How do we credibly preach about a God who willingly kills men, women and children? This question challenged me this past week as I preached from Genesis 6 and the story of Noah. It challenged me because I know that two dear friends of mine reject the God of the Bible because of this very passage and others like it. It also challenges me because I wonder the same thing about God. Over the years I’ve grown fatigued with callous doctrinal academics or simplistic Christian cliches. I want a reasonable answer that takes into account our genuine condition as human beings. Here is a snippet of what I offered regarding this question. What do you think? Am I missing the mark? How would you approach this?
1. The entire tone of Genesis 6 is lament. Repeatedly, we are told that God is sorrowful. The situation “grieved him to his heart” (Gen. 6:6) Likewise, what made God sorrowful was the sexual and physical misuse that neighbors were making of one another. At minimum, Christians and thoughtful non-Christians can agree that this passage does not provide a picture of a deity lustful with vengeance who “gets off” on making innocent people suffer.
2. God is not presented as throwing a tantrum. Typically a tantrum arises from a spoiled heart that does not get what it wants. A toddler who wanted ice cream and was told to wait until after dinner; a man who was fired from his job, buys a gun and then kills his co-workers before turning the gun on himself; or King Triton in the Little Mermaid who in a fit of rage destroys Ariel’s room only to say to himself later, “what have I done?” this is the stuff of tantrums. But the text reveals God as patient, measured, expressing his mind on a matter that is of trouble to Him, and having a plan that must be adopted because to Him there is no other way. This scene reveals one doing something that one does not want to do but feels there is no other way forward. Those who tantrum avoid the hard road of difficult thought and measured feeling. Tantrums are easy. Entering the mess of our condition with heartfelt and reasonable conclusions is not.
3. God is not presented as a dictator hungry with exerting his power. When Hitler flew his Blitzkrieg over London or Stalin created the man-made famine for his own people in Ukraine, men, women and children were killed solely at the whim of the dictator who intends to demonstrate his power. Disregard and happy cruelty are the means a dictator uses to exalt himself. But this picture does not seem to fit Genesis 6 either. God personally created these people who are dear to him. His issue is the harm they are doing to one another. His intent is to stop wide-spread violence and defend neighbor-love. Dictators share no such concern.
4. Genesis 6 presents a picture closer to that of a lamenting judge. We know something of this in our own lives. We teach our boys and girls to go get help when facing a bully. But we also teach them that if everything else fails and there is no help to be found, here is how you use pepper spray, or here is how you throw a punch. We do this recognizing the truth of what Genesis 6:5 says. A part of living in this world sadly requires us to learn what to do with a bully who will not stop when our milder means invite him to. When the police come into a gang or murderer in our house, they will say, “drop your gun.” If the gang or murderer raises the gun to shoot, the police will fire their weapons–it is a last resort and done with lament. Therapy is often required after the fact for the policeman or woman who had to fire their weapon. And we will join the therapist in trying to assure the person that they had no other choice given the situation. At our most noble, war raises this question–when nations fight other nations is the matter just? But even the war that most clearly seems just will still cause lament and sorrow. When children take up arms, soldiers need therapy for what it meant to shoot an enemy that includes children gone violent. Regardless of whether we agree with the dropping of the atomic bomb, those who made the decision believed that other attempts to stop bloodshed were not working and would not work. I do not know what to make of all of this, but what I’m trying to suggest is that a fair reading of Genesis six puts us in a situation more like what a lamenting but good judge must face and choose rather than a childish tantrum or a dictator’s lusts.
5. We all instinctively long for judgement. If God is a lamenting but good judge, this is good news for us. Think about it. Those of us victimized in our families long for the family secret to end. We wish someone in the family would stand up and say, “this is how it really was.” Those of us victimized by crime profoundly desire someone to declare what was right and what was wrong and for consequences to occur accordingly. We are rendered mentally troubled when someone tells us we deserved the beating we got, when we didn’t deserve it, and that the perpetrator should be excused, when in fact the perpetrator was wrong. We will not long watch our favorite police drama on weeknights if it regularly resembles No Country for Old Men. Something inside us wants the bad guy to get caught and the good guy to be defended even if the good guy dies in the end such as in Gladiator.
I do not understand everything here. But the Bible presents God as opposing violence and therefore resisting those who would willingly create an environment of harm. We cannot go on in our violent preferences and believe that God will take a blind eye toward us. The Bible also in this passage presents God as choosing to judge violence and vindicate righteous love between neighbors. We can in our victim-age from violent offenders learn that God will oppose those who harmed us and vindicate us. He is not passive about upholding the innocent and exposing the violent. The Bible also presents God as judging the violent with lament which renders vigilante justice in his name erroneous. We cannot simply take up violence into our own hands nor think of such horrific things gleefully.
6. Finally, God begins to un-violent us through Jesus. Gradually as the old testament unfolds, God makes the battles of his people silly. He takes their weapons, teaches them that the battle belongs to him, and has them sing, march about, blow trumpets, hold up Moses’ arm, smash jars or use slingshots. Then he makes all of this make sense in sending His son Jesus. Jesus teaches that violence comes from the heart. He then surrenders as an innocent man to the full violence and cruelty of humanity with the cross. From there He seeks God to forgive the violators of neighbor-love. He dies at the hands of murderers, rises from the grave and then his followers teach what he lived. Our weapons are not material. Our battle is spiritual. Grace is our hope . . .