I heard about this book via The Deconstructionists podcasts, and was really impressed at what the author Brian Zahnd had to say about God and the Bible, and how highly the show’s hosts spoke of this book. And it has not disappointed. In fact, this book is blowing my mind so much, I couldn’t fit my summary of it into one post. So here’s part 1!
Ch 1: Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God
In Jonathan Edwards’ classic sermon, God is depicted as a sadistic juvenile hanging spiders over a fire. Is this true? Sure, we can cobble together disparate Bible verses to create this monstrous deity. But is it true? Or is the picture the prophet paints in Jeremiah 31:20 true: “Oh, Ephraim is my dear, dear son, my child in whom I take pleasure! Every time I mention his name, my heart bursts in longing for him! Everything in me cries out for him, softly and tenderly I wait for him.” This is the question Brian Zahnd asks and answers in Chapter 1.
The key to understanding the nature of God is to remember that Jesus Christ is the perfect representation of God. The writer of Hebrews starts his book by saying, “Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son… He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being.” Keeping that in mind, Zahnd delves into issues surrounding the wrath of God.
A critical concept Zahnd leads with is that the Old Testament is more a theological debate than a systematic theology text. Proverbs says if you fear God and do what is right, good things will happen to you. But Job says that’s not always the whole story. The priests and Levites say God requires animal sacrifice, but David says, “sacrifice and offering you do not desire… Burnt offering and sin offering you have not required,” and Hosea claims that God does not require sacrifice but mercy. Eventually Jesus will weigh in and affirm the position of Hosea. The Bible begins with a primitive assumption that God requires ritual sacrifice but eventually moves away from that position, which exemplifies the progression of revelation we find over the course of the Bible.
We see a similar dynamic in play with the idea of God’s wrath that Jonathan Edwards waxed poetic about. Psalm 2:12 says God’s wrath “is quickly kindled,” but elsewhere in the Old Testament He is described as “slow to anger.” Again, Jesus settles the dispute. This is where we come up against the challenge of using metaphors in describing the supremely transcendent. The wrath of God is a metaphor we use to describe the very real consequences suffer from trying to go through life against the grain of love. It is "divine consent to our own self-destructive defiance.” God no more literally loses his temper than he literally sleeps, even though the Bible says “the Lord awoke as from a sleep” in Psalm 78:65.
Psalm 7 hints at this understanding of the wrath of God. It starts, “God is a righteous judge, and a God who has indignation every day. If one does not repent, God will whet his sword; he has bent and strung his bow; he has prepared his deadly weapons, making his arrows fiery shafts.” These verses make it sound like God directly visits retribution upon sinners with personal indignation. But it continues, “See how they conceive evil, and are pregnant with mischief, and bring forth lies. They make a pit, digging it out, and fall into the hole that they have made. Their mischief returns upon their own heads, and on their own heads their violence descends."
So God is not mad at you— never was, and never will be. So what does it mean to fear God? It means to have the wisdom of not acting against the grain of love. The writer of Hebrews reminds us that “it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.”And no doubt it is, for in the hands of God, there is no place to hide. We will no longer be able to live in the disguise of our lies. And that can be a terrifying thing. As can the monsters of war, violence, greed, exploitation, genocide, oppression, and racism. But God is not a monster, and his hands are nail-pierced hands of love that reach out to every doubter and sufferer, inviting each one to come taste and see that He is good.
Ch 2: Closing the Book on Vengeance
In this chapter, Zahnd tackles the thorny issues of how God’s appears to condone genocide. Unless we simply choose to ignore the issue, this conundrum forces us to choose one of three options: 1) Question the morality of God. Perhaps God is, at times, monstrous. 2) Question the immutability of God. Maybe God does change over time. 3) Question how we read Scripture.
Zahnd opts for number 3, then launches into a very accessible discussion of hermeneutics. He compares the Bible to how John portrays John the Baptist: sent by God, inspired by God, witnessing about God, but not God. “He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.” Essentially, the Old Testament is the inspired telling of the story of Israel coming to know their God. Along the way, some unavoidable assumptions were made— namely, the Yahweh is vengeful and requires blood sacrifice. In addition, because Israel experienced great injustice at the hands of its more powerful neighbors, the crucible of suffering that forged a theology of justice “also produced then slag of vengeance theology.” He then explains the consequences of adopting a view of God in line with options 1 or 2 by giving explaining how the English colonists used the Old Testament to justify the genocide of Native Americans. Point taken.
