Reading: 2 Kings 11:1-20
At a recent Education for Ministry (EfM) mentor training we were talking about recruiting and how to reach to people who might find the course of study interesting and/or helpful to their lives and ministries. Usually during recruiting events we have a few current or former students present to testify to the value of the program to them and their ministries. One mentor at training told of such a meeting where there was one lady very eager to share. When her turn came, she said, in her Southern drawl, "I never knew there was so much in the Old Testament. Why, it's all full of SEX and MURD-AH." Needless to say, the mentor had a bumper crop of students sign up for the year.
It is surprising how much sex and murder and all manner of connivery are in the Old Testament. David and Bathsheba come to mind, and probably every young person who has perused the Bible while the sermon was going on has found the eroticism of Song of Songs. But there is a lot of dark stuff there too, including rape, suicide, murder and slaughter on a massive scale. Whole cities, kingdoms and even families have been wiped out, often because they opposed the Israelites or were considered enemies of God but sometimes it was just convenience or revenge. It's dark stuff indeed.
The reading from 2 Kings seems to illustrate the violence and the lengths to which people will go to seize what they see as theirs. Athalia was the daughter of King Ahab and his queen Jezebel. Her husband had been King Joram (also called Jehoram). Athalia's son, King Ahaziah, was dead and Athalia wanted to make sure she was going to rule even if it meant exterminating the rest of the whole royal family. This plot has more twists and turns than any Hollywood movie but we seldom read it unless we follow the Daily Office or some other whole-Bible reading program. We certainly never hear it read on Sunday!
In the six-year reign of Athalia, she definitely did not make points as what would be considered a good Queen. I wonder what she was thinking, especially when she ordered the death of what appeared to be her own family. She thought she had gotten them all, but she was wrong. As a worshiper of Baal, she never went near the temple dedicated to God; had she done so, she might have discovered that a small boy and his nurse had been secreted there, safe from Athalia’s murderous machinations. Jehosheba, another daughter of Joram, and her husband, Jehoiada, the high priest, had spirited the child, Joash, out of the palace and into the temple for safety and where he remained for the next six or seven years. Imagine Athalia’s horror when, one day, she heard a commotion and saw a larger and more vocal than usual crowd at the temple. Curious, she went in to see what was going on and saw a small boy wearing the crown of Israel and being hailed as the rightful king. She wasn't happy -- not at all. She was downright rend-your-clothes-and-scream-treason unhappy. Jehoiada, the chief priest, gave the order for the temple guards to take her out and execute her, just as she had ordered the slaying of so many people herself. She was escorted out through a gate normally used by horses to a place where her execution would not soil or compromise the holiness of the temple of God. The people were happy and Joash ruled as a good king and true son of David for the next 40 years so there was a sort of happy ending to the whole miserable story.
There are a lot of stories like this in the Bible, and when reading through the Old Testament book by book and chapter by chapter, it’s amazing to see how few really familiar stories there are compared to the total number. Among the unfamiliar are murders done for political gain, out of jealousy, even on God’s orders. It’s those stories in the last category that are the hardest ones to read much less understand. It doesn’t square with the God we want to believe in, the God of love and justice and mercy. It’s not that God that we can feel comfortable trusting to be with us and protect us. What are we to make of a God who orders entire cities and nations of people to be annihilated along with their cattle, sheep, goats and even babes in arms? Even in familiar stories like the story of Moses and Pharaoh, it seems God plays with Pharaoh’s heart, alternately softening and hardening it with a series of ever-increasingly horrific plagues and even culminating in the elimination of the military might of Egypt as one final punishment.
When it comes down to it, how are we to understand a God who will wipe out an entire world with the exception of one man and his family and a small number of every kind of bird, animal and bug? The familiar story of Noah's doesn't always bear thinking about too deeply; it's easier just to read it as a nice story for the kiddies with visions of animals marching neatly two by two into a large vessel and coming out under a beautiful rainbow than as an angry and vengeful God taking direct action on every living thing on earth save for a select few. I still have trouble believing that deer and rabbits and snakes and even kittens, not to mention newborn babes and young children were so evil that they required a holocaust from God to clean up the world.
The Bible is called "God's Word" -- God speaking to us through its stories and pages. The Bible is a record of humanity's interaction with God, humanity in all its glory and shame, heroics and despicable acts. Sometimes it's easy to hear the voice of God coming through the words and stories, but I find it often very hard or even impossible to hear it in stories like Athalia’s and others. Sure, I’m like most folks who like good stories of sex and murder; look at the current best-seller lists. What is harder to like is a book with enough blood to fill an ocean and enough evil (and the resulting punishment) to boggle the mind. Jesus didn't always use honeyed words either; he could be very direct and sometimes almost rude with those who wouldn't or couldn't understand and even with innocents asking for help like the Syrophoenician woman.
My mind returns to the story of Athalia. It's just one story out of a multitude of others, so what useful lesson am I to get from reading and thinking about it? The most obvious is to worship God, not Baal, and not to murder people, but that's a pretty flip answer to a real question I have been wrestling with for some time. What am I to learn from the stories of sex and murder that so populate the Bible? Probably the most valuable lesson is the very fact that I am not bound to just accept the stories at total face value as a test of faith or as proof of anything. It's okay to wrestle with scripture and why it is written the way it is; the Jews have been doing it for millennia and it hasn't hurt their faith any, so it seems. Some of their best writings are those of rabbis who wrestled with scripture and found a way to live with them, even if they didn't paint a very good picture. The rabbis wisely understood that the Bible was about human beings as well as God, and that often the two were very far apart. Scripture is full of people, warts and all, and their relationship to each other and to God. Perhaps that is the wisdom that underlies the first and greatest commandment as Jesus spoke it, to love God and to love one’s neighbor. Both of those require a lot of struggling and a lot of wrestling with self as much as with anyone else.
I will probably continue to wrestle with a lot of these stories that aren’t heard on Sunday and that I don’t get a warm fuzzy feeling about. I don’t think God minds the struggle and the wrestling; it’s a sort of demonstration of a desire to understand and reach a closer relationship with God who will never be fully knowable but always available. I think too that I need to be careful not to be a Baal worshiper, whether my particular baal is power, money, control, possessions or prestige.
I guess that in the long run it’s better to struggle than to conquer. I wonder what Athalia would make of that?
Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café on Saturday, September 29, 2014.