be the most straightforward interpretation.) Thus, we may conclude that their total population amounted to about 30,000 individuals. What happened to the 3 million estimated individuals who supposedly were trekking about in the Sinai?


Note that God, the all-powerful, asks Moses and Aaron to stand aside so that he can kill those assembled. Apparently God's aim with the magic fire left something to be desired! Clearly, the god of the Old Testament is not the god of today's Christian theologians.


Moses and Aaron disobey God by falling down on their faces instead of getting out of the way. Moses tells Aaron how God might be appeased, and Aaron rushes madly about with the incense burner. God then changes his mind! That all the dead are to one side of Aaron shows that God was not too particular as to whom he killed in these binges.


The working brain may not catch all these details, but it has already seen enough to immediately conclude that this is not the kind of activity that an all-powerful and wise god would engage in. No way! No how!


When the people are brought to an area devoid of water and food, they panic and complain to Moses. God tells Moses to gather the community and to speak to a particular rock; water would gush forth. Moses and Aaron gathered the community as commanded, but Moses struck the rock twice with his stick instead of speaking to it. Water did indeed gush forth, but God was not happy. Because they had not acknowledged God's power before the assembly, the two would never enter the promised land. Thus, despite years of loyal and difficult service, a slip of temper, a miscalculation, denies Moses and Aaron entry into the promised land (Numbers 20:7-12). That's like working for a company 40 years and having your pension cancelled because of a minor technicality! The working brain does not believe for a minute that an all-powerful, beneficent god would give vent to such petty, peevish behavior.


God's chosen people must have been dumber than sheep, for we find them complaining again about God's "cooking," and you know what that means.


The Israelites left Mount Hor by the road that leads to the Gulf of Aqaba, in order to go around the territory of Edom. But on the way the people lost their patience and spoke against God and Moses. They complained, "Why did you bring us out of Egypt to die in this desert, where there is no food or water? We can't stand any more of this miserable food!" Then the Lord sent poisonous snakes among the people, and many Israelites were bitten and died.

(Today's English Version
: Numbers 21:4-6)


Yes, God still had a short fuse. When the people beg for forgiveness, Moses is instructed to make a bronze serpent, which is attached to a pole. By merely looking at the bronze serpent, anyone who was bitten by a snake would be healed. The working brain immediately recognizes the highly improbable nature of this story about a short-fused god and a bronze snake. Among other things, it smacks of the primitive magic common to ancient societies. Objects or plants that bore some physical resemblance to a problem were often believed to have curative powers for that ailment. Hence, the image is that of a bronze snake.


As you may have noticed, God is not too particular in whom he kills once his fuse is lit. He kills 24,000 Israelites with a plague because an Israelite man brought a Midianite woman home with him in plain sight of Moses (Numbers 25). The plague was magically stopped when Phinehas speared the two. It seems that God has a penchant for germ warfare! Common sense tells us that such an atrocity could hardly be an act of a loving, just god.


God kills 70 men of Beth Shemesh (erroneously put at 50,070 in the King James Bible) for looking into the ark (1 Samuel 6:19). God didn't like people poking their noses into his home-away-from-home. How silly that God should live in a box! A more thoughtful god would have acted to prevent the offense, thus sparing the lives of 70 people.


God kills Uzzah for steadying the ark when the oxen pulling it stumbled (2 Samuel 6:6-7). Uzzah instinctively acted to prevent the ark from crashing to the ground, but his good intentions count for nothing. God immediately kills him for touching the ark. The working brain is amused at the puffed-up, over-glorified importance given to a piece of furniture, of which a truly loving and wise god would have had no part. In an age of superstition where every twitch of nature was an act of a god or demon, an inordinate importance was often attached to ritual. The slightest offense to a god could bring disaster to a community. Therefore, sacred objects were often associated with petty rules whose disobedience meant death. Dealing with the gods was serious business, and the priests meant to keep it that way. Rituals sprouted like mushrooms.


Here is a classic example of God's justice in the Bible: King David fools around with Uriah's wife, Bathsheba, and ultimately has Uriah assigned to a suicide squad so that he might take Bathsheba for himself. Thus, the loyal Uriah is killed in battle and Bathsheba becomes David's wife. Together, they have a son. God's punishment? God kills the baby and humiliates David by having his concubines raped in public! (2 Samuel 12:11-18) How about those apples?


The working brain would never attribute such nonsense to a wise and just god. It is another case of Bronze Age justice. In those days, women and children were more akin to property, which might be killed or harmed as punishment for a crime committed by the head of the household. Thus, the innocent baby is killed and David's innocent wives are publicly raped! Who needs Bronze Age justice? Give us the American Constitution and its Bill of Rights any day.


God kills 70,000 Israelites because David took a census that God had ordered him to take (2 Samuel 24). I guess it's "damned if you do" and "damned if you don't." Thus, David was forced to take the census against which there seems to have been a taboo. David takes the blame and asks for forgiveness! The working brain immediately rejects such idiocy. God could not be the author of such obscenity.


