Was Dietrich Bonhoeffer justified in joining the plot to kill Hitler?

Q. I just finished reading Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy by Eric Metaxas. It is an outstanding book about an inspiring Christian (with fascinating history to boot). The author describes—often in Bonhoeffer’s own words—how he came to believe that, as a Christian, it was his duty to do anything possible to stop Hitler, including killing him. It seems to me that this is a very slippery slope. Bonhoeffer, for instance, also thought that abortion was murder. I wonder, therefore, if he would have approved of killing abortion providers. What biblical basis is there for humans intentionally taking the life of another human (even capital punishment)?

I, too, have read this book by Metaxas, and like you I found it fascinating, informative, and challenging. I had my own questions and concerns about Bonhoeffer’s decision to join the plot to kill Hitler, even after listening to him make the case in his own words.

My first concern was just like yours—this is a very slippery slope. Even if we decide that somehow, under extreme and very extraordinary circumstances, Bonhoeffer was justified, this could open the door for others to conclude that they, too, might be justified in killing someone, in circumstances that are actually nowhere near to being as extraordinary as Bonhoeffer’s.

So it’s very important that we appreciate the context of his decision. The book does a superb job situating it in its historical context; let me try briefly here to review the biblical-theological context, as I understand it (not that this is absent from the book, either).

We need to recognize that Bonhoeffer’s deliberations came within the centuries-old tradition of reflection within Christianity about whether there can be such a thing as a “just war.” (The other longstanding and respected tradition in Christian theology is pacifism.) Among those who believe that there could be a just war, almost all agree that the war to defeat Hitler was one. It was a defensive war of self-protection against an unprovoked aggressor who had attacked peaceful countries and was oppressing their conquered populations, including systematically committing genocide against millions. So Bonhoeffer and his fellow plotters, many of whom were senior German military officers, saw themselves as joining the justified side in a just war.

Given this, the question then arose as to whether assassination was ever an appropriate tactic within a just war. It could be that in most cases of a just war (assuming there is such a thing), assassination would still not be valid. But in this case, Bonhoeffer concluded, it was a means proportionate to the desired end that would not have wider unacceptable consequences. (These are some of the tests that are applied to means within just war theory.) This was true even though the plotters recognized that some of Hitler’s senior staff might be killed along with him; the person who delivered the bomb in a briefcase was prepared to die himself in the process if necessary.

And this leads us into the second part of the biblical-theological context for the decision: Bonhoeffer’s own theory of ethics. Part of this theory held that if you could recognize, “Somebody ought to do such-and-such,” then you ought to do such-and-such, because we are answerable to God not just for our actions, but also for our inaction. This was because God, in Bonhoeffer’s understanding, accomplishes his purposes through the free acts of human moral agents.

He therefore took seriously what the book of James says: “Anyone who knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, commits sin.” He saw too many German Christians effectively giving Hitler a free hand by appeal to “obeying the law” or “submitting to authorities,” when they ought to have been resisting oppression and protecting the weak. According to Bonhoeffer’s ethics, it was better to act on your beliefs and convictions and be prepared to answer to God for your actions than it was not to act out of fear of doing something wrong. I believe this is one reason why he’s such a fascinating and inspiring character.

I think our takeaway needs to be, however, that anyone who’s prepared to act as boldly as he did should also be prepared to reflect as carefully as he did, in community, about ethical actions, both generally and specifically. This was not a simple matter of “I think God is telling me to kill Hitler.” It was a meticulously deliberated decision, made in the context of a close community of committed believers in his own day, in the larger context of Christian moral and ethical reflection over the centuries. The fact that the jury is still out on this decision shows how difficult and complicated it was, and therefore what moral courage it took for him to act upon it and be prepared to answer to God for his actions (not to mention answering to the verdict of history, which I guess we’re working on here).

Your ultimate question is too large for me to address in a single blog post: “What biblical basis is there for one human intentionally taking the life of another?” But I hope I’ve sketched out the beginnings of an approach to that question, at least.

Is Jesus insulting the Canaanite woman by calling her a “dog”?

Q. I read the story of Jesus and the Canaanite woman the other day and I have no idea what Jesus is talking about in the parable when he references crumbs and dogs eating the crumbs. Can you shed some light on this passage?

“The Woman of Canaan” by Michael Angelo Immenraet, 1670s

This story is confusing and sometimes upsetting to readers of the gospels because it appears that Jesus is not only rebuffing someone who comes to him for help, he’s actually insulting her in the process.

A Canaanite woman asks Jesus to deliver her daughter, who’s suffering at the hands of a demon, but he won’t even speak to her. When his disciples urge him to help, he replies, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” (The woman is a non-Israelite.) And when she appeals to Jesus personally, he responds, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.”

So Jesus seems to have a very callous and insulting attitude. However, I think something different is actually going on here.

This was an oral culture whose ways were embodied in popular sayings. These were often cited in support of a particular course of action. When two people had different courses in mind, they would pit different sayings against each other until one person had to admit, “Okay, you’ve got me there.”

This kind of thing can happen in our own culture. For example, two friends might visit a new part of town on a weekend, looking for a restaurant where they can have dinner. The first place they consider says it can seat them immediately. One of them might say, “Maybe we should eat here. After all, ‘A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.'” But if the other thinks there could be a better restaurant down the street that would be worth the wait, he might reply, “Yes, but ‘nothing ventured, nothing gained.'”

Similarly, I think Jesus is actually quoting a popular saying to the woman: “It’s not right to throw the children’s bread to the dogs.” This saying probably had a general application meaning something like, “Don’t use something expensive or valuable for a common purpose.” Jesus is applying it to the mandate he has, during his limited time on earth, to concentrate his efforts on ministry to the people of Israel, as their Messiah. (After his resurrection, his message will spread to all the people of the world from that starting point.)

The woman, however, comes up with what I think is an original saying of her own in response: “Yes, but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Jesus responds, in effect, “You’ve got me there,” and he heals her daughter.

But this was not merely a battle of wits that the woman won by her cleverness and quick thinking. Rather, I believe Jesus evaluated every situation he encountered in order to discern how God might be at work in it. In the gospel of John he’s quoted as saying, “The Son can do nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees the Father doing.” So Jesus was always on the lookout for when his Father might be doing something that he could join in with.

I believe, for example, that when his mother Mary came to him at the wedding in Cana and told him that the hosts had run out of wine, while Jesus thought initially that the time hadn’t come yet for him to do “signs” in public, he ultimately recognized that Mary’s persistent and trusting faith was an indication that God was at work in the situation. And so he did his first miracle there, turning water into wine.

I believe that Jesus similarly recognized the Canaanite woman’s bold request and audacious persistence as indications that God was giving her the faith to believe her daughter could be delivered if she sought help from Jesus. It was in response to that recognition, inspired by the woman’s reply to his challenge, that Jesus acted to heal the daughter, giving an advance glimpse of how his influence would soon extend beyond the borders of Israel.

 

Was Judas set up to fail?

Q. Here’s a Good Friday and Easter question. Jesus tells the disciples about his betrayal, “The Son of Man will go just as it is written about him. But woe to that man who betrays the Son of Man! It would be better for him if he had not been born.” If it was already determined how Jesus would die, and who would do it, was Judas set up to fail? Did Jesus mean that Judas would only have to be annihilated (like never born) instead if hell?

A traditional icon of Judas betraying Jesus with a kiss. Was this a set-up?

Your questions are similar to ones that some other readers of this blog have asked earlier, which is not surprising, since they are questions that will occur to thoughtful and compassionate listeners to the story of Jesus’ sufferings, death, and resurrection.

A couple of years ago I did an eight-part series of posts on the question of whether Judas was doomed from the start. Had he  been selected before all time, and identified in biblical prophecies, as the betrayer of Jesus? The series begins with my response to the question, “Did Jesus forgive Judas?” but it necessarily opens out into these other issues. By the end I find it necessary to ask, “Did Jesus betray Judas?” I’ll quote a bit from the opening of that post to show why that question comes up.

So here’s the script.  Jesus needs to die for the sins of the world, but to do that, he needs to be betrayed. So God chooses someone, Judas Iscariot, before all time to be the betrayer. In the mysterious interplay between divine sovereignty and human moral responsibility, Judas is somehow also personally culpable for this, so he pays for the deed (and all his other sins) by going to hell forever.  Not that he ever had a chance of salvation; he was a “son of perdition” and so “doomed to destruction” anyway (as some English versions translate this phrase).  Jesus himself knew, from an early point in his public ministry, that Judas would betray him. “I chose the twelve of you,” he says, long in advance of the betrayal, “but one is a devil.”  John explains that “he was speaking of Judas, son of Simon Iscariot, one of the Twelve, who would later betray him.”  And by this John means not that the “devil” Jesus refers to here would eventually be recognized as Judas; already at this time it was known, at least to Jesus, that Judas was the betrayer.

