The past week or so I've been immersed in a best-selling crime novel. When I've not been eating, sleeping or hanging out with people, I've been reading this book. I'm not going to mention the name of the book because it's not necessarily something that I can recommend to my students- and some of ya'll read this old blog every now and then when you're bored. Reason being, there's a lot of violence and sexual content that is pretty rough. I try to skip over some of that stuff as I'm reading, but it's still there. Reading the book has given me some pause spiritually. I've prayed a couple of times, "Should I be reading this?" And I haven't really gotten a clear answer "Yes." or "No." But it's been on my mind so much that I found myself journaling about it during my quiet time this morning.
My main dilemma was not actually with exposure to the content itself (like I said, I was sort of editing as I read) but with the amount of time I was spending immersed in murders and exploitation. I began to write about how I felt like my time reading this crime novel would not qualify as time spent dwelling on what is noble, pure, true, excellent.. as per Philippians 4:8. And then, I had to be honest, I found myself thinking (praying, really) about how I don't want to stop reading the book because I like the story- the story is exciting. The characters are smart and adventurous and I don't want to let them go. I'm interested- I confessed- and I don't want to become un-interested.
I sat there and looked at my little devotional book that I truly love, but at the moment, thought just could not compare to the entertainment I've been finding in my crime novel. I know that entertainment is not everything. But I was being honest with my feelings about this situation with God. I like my crime novel. I like my devotional. But they seem so separate from one another. I have the (incorrect) tendency to think that the Bible is all hearts and rainbows (and I mean, there are hearts and rainbows in the Bible) and that if I want a really good psychological thriller, then I'll have to turn elsewhere, right?
I decided to put the Bible to the test, so to speak. I knew the reasons I liked my novel- tough characters, unexpected twists, nothing predictable, definitely no rainbows. So I started flipping through Judges because I've read some pretty shocking things in there before. But I don't think I'd ever read the story that I ended up reading today. I landed in Judges 11- and here's what that story is about. There's this man named Jephthah, who is the son of a prostitute. And he gets booted out of his hometown by his brothers because he's a bastard. Then when his brothers get threatened by an enemy, they come crawling back to Jephthah for help. Well, Jephthah decides that he's going to make a vow to God before he goes to battle, so he swears that if God will give him the victory in battle, then when he gets home, he will sacrifice the first thing that comes out of the door of his house to meet him. And, of course, God gives him the victory. That part of the story is pretty similar to other Bible stories I've read. When you study the life of David, there are lots of prayers before battle and the Lord delivering the enemy into his hands. But Jephthah's story is a little different...
When he gets home, Jephthah's only child, his daughter, is the first one to come out the door to meet him. And he tears his clothes and is so sad because he just made this vow that he's going to sacrifice whatever comes out of his house first. So Jephthah's daughter is amazingly chill about the prospect of getting slaughtered because her dad made a vow to God, and says, "Go ahead and do what you've got to do, but can I have a couple of months to go out into the hills and mourn with my friends because, you know, I'm never going to get married?" And dear old dad says, "sure," just come home in two months so I can kill you. And so she goes out to the hills.
Now at this point I'm reading this story, and I'm like, well obviously something is going to happen during this time that she's out in the hills and Jephthah is going to realize that he just needs to pray and God will provide some ram or something to take the girl's place. I mean, that's how Bible stories go. Except I was looking for something psychologically thrilling.... a little disturbing, violent, even... remember? And God was faithful to show me just that.
Jephthah's daughter gets back from her two months out in the hills crying with her friends, and then her father sacrifices her to God. And that's basically the end of the story. Judges 11- bastard son of prostitute deals with family drama and prospect of war by making homicidal vow to God, and ends up sacrificing his own child. Shocking, much? I sat there at the kitchen table and said over and over again, "What a disturbing story." Something I hadn't even uttered about my crime novel the whole time I've been reading it.
While I got cleaned up for the day, I was thinking about my crime novel and Judges 11, and I have to hand it to God, He is unexpected and I totally underestimate Him. He gets the victory on shocking stories today- hands down. But, aside from shock value, why is this story in the Bible? Why did something like this ever happen? Stories like this are the kinds of stories that make some people say that they would never put their trust in the "God of the Old Testament" who appears to just slaughter people, or in this case, allow them to be slaughtered, for no apparent reason.
I came up with a couple of clear thoughts. One, Jephthah was the one who made the vow. God didn't require that vow from him, but he made it of his own volition- probably he was thinking that a goat or something would wander out of the house- I don't know exactly, but he was pretty devastated when it ended up being his daughter. This made me think about what Jesus said in Matthew 5:33-37 about not making vows to the Lord, but just letting your "yes" be "yes" and "no" be "no." Jesus is giving people the simple out of just relating to God and men without the drama of a vow, which was new thinking because back in the day, the Israelites thought they needed vows to get God's attention- and maybe they did- but because of Jesus- we don't have to make those sorts of vows. We already have His attention.
Another thought came to mind- child sacrifice- what a grotesque thought- something we surely define as the epitome of evil- and yet, isn't that what salvation is based on? Isn't Jesus God's child? Wasn't He sacrificed for us? I mean, there are no hearts and rainbows to be had at the crux of the story- literally the crux. The promises are only good- the hearts, the rainbows, the peace and righteousness- because of the blood, the anguish, the violence or Christ's death. Jephthah's daughter is a reminder of that violence- the blood that God required to forgive us. I don't like it- in my culture, it's considered inhumane- but God is the one who required death for life. I'm just thankful that the work is done already.
But the final thought has to do with the very issue that the work is done already. I think that God is making a point to me by having me read and write about this story this morning. He is a God of love, of peace, of hope-filled promises. But He is a God of wrath, a God who requires death as the just penalty for sin, a God familiar with evil to a degree that I cannot fathom, and yet completely pure of it, and determined to ultimately abolish it. God wants me to know that He is not some pansy god who just wants me to have warm and happy feelings all of the time. And I like that. I respect that. I crave that. And it means much more than me being entertained by a novel- because this story is true and it tells me something about a Real God who- as C.S. Lewis put it- is not safe, but is good.
So there you go. I'm very impressed this morning with God, His Word, and His willingness to meet me where I am. I think I will finish my crime novel. But I will remember that it is fiction, and I'll keep asking God to help me really dwell on truth- even the shocking parts of it.