If God literally sent all the nasty things the Old Testament says He did then we have some serious contradictions regarding His character. Is there more than one way to understand “the Lord sent a pestilence”?
Traditional Legal Model – God, in strict justice, sent disasters of many types upon both Israel and their enemies often as punishment for their sins.
Biblical Healing Model – In many cases, God was said to send disasters upon people when, in reality, He was merely allowing what would come without His protection.
We are here not so concerned about the meaning of this simple word as with the reason behind the sending and whether it was an active or passive sending. It is a vitally important point because of its effect on our understanding of God’s character.
If you take the Bible literally, as it reads in the English, it certainly looks like God was responsible for actively, personally sending many of the troubles that befell Israel.
Examples (I have inserted the Hebrew word for each use of “sent/send”):
“And Moses stretched forth his rod toward heaven: and the LORD sent (nathan) thunder and hail, and the fire ran along upon the ground; and the LORD rained hail upon the land of Egypt.” (Exo 9:23)
“So the LORD sent (nathan) a pestilence upon Israel from the morning even to the time appointed: and there died of the people from Dan even to Beersheba seventy thousand men.” (2 Sam 24:15)
“And so it was at the beginning of their dwelling there, that they feared not the LORD: therefore the LORD sent (shalach) lions among them, which slew some of them.” (2 Kings 17:25)
“And the LORD sent (shalach) against him bands of the Chaldees, and bands of the Syrians, and bands of the Moabites, and bands of the children of Ammon, and sent them against Judah to destroy it, according to the word of the LORD, which he spake by his servants the prophets.” (2 Kings 24:2)
“So will I send (shalach) upon you famine and evil beasts, and they shall bereave thee; and pestilence and blood shall pass through thee; and I will bring the sword upon thee. I the LORD have spoken it.” (Eze 5:17)
Why Question that God “Sent It”?
You may have heard this popular saying:
“The Bible says it, I believe it and that settles it for me.”
What is wrong with that sort of thinking? What are some reasons we might question particular statements in the Bible?
- Some literal understandings make God into a monster.
- They can contradict the most fundamental truth “God is love.”
- Much of the Bible has a spiritual meaning beyond the literal.
- It is important to consider the context of the whole Bible (Miller’s rules).
- They can make us fearful of God when He says not to fear.
- We tend to project our ways of thinking onto God.
- There are translation issues, changed word meanings, idioms etc that affect the meaning.
- We need to look deeper to understand the principles of the word.
- Cultural views of the time are foreign to us.
In light of all those factors, it is not unreasonable to ask “did God really send all that trouble?” In answering that question, the correct meaning of the word “sent” becomes very important.
Original Word Meanings
Nathan H5414 (uses in KJV):
AV-give 1078, put 191, deliver 174, made 107, set 99, up 26, lay 22, grant 21, suffer 18, yield 15, bring 15, cause 13, utter 12, laid 11, send 11, recompense 11, appoint 10, shew 7, misc 167; 2008
Young’s Concordance lists 116 different ways in which “nathan” is translated in English so there is obviously potential for a very wide variety of meaning.
Shalach H7971 (uses in KJV):
AV-send 566, go 73, (send, put, … ) forth 54, send away 48, lay 14, send out 12, put 10, put away 7, cast out 7, stretch out 5, cast 5, set 5, put out 4, depart 4, soweth 3, loose 3, misc 22; 847
There is considerable overlap in meaning and use of these two words. Both are used:
to send an effect to a person
to send a person to a place or on a mission
An example of the latter is: “… Here I am, send (shalach) me” (Isa 6:8)
Carefully examining uses of the original words can help us understand that they can have more than one meaning.
“So the LORD sent [nathan] a pestilence upon Israel from the morning even to the time appointed: and there died of the people from Dan even to Beersheba seventy thousand men.” (2 Sam 24:15)
The word for sent is “nathan” which can mean to give, give up, deliver.
