The punitive God of the Old Testament.

That’s what people think.

Joshua and the Israelites are told in chapter 8 to do to Ai as they did to Jericho, only taking its spoil and livestock, but killing the people. This kind of thing is what skeptics hold up as barbaric and indicative of biblical madness meaning either that God is a gleeful and sadistic lover of violence, or that the Bible is not a holy and revealed word but made up by sinful people, leaving us no actual guideline from a lofty, non-specific kind of god.

Jesus passes most of the postmodern scrutiny, but Jehovah? Where do we find the punitive spirit of this bloody passage in the compassion of Jesus, if they are supposed to be one God? Actually, as I was thinking about it this morning, we kind of do. Jesus’ compassion extends to the depth of forcefully removing all that could separate us from him, surgically if necessary. Jesus calls on two occasions in Matthew’s gospel for us to tear out our eyes (Gloucester-style) and cut off our hands and feet if they cause us to sin. (Matt 5:29-30, 18:8-9)

Sometimes, when caught off guard, I don’t know what to say to such objections about Jehovah’s cleansing instructions. It is a matter of state of mind: If I’m not absolute enough with myself, I’m going to be offended when God is absolute with other people.

I normally do not consider cutting my arm off. It sounds barbaric. If I were Aron Ralston (in 127 Hours) trapped between a rock and a hard place with the choice to die there or to cut my arm off and possibly escape, I might consider it. And funny enough, Gloucester ‘saw better’ which son loved him and which one did not after he lost his eyes.

127 Hours


Gloucester Edgar

Edgar finding his father


King Lear and The King of Jews

Prince Edgar speaking about his usurped father, King Lear, from Shakespeare’s King Lear.

When we our betters see bearing our woes,
We scarcely think our miseries our foes.
Who alone suffers suffers most i’ the mind,
Leaving free things and happy shows behind:
But then the mind much sufferance doth o’er skip,
When grief hath mates, and bearing fellowship.
How light and portable my pain seems now,
When that which makes me bend makes the king bow,
He childed as I father’d!

Paul in his Letter to the Philippians about Jesus, also called ‘King of the Jews’.

Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus:
Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be grasped,
but made himself nothing,
taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to death—
even death on a cross!

Since Shakespearean plays were written in a time of ‘Christian culture’ when Biblical discourse was familiar to people in common ideas and phrases, it makes sense to form an analysis of these two passages together. The following are some of the salient ideas I see here:

  • The effect of seeing a great individual suffering
  • Having fellowship in suffering together
  • The significance of a great individual suffering voluntarily for your sake

The Lear passage focuses on the first two points: when we see greater people than ourselves suffering the same things we do, it makes our miseries seem less intimidating (less like our foes/enemies). If you think you are suffering alone, life sucks. But when you suffer grief together with another, you don’t pay so much attention to the fact that you’re suffering. Less pity partying. When you’re in the dumps and you see that someone greater is also in the dumps – ah, well it’s really not that bad.

Paul’s passage more directly addresses us and Jesus, the King. Jesus is in very nature God – clearly someone greater than ourselves – but he made himself ‘nothing’. That is, God became human; and not just any human but a lowly human, a servant. The suffering he endured was not merely misery or grief alone, but also death. And that death referred to is not just an ending of life as biologically understood. Biblically speaking, the concept of ‘death’ is separation from God. (Colossians 2:13) It is the logical conclusion of sin, or non-holiness. But if one were holy and not sinful, death would not be logical or deserved!

“When we our betters see bearing our woes,
We scarcely think our miseries our foes.”

“When we Jesus see bearing our sins,
We scarcely think our struggles worthy foes.” — Not great poetry, but interesting anyways.

For me, reading the Shakespeare is more emotionally gripping than Paul’s letter, not because Christ’s death on the cross is not moving, but because the passage about death on the cross is an explanation of a culminating event, whereas the Lear passage is an internal emotional palette. It’s a little like eating sugar or eating carbs – the carbs turn into sugar, but the sugar is already sugar and can give you an immediately energy boost. But in this way, non-Biblical texts can sometimes support the logic of the Bible with the immediacy of emotional trigger.

All this still does not discuss the part where suffering Lear says, “As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods,” but I’m  not getting into that here. I’ve written another post on King Lear a while ago that focuses on that anyways. See that post here on King Lear and God.

King Lear and God

The opinion that Shakespeare expresses doubt, in King Lear, that it is possible for a good God to exist has troubled me. Neither do I agree that it is a really depressing play. I guess the main quotation expressing these views is by Gloucester, when he says:

As flies to wanton boys are we to th’ gods:
They kill us for their sport. (Sc 15, 35-36)

Gloucester has seen Lear fall from king to rejected old man; he has seen a beggar so lowly as to remind him of a worm (but also his son). This really fits into the whole realm of “Why would a good God allow pain and suffering?”

But I find that I can’t agree with anyone who concludes that King Lear shows an overwhelming belief that there is no good God. And I can’t agree that King Lear is a depressing play.

At one point the falsely accused Edgar observes Lear in his grief and madness being cared for by Kent, the Fool, and Gloucester. He says:

When we our betters see bearing our woes,
We scarcely think our miseries our foes.
Who alone suffers, suffers most i’th’ mind,
Leaving free things and happy shows behind.
But then the mind much sufferance doth o’erskip
When grief hath mates, and bearing fellowship. (Sc 13, 91-96)

There is suffering, but we all suffer (albeit not to the same degree). But in suffering together, it is not such a big deal. In suffering together, and in compassion for each other, we grow closer. In regards to God, the God of the Bible shows that He is with us in our suffering. David sings:

Even though I walk
through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil
for you are with me… (Psalm 23: 4)

Moreover, God sent Himself, as Jesus, to suffer for us. As Edgar says, when we see our betters – those more virtuous or worthy than us – suffering as we do (or in the case of Jesus, suffering for us), must we not forget our own miseries?

Next, is it depressing that Lear and Cordelia both die at the end? Deaths are always sad, but death is also always a matter of sooner or later. Lear comes to an understanding with Cordelia before they die. He realises his foolishness. He knows that Cordelia loves him, and he loves Cordelia. Cordelia holds no grudge against her father. I think that theirs cannot be called depressing deaths, when you consider that Lear could have died before reconciling with Cordelia.

Just as Shakespeare has his problem comedies, or as his comedies (even those not officially categorized as problematic) contain doubtfully happy endings, I think that The Tragedy of King Lear is problematic as a tragedy. The deaths of Lear and Cordelia are not nearly as tragic as the death of Hamlet, where he dies still confused about his father, mother, uncle, and Ophelia.

I know that these thoughts do not prove anything, but hopefully they are an interesting and thought-provoking read.

Note: For a comparison of Prince Edgar’s “When we see our betters bearing our woes” soliloquoy to Pauls description of Christ bearing our sins, see King Lear and the King of Jews.