For on this same night I will go through Egypt,
striking down every first born of the land, both man and beast,
and executing judgment on all the gods of Egypt—I, the LORD!
But the blood will mark the houses where you are.
Seeing the blood, I will pass over you;
thus, when I strike the land of Egypt,
no destructive blow will come upon you.
– Exodus 12: 12-13
Today, Catholics all over the world will either read these words or hear them being read from a pulpit. Then most of them will mumble, “Thanks be to God.” Reading these words for what might be the thousandth time this morning, I was freshly dismayed by the thought of giving thanks for the destruction of enemies through divine intervention. It’s a scary story. I remember, as a child, watching the movie The Ten Commandments and experiencing horror as the Angel of Death crept through the streets of Egypt, murdering the first born children of anyone who hadn’t slopped blood on their doorways.
Whether we like it or not – whether we can accept it or not – the God of Judeo-Christian tradition is a God with two hands. One hand giveth. The other hand taketh away. On the one hand, God is the provider, the creator, the sustainer and redeemer. On the other hand, we get this God – the one who works violently and in darkness. This God works on behalf of some and against others. We may try to avoid facing this part of our theology, but it must evoke some critical reflection for mature people of faith.
When we thank God, after reading something like this, we should really seriously consider how we deal with this violent side of “our” God. First of all, do we think this destruction in Egypt really happened? Is it really part of an actual history? Or, as some might suggest, is this some kind of an analogical story, like a fairy tale made up to teach a religious lesson? How we answer this question is very important.
If this account from Scripture speaks about an event that is part of actual history, then we have to face the fact that at least some humans hold that God is not only capable of giving life, but is also capable of the most extreme violence – and towards people we must assume are, for the most part, not to blame for their situation. Even Exodus’ author was careful to create some empathy for the Egyptians. They were not all evil. The daughter of the Pharaoh compassionately saved the life of a Hebrew baby, for example.
If this account from Scripture is simply a story that was used at some point in the tradition to teach a religious lesson, and didn’t actually happen in history, then don’t we need to talk about whether it is still capable of teaching something helpful? More importantly, shouldn’t we talk about whether a story like this teaches something harmful? What, in fact, do we do with the accounts of God’s violence towards human beings?
I grew up in an era of Catholic history when we have pretty much ignored the violence of God depicted in Scripture. Instead, I was taught about the “feel good” God – the one who loves me and who is always there to listen and to help. I haven’t really been taught much about how to deal with a destructive God, especially since I don’t believe I really have the power – or the right – to aim this God at anybody besides myself.
My era is slipping away. The destructive God is making a comeback. The world of religious fundamentalists – that black and white world where everything is clearly “our side” or “their side” – seems to require a God like this. We need to talk about why this is happening. We need to talk about whether we can afford to safely tuck away these images of the violent God and only focus on the “good” God.
In the gospel for today, there is something like an ironic twist. Jesus taunts his interlocutors: I desire mercy, not sacrifice. He chides the Pharisees for condemning innocent men who are picking grain on the Sabbath as they walk through a field. I’m not sure what to make of the contrast between the Old and New Testament readings today. I admit my confusion.
I realize that, throughout my religious upbringing, I have been given the impression that God is done being angry, done being violent towards human beings, done wiping out large populations of people for the sake of promoting other populations. Now I am questioning the theology that announces the end of God’s violence – especially since we haven’t taken the trouble to revise these old stories or to try to better understand what they were intended to teach. I would like to talk about what we are doing with this image of God as the destroyer. I would love to hear how pastors all over the world – pastors living in contexts of religious war, perhaps – are dealing with this God of destruction.
My hope is that we can admit that we find this image of God troubling, confusing and alarming. My hope is that we can have intelligent conversations about what we are going to do if we must continue to embrace destructiveness that we can attribute to a deity. One thing seems certain. We ignore the destructive images of God in scripture at our peril. Do we bury these images in order to focus on a more loving and beneficent God? That ignores the dark side of God – the side we read about in today’s reading from Exodus. We can try. But others will dig up what we have buried – as the history of religiously inspired violence teaches us only too well.