Q&R: God in the Old Testament
I have one quick theological question (but it may not be a quick answer!). I am trying to read about God in the Old Testament through Jesus revelation that God is nonviolent and non-vengeful. What is your opinion on the destruction of the prophets of Baal by Elijah? Is that just an accommodation of God to man’s expectation?
I would suggest starting with my book, A More Christlike Word. I don’t address Elijah’s massacre of the prophets of Baal in the book, mainly because it’s not one of the most difficult stories to deal with. I say that because, in that particular story, there is no indication at all that God commanded or blessed the slaughter.
Much more difficult are texts where either a central character or the narrator does indicate that God commands the slaughter or God himself isis portrayed as the slayer. On this, a couple of points:
1. There is a trajectory within Scripture of an evolving theology of judgment, destruction, and fire.
Note well: God is not evolving. God is immutable. And the immutable God is revealed in Jesus Christ. It is, rather, the theology of God’s people that is developing through the Scriptures, and these culminate in Jesus’s VERY direct revelation, “It is the thief who steals, kills, and destroys. I [God Incarnate] come to bring life abundant.” According to the Word of God (Jesus Christ), God is not the death-dealer. God is the life-giver. And he is the same yesterday, today, and forever. This will then affect how we interpret Scripture in alignment with Jesus’s Emmaus Road claim that these Scriptures are all ultimately about Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection. How so? That’s what my book is about.
2. We have Jesus’s own commentary on a particular example, where Elijah calls down fire from heaven to kill Ahaziah’s troops in 2 Kings 1. In that passage, we read that Ahaziah sends 50 soldiers to bring Elijah in, the Elijah calls down fire “from heaven” to incinerate them. Fifty more soldiers come and he does it again. A third cohort comes, begging not to be killed, and the story proceeds from there.
Fastforward to Luke 9:51-56
- 51 Now it came to pass, when the time had come for Him to be received up, that He steadfastly set His face to go to Jerusalem, 52 and sent messengers before His face. And as they went, they entered a village of the Samaritans, to prepare for Him. 53 But they did not receive Him, because His face was set for the journey to Jerusalem. 54 And when His disciples James and John saw this, they said, “Lord, do You want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them, just as Elijah did?” 55 But He turned and rebuked them, and said, “You do not know what manner of spirit you are of. 56For the Son of Man did not come to destroy men’s lives but to save them.”
The disciples were biblical literalists, applying the Scriptures and citing the example of Elijah for the purpose of death-dealing. Elijah did this. So should we. And of course, Jesus rebukes them. Why? Because the Son of Man (he IS the revelation of the character, nature, will, and life of God) is a Savior, not a destroyer, of human life. That isn’t surprising, perhaps, until you sit on the implications of the difference between the narrator of 1 Kings and the Word of God (Jesus Christ). The narrator says that the fire came “from heaven.” That may be a literal statement about the fire falling from the sky. But it feels like a theological statement as well, where “from heaven” means “from God.” But what does God (Jesus Christ) have to say about his disciples’ interpretation?
- Jesus rebuked them. Why? Because they are reading and using the Bible wrongly. How so?
- You do not know of what spirit you are. They are of the wrong spirit. How so?
- The Son of Man [God’s Son, God the Son] did not come to destroy men’s life but to save.
In seeking to mimic Elijah’s miracle of destruction, in what sense are they of the wrong spirit? Is it that they are of the wrong Spirit (i.e., that Jesus is led by the Holy Spirit but Elijah was not in that story, and we know this because he destroys rather than saves)? Or is that they are invoking the wrong Spirit (i.e., that Jesus calls on the Holy Spirit to heal and redeem, but Elijah was calling down a different spirit that destroys and kills)? I am not positive about that. But what is absolutely clear is that:
- Jesus’s interpretation of the Scripture passage is a strong NO! to his disciples interpretation of the same passage, and
- Jesus’s intepretation of the events are a strong NO! to the narrator’s interpretation of events in 2 Kings.
The John 10:10 model is worth thinking about as we interpret these types Bible stories.
P.S. Here are some other links that may help: