11/20/2013 03:58 pm ET Updated Jan 25, 2014

Putting the God of Vengeance in His Place

Not long ago, my church's lectionary (a fixed order of sacred readings for each day of the year) prescribed 2 Kings 17:7-41 to be read over two days. In that passage, the author interrupts the Hebrew scriptures' long, compelling narrative of kings, prophets, and events to sum up the story so far.

That story is hard to take. It is full of national idolatry and a jealous God who brings death and mayhem upon his people when they disobey. If this were the only squirm-worthy text in the Bible, maybe we could gloss over it.

Alas, it is not. The God of the Bible is very hard on the people of Israel throughout the Hebrew scriptures. He blazes with rage and punishes them severely, even exiling them to oppressors like Assyria and Babylon.

Perhaps this is easier to accept if you believe that the path set out in the Hebrew and Christian scriptures is the only path to God, and that God is simply redirecting the nation of Israel into the one true way. But many of us do not ascribe to that view -- so the notion of God's retribution for believing the wrong things appalls us. For people like us, do these stories have anything to say?

Many people, scholars among them, set them aside. We are that much farther into human history, the argument might go; we have moved beyond the God of vengeance to a God of love, peace, and justice. There is a great deal to commend this thinking.

Still, I'm not ready to toss the nasty narratives just yet.

For one thing, throughout my experience with contemplative spirituality, I have seen repeatedly how the encounter between our deepest selves and sacred stories outside ourselves -- even stories that upset and agitate -- can transform us. This encounter forces us to reconsider what we think we know about God. We have to start asking questions about God, digging deeper, investigating God's character. Frequently this draws us into an ever more vital connection with the Heart of the Universe.

It's not that this practice will bring us back to the God of vengeance, who rewards obedience and punishes disobedience in a mechanistic tit-for-tat fashion. Rather, it leads us to appreciate how different God must have appeared to people in different times and ages -- and, by extension, how different God might appear to the generations that follow. We see the limitations of our own understanding, and this opens our hearts to explore the Unknown beyond us.

In the long biblical narrative summarized in 2 Kings, I wonder whether the goal (of God, of the original author, of successive generations of editors) was to convey some underappreciated truths about God. In a polytheistic world, the narrative highlighted the divine oneness. In a world of statuary and images, the narrative stressed the value of imagelessness. In a world of national or tribal deities, the narrative revealed a divine essence that transcends geography.

The stories, as I read them, speak of a God who commissioned the nation of Israel to live out these truths, and so contribute to God's self-disclosure to the world. The punishments for failing to do so -- when they turned to idolatry or polytheism -- highlight the importance that the God of the narrative placed on these truths.

Here and now, in 2013, the point is emphatically not to disparage faith traditions with icons, statues, or multiple deities. They too reveal essential truths about God. The point, rather, is that we need all the perspectives on God we can get in order to understand this Divine Self and our connection thereto. We would be much the poorer for forgetting them.

So I continue to read and pray these (for me) sacred texts. They are not perfect. They are sometimes appalling. But I am the richer for it. This reading, this prayer, this contemplation of texts so utterly foreign to me challenges me to think more deeply -- and therefore contribute more deeply to the general conversation on this being called God.