It could have been:
“So the LORD gave up Israel to the pestilence …
In other words, He ceased to protect them. Notice this verse that uses both words:
“And I will bring a sword upon you, that shall avenge the quarrel of my covenant: and when ye are gathered together within your cities, I will send [shalach] the pestilence among you; and ye shall be delivered [nathan] into the hand of the enemy.” (Lev 26:25)
Here “nathan” is translated “delivered.” The word “and” is supplied. The verse could easily read:
“… I will send [shalach] the pestilence among you;
ye shall be delivered [nathan] into the hand of the enemy.”
The Hebrew parallel literary structure is equating the two parts of the sentence so that:
to send the pestilence = to deliver to the enemy
This would mean that when the pestilence comes it is because they have been handed over to the enemy. And “to deliver” can simply mean to cease to protect, to allow to go their own way as in:
“But my people would not hearken to my voice; and Israel would none of me. So I gave them up [shalach] unto their own hearts’ lust: and they walked in their own counsels. Oh that my people had hearkened unto me, and Israel had walked in my ways! I should soon have subdued their enemies, and turned my hand against their adversaries.” (Psa 81:11-14)
“Gave them up” there uses the word “shalach” and is clearly a case of God allowing man to make his choice. They would not listen to God so He, honoring their free-will choice, let them go their own way.
Here is an interesting verse:
“And the LORD sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people; and much people of Israel died.” (Num 21:6)
That is often quoted to support the idea that God actively afflicts people. But did God actually send the serpents?
“Who led thee through that great and terrible wilderness, wherein were fiery serpents, and scorpions, and drought, where there was no water; who brought thee forth water out of the rock of flint;” (Deut 8:15)
The wilderness was already infested with the fiery serpents that God was protecting them from even as He was protecting them from the drought. So why did He send or allow or give them up to the serpents? The context gives a clue:
“And the people spake against God, and against Moses, Wherefore have ye brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? for there is no bread, neither is there any water; and our soul loatheth this light bread.” (Num 21:5)
God always honors man’s free will. When they reject His leadership, He will not impose His presence.
Here is a verse which renders “shalach” as to “cast them away”
“If thy children have sinned against him, and he have cast them away [shalach] for their transgression;” (Job 8:4)
Here is a version of that renders it in the permissive sense:
“If your children sinned against him, he allowed them to suffer the consequences of their sinfulness.” (Job 8:4, God’s Word Translation)
“Thus saith the Lord of hosts; Behold, I will send [shalach] upon them the sword, the famine, and the pestilence, and will make them like vile figs, that cannot be eaten, they are so evil.” (Jer 29:17)
The same verse in the New Revised Standard Version reads:
“Thus says the Lord of hosts, I am going to let loose on them sword, famine, and pestilence, and I will make them like rotten figs that are so bad they cannot be eaten.” (Jer 29:17, New Revised Standard Version)
This verse uses the word “let” which is to permit or allow something to happen:
“Therefore deliver up [nathan] their children to the famine, and pour out their blood by the force of the sword; and let their wives be bereaved of their children, and be widows; and let their men be put to death; let their young men be slain by the sword in battle. (Jer 18:21)
“A noise shall come even to the ends of the earth; for the Lord hath a controversy with the nations, he will plead with all flesh; he will give [nathan] them that are wicked to the sword, saith the Lord. (Jer 25:31)
“He will plead” can be understood as God saying “please, please will you …” When they refuse, He gives in and reluctantly says “Okay, have it your way.”
Responsibility Attributed to God
It was common in ancient near eastern cultures to attribute everything to the gods:
“Our Western minds have trouble with some of the ways that the Ancient Near Eastern cultures, from which our Bible is derived, spoke. They held the ruling deity responsible for all that happened under his reign regardless of whether or not he had anything to do with it. The Israelites adopted this same pattern of speaking and God used their cultural idioms to have His Word recorded. Thankfully, He provided us Westerners with sufficient methods for interpreting the language.” (Edwards, Troy, 2016, “The Lord ‘Sent’ It” p16)