There are quite a few passages in the Bible that trouble me. Some trouble me because they are like a mirror and make me reflect on myself and I don’t come out looking too good. Others trouble me because they are so far outside my understanding and experience that I don’t know exactly what to do with them. And, if I am honest, some trouble me because God doesn’t come out of them looking too good.
[gruesome alert] If you are squeamish you may like to skip today’s bloggage – or just skip. This is more of a sketch pad on which I am doodling some thoughts about God than a well-reasoned theological dissertation.
Let me give you one that has been puzzling me recently. It’s in Genesis 19:1-29 and concerns Lot (Abraham’s nephew) and his family. It is a sordid tale that starts with two angels turning up at Lot’s door (which is lovely) but then spirals into depravity and hideousness I won’t recount here, but if it was ever made into a Hollywood film like Noah it would definitely be an 18 Certificate (especially if you dare to read beyond verse 29 [shudder].
The narrative ends with Lot and his family fleeing for their lives from Sodom while the Bible tells us that “The Lord rained down burning sulphur on Sodom and Gomorrah…” How do we equate that with the God of love and mercy that we see elsewhere in the Bible? He does not come out of it looking very good.
It gets worse. As they are fleeing Lot’s wife decided to look back and admire the carnage and “she became a pillar of salt.” Really? Just for looking behind her? Come on God, that’s really cruel.
I have wondered about this passage for a while and this is what I am hypothesising might have happened… I wonder whether the ‘burning sulphur’ was a meteorite strike. I have no geological evidence for this, but this is my conjecture. God’s warning to Lot to get out of the town immediately and head for the hills may have been because he knew that the meteorite was about to strike and there was no time to lose. God’s injunction not to look back may not have been so much about nostalgic reminiscing for the good times (IRONY alert) in Sodom so much as not wanting them to pause for a moment given the imminence of the event. Perhaps Lot’s wife was not so much turned to salt (sodium chloride) for her nostalgia as she was covered by hot ash and incinerated because she stopped to watch. The white ash would have looked like salt. They were heading for a nearby town and perhaps Lot and his family made it inside the safety of the walls but his wife had stayed outside and… well, you know.
Okay, that may help me understand what could have happened. I am not saying that this is what happened, but it helps me to think that it was possible in that way. It puts a plausible 21st century understanding of the Universe onto bronze age events to help explain what could have happened. If that is the case, this was more of an emergency evacuation than a summary execution.
But it doesn’t entirely let God off the hook. Because the Genesis narrative says that the burning sulphur / meteorite was God’s punishment on the people of Sodom and Gomorrah. If that is the case it’s even worse for God’s PR company because that would mean that when he set the Universe in motion and all sorts of celestial bodies starting whizzing around some / one of the smaller ones was set on a trajectory that would impact the earth at Sodom and Gomorrah at precisely that time, and that God would have planned it in advance because he knew of the evil of the inhabitants of those towns…
I am still troubled by this but have a few thoughts. One is that while we know God as a God of love and mercy, he is also a God of justice and we should not take that lightly. The second is that whatever the cosmic event was that destroyed those towns was it a deliberate act of a vengeful God or was it a cosmic event that happened and reminded people of God’s justice? I think that there is a subtle but important difference. Thirdly, is part of the reason that it is portrayed how it is in the Bible that this is how people viewed God in those days (sitting in heaven with his finger poised over a button marked ‘smite’) and we need to read that in the light of the New Testament revelation as well. The fourth is to look at what Jesus said, and he said that it would have been better for the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah ‘on the day of judgment’ than for people who refused to welcome his followers who had come with good news.
This suggests that while the towns were destroyed by the cosmic event, the eternal status of the inhabitants was not settled by the cataclysm. I believe that the ‘day of judgment’ is when the God who gave us all free will honours how we have exercised it. If we wanted to be with him, he honours and accepts that. If we did not, he (disappointedly) honours and accepts that. Perhaps there were people in Sodom and Gomorrah who had called out to him even as the place was being destroyed. It would be just like him to respond to that call – like Jesus responded to the thief being executed next to him.
I am still bothered by this passage. But that is partly because I am not God and don’t understand everything. Perhaps it is because I can sometimes get too chummy in my approach to God and forget that he is G-O-D! Maybe it is also because I need to be wiser in how I interpret the Bible, not imposing my own views and prejudices onto it, being willing to wrestle with it and allow it to wrestle with me.
And of course while I hope there is not a meteorite out there with my name on it, I do need to bear in mind that who I am, how I am and what I do is all in the sight of a holy God.
Be blessed, be a blessing.