from Easter Horror Stories- Rescuing Jesus’ Good News–
The web version of a book draft exploring the dark side of the salvation stories in the lectionary. Print book slated for 2024 based on comments from readers.
Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22
Let’s get straight into the bible,
“…Israel made a vow to the LORD and said, “If you will indeed give this people into our hands, then we will utterly destroy their towns.” The LORD listened to the voice of Israel, and handed over the Canaanites; and they utterly destroyed them and their towns; so the place was called Hormah.
From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; but the people became impatient on the way. The people spoke against God and against Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.”
Then the LORD sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died. The people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned by speaking against the LORD and against you; pray to the LORD to take away the serpents from us.”
So Moses prayed for the people. And the LORD said to Moses, “Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.” (Numbers 21)
Numbers 21 starts with yet more divinely mandated ethnic cleansing of the Canaanites, as a part of God’s plan of salvation for the Jews.
But now salvation is not even for all of the Jews! After the victory, some of them dare to complain that they starving. God responds, not with Manna or a feeding of the four thousand, but with another massacre, this time using poisonous serpents. Unsurprisingly, the masses fall into line rapidly, in the face of this God who keeps his beloved people under control by killing them so gruesomely.
Does killing people who dare to complain with snakes sound petty? Well, it gets even worse. A colleague far more versed in Hebrew than I am (a low bar, admittedly), points out that accusing the Israelites of being impatient is an unfair translation.
A better translation is that they had “reached the limit of their endurance,” and were utterly discouraged. Elizabeth Raine concludes, “This is a people who are utterly tired, completely discouraged and at the end of their tether – ‘impatient’ doesn’t begin to accurately describe their condition, and neatly lifts the blame for what follows from God onto the people.” Elizabeth has been vindicated in that the very latest version of the NRSV replaces impatient with discouraged. It is somewhat mollifying that in Exodus 16-18, which tells the same story, God instead gives the people as much meat, food and water as they can eat! But back to Numbers and the lectionary.
God’s offer of wholeness and liberation and salvation has narrowed from all men (through Noah), to Jewish men (through Abraham), to compliant Jewish men.
If this was a story of a husband and wife, as God and the people of faith are described by Isaiah, Ezekiel and Hosea, and later Ephesians, we would surely think of domestic violence. We would surely support and encourage the woman to leave. We, I hope, would no longer simply advise her not to grumble next time, or make him angry. To try harder to please him. To comply and endure.
To our great shame, I know that is precisely what some women have been told, and even are being told, and that stories like these maintain a culture in which that is possible.
It is not only this story from Numbers which is so dangerous, but also John’s retelling of it in his gospel, which continues to be read in churches around the world today,
“… just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life… Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already…” (John 3:14-17)
According to John, God is going to kill everyone who does not believe, just as God killed all those grumbling Israelites. Only those who look to the Serpent (who believe in Jesus) will be healed. It’s no longer enough to comply, you have to believe.
So the God who is offering me, a Christian, salvation, intends to kill every one of my friends and family who do not believe in Jesus, just like those grumbling Jews in the desert. And why not? This same God over the last few weeks has been shown to be willing to murder almost everyone on the planet (Noah), and then entire nations (Abraham and Joshua), and even the faithful if they dare grumble.
To be fair, it makes perfect sense that the first disciples, all of whom were Jewish, used the sacred stories they grew up with to try to understand this new thing God was doing in Jesus.
Matthew, in particular, goes to great pains, and selectively quotes and misquotes from a variety of bible texts, to show how Jesus is part of this story, and fulfils it. How he was the Messiah, the Christ, the anointed one of the people of those stories.
Years ago, I moved from being a Christian literalist who thought I had to accept all of those ancient Jewish stories too, to being a Conservative Evangelical who knew I could not, but struggled to justify the selectivity employed by my peers and mentors when declaring some texts (about gays) immutable, and others (about mass genocide, or wealth) needing contextuality.
Now I believe that it is essential for all Christians to categorically reject the image of God being portrayed in these stories, rather than repeating them (somewhat sanitised) in church.
What surprised me was that Jesus seemed to agree.
Let’s revisit Mark 8:29-38
Peter and the disciples called Jesus the Christ.
Jesus rebuked them, telling them to shut up about him. He talked instead about the Son of Man.
Yet the very first line of Mark opens,
“The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”
Look again though. It seems like Mark is using “Christ” as a last name, to identify him, much like Paul does, rather than as a description of what he was. He is not Jesus the Christ so much as Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
And in rebuking Peter, I suspect that Jesus was not just trying to keep his messianic identity secret, but emphatically declaring that Peter was wrong- Jesus was not the Jewish Messiah, the deliverer of Israel, the final stage in the story of Abraham and Moses and Joshua. He is the suffering Son of Man who will be vindicated in the last days.
These last days were probably understood by Mark to be heralded by the obliteration of the Jewish Temple and Jerusalem in 70AD.
“Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” (Mark 8:31)
So strong is the disciple’s negative reaction to what Jesus says about suffering that Peter dares to rebuke Jesus, his teacher, and the one he has just called Christ! So emphatic is Jesus about what he is saying that he rebuked Peter right back, even calling him Satan!
Peter’s mind is on human things.
Humans expect deliverance and victory over enemies. Humans expect the kind of salvation we’ve been reading about: the victory of some over others, winners and losers, the in crowd and the dregs, heroes and villains, saints and sinners, us and them. Jesus thinks that God sees it differently.
Jesus then goes on to describe what he thinks God is offering. It is not an offer to be found, but lost! To lose in order to win…
“He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.” (Mark 8:34-38)
Don’t be ashamed.
Don’t cling to success.
Don’t look for victory.
All three offers were very counter cultural, then and now.
“For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life/soul/psyche?” (Mark 8:36)
Is our life being diminished because of something we are fixated on gaining? Have we given in to the daily crush of junk mail and consumerism, or been paralysed by a fear of scarcity which forces us to abandon our neighbours and focus on number one? To be a Noah building an ark for us and ours, and screw everyone else? What did it profit us to gain three jumbo packs of loo paper? What did it cost?
Jesus is offering us not the gain we seek, but the salvation we need, from whatever it is we are fixated by.
Perhaps we need salvation from belief in a God who builds a Kingdom through murder and bullying and threatening to kills us or hurt our children if we step out of line.
Perhaps we need instead an offer of salvation through the Spirit of the God whose Kingdom is right here within reach, for which we will suffer not because God makes us suffer, but because others prefer the world as it is, and have the power to keep it that way. For now.
This book uses the ‘New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.’ In all cases where there are italics, they have been added by myself