When I was a young teen living at home, we were heavily into the "Institute in Basic Youth Conflict" materials created by a man named Bill Gothard. He's memorable for many reasons, but one was his way of treating the Bible. He was an ace at formulating a paradigm and then bringing that paradigm to bear on every passage and story that he found. One of his favourite paradigms had to do with life under authority as God's plan for everyone. To go against authority was to against God every single time. We had a book of his called "Character Sketches" which had a two page spread (the thing was as wide and tall as a small newspaper) on the biblical story of Abigail, which ignored David's commendation of her, and the approving tone of the chronicler, and asserted instead that she had done wrong by disobeying her husband. She saved her people from slaughter, and helped David avoid committing a serious wrong, but that wasn't good enough for Bill. She went outside her God given authority, her husband, and that made her a negative character example... Because that's what fit with his paradigm.
I guess this kind of thing is pretty prevalent. I have paradigms, you have paradigms, we all have paradigms. Still, when you run into a glaring example of bringing your paradigm to the text and making it say what you want, it still grates -- just like I expect the above example grates -- on you.
A couple of days ago I was following a discussion on Facebook and stated my disagreement with an article which solved the problem of Old Testament violence, which is an undeniably difficult issue for the modern and post-modern, by arguing that because the person of Satan wasn't clear to the OT writers, often they mistook Satan for God or an agent of God or something like that, and therefore whenever you encounter a passage where God does something violent, it's obviously actually Satan. Simple. (the article was long and very well developed as such things go, but in the end it came down to this, as I called it in my comment, facile proposition) In my rather shocked reaction to this "solution," I raised the issue of the New Testament episode of Ananias and Sapphira and was pointed to this discussion as an answer to my counter-example.
So now I need to summarize the podcast in a few sentences and still do it a modicum of justice. It consists of several people having an impromptu discussion around the question of how to reconcile the concept of a non-violent God with the Ananias and Sapphira incident. And you should know that although I embrace the ideal of Christian non-violence, it has always been rooted in the idea that God --"vengeance is mine, I will repay"-- takes care of all the very necessary righteous retribution and therefore, it's just not our province. It may have been mandated in some form or other to the nation of Israel. But Jesus' Kingdom is a heavenly kingdom, otherwise, as he himself says, we his followers would fight. The necessity of such retribution, in my opinion, is what makes mercy meaningful. He could, he even ought to, cut us off for our misdeeds, but instead took the penalty himself. Also I wholeheartedly affirm his absolute right as creator, guiding history when necessary, to amputate and cauterize his creation at will -- so that it will stay alive and healthy and serve the end he designed for it. So I have never particularly needed a non-violent God. But the group looking at this passage evidently does and did.
So the discussion starts out with one participant "problematizing" the question with a bit of a caricature (only slightly slanted for effect) of what is a flat reading of the text, namely that God, to protect the fledgling church, himself slew the lying couple and then bringing up a bouquet of attendant questions that that might be raised, you know, like why doesn't God do this all the time? Why aren't our sometimes stingy lying congregations all dead by now? Why didn't God kill Hitler to save millions? Stuff like that. Conversation ensues. One person points out the lack of faith demonstrated by A and S; that holding back money was demonstration of Mammon slavery. Finally someone brings up the idyllic nature of the church having everything in common. And suddenly everyone has an 'aha!' moment that this could be like the 'Fall' -- i.e. the loss of innocence -- of the church. Discussion proceeds along this track for some time. Participants bring up parallels to the Fall in Eden. Someone, introduced as a Girardian, talks about "the Satan" and the part that that role (I hope I'm using an appropriate term -- I am not a Girardian and am not likely to become one) plays in creating the lie. After some time the question of the deaths themselves is addressed. The potentially supernatural aspect of the event is downplayed. Maybe they had to do with the physiology of being found out? Someone suggests they might have had weak hearts. The orthodox view of sin is presented, that all sin is dangerous in and of itself and the commands against it are simply God's prescriptions for our safety -- the example given is a comparison to driving around a corner at 50 mph. If you neglect the commandment to slow down, you will die. What about the 'great fear' that fell on all who heard these things? Someone uses the phrase "fear of God" and then accuses himself of reading into the text, because "of God" is not used here. Maybe someone references that "great fear" reinforces the 'Fall of the Church' hypothesis introduced earlier -- if they didn't they should have. Anyhow as far as I can tell the whole discussion concludes that 1) God was not being violent here because the whole event played out on largely a human plane with the obvious interference of Satan or the (!) Satan, 2) Ananias and Sapphira died from a direct internal consequence of their own action, 3) the event was an archetype of the Fall of humanity with Peter's inquiries echoing God's "Where are you?" in the garden. I would like to add 4) because God is not violent anyways, just for the effect the whole discussion had on me, but that wouldn't really be fair.
