If you pick up a copy of any of the writings that are included in the TaNaKh-collection and start reading, you very well might encounter beautiful passages celebrating YHWH's eternal and universal love and patience.
Here is one of the most well-known of examples:
יְהוָ֣ה ׀ יְהוָ֔ה אֵ֥ל רַח֖וּם וְחַנּ֑וּן אֶ֥רֶךְ אַפַּ֖יִם וְרַב־חֶ֥סֶד וֶאֱמֶֽת ׀ (ז) נֹצֵ֥ר חֶ֙סֶד֙ לָאֲלָפִ֔ים נֹשֵׂ֥א עָוֺ֛ן וָפֶ֖שַׁע וְחַטָּאָ֑ה
YHWH YHWH; El of mercy and grace! Slow to anger, abundant in faithfulness and truth! Keeping faith for thousands of generations; forgives iniquity, sin, and transgression!
Or, very similarly:
(ח) רַח֣וּם וְחַנּ֣וּן יְהוָ֑ה אֶ֖רֶךְ אַפַּ֣יִם וְרַב־חָֽסֶד׃ (ט) לֹֽא־לָנֶ֥צַח יָרִ֑יב וְלֹ֖א לְעוֹלָ֣ם יִטּֽוֹר׃
(8) YHWH is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love! (9) He will not contend forever, nor nurse his anger for all time!
Here are another couple of passages which celebrate his investment in the well-being of all life:
(יד) סוֹמֵ֣ךְ יְ֭הוָה לְכָל־הַנֹּפְלִ֑ים וְ֝זוֹקֵ֗ף לְכָל־הַכְּפוּפִֽים׃(טו) עֵֽינֵי־כֹ֭ל אֵלֶ֣יךָ יְשַׂבֵּ֑רוּ וְאַתָּ֤ה נֽוֹתֵן־לָהֶ֖ם אֶת־אָכְלָ֣ם בְּעִתּֽוֹ׃ (טז) פּוֹתֵ֥חַ אֶת־יָדֶ֑ךָ וּמַשְׂבִּ֖יעַ לְכָל־חַ֣י רָצֽוֹן׃ (יז) צַדִּ֣יק יְ֭הוָה בְּכָל־דְּרָכָ֑יו וְ֝חָסִ֗יד בְּכָל־מַעֲשָֽׂיו׃ (יח) קָר֣וֹב יְ֭הוָה לְכָל־קֹרְאָ֑יו לְכֹ֤ל אֲשֶׁ֖ר יִקְרָאֻ֣הוּ בֶאֱמֶֽת׃
(14) YHWH supports all those who fall; and straightens all those who are bent.
(15) The eyes of all look to you expectantly, and you give them their food when it is due.
(16) You open your hands and satiate every living creature with what it desires.
(17) Benificient is YHWH in all of his ways, and faithful in all of his works!
(18) YHWH is near to all who call upon him; to all who call upon him him with sincerity!
In Jewish tradition, the immediate above passage is so beloved that it has been included in the traditional morning "introductory prayers" to recite before the morning service.
Here is another passage which made the same cut:
(ו) עֹשֶׂ֤ה ׀ שָׁ֘מַ֤יִם וָאָ֗רֶץ אֶת־הַיָּ֥ם וְאֶת־כָּל־אֲשֶׁר־בָּ֑ם הַשֹּׁמֵ֖ר אֱמֶ֣ת לְעוֹלָֽם׃ (ז) עֹשֶׂ֤ה מִשְׁפָּ֨ט ׀ לָעֲשׁוּקִ֗ים נֹתֵ֣ן לֶ֭חֶם לָרְעֵבִ֑ים יְ֝הוָ֗ה מַתִּ֥יר אֲסוּרִֽים׃ (ח) יְהוָ֤ה ׀ פֹּ֘קֵ֤חַ עִוְרִ֗ים יְ֭הוָה זֹקֵ֣ף כְּפוּפִ֑ים יְ֝הוָ֗ה אֹהֵ֥ב צַדִּיקִֽים׃ (ט) יְהוָ֤ה ׀ שֹׁ֘מֵ֤ר אֶת־גֵּרִ֗ים יָת֣וֹם וְאַלְמָנָ֣ה יְעוֹדֵ֑ד וְדֶ֖רֶךְ רְשָׁעִ֣ים יְעַוֵּֽת׃ (י) יִמְלֹ֤ךְ יְהוָ֨ה ׀ לְעוֹלָ֗ם אֱלֹהַ֣יִךְ צִ֭יּוֹן לְדֹ֥ר וָדֹ֗ר הַֽלְלוּ־יָֽהּ׃
He is the maker of heaven and earth, the sea and all that is in them!
