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:
Or, very similarly:
Here are another couple of passages which celebrate his investment in the well-being of all life:
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:
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.
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:
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.
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:
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:
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.