Holding Violence in the Bible

Growing up my family read the Bible regularly.  From a very young age I remember hearing the stories full of violence – and it’s not always violence done by the bad guys.  Some stories felt horrible and tragically heavy – like all the boy babies of the Children of Israel being killed when they were enslaved in Egypt.  But they kind of made sense to me because the actions are ordered or done by selfish, evil people.  But sometimes the violence is done by the “good” people.

There are many stories as the Children of Israel go out and conquer the lands that involve them being told to kill whole towns, cities, and even whole groups of people.  And it’s often quite specific that they not even leave one infant or woman alive.  As a kid a part of me loved hearing the stories of the Word, and I took pride in knowing the facts and the progression of many of these stories.  But along with that I also really hated the violence.  And I couldn’t make sense of why so many people were entirely wiped out.  It felt unsettling how cruel and angry it all seemed.

As an adult I have benefitted hugely from Bible studies, journey groups and sermons that dig into spiritual meanings of some of these more violent stories.  I remember one class in particular talking about one of those stories where the whole group of people was to be wiped out – not any tiny remnant left.  But how when you understand it from a spiritual level it is about the fact that to “conquer” an evil within our own individual selves we really have to stamp out every speck of that evil.  We can’t pick and choose and think that some parts of it are okay to leave alive.  In order to actually do the work of repentance the whole kit and caboodle needs to be wiped out.  

For a number of years now I have loved learning more and being more awake to the inner meanings.  But I still somehow felt that my experience of these stories as a child was somehow negative, or wrong.  I had felt such deep sorrow at all the people killed – surely it would have been better for those reactions to be bypassed. I had also, though, thought about the fact that because I had had that sense of pain around the violence, maybe that did lend itself to the depth of understanding I felt I had about the difficulty of actually living out some of these ideas – like for example completely wiping out an entire evil.  It’s hard, heavy work.  Not exactly joyful to go cutting parts of yourself out, even if you can see the ways that it is going to make you a happier, healthier, better person. So while I could see the added nuance I still sort of wished that I could have been spared that reaction as a child.

But recently between a Bible study and a few related sermons I had a new thought. If I had been introduced to the internal meaning first I wouldn’t now have the depth of understanding I have gained. By ONLY hearing the literal meaning I HAD to have those reactions.  I had to wrestle with disliking that everyone got killed.  I had to work out if following the Lord but being very violent and wiping out whole nations could be reconciled.  I had to think through how you could be good and also have no apparent mercy.  And by needing to wrestle with those things with only the natural story I really did connect to many layers of it in a very concrete way.  And now learning about the spiritual sense of these passages as an adult I both feel relief about the pain of that conflict I felt as a child AND I already connect to how difficult these spiritual principles are.  It DOES hurt to change.  It IS huge amounts of work to see something in yourself, recognise it for the false thing that it is and work to cut all those things out. It isn’t easy.  It isn’t clean. My reactions as a child were correct!  But when I hold them on the spiritual level I see the ways that they do fit with a loving, caring, and supportive God who understands me rather than the vengeful, hard and wrathful God I once saw.

As I was looking for the passage from the class about the meaning of wiping out a whole nation (which I didn’t find – sorry!) I DID find this passage about the power of the literal sense being held in correspondences:

The Word is not understandable without a body of teaching. This is because in its literal meaning the Word is entirely made up of correspondences, to allow spiritual and heavenly matters to be gathered within it in such a way that each word can be their container and support. That is why in many passages the literal meaning is not made up of bare truths but of clothed truths, which we may call semblances of truth. Many of them are adapted to the comprehension of ordinary people who do not raise their thoughts above what they can see with their eyes. There are other passages where there seem to be contradictions, though there are no contradictions in the Word when it is seen in its own light. (Doctrine of the Sacred Scripture 51)

The passage goes on to list some wonderful examples of apparent contradictions, and I found it really useful to ponder some of those.

It continues to amaze me the many levels of power a word can hold, and I’m grateful to be learning how to hold and build on my own reactions and feelings as I continue to understand the beautiful and painful stories in the Bible.

Breathing

How often do you think about your breath? Unless you have a reason too, you probably don’t think about it that much. Our breath is instinctive. Babies breathe. No one taught them how. I used to hate thinking about my breath. It made me feel claustrophobic. I mostly got over that though because I realized the great peace which can come by paying attention to the breath.

Why do we start with the breath? Why do we return to it often?

“Jehovah God breathed into man’s nostrils the breath of lives, and man was made a living soul” (Genesis 2:7). 

The Lord started with breath. He breathed into man and made him a living soul. “A living soul” Such a beautiful phrase. Breath is how the Lord created us and breath is the very first thing a baby does. But it’s not a one time thing. We keep returning to focus on our breath.

“To breathe into the nostrils the breath of lives signifies to implant the perception of good and truth.” (Interaction of the Soul and Body 8)

It makes sense that this happens at the beginning. We need the perception of good and truth right from the start. But it’s not something that we get once and are done. We keep breathing. We return to our breath over and over, re-focus. We can focus our breathing for things like yoga, meditation, or even singing. Breath is connected to everything, not just because it is active at all times, but because of how our emotions can change our breath. We think about our breathing when we are out of breath after exertion. Or we can be light of breath with excitement.

In the Greek, the word for breath can also be translated as “wind” or “spirit.” I looked up a few phrases that usually get translated a different way and plugged in the word “breath” instead:

“And my breath hath rejoiced in God my Saviour.” Luke 1:47

“It is the breath that makes alive; the flesh profits nothing; the sayings which I speak to you are breath, and are life.” John 6:63

“And when the unclean breath has come out from the man, he passes through waterless places, seeking rest, and does not find it.” Matthew 12:43

And in the Hebrew, the words for spirit and breath are also the same, and the connection between them becomes even more pronounced in my mind.