I’m not buying it.  Why not?  Because there’s absolutely no way that Jesus could have recruited Judas to be his disciple on this basis.  “Come and follow me, because I need you in my inner circle to betray me at just the right time, though for performing this necessary service you’ll burn in hell forever.”  Nobody would take that offer.  Instead, Jesus would have had to make Judas think he was inviting him to join in announcing the good news of the kingdom of God, proclaiming liberty to captives, healing the sick, helping the poor, while all along he was actually setting him up.  In other words, the only way for Jesus to get Judas to sign on as a disciple, so that he would then be the betrayer, would have been to deceive him.  And when true reason for his “calling” came to light, we could not blame Judas for feeling that Jesus had betrayed him.

But such a course of action is simply not consistent with the character of Jesus as it is clearly and consistently portrayed in all four gospels.  I think we have to conclude instead that Jesus chose twelve disciples in good faith, all as potential true followers, but that he knew at the same time that one of them would betray him.

(Though Jesus, as I argue throughout the series, didn’t know exactly which one that would be until very close to the time of the actual betrayal. I truly believe that human freedom is so radical that there are some human choices that are undetermined to such an extent that even God doesn’t know what they will be. But, as I argue in another post, also prompted by a question about Judas, “It is no failure in omniscience not to know what cannot be known.”)

In my series I hold out the possibility that Judas could have repented and been saved. But assuming he did not repent and was lost, was he then  annihilated, as if he had “never been born”?

This is another question that I’ve addressed in an earlier series of posts. I have a three-part series on the question “Is Hell a Place of Never-Ending Punishment?” After a long and somewhat technical examination of the relevant Scriptures, I conclude:

The biblical data does not present a simple, straightforward picture of “hell” as a place of never-ending punishment for those who reject God.  The picture is complicated, and readers of the Bible must understand the Hebrew and Greek terms and ideas behind our English translations in order to reach the most informed conclusion possible about this issue.

My personal experience shows me that followers of Jesus who are people of good will and equally committed to the inspiration and authority of the Scriptures can come to different conclusions about whether those who ultimately reject God are annihilated or instead suffer never-ending punishment. The statement about Judas offers possible support for the former view.

But as I also say at the end of my series about hell, “The Bible doesn’t tell us nearly as much as we would like about the fate of people after death.  But it does tell us a great deal about the character of God, in which justice and mercy are perfectly balanced.” And I think especially in this Holy Week we can find great encouragement in the recognition that God, “in his great mercy, has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.” Whatever questions may linger in our minds about some of the most complicated and uncertain matters treated in the Bible, the resurrection assures us of God’s mercy towards us and God’s desire that we live in hope, not doubt or dread. And that’s really something to celebrate!

How could God use a man and not save him?

Q. How is it fair to a person born to be put through hell in life because he is used by the devil and God. Is this like the story of Job? How could God use a man and not save him?

I’m not entirely sure what you’re asking about here, but let me reassert, as I’ve said often on this blog, that I believe God gives everyone the opportunity to trust in Him and be saved, and in fact God makes every effort to bring each person to salvation. As the Bible says, God “doesn’t want anyone to be destroyed. Instead, he wants all people to turn away from their sins.” So I don’t believe that God would “use” somebody for His purposes and then just discard that person afterwards. Any purposes God pursues through our lives are subservient to the purpose God pursues for our lives, which is to bring us to know and trust Him and enjoy His presence forever.

In terms of the story of Job specifically, in my study guide to that book I note, “The book of Job has much to say about the ‘problem of evil,’ that is, why there is so much suffering in the world if it’s governed by a good God. But [in the opening story] the Adversary [the name for Satan in the book] begins by raising a different problem, the ‘problem of good.’ If apparent goodness is always rewarded and bad conduct is always punished, how can we ever really be sure that a person is genuinely good, and not just trying to win rewards and avoid punishment? It turns out that the only kind of universe in which genuine good can be known to exist is one in which good people sometimes suffer undeservedly, but still demonstrate continuing loyalty to God.”