Isaiah 61:1-2 typifies this theme. “The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God.” The Hebrew longing for justice and restoration was accompanied by a desire for revenge and retaliation. But retaliatory vengeance is not the only lens in the Old Testament for viewing Gentiles. In 1 Kings 17 we find the story of the (Gentile) widow of Zarepath, whom Elijah is sent to and who receives the miracle of a flour barrel that is never empty and a jar of oil that never runs out. Further, in 2 Kings 5, Elisha heals Naaman of leprosy— the very general of the dreaded Syrian army!
To go back to the theme from chapter 1, it is Jesus who perfectly shows us God. And how did Jesus interpret the Old Testament? In Luke 4, we are told that when Jesus returns to his hometown of Nazareth at the beginning of his ministry, he enters the synagogue and reads the very same passage from Isaiah quoted above. But he rolls up the scroll before the last line. And lest we think that this is an oversight or meaningless, he follows by telling the crowd in the synagogue, “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown. But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land, yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.” Jesus is announcing the arrival of the Lord’s favor, but is emphasizing that it is for everybody, even for Sidonians and Syrians, even for Israel’s enemies! Jesus takes the implicit subtexts of mercy and makes them his explicit primary text. And as soon as he makes this clear, the crowd tried to throw him off a cliff.
Zahnd concludes, “Does this mean there’s no divine judgment? Of course not. Certainly there is divine judgment, but it is a judgment based on God’s love and commitment to restoration… Jesus has closed the book on... lust for vengeance… Clinging to our lust for vengeance, we lose Jesus. But if we can say amen to Jesus closing the book on vengeance, then Jesus will remain with us to teach us the more excellent way of love."
Ch.3 Jesus is what God has to say
Continuing with this theme, Zahnd pulls out several related ideas in this chapter. His central discussion concerns the implications of the Transfiguration. Jesus was unequivocally revealed to be superior to Moses and Elijah (emblematic of the Old Testament), and Peter’s mistake of putting them on equal footing is addressed in no uncertain terms. This revelation confirms Jesus’ authority to supersede the Old Testament when he says, “You have heard it said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.” This high view of Christ is also set forth directly in 2 Peter 1, where the writer references the Transfiguration, and Christ's supremacy over the prophets who came before.
Following this discussion, Zahnd gives examples of directly contradictory passages in the OT such as “Thou shalt not kill,” and “there is a time to kill,” or passages for or against mercy. And (getting practical), he notes various historical figures (including an obligatory Hitler reference) who have used OT passages to justify clearly un-Christlike behavior. He uses these examples to again highlight the movement in the Bible away from the violence that was normative in the Bronze Age to "God’s peaceable society where swords become plowshares and spears become pruning hooks."
This makes me mention a major value of Zahnd’s writing, which is his powerful, pithy statements. When he writes, “I’m a Christian, not a Biblicist. The Bible is subordinate to Christ,” everything in me says, “YES!” The Bible is sacred Scripture, but the more you study it, the harder it is to reconcile all the disparate things you encounter if you are reading it as systematic theology. Quoting John Dominic Crossan, he writes, “Christ does not read the Bible, the New Testament, or the Gospel. He is the norm of the Bible, the criterion of the New Testament, the incarnation of the Gospel. That is how we Christians decide between a violent and a nonviolent God in the Bible, New Testament, or Gospel. The person, not the book, and the life, not the text, are decisive and constitutive for us.” Though I could not agree more, this Christocentric orientation will no doubt be difficult for many people who are accustomed to a simplistic view of the Bible to get past. Anticipating their objections, Zahnd goes on to say, “this is not a low view of Scripture but a high view of Christ.”
To top off the chapter, Zahnd throws in a poem of his own making, which may help some people grasp his perspective better. The conclusion is especially quotable:
It’s a STORY, I tell you!
And if you allow the story to seep into your life,
So that THE STORY begins to weave into your story,
That’s when, at last, you’re reading the Bible right.
Reflecting on the first three chapters, it’s becoming clear that the implications of Zahnd’s thesis will be centered around issues of violence such as hell, atonement theories, war, and the death penalty— all of which happen to be issues which I’ve wrestled with over the last few years. And flipping through the next couple of chapters, it does appear that that is where he’s headed. So let the controversy heat up, and the discussion continue!