The Bible pt. 2
More adventures in the Old Testament.
Or, as I like to call it, What Fucked Up Shit Will I Encounter Today?
Every page I read makes me more deeply understand why many Christians I have encountered in my life say “I mostly ignore the Old Testament.”
I thought the early pieces of the Bible would give me a solid foundation for what Christianity is. I guess I expected some kind of thesis statement? Instead it’s kind of like the beginning of The Fellowship of the Ring where Tolkien spends many pages discussing hobbit ancestry instead of engaging in any narrative. It’s a lot of who gave birth to whom, and how many years that person lived. And I am sure for those interested in theological genealogy, it’s a thrill per minute. I am mostly skimming those sections.
It is difficult to narrow my perspective for these posts. Within the span of 11 pages were the stories of Noah’s Ark, the Tower of Babel, and Abraham and Isaac. For now, I’d like to focus on Abraham and Isaac, because I think it raises some fascinating questions which I have been thinking about recently for other reasons.
Abraham and Isaac do a lot of things, but the story I am interested in is when God commands Abraham to kill his only son, Isaac, as an offering. Abraham follows God’s command and at the last moment, God intervenes and spares Issac.
“And he said, Lay not thine hand upon the lad, neither do thou any thing unto him: for now I know that thou fearest God, seeing thou hast not withheld thy son, thine only son from me.” [Genesis 22:12]
God came to Abraham and commanded him to kill his child, and Abraham is willing. I think that makes sense in the context of the story. If The Creator of the world commanded you to do something, why would you not? He’s all powerful and all knowing. He wouldn’t ask for something that doesn’t have a purpose.
The idea of a deity commanding a human to commit a crime is mind-boggling. The reason I had already been pondering it is because I recently listened to the podcast Heaven’s Gate by Stitcher, narrated by Glynn Washington (and it’s really freaking good). It gives the in-depth story of the cult called Heaven’s Gate, which gained notoriety in 1997 when 39 members were found in a San Diego mansion having killed themselves. They believed God was waiting to take them to heaven in a U.F.O., and they needed to vacate their earthly bodies to reach it.
Their leader, Marshall Applewhite (a.k.a “Do”), proclaimed to be an alien prophet and he had this revelation that the time was right, and the group needed to leave their bodies to reach “the next level.”
At face value, it's absurd. It’s incredibly sad, too, since so many families lost loved ones to Heaven’s Gate. Most Americans regarded Applewhite as the villain, having brainwashed the cult members to ultimately kill themselves.
What the Heaven’s Gate podcast explores is the sincerity of their devotion, by Applewhite as well as his followers. Many members made “exit videos” detailing their absolute faith that what they were doing was right, of their own free will, and many proclaimed to be happier than they had ever been in their lives. Glynn Washington interviews a variety of people, but the part that blew my mind the most was when a listener called in and professed that they believe there is currently a prophet on earth that speaks for God. And if that prophet told them to kill themselves or someone else, they would.
If you were truly convinced God was talking to you, how could you not listen?
Yet, if someone murders someone else and professes that “God told them to do it,” that doesn’t hold water in human court. We would hold that person accountable. We would call them a monster, and we would lock them up for our own protection (in my opinion, rightfully so).
If there is a God, and there is precedent in this story of him asking for death as a sacrifice, then how many people have seen God and then followed His orders. Were they wrong to do so?
I think the key to the Abraham and Isaac story is God’s mercy. He spares Isaac. But this is all because it was a test of Abraham’s faith. God is asking for proof that humans are listening to him and are loyal to him. Am I comfortable worshipping a God that demands I prove my devotion to Him? I honestly can’t sort out my feelings yet. If I assume God made the world, then I suppose He can ask whatever He wants from us. But if God is a benevolent being, why is He testing us? If God is omniscient and knows what is in our hearts and minds, shouldn’t He already know our level of devotion without having to test us?
Marshall Applewhite was said to have loved the idea that his followers would do whatever he asked. He admired the followers of David Koresh in the Waco siege, who chose to die instead of surrender to the FBI. He enjoyed testing the loyalty of his members. And, to the best of our knowledge, he believed in what he was preaching. He believed what he was asking was the will of God. Was he evil? Was he morally wrong to ask for death, if he truly believed he was granting those people eternal life? Are those 39 people on that U.F.O. right now, laughing at us all?
Probably not. But you can always phrase Christianity to sound as absurd as any cult. And I think that is one of the things that has kept me away from believing in the past, and one of the things I am excited to confront this year.