At the end of it all, I'm not convinced. And I'm somewhat disappointed because one of the participants is a friend and someone whom I would still probably go to for advice on understanding some difficult Bible passage. But the whole thing reminded me so much of Bill Gothard's treatment of Abigail. The text must line up with the ideas and ideals we bring to it. If it doesn't, well we make it line up. I see key things that the discussion ignored or passed over. First and foremost, the approving tone of the chronicler must be brought into account. This is a memory shared with Luke (?) some years after the fact. And the retrospect of those years has not given the relater any pause. You don't get a sense of doubt or of a haunting question ("What was that about?") about the story. Secondly the "great fear" that is mentioned (and immediately discounted in the aforementioned dialogue) is immediately followed by a glowing description of the outflow of miraculous power. This does not add up with the idea of a Satanic fear. And it also ignores histories of past revivals which have frequently experienced "great fear" moments which have evidently been integral to the revival just like this seems to have been integral to the awakening in Jerusalem. Thirdly exactly counter to one of the comments (one I neglected to mentioned earlier, sorry.) the whole thing looks exactly like a law court. Peter gives a judgement "Lying to the Holy Spirit" and the sentence is executed. It really smacks very much of that whole "what you bind/loose on earth is bound/loosed in heaven" passage that I find so problematic.
In fact if there's an Old Testament parallel passage it's not the Fall, it's the Achan incident. Jesus was certainly the "prophet like [Moses]" and Peter might fill the role of Joshua, and the couple, well what could be more obvious?
So after all this, what's my take on this incident? What do I have to offer as an alternative view? I'll take a shot at it. In earlier blog posts, I have earnestly argued that the presentation of the Gospel and the practise of the church must fit into its own culture and time. Usually, I'm saying don't try to bolt the past onto the culture of today. Here I'm on the corollary though opposite tack. Let's not measure the actions of God and the early church in the first century by a 21st century yardstick. The value of a single human life or even of two human lives was obviously valued lower than the righteousness of the community. Even if you just look at this story, that's obvious. There's no mention of people even 'falling away' from the church over this incident. The event just heightens the reputation of the church. More people come all the time. Maybe Peter should have been more merciful to Ananias. Maybe he shouldn't have so tested Sapphira. Maybe Paul shouldn't have pronounced blindness upon Elymas. But these things happened and they seem to completely fit inside the time. As I have mentioned elsewhere, God seems to work with the culture before him, changing what can be changed and being present anyway even when stuff happens which our culture would have a problem with. That, off the cuff anyway, is my take.
So I may disagree and my take may be diametrically opposed to theirs, but there is certainly room for both the aforementioned discussion group and me in the faith. Jesus will completely and totally give us understanding when he comes. Until then we struggle to grasp all that the biblical record and our own experience presents us with. I imagine that one of Jesus' first sit downs with the church in the consummated kingdom will be to help us clearly and finally understand his character. At that time what exactly happened when Ananias died might interest us or it might not. If it does occur to me at that time I will raise the question then.