God has a man killed for believing a lie that was skillfully told to him (1 Kings 13:11-25). This god of the Old Testament makes no allowance for human weaknesses.


God burns up 100 innocent soldiers and their two captains who had been sent to bring in Elijah (2 Kings 1:1-2). I'm sure that you or I could sit down and find a dozen better solutions to the problem, ones more worthy of God's abilities.


God sends two bears to tear up 42 children because they call Elisha an old bald head (2 Kings 2:23-25). Bible apologists have done somersaults trying to conjure up an interpretation that would make God look good. You would be amazed at some of the things they have come up with! They are, indeed, pretty good at rewriting the Bible. The working brain, however, immediately rejects the claim that a loving god did any such thing. Such is the action of an immature being.


God approves of the massacre of some Israelites who worship Baal (2 Kings 10:30). The Bible is not a great believer in the American notion of religious freedom. In truth, an all-powerful and wise god would scarcely need human worship to begin with, let alone fly into fits of jealous rage every time someone tried out another religion. Ancient priests, however, stood to lose their jobs if the supporting population wandered off in search of other gods. The ancient state justified its rule through its priesthood. Consequently, religious freedom was often a giant NO-NO. Archaeological study suggests that the Israelites were much closer to worshipping the typical Canaanite gods than the Bible lets on. Indeed, God seems to have had a consort, Asherah, in ancient times. King Josiah destroyed Asherah's idol as part of his reforms.


In a silly test of faith, God allows Satan to kill Job's family and servants (Job 1:12-2:8). Satan had questioned the loyalty of God's man, Job, saying that it was easy to follow God when that meant prosperity. The two dickered, and God allowed Satan to do as he pleased with Job short of touching him. Thus, when Job was away, calamities struck. Satan, with God's blessing, sent raiders who killed Job's servants and stole his wealth; a desert storm blew his house down and killed all his sons and daughters. But Job remained loyal to God. Not to be beaten so easily, Satan suggested that disease might crack Job. So, God allowed Satan to do as he wished short of killing Job, and Satan covered Job from head to foot in ugly, diseased blisters. Poor Job was all but done in. Even his friends suggested that he had done something terribly wrong, and that if he only begged God for forgiveness he would be on the road to recovery. But Job would have none of that! He was convinced of his innocence. Finally, God confronts Job with a blizzard of questions emphasizing the glory of God and the ignorance of man. As Job had passed the test, he was restored with twice his old wealth. He now had many new sons, hoards of servants, and a bigger place than ever.


Uh, what about Job's first sons and daughters, and his old, loyal servants? What kind of deal did they get? Don't they count for anything in God's scheme of things? Once again, we have the Bronze Age view that a man's family, including his servants, were akin to property. Property, then, as now, is deemed replaceable.


The working brain immediately rejects this primitive concept of treating people as property, a view that no enlightened being could hold, let alone God.


God punishes Shemaiah's descendants for something that Shemaiah did (Jeremiah 29:32). What kind of justice is that? With God, this is nothing new. Take the case of King Manasseh of Judah. God punishes the descendants of Manasseh's generation for Manasseh's crimes.


King Manasseh is vehemently denounced as a villain for rebuilding the pagan places of worship that Hezekiah had destroyed (2 Kings 21). Manasseh set up alters to Baal, and even placed a statue of Asherah in the Lord's Temple--along with pagan altars! In the two courtyards of the Temple he built altars for the worship of the stars. He sacrificed at least one of his sons as a burnt offering and practiced divination and magic. He consulted fortunetellers and mediums. According to the Bible, he led his people "...to commit even greater sins than those committed by the nations whom the Lord had driven out of the land as his people advanced." His people were worse than the Canaanites, and you know what happened to them. King Manasseh broke just about every law in God's book!


By now, knowing that God has a short fuse for any one of these sins (even if done on a far smaller scale), you must be expecting a cosmic explosion on high. And God does, indeed, blow. Among other things, he promises to wipe Jerusalem (Manasseh's capital) clean of its people, as clean as a plate that has been wiped and turned upside down! He will bring such a disaster on Judah that all who hear of it will be stunned! What happens? King Manasseh rules for 55 years in relative prosperity! When he finally died, he was buried in the palace garden. It seems that God couldn't lay a finger on him!


To add insult to injury, Manasseh's son, Amon, succeeded him as king and worshipped those very same idols. However, his officials soon assassinated him and, in turn, were killed by the people of Judah who put Amon's son Josiah on the throne.