“Which were a grief of breath unto Isaac and to Rebekah.” Genesis 36:35

“Why is thy breath so sad, that thou eatest no bread?” 1 Kings 21:5

“The sacrifices of God are a broken breath a broken and a contrite heart O God thou wilt not despise.” Psalm 51:17

And the list goes on and on. What do these passages have to do with breath? There is a reason these are more commonly translated as spirit. But I like thinking about the other meaning of these words because of the connection of the breath and the spirit. It can be hard to separate our breathing from our mood. I said earlier that our emotions sometimes control our breath. But we can also have our breath control our emotions because of how connected they are. By slowing down and focusing on our breath we are able to shift how we feel and how we react.

Our emotions and reactions can change our breath, but our breath can also control our emotions. And that is why we return to it and re-focus. 

“The word spirit also is derived from respiration ; and in Hebrew there is one word for spirit (breath) and wind. There are two springs of life in man; one is the motion of the heart, and the other is the respiration of the lungs. The life from the respiration of the lungs is what is properly meant by spirit, and also by soul. This acts in unison with the thought of man from the understanding, while the life from the motion of the heart acts in unison with the love of man’s will, as will be seen in its proper place.”  Doctrine of the Lord 47

The Life Within

From the Artist: “The overarching theme is that external feelings are irrelevant to internal truths. In this piece, the external feelings are represented by the positive and negative words displayed on the outside of the pregnant woman’s stomach. The internal truth is the baby growing inside the woman. This piece is to speak to the feelings or thoughts that may occur when a woman becomes pregnant, and to show that the most relevant thing is the presence of the precious and sacred human life that is growing inside the pregnant woman.”

Nothing

When I was little, I told my mom, “Mom, when I grow up, I want to be just like you: nothing.” Some people scoff at these words, but I think moms get it, I think moms understand. Those simple words didn’t mean that my mom was a nobody, that I didn’t respect her or that I wanted to grow up just to stay home and watch soaps and eat bonbons all day (goodness knows, my mom didn’t!). I was expressing the desires of my heart: not be be a career woman, but to be a MOM, just like her.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve wanted to bear children and be a mom. I’ve always loved babies. I’ve had other career goals along the way – archeologist, architect, nurse (baby nurse!), doctor (baby doctor!), graphic designer, midwife – but what it all ever came down to was that I wanted to be a mom. You can imagine my EXCITEMENT when my husband and I decided we were ready to start trying to conceive!!!…..

…..Then you can perhaps imagine my utter devastation when my period came, month after month after bloomin’ month. [Who ever expects to deal with infertility, growing up?! I sure didn’t.] We were fortunate to have the means to eventually attempt IVF, and we were gloriously blessed with success on the very first try!! Our son is now 13 years old, and I try to remind myself how so very, very blessed we are to have him.

Following our son’s conception, I was in seventh heaven! I was totally in my element: I loved pregnancy, I loved childbirth, I loved the newborn/infancy stage. I LOVED mothering a small child! I loved being ‘nothing’. In the ensuing six years, we tried, on and off, with greater and lesser intensity, to conceive a sibling for our son. I did fall pregnant from one frozen embryo, but miscarried shortly thereafter; besides that….. nothing. We tried everything under the sun! Herbs, homeopathy, allergy elimination, acupuncture, chiropractic, fertility diet, shamanic healing and past-life regression, for pete’s sake, along with another fresh IVF cycle and the glimmers of hope provided by the remaining frozen embryos, all to no avail. When we moved to Australia – I was nearly 40 years old! – we thought we were done, but a friend turned us on to a nutritionist and herbologist specialising in fertility, so we gave it one more try (one more series of tries),… to no avail. We thought we’d be with her for only about 3 months, but 14 months later, 14 periods later, we just had to pull the plug. We were spent.

While I worked through my grief, the light at the end of my tunnel was that, if nothing else, if I couldn’t bear my own children, if we couldn’t adopt children (with the likelihood of an eventual move back overseas, we wouldn’t be able to honour the terms of an open adoption), I would put my passion for babies into truly needy children: we would become foster parents. It was a shift, going from hoping for our own and growing our permanent family to letting go of that and focusing on temporary care of someone else’s child, on giving my heart to a sweet baby and having it wrenched from my arms a few months or years later, but it was a shift and a commitment I was willing to make. …..Who expects to be DENIED as foster parents?? I sure didn’t. And I didn’t agree with the agency’s reasons, but nevertheless we had to move on.

So……… It took  me a while to readjust to life, to shift my sights entirely: I had to adjust to a life without the prospect of infants in my care. At 45, I’ve mostly made peace with it. I can get tears in my eyes without too much effort, but I don’t think about it much any more. I was forced to rediscover myself, to find out what else I like besides babies, how else I enjoy spending my time besides plotting how we’re going to ‘get’ babies. I’ve learned that I love cooking nutritious food, I love making JennTangles (Zentangle®-inspired artwork), and I love helping other people – in fact, I’ve discovered a way to feed that mama-nurturing part of my soul: I volunteer with moms who need support, who are having trouble adjusting to motherhood or who just need an extra pair of hands. I’m getting my baby fix every week!

As it turns out, having one kid has definitely got its perks – just ask him, as he revels in lots more mom- and dad-time and attention than he would otherwise get! Having a single child makes travel much easier, too, and certainly reduces the number of birthday cakes and parties I have to think about each year. I still wish with most of my heart that our son had a sibling, but I’ve also learned to appreciate our situation as it is, to look for the silver lining, and to make the most of what we’ve got. We may not have all the kids we’d wanted, but we’ve apparently got all the kids we need. We are so blessed!