Noted Southern Baptist educator Henry Blackaby has claimed that the tsunami showed God acting to defend His people (Christians) against their South Asian persecutors.
“If you read the Old Testament, especially, God is very concerned how the nations treat his covenant people,” the author of Experiencing God said recently in a news story in Baptist Press. “The nations that persecuted, offended and killed his people, God came down and destroyed them. And he’s the same God today. He’s just as concerned about his people.”
As a Christian, I find many reasons to be offended by this comment. As a biblical scholar, I am most distressed by his approach to the Old Testament.
According to Blackaby, the Old Testament features a violent God who is justified in destroying whole peoples.
Is Blackaby right about the Old Testament? Can we read (and believe!) the Old Testament after the tsunami, without agreeing with him?
The Old Testament does claim that God occasionally uses nature to harm people. There is no getting around that fact.
But if we look more carefully at these stories, we may find a different picture of God. I want to look at two familiar stories of divine destruction to see what they can tell us after the disaster.
Sodom and Gomorrah were reduced to ash by God’s fire and brimstone. The judgment seems correct–all the men of Sodom accosted Lot’s angelic visitors, attempting to rape them.
But what of the women of Sodom? The children? They weren’t banging on Lot’s door; they were stuck at home waiting for their violent husbands and fathers to return. Surely they’ve suffered enough; they don’t deserve the flames. But they all burn, too.
The assumption in Genesis is that the evil of Sodom is so pervasive that it infects all the residents so all must die. (Lot, an outsider, escapes).
So maybe Blackaby has things right; maybe there were no innocents in South Asia.
But God himself raises questions about Sodom.
In Isaiah 13, God compares Babylon and Sodom:
“See, I am stirring up the Medes against them [The Babylonians], … Babylon, the glory of kingdoms, the splendor and pride of the Chaldeans, will be like Sodom and Gomorrah when God overthrew them”(Isa 13:17, 19).
Notice that when God comes to speak of the destruction of Sodom he does not say “when I overthrew them” but instead refers to himself as God (the Hebrew word Elohim).
Why does God do this? Is God distancing himself from the events at Sodom? Does God regret the destruction? If God is not entirely anxious to sign his name to the destruction of Sodom, perhaps we, as God’s followers, should not be so anxious to affix God’s name to particular tragedies.
The story of the Flood features a universal judgment by water. The whole world, not one city, is involved, because, “The Lord saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually” (Gen 6:4).
Even the animals will suffer since “God saw that the earth was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted its ways upon the earth” (6:12). As was the case with Sodom, the evil is so great it has affected everything; there are no innocent parties, except the blameless Noah (and, perhaps, fish!).
When we tell this story to our children, we emphasize God’s grace: God provides a way for life to begin again. But there is artwork that features the rest of the story. Mothers lift their infants aloft, clinging to the last piece of earth.
Those etchings aren’t too far removed from the stories of children washed out of their parents’ arms by the tsunami waves. I cannot believe that those thousands of people (and animals!) in South Asia had “corrupted” their ways upon the earth, at least not in ways more obvious than our own.
So what can the Flood teach us? Perhaps it can teach us what it teaches God!
At the end of all the destruction, God promises “I will never again curse the ground because of humankind, for the inclination of the human heart is evil from youth; nor will I ever again destroy every living creature as I have done” (8:22).
This is astounding! The reason God gives for flooding the earth is the reason God gives for never again flooding the earth. The Flood accomplishes nothing; God will not “go there” again.
God sees that massive destruction is no cure for the violence and corruption of human society. God realizes that a violent God cannot remove the violence from those created in His image, so God limits His action.
The Old Testament gives us diverse portrayals of God. True, we see a God who can use His power in ways we find distressing. But concern about destruction, especially destruction of the innocent, is already present in the Old Testament. God shares that concern. He’s concerned about all his people, all the ones created in His image.
We need to read the Old Testament with care, discovering ways to avoid experiencing Blackaby’s one-dimensional God.
Don Polaski is adjunct instructor of religious studies at The College of William & Mary.