Unlike his father, Josiah followed God's commands religiously and got rid of those pagan idols. There had never been a king like Josiah before, who served the Lord with all his heart, mind, and strength, obeying all the laws of Moses (2 Kings 23:25). Does Judah now prosper? No! God is still smarting over Manasseh. God doesn't even take good care of Josiah! Good King Josiah is killed in a battle against King Neco of Egypt, who came to support the faltering Assyrians in their battle with the Medes and Persians. A few years later, the Lord's wrath hit Judah in the form of Nebuchadnezzar, king of the Babylonians. Nebuchadnezzar captured Jerusalem and (a few years later) put down a rebellion by destroying the Temple and taking the Jewish elite and much of the population into Babylonian captivity. Note that Nebuchadnezzar was fairly lenient until the Jewish king broke his oath and rebelled.


Thus, God's "punishment" of King Manasseh fell on a later generation. Once again, God has a peculiar sense of justice.


Considering that Manasseh lit every fuse in God's box, not to mention tweaking God's nose, why didn't God cut him down on the spot? As we have seen, God is not the least bit shy in slaughtering people at a moment's notice, and for much, much less than what Manasseh did.


The problem, of course, is that the real King Manasseh lived to a ripe, old age while Josiah (whom the Bible was originally grooming as a great hero 4 ) died unexpectedly in battle. Minor details of history might be rewritten, but there was no way to make Josiah's early death and Manasseh's long reign go away. However awkward those facts might be, they had to be dealt with.


The author of 2 Chronicles 33 tackles this problem by lying about the details: Manasseh, he claims, was captured by the Assyrians and taken in chains to Babylon, where he suffered greatly, repented to God, and was allowed to return to finish his reign!


The Chronicler's lie stands out like a giant snowball on green grass! Not only is that "incident" not mentioned in 2 Kings, which is the older and more complete account, but, according to 2 Kings, God is still smarting over Manasseh's deeds even in the time of Josiah! Could God have been smarting over Manasseh's deeds long after he died (2 Kings) and, yet, have felt good enough about Manasseh to return him to power from Assyrian captivity--an unprecedented event (2 Chronicles)? Hardly!


The Chronicler is not even close. God is never so benevolent elsewhere in the Bible, and the Assyrians (as far as anyone knows) have never taken a king, who had been rotting in their dungeons, and returned him to power. Furthermore, 2 Kings 23 describes Josiah as clearing out the idols set up in Manasseh's time. Obviously, Manasseh couldn't have done much repenting if he didn't get rid of his idols.


Historically speaking, one of the reasons Manesseh lasted so long is that he was willing to play ball with the Assyrians. (He inherited something of a vassal state from Hezekiah.) According to a few scholars, that meant setting up Assyrian gods in Judah.


Assyrian records mention Manasseh as part of an envoy of vassal kings summoned to Nineveh (not Babylon), apparently in order to extract more tribute from them. He was not sent there as a prisoner. Another Assyrian record mentions that Manasseh and a group of western kings were charged with the difficult task of supplying building materials for an Assyrian project. In those records, Manasseh is always referred to as a loyal vassal. Thus, we may dismiss the fictional account invented by the Chronicler. It is nothing but a pious explanation of God's inaction in the face of Manasseh's provocations.


The New Testament lacks most of the butchering and slaughter of the Old Testament but is not without its own brutality.


The god of the New Testament strikes a man and his wife dead for selling their property and not turning over all their proceeds to the apostles (Acts 5:1-10). Hey! It was their money! If they did not wish to fork it all over to some blood-sucking cult that was their business. I guess God didn't see it that way.


God has an angel kill Herod because the people called him a god (Acts 12:23). It seems that the Japanese emperors and many other rulers have been viewed as gods for ages without incurring divine wrath. Many Roman emperors were also treated formally as gods. Funny, that God should freak out on Herod Agrippa I, who didn't even claim to be a god. He was just enjoying a little attention from the crowd. Did God get up on the wrong side of the bed that morning or what? The working brain finds such unevenness in God's behavior extremely suspicious. Maybe the guy just died of a heart-attack and the biblical author found an opportunity to work in God's vengeance. Who knows?


God blinds the minds of nonbelievers so that they might not find the way at the last minute and be saved (2 Corinthians 4:4, 2 Thessalonians 2:11-12). Jesus speaks in parables to accomplish the same thing! (Mark 4:11-12) How thoughtful of the Good Shepherd to think thus of his wayward sheep! Apologists have bent over backwards in order to put these passages in a good light, to take the poison out of them. The working brain, however, does not tie itself in knots trying to reinterpret obvious garbage. Common sense tells us that either God cannot write or else that he is playing the role of the devil and speeding people on their way to hell. That is, if God is the author of the Bible.


The New Testament lacks the endless pages of slaughter and gore, but it more than makes up for it by introducing the concept of hell. Hell is brutality raised to obscene heights.


NOTES

4. See Who Wrote the Bible? (1987) by the noted Bible scholar Richard Friedman (Summit Books, NY). To understand the full import of my point, read Friedman from cover to cover. It's a fun book, not a chore.


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