This is what God “uses” Job to demonstrate over the course of the book (if we may use that term). And there’s no question that at the end he’s “saved,” that is, fully returned to God’s tangible favor and blessing.

I hope this helps address your concerns.

Did the Israelites really massacre the Canaanites, and if so, was this really at God’s command?

Q. Peter Enns has a book out called The Bible Tells Me So: Why Defending Scripture Has Made Us Unable to Read It. In this book, among other things, he argues that there is a huge lack of archaeological evidence for the exodus and for the Canaanite “genocides.” He says that outside of evangelical scholarship this is essentially an undisputed fact. He argues that these stories likely reflect a sort of “tribal deity” rhetoric/mentality and are full of hyperbole and would have been characteristic of how people in that time and place related to God. He also argues that to the extent that the Israelites did massacre the Canaanites, they were not in fact carrying out God’s will but were instead doing what they erroneously thought God was telling them to do (since they related to him as a tribal warrior god). What do you make of these claims?

I haven’t yet read this particular book by Enns, though I have read some of his other books and I appreciate him as an honest, thoughtful, careful, articulate, and provocative writer. But I do discuss the historicity of the Canaanite genocides and their theological implications in this post, in light of a review of another book that makes similar claims.

I’m not qualified to speak to the archaeological debate, though I can  imagine how it could easily devolve into circular arguments: “Of course there’s no trace left of the campaign against the Canaanites, because the Israelites were told to ‘break down their altars, smash their sacred pillars, burn their Asherah poles, cut down their carved idols, and completely erase the names of their gods.’ You shouldn’t expect to find anything.  It’s just an argument from silence that it didn’t happen because you haven’t found anything.” But basically I will leave the archaeology to others.

Instead, to address the biblical and theological side of things, let me say again that the biblical stories of genocide are so disturbing that it would be a great relief to think that they never really happened. However, I think we have to ask ourselves what the implications would be if they actually had happened, and for that matter what the implications are that the Bible says they happened. As I wrote earlier, I think we need to see these stories as exceptional and even incongruous within the Bible, and on that basis see whether we can account for them somehow.

The best I’ve been able to do with that is still to see the life and teachings of Jesus as normative for the interpretation of all of Scripture, and on that basis to conclude that no one today should emulate the actions or attitudes represented by the genocide stories in the Bible. Instead, we need to hold them in an uncomfortably painful tension with the normative teachings about loving our enemies and seeking forgiveness and reconciliation, pursue those things, and await the day when “we shall know fully, even as we are now fully known,” and hopefully then understand.

Why did God reject Saul for offering sacrifices, but not David or Solomon?

Q. Why did God reject Saul as king for offering sacrifices, but not David or Solomon when they offered sacrifices?

Saul was rejected as king not specifically because he offered sacrifices, but because he disobeyed a direct command that God had given him through the prophet Samuel.

Samuel had told Saul, “Go down ahead of me to Gilgal. I will surely come down to you to sacrifice burnt offerings and fellowship offerings, but you must wait seven days until I come to you and tell you what you are to do.”  But Saul, worried that his whole army would desert him, offered the sacrifices himself, just before Samuel arrived.

“You have done a foolish thing,” Samuel told him. “You have not kept the command the Lord your God gave you; if you had, he would have established your kingdom over Israel for all time. But now your kingdom will not endure; the Lord has sought out a man after his own heart and appointed him ruler of his people, because you have not kept the Lord’s command.”  In other words, the penalty for this outright disobedience to a direct command from God was that Saul would not be the founder of a royal dynasty; while he would remain king, his descendants would not rule after him.

Secondarily, however, this disobedience did lead Saul to usurp a privilege of the priesthood.  As I discuss in this post, by offering these sacrifices, Saul was imitating the Canaanite priest-king model instead of respecting the separation between the kingship and the priesthood that was established in the law of Moses.

Saul subsequently disobeyed another direct command from God when he was told, again through the prophet Samuel, to completely destroy the Amalekites.*  Saul instead kept their king, Agag, alive as a trophy of war, and his soldiers kept the best of the cattle to “sacrifice to the Lord”—as part of a grand feast that they would enjoy themselves.  Samuel asked Saul once again, “Why did you not obey the Lord?”  The penalty for outright disobedience this time was that Saul would not even remain king himself for his natural lifetime; he would die early and be succeeded by “one of his neighbors”—not one of his own descendants.