He keeps faith forever;
He secures justice for those who are wronged, gives food to the hungry.
YHWH sets prisoners free;
YHWH restores sight to the blind; YHWH straightens those who are bent;
YHWH loves the righteous;
YHWH watches over the stranger;
The orphan and the widow, he encourages!
The existence of such statements is unsurprising. After all, from the very beginning of the TaNaKh's first creation story in Genesis, we learn one of those ancient and cherished truths of many of the Israelites and Judeans of yore.
(כו) וַיֹּ֣אמֶר אֱלֹהִ֔ים נַֽעֲשֶׂ֥ה אָדָ֛ם בְּצַלְמֵ֖נוּ כִּדְמוּתֵ֑נוּ וְיִרְדּוּ֩ בִדְגַ֨ת הַיָּ֜ם וּבְע֣וֹף הַשָּׁמַ֗יִם וּבַבְּהֵמָה֙ וּבְכָל־הָאָ֔רֶץ וּבְכָל־הָרֶ֖מֶשׂ הָֽרֹמֵ֥שׂ עַל־הָאָֽרֶץ׃
(כז) וַיִּבְרָ֨א אֱלֹהִ֤ים ׀ אֶת־הָֽאָדָם֙ בְּצַלְמ֔וֹ בְּצֶ֥לֶם אֱלֹהִ֖ים בָּרָ֣א אֹת֑וֹ זָכָ֥ר וּנְקֵבָ֖ה בָּרָ֥א אֹתָֽם׃
(26) And Elohim said, “Let us make mankind in our image, after our likeness!
(27) And Elohim created man in his image; In the image of Elohim he created him; male and female he created them.
Many who profess to have a relationship of intimacy with YHWH - (myself included) - embrace and cherish such verses as those quoted above.
YHWH is loving, YHWH is kind, YHWH is patient and cares about all life - Israelite, Judean, gentile, human, animal plant and otherwise;
And YHWH sees every human being as a divine reflection of himself.
When we love, when we forgive, when we extend a helping hand to another in need, we are channeling that part of us which is a reflection of the loving and compassionate Lord and Sovereign of the very cosmos, and doing our part to shape this world into one in which he is comfortable dwelling.
I believe this is true; and I also believe that my theology is shaped by my reading and understanding of the writings in the TaNaKh.
But for what very might be the starkest contrast possible, consider the words of world-renowned physicist and "anti-theist" activist, Richard Dawkins.
From The God Delusion, page 31:
The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.
Wow - So how does he really feel?
Would you believe that Professor Dawkins is referring to the same figure of which the Israelites and Judeans spoke so glowingly above??? The one whom the Israelites lovingly said champions the cause of the oppressed, feeds the hungry, supports the downfallen?
So what's going on here?
Well, whether we like it or not, Professor Dawkins can back up every single one of his statements above with support from writings in our TaNaKh; And as someone who loves YHWH and values a relationship with "the real thing" rather than with
an idealized construct of my own making, I believe that I have a responsibility to understand the "whole" picture.
This includes venturing into those sections of darkness; The passages of TaNaKh from which our convictions and beliefs might prime us to recoil, and which we might prefer not to be a part of our history.
And for every passage of positivity and love and encouragement, there is most probably a passage of grit and glorification of violence.
