CHILDREN SHALL NOT DIE
EXODUS 12, PSALM 150, MATTHEW 18:18-20
September 8, 1996 by Tad Mitsui
Passover is the most important holiday for Jewish people. It is the day to remember their liberation from slavery and the beginning of the Hebrew people as a nation. For us Christians also, Passover has a lot to do with our idea of salvation. Jesus Christ instituted Holy Communion as he celebrated a Passover supper with his disciples before he was crucified. Today”s Old Testament reading describes how it all began.
Having said that, however, I have real problem celebrating salvation which was achieved because children”s lives were sacrificed. You might say that those who died were the children of the Egyptian oppressors. But I have difficulty accepting the idea of salvation where innocent children of other people had to be sacrificed, while the deaths of their own children were considered to be something abhorrent. I feel strongly about this at a time when so many crimes against children are being reported.
The problem is that the Bible described this tragedy for Egyptians as something good. It saved the God”s chosen people, the Hebrews. I can not accept such logic. For me, our God is for all people, for Jews and for Egyptians, for Canadians and for Iraqis. We are obliged to examine our attitudes towards the Bible when we have this kind of dilemma. How should we read the Bible? This is a very important question. Is it possible to justify such an extreme ideas as hating your enemies so much as to rejoice in the deaths of their children, as this Exodus story seems to be doing. It depends on how you read the Bible. Many deaths and abuses of innocent children and women during the wars have been tolerated or even justified because, "They were infidels, Nazis, or communists, etc." This logic seems to me to be very much against the core of the teachings of Jesus Christ to love your enemies and to give children a place of glory. Prophet Isaiah also declared that in God”s ideal world, "Children shall not die."
There are two very easy solutions to the question of how to read the Bible. The first one is to believe that every word of the Bible is a word of God to be accepted as truth. Those who say this are called literalists or more often fundamentalists. The second solution is to treat the Bible like any other literature, and not to take it too seriously. The first group calls the second group "humanists" and does not accept them as Christians. Neither is the belief of most United Church people including myself.
We believe that the Bible contains the word of God. The key word here is "contain". I did not say it "is" the word of God. In other words, by reading through the Bible we will know the will of God, but every word is not necessarily God”s word. It is like letters from a loved one. They are usually random descriptions of their day-to-day life and work. But reading through those letters, you can feel the palpable strands of love woven into the whole fabric. The German reformer Martin Luther compared the Bible to the crib where Baby Jesus was laid. He said that it is preposterous to treat every straw in the mattress as though it was Jesus himself, even though straws of the mattress are important for his well being. The crib is not Jesus. But if you don”t look for the crib, you won”t find the Holy Child. Likewise is the relationship between the Bible and the word of God. The Bible is an imperfect vessel for the word of God. But it is the only one we have.
But because of the views I have just expressed, people like me and many people in the United Church are often called humanists, and accused of being not 100% Christians, by those who believe every word of the Bible as the word of God. Many heated discussions took place because of this difference, they sometimes split the church. Even though fundamentalists may be sincere as Christians, we must also stand firm in our way of believing as the best one for us.
According to our way of reading and interpreting the Bible, the part of the Old Testament we have been reading is a record of the Hebrew people”s journey of discovery. They journeyed through many trials and errors in their search for the way of God. At various points, some of their prophets had nearly achieved the same level of spiritual perfection as Jesus did later. At the same time, they also overstepped the bounds in their eagerness to be faithful, and made many wrong assumptions. The Bible does not try to hide those mistakes. This is why you find many contradictions in the Bible. For example, to rejoice in the deaths of innocent children, simply because they happened to be the children of those terrible people who had enslaved them, is wrong. But, no human being should be a slave of another. So the Hebrew people were right to firmly reject the notion of enslavement as against God”s will.
Furthermore, people”s idea of God progressed throughout the history described in the Bible. In earlier writings, the Old Testament speaks about people, even the Hebrew people, who believed in tribal gods, not just one God. Each tribe had their own god. Often battles between nations were considered to be battles of gods. Their notion of divinity was that there were many little gods who were concerned only about their own little groups exclusively.
This is why, for Moses, it was important to know the name of the god who was speaking to him in the desert. He had to have some authority to persuade people to make a move that was so brave it seemed crazy. He had to convince people that this God is the real one, not like others. The interesting thing is that God refused to be named. "I am who I am." said God. "You can not describe me in your limited vocabulary. You will find me as you walk with me." This is progress in terms of achieving a better understanding of God as one who is much larger than a mere tribal god.
I am saying all this based on the observation of the whole Bible. Many years after the period that the Exodus speaks of, Prophet Isaiah said that in God”s world children shall not die. And Jesus Christ underlined Isaiah”s conviction in many of his sayings. For us Christians, Jesus reached perfection in what the Hebrew people had searched for throughout their history. In other words, for us, Christ is the measure against which every experience in the Old Testament can be judged. Through Christ, the whole experience of the Hebrew people was opened to all of us. And the journey continues. So let us not be shy about our honest questioning of the Bible. This is not a rejection. It is a journey of discovery and of a deepening of our faith.