Part 1: The Sea Monsters Aren't Real (but The Truth About God Is)
Many ancient people were afraid of the sea, so much so that they made up stories about all the scary god-like creatures that lived inside of it. These stories become integrated into their religions. There's Yam, the chaos-sea monster who fights the Canaanite god Baal. There's Tannin who shows up in Phoenician and Canaanite stories. There's Tiamat and Leviathan and Rahab.
Now, of course there are some creatures in the sea and ocean that we could rightly call monsters. But we don't assume that there really was a battle between Baal and Yam and Tannin. Those are just made up stories. Right?
But then look at Job 26:12. "By God's power he churned up the sea; by his wisdom he cut Rahab to pieces." What a second. There really was a Rahab that God destroyed?
Or Psalm 89:10. "You crushed Rahab like one of the slain."
Or Isaiah 51:9. "Was it not you who cut Rahab to pieces, who pierced that monster through?"
Or Psalm 74:13-14, "You broke the heads of the monster in the waters. It was you who crushed the heads of Leviathan."
Now, we could take an overly-literal approach to these passages and assume that there really were sea monsters and Yahweh, the God of the Hebrews, crushed and cut and broke them in the primordial past. We could try to figure out which monster refers to which real-life animal, which people have certainly tried to do.
But I very seriously doubt that's what's happening in these passages. As Old Testament translator and scholar John Walton says, "The Bible was written for us; but it was not written to us." In other words, the original contributors to Scripture were not thinking about 21st-century readers when they wrote their portions. They were thinking about their neighbors and contemporaries. Other 10th century B.C. people who were deathly afraid of the seas and the rivers and the monsters that lived therein.
So when they write that Yahweh crushed the head of /insert-monster-here/, it's not that we're meant to assume that those monsters really existed (though an ancient person already assumed that). It's that we're supposed to learn something true about God: He is bigger than and can defeat any god or monster or idol you can think of.
There's a principle here: If the biblical authors are willing to co-opt the language and mythology of their day to make a point, maybe we should too.
Part II: Some of the Psalms Are Bad, But You're Just Used to Them
Have you ever noticed how theologically suspect the Psalms are? And, like, how bad the poetry is?
"O God, why have you rejected us forever?" Um, that's theologically incorrect.
"Spread your protection over them." Uh, gross.
"Lord, do not rebuke me in your anger or discipline me in your wrath." Don't you know that discipline brings growth?
"I am faint; my bones are in agony. My soul is in deep anguish." Geez, complain much?
"All night long I flood my bed with weeping and drench my couch with tears." Okay, this is so melodramatic. Did a teenager write this?
"Through the praise of children and infants you have established a stronghold against your enemies." Is that how strongholds are built?
"He will cover you with his feathers and under his wings you will find refuge." I'm sorry, I was not aware that God was a bird, were you?
In the Psalms we see emotions all over the place; God blamed for failure or thanked for success; and a myriad of metaphors that compare God to mountains, ocean waves, and even the feathers of a bird.
Now, I suppose if we really wanted, we could go verse by verse and eviscerate the Psalms for their poor content, bad poetry, and mixed metaphors. But of course we don't. The Psalms are the songbook of the Jewish people and of the Christian faith. We recognize that they were written by people in a myriad of different circumstances. And, once again, we recognize that they were written to a people that lived thousands of years ago. Comparing God to the ocean or a bird; complaining about a bed soaked in tears--those songs would have sold out the arenas and concert halls, because they were the cutting edge of songwriting and communicating something true about God.
Again, there's a principle here: If the biblical authors are willing to use imprecise and sloppy poetry to communicate something true about God, then perhaps we should too.
Part 3: How to Neglect Ninety-Nine Sheep
Jesus once told a parable about a shepherd to a group of Pharisees. "Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesn't he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? And when he finds it, he joyfully puts in on his shoulders and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, 'Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep!'" (Luke 15:1-7)
This story is filled with absurdity. First, Jesus is asking a bunch of Pharisees to imagine themselves as shepherds. Shepherds were looked down upon in 1st century Jewish society. They were seen as perpetually unclean. So Pharisees would bristle at being asked to imagine themselves in such a low position.
Secondly, Jesus asks, "Doesn't the shepherd leave the ninety-nine in the open country literally the word is 'wilderness' and go after the lost sheep until he finds it?" Actually, everyone would be thinking, "No!" The average family would have around 10-15 sheep. A hundred is a lot. And if one wonders off, you don't abandon the ninety-nine to the wilderness as you go searching for one lost sheep. You would at least take the sheep back to their home pasture; or you would call a neighbor shepherd to care for your flock. The parable makes no mention of this. Just a shepherd leaving the flock for the sake of one.
Thirdly, if you found one lost sheep (which, by the way, is a very common thing; sheep wonder off all the time), the last thing you would do is call your neighbors together for a family reunion /all while your other ninety-nine sheep are still abandoned in the wilderness/. You drop the sheep off back with the flock and go about your business. You don't throw a party.
But, as usual, Jesus is making a point. Jesus (who is the perfect representation of God) is different than what you expect. He's like a shepherd who recklessly leaves ninety-nine sheep to find one. He's like a father who has a son who squanders his inheritance, but then runs down the road to welcome the son back. He's like a vineyard owner who keeps sending servants to collect rent; and the servants keep getting beat up; so he sends his son instead, who ends up getting killed.
The New Testament uses a lot of words to describe this kind of God. Paul describes the message of the cross as "foolishness" (1 Corinthians 1:18). God uses "foolish proclamation" to save those who believe (1:21). Paul says he preaches a message that is a scandal, a stumbling block, and (once again) foolishness (1:23). The kind of love that Jesus has for His creation is one that leads him to empty himself and become a slave (Philippians 2). And these loving actions end up getting him killed.
And - moreover - the kind of behavior and love that defines Jesus (and thus God) is meant to be representative of Jesus' followers. They too are meant to love their enemies; to turn the other check to get slapped; to carry the enemy soldier's supplies; to be marked with a love "bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things" (1 Corinthians 13:6-7).
This kind of love is marked by a lack of caution. It does not care what the consequences are. In fact, the consequences may be dire. Just as this kind of love got Jesus killed, Jesus' followers are also to expect persecution, trouble, tribulation, and trial. Loving in the same reckless way that Jesus loved just may get you killed. But Jesus' followers have no need to fear death, because we are a people looking forward to resurrection.
Is reckless the best word for this? Is foolish the best word for the message of the cross? Is the Gospel scandalous? Should we call Jesus a slave? Should we compare God to a bird? Did Yahweh really rip apart sea monsters?
There's a final principle here. If the Bible is willing to use a wide variety of imprecise language to communicate the truth about God's character, then we should be too. Paul says it himself in 1 Corinthians 9:22, "I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some." Because we have to use the limited tools of human language, sometimes our poetry and our metaphors and our adjectives will be imperfect and imprecise. And that's okay.