Q & R: Violent God?

A reader writes:

Hi Brian. I recently read ‘A New Kind of Christianity’ and really enjoyed it. I thought your take on how we read the Bible was beautiful, particularly the idea of reading the Bible through the lens of Jesus to help us assess previous revelations of God. This did help me reconcile the apparently violent, tribal God with the non-violent Jesus. I am still really struggling with this though. Though Jesus practiced non-violence he still presented what seemed to me to be a violent God: (Matthew 22:13, Luke 12:47, Luke 19:27, Matthew 18:34) I think of the Ananias and Sapphira being killed by God and the NT writers referring to the coming wrath of God (“it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the Living God” – Hebrews 10:31). From what I understand the carnage and destruction of the temple in AD 70 was predicted by Jesus as an act of God’s judgment.
Any thoughts or anywhere you can direct me.
Your work is a real encouragement to many of us caught between “something real and something wrong”

Here’s the R:

Thanks for this important question. I won’t be able to do justice to the question due to time constraints today (I’m participating in retreats this week and next week – not as a speaker, but a participant), but let me offer a few quick thoughts.
First, there is some fascinating re-interpretation going on regarding Jesus’ parables. A great place to start to explore this would be William Herzog’s Parables as Subversive Speech. In these fresh interpretations, what we used to think referred to God actually refers to Caesar or other people who represent the powerful in this world. Just a quick example – in the parable of the talents in Matthew 25:14-30), the man who buried his talent, in the old reading, was the bad guy. But in this reading, he is the good guy: he refuses to participate in an unjust economy that reaps quick exploitative profits off his fellows. It’s not God who casts him out, but the rich elite. Citizens of the kingdom of God aren’t identified with the rich man who goes on a journey or his “good and faithful servants” who play his game, but with the truly faithful servant who refuses to play the exploitation game and is thrown out and rejected. In this reading, it’s the rich man, not Jesus, who says “To him who has more will be given” – after all, this is the opposite of Jesus’ teaching elsewhere (the meek shall inherit the earth, woe to you who are rich now, etc.). “To him who has not, even the little he has will be taken away” is the ethic of this ruthless world, not the kingdom of God. I know that messes up a lot of sermons, including some of mine, but William Herzog makes a pretty strong case. When I first read this book some years ago, I thought, “He can’t be right,” but now I think he’s spot on in most of his reinterpretations.
On the Hebrews passage, I think of that verse “Our God is a consuming fire” – at least, that’s how my English Bible translates it. But doesn’t this contradict Moses’ encounter in the burning bush? I think a better translation should be “Our God is a refining fire,” or “Our God is a purifying fire.” The appropriate “fear” isn’t of a vengeful God who “consumes”; the “fear” is the wise realization that God is a God of truth and justice, and to draw close to God is to experience purification. Similarly, the wrath of God isn’t a temper tantrum devoid of love, but a dimension of love … like a parent who gets angry when one of his kids beats up or teases another. The anger isn’t destructive, but restorative. The only destructive thing is the beating up and teasing.
So much more could be said … and I know I haven’t dealt with some of the difficult texts you mentioned (Herzog does a much fuller job), but I hope that’s a good start as I run out the door for a full day.