There once was a Judean, called "The Assembler," whose poignant reflections and musings actually made it into the TaNaKh; And I think his writings are a great place to start:
(א) לַכֹּ֖ל זְמָ֑ן וְעֵ֥ת לְכָל־חֵ֖פֶץ תַּ֥חַת הַשָּׁמָֽיִם׃ (ס) (ב) עֵ֥ת לָלֶ֖דֶת וְעֵ֣ת לָמ֑וּת עֵ֣ת לָטַ֔עַת וְעֵ֖ת לַעֲק֥וֹר נָטֽוּעַ׃ (ג) עֵ֤ת לַהֲרוֹג֙ וְעֵ֣ת לִרְפּ֔וֹא עֵ֥ת לִפְר֖וֹץ וְעֵ֥ת לִבְנֽוֹת׃ (ד) עֵ֤ת לִבְכּוֹת֙ וְעֵ֣ת לִשְׂח֔וֹק עֵ֥ת סְפ֖וֹד וְעֵ֥ת רְקֽוֹד׃ (ה) עֵ֚ת לְהַשְׁלִ֣יךְ אֲבָנִ֔ים וְעֵ֖ת כְּנ֣וֹס אֲבָנִ֑ים עֵ֣ת לַחֲב֔וֹק וְעֵ֖ת לִרְחֹ֥ק מֵחַבֵּֽק׃ (ו) עֵ֤ת לְבַקֵּשׁ֙ וְעֵ֣ת לְאַבֵּ֔ד עֵ֥ת לִשְׁמ֖וֹר וְעֵ֥ת לְהַשְׁלִֽיךְ׃ (ז) עֵ֤ת לִקְר֙וֹעַ֙ וְעֵ֣ת לִתְפּ֔וֹר עֵ֥ת לַחֲשׁ֖וֹת וְעֵ֥ת לְדַבֵּֽר׃ (ח) עֵ֤ת לֶֽאֱהֹב֙ וְעֵ֣ת לִשְׂנֹ֔א עֵ֥ת מִלְחָמָ֖ה וְעֵ֥ת שָׁלֽוֹם׃ (ס)\
A season is set for everything, a time for every experience under heavens:
A time for being born and a time for dying, A time for planting and a time for uprooting the planted;
A time for slaying and a time for healing,
A time for tearing down and a time for building up;
A time for weeping and a time for laughing;
A time for wailing and a time for dancing; A time for throwing stones and a time for gathering stones;
A time for embracing and a time for shunning embraces;
A time for seeking and a time for losing;
A time for keeping and a time for discarding;
A time for ripping and a time for sewing;
A time for silence and a time for speaking;
A time for loving and a time for hating;
A time for war and a time for peace.
Wow; this passage really speaks to the entirety of the human experience. What's amazing is that this comes from a book which is usually dated to somewhere between the 5th and 3rd century BCE, and is presented as the musings of a wisened, aged king, in the twilight of his years reflecting on all that he had seen; and it is as true today as it was for him.
And just as the words of this "Assembler" speak to the human experience, they also speak to the Israelite epoch, as told by the writings throughout the TaNaKh.
For an interesting comparison, take a look at what YHWH says to Jeremiah, the "Weeping Prophet" whose ministry was fated to be during the destruction of the first Temple, when Jeremiah was experiencing his call to prophecy.
(ט) וַיִּשְׁלַ֤ח יְהוָה֙ אֶת־יָד֔וֹ וַיַּגַּ֖ע עַל־פִּ֑י וַיֹּ֤אמֶר יְהוָה֙ אֵלַ֔י הִנֵּ֛ה נָתַ֥תִּי דְבָרַ֖י בְּפִֽיךָ׃ (י) רְאֵ֞ה הִפְקַדְתִּ֣יךָ ׀ הַיּ֣וֹם הַזֶּ֗ה עַל־הַגּוֹיִם֙ וְעַל־הַמַּמְלָכ֔וֹת לִנְת֥וֹשׁ וְלִנְת֖וֹץ וּלְהַאֲבִ֣יד וְלַהֲר֑וֹס לִבְנ֖וֹת וְלִנְטֽוֹעַ׃ (פ)
YHWH put out his hand and touched my mouth, and YHWH said to me:
Look! I put my words into your mouth!
See, I appoint you this day over nations and kingdoms --
To uproot and to pull down!
To destroy and to overthrow!
To build and to plant!
We already saw embracing, loving, and peace in some of the ever-beloved passages above.
But now let's turn to one of the passages of the other sort - one which would probably be on a list of Richard Dawkins' favorites.
The first passage comes from Deuteronomy, meaning it is attributed to Moses himself, as he delivers his farewell address before handing leadership over to his successor Joshua, who will at long last lead the Israelites into their ancestral home:
(א) כִּ֤י יְבִֽיאֲךָ֙ יְהוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֶ֔יךָ אֶל־הָאָ֕רֶץ אֲשֶׁר־אַתָּ֥ה בָא־שָׁ֖מָּה לְרִשְׁתָּ֑הּ וְנָשַׁ֣ל גּֽוֹיִם־רַבִּ֣ים ׀ מִפָּנֶ֡יךָ הַֽחִתִּי֩ וְהַגִּרְגָּשִׁ֨י וְהָאֱמֹרִ֜י וְהַכְּנַעֲנִ֣י וְהַפְּרִזִּ֗י וְהַֽחִוִּי֙ וְהַיְבוּסִ֔י שִׁבְעָ֣ה גוֹיִ֔ם רַבִּ֥ים וַעֲצוּמִ֖ים מִמֶּֽךָּ׃ (ב) וּנְתָנָ֞ם יְהוָ֧ה אֱלֹהֶ֛יךָ לְפָנֶ֖יךָ וְהִכִּיתָ֑ם הַחֲרֵ֤ם תַּחֲרִים֙ אֹתָ֔ם לֹא־תִכְרֹ֥ת לָהֶ֛ם בְּרִ֖ית וְלֹ֥א תְחָנֵּֽם׃ (ג) וְלֹ֥א תִתְחַתֵּ֖ן בָּ֑ם בִּתְּךָ֙ לֹא־תִתֵּ֣ן לִבְנ֔וֹ וּבִתּ֖וֹ לֹא־תִקַּ֥ח לִבְנֶֽךָ׃
(1) When YHWH your elohim brings you to the land that you are about to enter and possess, and he dislodges many nations before you—the Hittites, Girgashites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites; Seven nations much larger than you— (2) and YHWH your elohim delivers them to you and you defeat them, you must doom them to destruction: grant them no terms and give them no quarter. (3) You shall not intermarry with them: do not give your daughters to their sons or take their daughters for your sons.