A sketch by Hans Holbein the Younger for a mural depicting Samuel confronting Saul after the battle with the Amalekites

It is true that during a deadly plague, David built an altar to the Lord and sacrificed burnt offerings and fellowship offerings upon it.  But David actually did this in direct obedience to a command from God, and in any event these were the kind of offerings that any ordinary Israelite could offer.  The author of Psalm 116 says, for example:

What shall I return to the Lord
    for all his goodness to me?

I will lift up the cup of salvation
    and call on the name of the Lord.
I will fulfill my vows to the Lord
    in the presence of all his people. . . .

I will sacrifice a thank offering to you
    and call on the name of the Lord.
I will fulfill my vows to the Lord
    in the presence of all his people,
in the courts of the house of the Lord
    in your midst, Jerusalem.

Presumably when the psalmist says “I will sacrifice a thank offering,” this involves the assistance of the priests and Levites at the temple.

I think we should understand in the same way the statement that is made about the dedication of the temple itself in Jerusalem:  “Then the king [Solomon] and all Israel with him offered sacrifices before the Lord.”  The text makes clear that priests and Levites were present, and we should understand that they were the ones who actually offered these sacrifices, but at the initiative and expense of the king and people.

I hope these observations help answer your question.

– – – – –

*Episodes in the Bible like this one, where God commands complete destruction, are very troubling.  Some interpreters, like Philip Jenkins, argue that they never really happened.  Others like Adam Hamilton suggest that the biblical writers or characters were wrong in thinking that God had actually commanded this.  As I say in my review of Jenkins’ book, “I see these stories as exceptional and even incongruous within the Bible.”  In this post I describe my own efforts to come to terms with them.

Why did God give Nebuchadnezzar so many chances?

Q. I’ve been reading through Daniel and have been struck by how much God seems to communicate with and pursue Nebuchadnezzar. Any theories on why the God of Israel gave so many chances to a pagan king?

God certainly gave Nebuchadnezzar repeated opportunities to acknowledge Him, even after Nebuchadnezzar rebuffed and defied His initial overtures.  I explain the character of Nebuchadnezzar’s defiance in my book After Chapters and Verses:

I was recently part of a Bible study group that was looking at the book of Daniel. When we took up the third episode in the book, the participants were fascinated to hear how Nebuchadnezzar made a statue ninety feet high out of gold. Some of them glanced down at the notes in their Bibles and read them out loud to try to help the group understand this story better.

One note suggested that this was an ostentatious display of the wealth, power and prosperity of the empire. Another observed that a huge gold statue would have been overwhelmingly bright and dazzling. But I asked the members of the study to consider whether anything we’d encountered earlier in the book of Daniel would explain why Nebuchadnezzar made this statue out of gold.

They thought back to the previous episode, which we’d discussed the week before, and remembered that the king had had a dream about a statue. Its head was made of gold, but its chest and arms were silver, its torso and thighs were bronze, its legs were iron and its feet were made of iron and clay. Daniel’s interpretation of the dream was that Nebuchadnezzar’s empire, symbolized by the gold head, would be displaced by an inferior empire, which would then be replaced by another, and another, in the years to come.

In light of this dream and its interpretation, our group recognized that Nebuchadnezzar created a statue that was entirely gold to offer a direct and very public rejection of the message he’d received from God. He was saying, using the very symbolism of the dream God sent him, that his own empire would actually last forever and never be displaced. And by insisting that all the officials in his kingdom bow down to this statue, he was requiring them to join him in contradicting God’s revealed vision of the future, and to give their allegiance to him and his empire instead. No wonder Daniel’s friends felt they had to disobey!

And no wonder we marvel that the God of Israel continued to pursue a pagan emperor even after this.

One reason for the continuing pursuit may be that God had given Nebuchadnezzar an important trust to fulfill as the emperor of what was then the entire known world for the people of Israel, and also as their temporary lord during their exile.  In this role it was crucial that Nebuchadnezzar ultimately acknowledge that “the Most High is sovereign over all kingdoms on earth and gives them to anyone he wishes.”  God went to great lengths to win this acknowledgment. (See Blake’s illustration below!)

