Mailbag: What Is Up With Old Testament God?

I've got a couple more mailbag questions I want to share with you guys this week. The first is one I really struggled with myself. Question: I was raised Catholic, but apparently there is a lot about our faith I was never taught. Now that I'm raising children, I am working hard to learn more about our beautiful faith so that I can live it for them. I take my responsibility to raise my children in the faith seriously. Anyway, so the question is, how do you explain some of the darker passages of the Bible (you know, the parts of the Old Testament that make God out to be evil) to your children? My oldest is 3, almost 4, so in particular I want to know how to address it with him when we're reading passages from his children's Bible.
Answer: I remember reading the story of Jericho to my daughter Betty. It ends: So the people shouted, and the trumpets were blown. As soon as the people heard the sound of the trumpets, they raised a great shout, and the wall fell down flat; so the people charged straight ahead into the city and captured it. 21 Then they devoted to destruction by the edge of the sword all in the city, both men and women, young and old, oxen, sheep, and donkeys. And Betty looked up at me with her big five year old eyes and asked, "Is that GOOD?" I didn't know WHAT to say. Since then, I've looked into it. This is what Pope Benedict said on the subject: "Here it must be remembered first and foremost that biblical revelation is deeply rooted in history. God’s plan is manifested progressively and it is accomplished slowly, in successive stages and despite human resistance. God chose a people and patiently worked to guide and educate them. Revelation is suited to the cultural and moral level of distant times and thus describes facts and customs, such as cheating and trickery, and acts of violence and massacre, without explicitly denouncing the immorality of such things. This can be explained by the historical context, yet it can cause the modern reader to be taken aback, especially if he or she fails to take account of the many "dark" deeds carried out down the centuries, and also in our own day. In the Old Testament, the preaching of the prophets vigorously challenged every kind of injustice and violence, whether collective or individual, and thus became God’s way of training his people in preparation for the Gospel. So it would be a mistake to neglect those passages of Scripture that strike us as problematic. Rather, we should be aware that the correct interpretation of these passages requires a degree of expertise, acquired through a training that interprets the texts in their historical-literary context and within the Christian perspective which has as its ultimate hermeneutical key "the Gospel and the new commandment of Jesus Christ brought about in the paschal mystery". (Found in paragraph 42 of this document.) So, in layman's terms, what Pope Benedict XVI is telling us is (I think): 1. God, in his love, slowly revealed his nature to man, in a way we could understand. 2. The people may have celebrated wrong-doing but God and his prophets did not. 3. The Old Testament tells us about God, not from God's perspective, but from man's. God is unchanging, but man has changed. We have a greater depth of understanding of God's love and mercy than we did when the Old Testament was written, because we have the benefit of the words, example, and redemption of Christ. 4. We know that the promises of the Old Testament are fulfilled in the New Testament. We know that the story has a happy ending. So, next year, when Anita is in Kindergarten and we read the story of Jericho together, I'll tell her: No. It was not a good thing that all those people were killed. It was a sad thing. It is sad for us, but it's even sadder for God, because God wants all people to love him and be able to live with him forever. The people in Jericho were bad guys. God gave them the chance to repent and be saved, but only Rahab and her family loved God and asked for forgiveness. So, they were saved. But in the time of the Old Testament, it wasn't possible for the winners of a war to put all of the bad guys in jail. They had to kill them or the city would have had more bad guys than good guys. The Israelites rejoiced when they won, but God didn't rejoice that all those people had to die. When we really think about it, it's much sadder when bad guys die than when good guys die. God loved all those bad guys, but they didn't love him back, and that's the saddest part of all. Thanks to Michael, who emailed me a great article by Fr. Robert Barron. The whole thing is worth a read. But the paragraph that is perhaps most relevant to our discussion today is this: A third perspective—and to my mind the most important—is that the violent passages of the Bible ought to be read as spiritual metaphors, tropes for the terrible struggle between the ways of God and the ways of sin. Origen long ago commented that, in many of the biblical stories, the Israelites should be appreciated as evocative of all that is congruent with the will of God and that the enemies of Israel—Amalekites, Egyptians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Greeks, and Romans—symbolize all that stands athwart the divine purposes. A strong indication within the Bible itself that Origen is on to something is the conclusion of the great story, in the book of Exodus, of the Israelites’ battle against the Amalekites: "The Lord will war against Amalek through the centuries" (Ex. 17:16). On the assumption that the tale from Exodus is simply a straightforward historical account of Israel’s struggle against a petty ancient middle eastern tribe, that claim makes little sense. And with this more metaphorical reading in mind, we can make much better sense of Saul’s fall from grace. By refusing to put the ban on Amalek, Saul was playing games with evil, indeed using evil for his own purposes. Consider the manner in which we typically deal in half-measures with evil, toying with it, using it in fact to our advantage, when we should simply be eliminating it. I’m quite sure that a man’s AA sponsor would be less than satisfied upon hearing that his charge was taking only one drink a week and that a wife would be anything but delighted to hear that her husband was faithful to her 90% of the time. Certain forms of evil are so repugnant to human flourishing that they simply have to be eliminated. The ban must be placed on them. Saul spared the Amalekite king Agag, but the prophet Samuel, as the Bible not so delicately puts it, "hacked Agag to pieces" (Ex. 15:33). Read in a purely literalistic way, this passage is brutal indeed; but read metaphorically and spiritually, its depths open up: sometimes hacking evil to pieces is the only proper measure. Much of the confusion comes from the sense many of us have that we must interpret all of the Bible in exactly the same way. But, as Fr. Barron points out so eloquently earlier in this same piece, the Bible is a library not a book. It's full of different genres of literature that must be interpreted different ways. SOME of the Bible is to be interpreted literally. SOME of it isn't. As with most of Catholic teaching, it's not black and white. It's nuanced. We are mostly not a religion of either/or we are both/and. Sometimes that makes things easier on us, but it also makes it more complicated, and puts a lot of responsibility on each of us!
Disclaimer: I am not a theologian, nor am I an official spokesperson for the Catholic Church. (You're thinking of this guy.) If you read anything on this blog that is contrary to Church teaching, please consider it my error (and let me know!). I'm not a doctor or an expert on anything in particular. I'm just one person with a lot of experience parenting little kids and a desire to share my joy in marriage, mothering, and my faith. If you've got a question, please send it along to catholicallyear @ gmail . com . Please let me know if you prefer that I change your name if I use your question on the blog.