Atheists and “progressive Christians” alike are fond of pointing out things in the Bible they think are reprehensible. Some even claim to know more about these parts of Scripture than evangelicals who hold to belief in the inerrancy of the Bible.
Sadly, these are the people who are misunderstanding passages and misusing verses, twisting them to say what they want them to say. So they’ll take a verse like Psalm 137:9 (“How blessed will be the one who seizes and dashes your little ones / Against the rock) as proof that the God of the Bible, or the God of the Old Testament, at least, is hateful and cruel, full of wrath and vengeful.
The problem is, such a view ignores passage after passage after passage that reveals God to be a protector of the innocent, a refuge to all who call on Him. Take Psalm 46:1-2 for example:
God is our refuge and strength
A very present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change,
And though the mountains slip into the heart of the sea.
Scripture portrays God as the Advocate for orphans and widows. He chastises Judah in part for not living in accordance with His heart in their treatment of the most vulnerable and needy. He pronounces judgment on nations like Israel, Edom, Assyria, and Babylon because they were greedy or their leaders cheated the poor or they employed violence against others.
God, in His role as Protector, pronounces judgment on those who mistreated others. More often than not, He used other nations to judge those whose wickedness had reached a point of no return. So there are passages in the prophets that warn of this coming judgment:
Their little ones also will be dashed to pieces
Before their eyes;
Their houses will be plundered
And their wives ravished. (Isaiah 13:16)
You can find similar passages in Hosea, Nahum, Lamentations, and Zechariah—and the pictures these prophets paint aren’t pretty. But that’s the point. Judgment isn’t a slap on the wrist, nor should it be.
And it is just such judgment the Psalmist was calling for in the passage above.
Here in California, much has been made of the sexual assault of a three-year-old who wandered into a garage where a young man was working. Because he didn’t behave as a predator, searching out a child to abuse, the judge gave the perpetrator a light sentence, and the public is rightfully outraged. His criminal behavior requires a stiff penalty.
But when God says He’s going to give a stiff penalty to the wicked, somehow many find this tyrannical. Not just.
I surmise they don’t believe those in Scripture who describe God as righteous and good. They don’t believe Him when He says, “I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked (Ex. 33:11).”
Such misuse of the Bible—pulling one verse out of context in order to draw a conclusion about God and ignoring scores of others that contradict their view—is more a reflection on those judging God than on God Himself.
There are other people, however, who misunderstand the Bible because they take it too literally. Parts of the Bible are history and certainly were written with the intention that their readers would take their words as factual. Consequently writers gave genealogies, mentioned reigning kings, noted particular towns or rivers or seas, included details such as a great earthquake or a siege or a civil war.
But another part of the Bible, including some of the stories and analogies Jesus included in His conversations and discourses, have a different intention. Their purpose is to point to a particular spiritual truth, not paint a black-and-white portrait of what God does or does not do.
For instance, Jesus said it is harder for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven than it is for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle. Since we know camels can’t pass through the eye of a needle, does that mean Jesus was saying no rich man could enter the kingdom of heaven? Clearly not. Abraham was rich, and Jesus told a story about Abraham, indicating he was in fact in heaven.
People who want to apply literalistic treatment to metaphorical language are simply misusing the Bible! I would suggest that dashing children in pieces is possibly an example of hyperbole, taken as an indication that judgment would reach down and affect the children as well as the adults.
The trick, of course, is to know what is literal and what is metaphorical. Some things are obvious such as the fantasy stories in the Old Testament about talking trees. The people who told those stories were trying to make a point to their intended audience and used analogous language to do so. No one should read those passages and come away saying, The Bible teaches that trees talk.
One way to discern what is literal and what is figurative is by how the people of that time understood the writing or discourse. Consequently, the Jews who built a tabernacle and commemorated the Exodus, undoubtedly understood the first five books of the Bible—their Torah—as historical or they wouldn’t have acted upon what was contained within those pages.
For me it’s a bit comforting to know that the disciples didn’t always know what was literal and what was figurative in the things Jesus said. They thought, for example, that His declaration that He would go to Jerusalem and die and be raised again on the third day, had some metaphorical, spiritual meaning. It wasn’t until after the fact that they realized He’d been talking about literal death and literal resurrection.
My point here is that misunderstanding isn’t something to be ashamed about. Rather, when we come to Scripture, it’s important to hold what we “know” loosely, to do some questioning and some comparison. And never to take the word of a person over the word of Scripture itself.
For example, someone might say in a convincing way that the story of Adam and Eve is a myth, not to be believed as literal, that they are simply archetypes of early humans, that there was no actual garden, tree of life or of the knowledge of good and evil, that there was no talking serpent (I mean, we already discounted the talking trees, right?)
However, the rest of the Bible clearly treats Adam and Eve as real people while equating the serpent with the Accuser, Satan. In other words, the people who wrote Scripture and to whom Scripture was originally given, and those who read it throughout centuries, understood Adam and Eve to be historically real people. So clearly, for us today to say, Adam and Eve are mythical, we would be taking the word of a person who came up with or is parroting the idea, over and above the word of Scripture.