But I think we should also see Nebuchadnezzar as an individual example of a general principle.  As Peter puts it in the New Testament, God is “not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance.”  God goes to great lengths and makes repeated overtures to every soul, striving to bring it to repentance and salvation so that it can fulfill His purposes for it on earth.

And we can see how Nebuchadnezzar was offering small but positive responses as God reached out to him.  Even though Daniel said his dream foretold the end of his empire, instead of punishing Daniel for disloyalty or treason, Nebuchadnezzar rewarded him, as he’d promised to do for anyone who could tell him a dream he’d had while asleep but forgotten once he woke up!  In this way he tacitly agreed with Daniel that “there is a God in heaven who reveals mysteries” that are beyond human capability.

Similarly, after Nebuchadnezzar saw God deliver Daniel’s friends from the fiery furnace, into which he’d thrown them for refusing to bow down to his statue, he decreed severe punishment against anyone who would “say anything against the God of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego.”  And in the end, as I noted earlier, Nebuchadnezzar did acknowledge that “the Most High is sovereign over all kingdoms on earth and gives them to anyone he wishes.”

So in response to God’s repeated overtures, we see Nebuchadnezzar slowly recognizing and acknowledging more and more about God’s supreme claims.  It shouldn’t surprise us that God would continue to pursue anyone who was steadily coming around like this.  And we should be encouraged by similar signs, even small ones, that the people we dearly want to know and love God are being steadily pursued and are beginning to respond.

William Blake, “Nebuchadnezzar” (1795). An illustration of God’s decree against the emperor, “Let his mind be changed from that of a man and let him be given the mind of an animal . . . so that the living may know that the Most High is sovereign over all kingdoms on earth and gives them to anyone he wishes.”

If Saul wasn’t allowed to offer sacrifices, why could David eat the consecrated bread?

This question was asked in a comment on my previous post.

Q. I agree with you that Saul was wrong to offer sacrifices, but I think you also need to explain how you see David eating the bread of the presence. (Jesus refers to this episode in Matthew, Mark, and Luke.) In both cases the royal/priest boundary was crossed.

You’re right that both Saul and David did things that only priests were supposed to do.  And as I observed last time, it was extremely important in ancient Israel that the monarchy and the priesthood not be combined. So we do need to account for why Saul is punished for his actions while David is not.

This issue arises again during the reign of Uzziah, and in his case, the nature of the offense is made very explicit:  “But after Uzziah became powerful, his pride led to his downfall. He was unfaithful to the Lord his God, and entered the temple of the Lord to burn incense on the altar of incense. Azariah the priest with eighty other courageous priests of the Lord followed him in. They confronted King Uzziah and said, ‘It is not right for you, Uzziah, to burn incense to the Lord. That is for the priests, the descendants of Aaron, who have been consecrated to burn incense. Leave the sanctuary, for you have been unfaithful; and you will not be honored by the Lord God.’”

For crossing the royal/priest boundary, Uzziah was struck with leprosy and he lived out his reign in seclusion, with his son acting in his place as regent.  For the same offense, Saul was rejected as king. So you’d think that God would have had as much of a problem with David eating the consecrated bread as He did with Saul offering sacrifices or Uzziah burning incense.  But instead, Jesus cites David’s actions as a precedent for his own disciples lawfully plucking and eating grain as they travel through a field on the Sabbath.  In Matthew and Luke, this incident is paired with a Sabbath healing episode, suggesting that David also provides a precedent for Jesus healing on the Sabbath.  In other words, his actions are seen as positive and exemplary, not negative and dangerous.

So what’s going on here?  I think the best explanation is that there is a distinction between the privileges of a priest and the functions of a priest.

One of the privileges of a priest is that “those who serve in the temple get their food from the temple, and . . . those who serve at the altar share in what is offered on the altar,” as Paul observes in 1 Corinthians when arguing for his own right to be supported as an apostle. In other words, as Leviticus explains, once consecrated bread has been replaced with fresh bread and removed from God’s presence, it “belongs to Aaron and his sons, who are to eat it in the sanctuary area, because it is a most holy part of their perpetual share of the food offerings presented to the Lord.”  So no one but the priests had a right to this bread, as it was part of the priests’ support.  But Ahimelek the priest was nevertheless free to share this bread with David and his hungry companions–to “do good,” as Jesus put it, with the food at his disposal.  David was not arrogantly demanding priestly privileges for himself as king; he wasn’t even king yet at this point.  He was simply a hungry man asking for food and receiving it from God’s sanctuary.