I have never spoken of passages like this with anyone who did not express tremendous discomfort - as I do, myself. We are talking of dooming seven nations to utter destruction! In what universe would something like this be just?
Chapter 20 speaks to this even further. An appropriate title for this chapter as a whole might very be Rules for Engaging in Holy War:
(א) כִּֽי־תֵצֵ֨א לַמִּלְחָמָ֜ה עַל־אֹיְבֶ֗יךָ וְֽרָאִ֜יתָ ס֤וּס וָרֶ֙כֶב֙ עַ֚ם רַ֣ב מִמְּךָ֔ לֹ֥א תִירָ֖א מֵהֶ֑ם כִּֽי־יְהוָ֤ה אֱלֹהֶ֙יךָ֙ עִמָּ֔ךְ הַמַּֽעַלְךָ֖ מֵאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרָֽיִם׃
(ח) וְיָסְפ֣וּ הַשֹּׁטְרִים֮ לְדַבֵּ֣ר אֶל־הָעָם֒ וְאָמְר֗וּ מִי־הָאִ֤ישׁ הַיָּרֵא֙ וְרַ֣ךְ הַלֵּבָ֔ב יֵלֵ֖ךְ וְיָשֹׁ֣ב לְבֵית֑וֹ וְלֹ֥א יִמַּ֛ס אֶת־לְבַ֥ב אֶחָ֖יו כִּלְבָבֽוֹ׃ (ט) וְהָיָ֛ה כְּכַלֹּ֥ת הַשֹּׁטְרִ֖ים לְדַבֵּ֣ר אֶל־הָעָ֑ם וּפָֽקְד֛וּ שָׂרֵ֥י צְבָא֖וֹת בְּרֹ֥אשׁ הָעָֽם׃ (ס) (י) כִּֽי־תִקְרַ֣ב אֶל־עִ֔יר לְהִלָּחֵ֖ם עָלֶ֑יהָ וְקָרָ֥אתָ אֵלֶ֖יהָ לְשָׁלֽוֹם׃ (יא) וְהָיָה֙ אִם־שָׁל֣וֹם תַּֽעַנְךָ֔ וּפָתְחָ֖ה לָ֑ךְ וְהָיָ֞ה כָּל־הָעָ֣ם הַנִּמְצָא־בָ֗הּ יִהְי֥וּ לְךָ֛ לָמַ֖ס וַעֲבָדֽוּךָ׃ (יב) וְאִם־לֹ֤א תַשְׁלִים֙ עִמָּ֔ךְ וְעָשְׂתָ֥ה עִמְּךָ֖ מִלְחָמָ֑ה וְצַרְתָּ֖ עָלֶֽיהָּ׃ (יג) וּנְתָנָ֛הּ יְהוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֶ֖יךָ בְּיָדֶ֑ךָ וְהִכִּיתָ֥ אֶת־כָּל־זְכוּרָ֖הּ לְפִי־חָֽרֶב׃ (יד) רַ֣ק הַ֠נָּשִׁים וְהַטַּ֨ף וְהַבְּהֵמָ֜ה וְכֹל֩ אֲשֶׁ֨ר יִהְיֶ֥ה בָעִ֛יר כָּל־שְׁלָלָ֖הּ תָּבֹ֣ז לָ֑ךְ וְאָֽכַלְתָּ֙ אֶת־שְׁלַ֣ל אֹיְבֶ֔יךָ אֲשֶׁ֥ר נָתַ֛ן יְהוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֶ֖יךָ לָֽךְ׃ (טו) כֵּ֤ן תַּעֲשֶׂה֙ לְכָל־הֶ֣עָרִ֔ים הָרְחֹקֹ֥ת מִמְּךָ֖ מְאֹ֑ד אֲשֶׁ֛ר לֹא־מֵעָרֵ֥י הַגּֽוֹיִם־הָאֵ֖לֶּה הֵֽנָּה׃ (טז) רַ֗ק מֵעָרֵ֤י הָֽעַמִּים֙ הָאֵ֔לֶּה אֲשֶׁר֙ יְהוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֶ֔יךָ נֹתֵ֥ן לְךָ֖ נַחֲלָ֑ה לֹ֥א תְחַיֶּ֖ה כָּל־נְשָׁמָֽה׃ (יז) כִּֽי־הַחֲרֵ֣ם תַּחֲרִימֵ֗ם הַחִתִּ֤י וְהָאֱמֹרִי֙ הַכְּנַעֲנִ֣י וְהַפְּרִזִּ֔י הַחִוִּ֖י וְהַיְבוּסִ֑י כַּאֲשֶׁ֥ר צִוְּךָ֖ יְהוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֶֽיךָ׃ (יח) לְמַ֗עַן אֲשֶׁ֨ר לֹֽא־יְלַמְּד֤וּ אֶתְכֶם֙ לַעֲשׂ֔וֹת כְּכֹל֙ תּֽוֹעֲבֹתָ֔ם אֲשֶׁ֥ר עָשׂ֖וּ לֵֽאלֹהֵיהֶ֑ם וַחֲטָאתֶ֖ם לַיהוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֵיכֶֽם׃ (ס)
(1) When you take the field against your enemies, and see horses and chariots—forces larger than yours—have no fear of them, for YHWH your elohim, who brought you from the land of Egypt, is with you;
(8) The officials shall go on addressing the troops and say, “Is there anyone afraid and disheartened? Let him go back to his home, lest the courage of his comrades flag like his.”
[Verses 9-15 detail how Israelites are supposed to treat the survivors of a town they conquered. Verse 16 speaks about a unique procedure for towns that are a part of the seven nations listed in the source above:]
(16) In the towns of the latter peoples, however, which YHWH your elohim is giving you as a heritage, you shall not let a soul remain alive. (17) No, you must proscribe them—the Hittites and the Amorites, the Canaanites and the Perizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites—as YHWH your elohim has commanded you, (18) lest they lead you into doing all the abhorrent things that they have done for their gods and you stand guilty before YHWH your elohim.
