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Why does scripture say that a harmful spirit from the Lord caused Saul to attack David?

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Why would the scripture say that a harmful spirit from the Lord caused Saul to try to kill David? Is that a literal translation? Was it God who caused Saul to go mad? (1/19/2008)
As long as we’re on this topic, I’m adding another scripture to this question, because I just know that some of you are wondering about it, too:

First, let’s get it straight in our heads that God does not send evil spirits to people: God does not tempt people: God does not punish us for other people’s sins:
So the question remains: Why does the Bible say that Saul received an evil spirit from God, or that David's child died because of what David did? Is the Bible authoritative or not?

The answer is, Yes, this is a literal translation (I checked), and yes, the Bible is authoritative, but – and this is hugely important – God has to deal with His people where they are, and “where they are” has changed during the past 4000 years.

Here’s a simple example. When God led the Israelites out of Egypt, they could see a pillar of smoke in the day, and a pillar of fire at night. They needed a visible sign of God’s presence. The only gods they knew about were the Egyptian gods, who were in physical form. They had no idea, really, who this new guy was (Exodus 3:13). So God had to provide a physical, visible sign that He was with them.

How many of you have seen God in a pillar of fire lately? None. Do you need a pillar of fire to know that God is with you? No. Why not? Because your faith knowledge includes 4000 years’ worth of other people’s experience, and you know that the pillar of fire was a tool for the education of a people in their spiritual infancy.

We people of God are, or at least we should be, farther along now in our spiritual understanding than we were at the time of the Exodus – no more pillar of fire. We are farther along than we were at the time the Old Testament was written down – no more dietary restrictions. We are farther along than we were during Jesus’ earthly ministry – no more miraculous Messianic banquets from five loaves and two fishes. In the same way that we answer a three-year-old’s “Why?” with “Because,” and a 17-year-old’s “Why?” with a long discussion, God gives His people answers that they can understand at the time of the question.

So let’s get back to the “harmful spirit from the LORD.” God does not send harmful spirits on people. He never did. But at the time of the kings and prophets, the Israelites were just barely monotheistic, and that only part of the time. A few people, like David and Samuel, really were monotheistic. Most of the people, though, were doing well if they worshipped God alone because they thought He was more powerful than any of the other choices (1 Samuel 4:1-8). God was still trying to get them to understand that This was a pretty tough sell, to be frank. There were tons of other gods available – literally “tons,” because they were all right there, physically. Look at what Joshua said: “Choose who you’re going to serve – the gods of your ancestors, the gods of this land, or the LORD” (Joshua 24:15). Joshua! God’s chosen leader! was giving the people their choice of gods! What’s wrong with this picture??

We look back at these folks through a lens of 2500 years of Judeo-Christian monotheism, and we think our ancestors in the faith were monotheistic from Abraham on. This is incorrect. Their ideas about who was god – let alone who God was – were a little primitive. (So are ours, to be truthful.) So when a person of primitive spiritual understanding in an area of a lot of gods gets monotheistic enough to say, “My God is really powerful and created everything,” the logical next step is, “My God is responsible for the evil as well as the good.” This is untrue, but it’s a big theological step up from, “My god is one of 27 available gods, and I’ll sacrifice children to him for just exactly as long as he keeps the crops coming in.”

The Bible is God’s revelation of His nature to us, but the material in the Bible was written over a period of about 1500 years, during which the revelation was continuously refined. God is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow, but our collective understanding of God has changed in response to revelation. We shouldn’t be too surprised when we read things about God in the early parts of the Old Testament that we later learned were not the whole story.

Conclusion: God didn’t send an evil spirit on Saul, and he didn’t cause David and Bathsheba’s baby to die in order to punish David, because it’s not His nature. When these texts were written, the Israelites were coming to understand God’s power, but they didn’t understand God’s nature. The prophets, as we will see in the next couple months, were instrumental in improving the Israelites’ understanding of the nature of God. Jesus personally demonstrated the nature of God. After the resurrection, Paul and Peter and James and Jude made further improvements in our understanding. Finally, after John spent decades in the company of the Holy Spirit, his gospel and letters gave us the clearest descriptions we have of the nature of God. God is love.

Copyright 2008, 2013 by Regina L. Hunter. All rights reserved. This page has been prepared for the web site by Deanna Rains.

Opinions expressed on this page are solely those of the author, Regina Hunter, and may or may not be shared by the sponsors or the Bible-study participants.  Thanks to the Holy Spirit for any useful ideas presented here, and thanks to all the readers for their support and enthusiasm.  All errors are, of course, the sole responsibility of the author.

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