There was also a man named Ananias who with his wife, Sapphira, sold some property. He brought part of the money to the apostles, but he claimed it was the full amount. His wife agreed to the deception.
Then Peter said, "Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart? You lied to the Holy Spirit, and you kept some of the money yourself. The property was yours to sell or not to sell, as you wished. And after selling it the money was yours to give away. How could you do a thing like this? You weren't lying to us but to God."
As soon as Ananias heard these words, he fell to the floor and died. Everyone who heard about it was terrified.
...About three hours later his wife came in, not knowing what had happened. ... And Peter said, "How could the two of you even think of doing a thing like this -- conspiring together to test the Spirit of the Lord? Just outside that door are the young men who buried your husband, and they will carry you out, too."
Instantly, she fell to the floor and died. ... Great fear gripped the entire church and all others who had heard what happened. -- Acts 5:1-5,7,9-10 (NLT)
They knew God was not to be trifled with. -- Acts 5:11 (The Message)
Thomas Merton wrote, in "Opening the Bible", that when we read the Bible we often walk away with more questions that we had to begin with. That is certainly the way I felt after reading this passage in Acts, from last Tuesdays readings.
Why did Ananias and Sapphira die? Did their own guilty consciences make them so afraid they died on the spot? Did God strike them dead, as The Message implies in the last verse? Why did they not think to repent of their sin, and beg forgiveness? Why was Peter so judgmental, even more so towards Sapphira than Ananias? How was Ananias any worse a sinner than Peter himself? Peter had lied to the Holy Spirit when he denied knowing Christ, three times, to protect his own skin. How could people who knew Jesus think that this kind of punishing retribution was God's way?
I understand that we cannot think that God is so loving and forgiving that we are able to sin with impunity. A little guilt in the face of our transgressions is, in my opinion, natural and good, especially when we know God loves us. But I wonder what would have happened if Ananias had simply gotten down on his knees and repented as Jesus told his followers to do. Think about how much more fruitful it would have been if they had been advised by Peter to repent.
So, what do I do with these depictions of God that run so contrary to the way Jesus is portrayed, and to the way I understand God? Do I simply say that they are wrong? This is the Bible, after all. Can I say that about the Bible?
Later Tuesday afternoon, I came across an intriguing book titled, "Who Wrote the Bible?", by Richard Elliot Friedman. I wasn't sure if it would answer my questions, as it seemed to be an investigation into the sources from which the Bible was compiled, but it captured my attention anyway.
When I got home, I read in the introduction: "I wanted to know why the text pictured the deity as it does. For example, the Bible often pictures the deity as torn between divine justice and divine mercy. There is a recurring tension through the Bible between the forces that say "punish" and the forces that say "forgive". What events and what places in the biblical world played a part in forging this powerful and bewildering notion of divine-human relations?" (pg.20) Needless to say, my attention was fully engaged. And that is how I have spent most of the last few days: reading that book.
It reads like a detective story. For not only does the author discuss the different source theories (something I was already somewhat familiar with from other readings), but he tries to glean from the different writings, or sources, what the writers were like as people: what interested them the most, how they depicted God, what they portrayed positively, what they portrayed negatively. This was the part of the book that I found most interesting, because it helped me understand these different portraits of God.
There are thought to be four sources for the Five Books of Moses, and one redactor (the person who combined them all). All five of these people, or parties of people, come from different regions, different clans, and different time periods. So it is no wonder that they describe things differently. It is no wonder either that there are contradictions to be found in the Bible.
Three of the sources (labelled "J", who calls God "Yahweh"; "E", who mostly calls God "Elohim"; and "D", who wrote most of Deuteronomy), depict God in a very anthropomorphic way: God is very personal; God walks and talks with humans; God changes his mind, in fact, humans can persuade God to change his mind. For these writers God is almost always portrayed as merciful, slow to anger, and abiding in steadfast love. As an example, "J" wrote the second creation story, in which God creates the earth and heavens, beginning with man/Adam. (Gen 2:4b-25)
The remaining contributor to the founding documents of our Scripture (labelled "P", because he was very interested in the role and rights of temple priests), had a different view of God. For "P", God is distant, omniscient, looking down at man from on high, his law is definite, and he never wavers from his law. Many of "P"'s stories in Genesis and Exodus, in fact, are constructed to offer an alternative to the "J" and "E" perspective. For example, "P" wrote the the first creation story, in which God creates the heavens and earth, ending with man and woman, both. (Gen 1:1-2-4a)
So, it is not too far off to say that these different portraits of God do represent individual viewpoints. They came from specific people at specific times and places in history. And these different portraits found sympathetic listeners.
Richard Friedman writes that one of the reasons the redactor combined the sources, contradictions and all, is because they were each so well known and well loved individually -- much like the four Gospels were in the early decades of Christianity. He couldn't leave anything out. So, he cut and pasted them together as seamlessly as he could.
Knowing all this is comforting to me. I no longer feel that I have a tremendous, and endless, struggle ahead of me to try and reconcile these two opposing images of God in the Bible. I understand how and why they are there. And I have learned something very valuable. Even though I may understand one viewpoint of God better than the other, I cannot imagine my faith to be complete without all of these sources included in it. I cannot imagine having only one creation story, for example. Can you?
One person's understanding of God may be completely opposed to my understanding of God, and yet I can still learn, and grow spiritually, from hearing what they have to say. Or, to put it another way: "All faith is founded on good faith, and where there is good faith on both sides there is also the presence of God." (Northrop Frye, "The Double Vision", pg.18)
Dear God, thank you for bringing this book to my attention. It fit the bill perfectly, answering my questions so well. And thank you for knowing exactly what I need to learn. Love always, Pam