By contrast, both Saul and Uzziah were usurping priestly functions, and in both cases it seems they were doing so as an assertion of their own expanded powers.  This, as I noted last time, threatened to assimilate the Israelite monarchy to the Canaanite priest-king or god-king model, and it could not be allowed.

There’s one more related issue that I’ll take up in my next post.  According to the book of Samuel-Kings, during his reign in Jerusalem, “David’s sons were priests.”  Was David trying to go through the “back door”  and set up a priest-king dynasty starting in the next generation?  I’ll explore that one next time.

Statuary, “David receives sacral bread from the priest Ahimelech,” in the Ceremoniall Hall of the Hradisko Monastery, Olomouc, Czech Republic. Sculptor: Josef A. Winterhalder, 1734.

How is it fair for God to “bring disaster on all people”?

Q. I recently had the opportunity to speak in my church. The theme of my message was, “God doesn’t do what is unjust.”  I talked about the great flood and how God rescued Noah from it because he was innocent, while the rest of the world was destroyed because they refused to believe and follow God’s words.  I also talked about the Sodom and Gomorrah episode and how those cities wouldn’t have been destroyed if there had been righteous people in them. I talked about Pharaoh, drawing on your blog post about why God hardens some people’s hearts. And finally I talked about Job, claiming that God Himself didn’t do those bad things to him, but Satan, with God’s permission.

But during the sermon some people stared at me as if I were an atheist, as if I didn’t know what I was talking about!  And I have to admit, I still haven’t found a completely satisfying answer to this question:  “Does God do what is unjust?” My doubts increased when I read the place in the book of Jeremiah where God says “I will bring disaster on all people.” That doesn’t sound fair or just. I’m really confused about this, despite everything I shared with my church and despite what you wrote in your post.  I hope you can clarify this for me and for all of those who have the same questions.  Thank you in advance!

I have to admit that I share your serious concerns about what is sometimes called “divine violence” in the Bible—episodes in which God wipes out entire cities (Sodom and Gomorrah) or nations (Egypt, through the plagues) or even the entire world (in the great flood).  In the post you mentioned in which I talk about Pharaoh, quoting my study guide to Joshua, Judges, and Ruth, I call this issue “one of the greatest difficulties in the entire Bible for thoughtful, compassionate followers of Jesus.”

I won’t repeat here everything I say in that post, or in some of my similar posts (such as this one about the episodes of genocide in the Bible).  Instead, let me speak just to the passage you cited from Jeremiah, as a way of addressing a large subject by looking at a small aspect of it.

That passage comes at the end of one of the four major parts of the book of Jeremiah.  It was placed there because it contains a reference to Jeremiah’s words being recorded on a scroll, and this is how the book signals the conclusion of each its major parts.  But the passage also looks forward to the next part of the book, which contains the prophecies that Jeremiah announced against the surrounding nations over a period of many years.

In other words, even though God says in this passage that he is going to bring disaster on “all people” (in Hebrew, “all flesh”), the placement of this episode in the book shows that this phrase refers specifically to judgments that follow against various specific nations for their pride, injustice, and idolatry.  In this case we see that God is indeed doing what is just, by punishing these wrongs.

Moreover, as the passage also says, Jeremiah’s scribe Baruch (whom it addresses directly) will be spared from these judgments, in the same way that Noah was spared from the flood (as you observed in your sermon).  The passage is still something of a rebuke to Baruch, who has apparently been complaining about the sorrows and discomforts he has experienced because of his role as Jeremiah’s helper and scribe—particularly given the hostility Jeremiah has faced for his dire warnings to the Judeans.  God tells Baruch, in effect, “Don’t complain, what you’ve been going through is still a lot better than what the nations are in for when I finally judge them for their wrongs.”  Baruch, at least, will escape with his life, which is a lot more than many others will do.  So God will be fair and just to Baruch by sparing him from the judgment that’s about to come on these surrounding nations.

This is not a comprehensive solution to the problem of divine violence in the Bible—I think that thoughtful, careful readers will always be troubled about that—but I hope I’ve at least helped you with some of your concerns about that specific passage in Jeremiah.

d’Allamagna Giusto, “The Prophet Baruch,” from the Loggia d’Annunciazione