I'd like to just pause here and think about a few things together for a moment.
Firstly, what, specifically, bothers us so much about this?
Consider this for a moment: Were someone to make a list of the most terrifying conquering civilizations in human history, a frequent winner would be the Mongols under Genghis Khan (which means "universal/oceanic lord") in the 13th century. I won't even begin to describe what they did to their enemies (I'd ruin my appetite for lunch!). They ruled through fear, and were masters of psychological terror. According to legend, Genghis Kahn would send a lone soldier into a village with the instruction to kill villagers at random in order to test loyalty. If there was any resistance, the village would suffer the full wrath of Genghis Khan, resulting in complete annihilation. Some estimate that the Mongols were responsible for the death of... 40 million people!!! (See The Destruction under the Mongol Empire: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Destruction_under_the_Mongol_Empire .)
I bring this up, not to justify anything, only to show that the history of humankind is brutal. While the Mongols, according to many, might have been the worst, there were others who would belong on the same list.
This list includes the Assyrian Empire; a ruthless and relentless war-machine, very possibly the bloodiest of all ancient civilizations. After mastering the forging of iron and inventing siege-weaponry, no coalition of kingdoms could stand up to them; though some certainly tried. In fact, during the middle-8th century, as they were expanding their borders west, the kingdoms of Aram and Northern Israel pleaded with the southern Judeans to join them in mustering a resistance. King Ahaz of the south recognized the futility of this. With the looming threat of an ever-approaching Assyria, the Northern Israelites and Southern Judeans went to war with each other!
In a world of limited resources, an entity could not survive, let alone enjoy autonomy and control its own fate - without playing by the oftentimes brutal rules of living in a brutal world.
So with that, the actions of our Israelite ancestors - living in a region surrounded by kingdoms vying for power, only to be dwarfed by such threats as Egypt, Babylon and Assyria - should not really surprise us, given their longevity in the area as a self-governing kingdom. (There were Israelite and Judean kings from the 1,000s until the beginning of the 6th century; Four hundred years!)
And yet, it oftentimes does!!!!
I'd like to finish our first session by reflecting upon why this might be. Then next session, we'll pick up with an examination of the various assumptions we might have when we approach works in the TaNaKh, assumptions which tend to play a significant role in affecting our reactions to such texts.