A Catholic reads the Bible, week 5: This God scares me

Story highlights

  • The Exodus story seems so disconnected from my life, Laura Bernardini writes
  • It makes her wonder: Why would God favor one people over the other, and why get this involved in humankind?
  • But while I might not like the Exodus story, this God is still mine, she says

Laura Bernardini is director of coverage in CNN's Washington bureau. The views expressed in this column belong to Bernardini.

Laura Bernardini

(CNN)This is week five of an ongoing series: A Catholic Reads the Bible. Read week one, week two, week three and week four.

You better choose to follow God, or else.
For the first time in this journey of reading the Bible, God scared me. If you don't follow God's wishes, you are in big, big trouble.
    Watch out.
    Like God's destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, the Exodus story is another biblical event that seems so disconnected from my life.
    The Bible stories I was taught in school now feel so sanitized. It seems like it was easier to make Moses a superhero than to focus on why he (and his people) were "chosen." It raises an uncomfortable question to my adult eyes: Does God play favorites? And, as Exodus shows, the costs of getting on God's bad side are pretty harsh.
    This angry, jealous, favoritism-choosing isn't my version of God. But it's God nonetheless, an idea I'm still struggling with, to be honest.
    As Exodus relates, you do what God says (free the Israelites) or else here come the plagues for the Egyptians. And they are nasty plagues that happen 10 times. Then later, when Pharaoh changes his mind for the umpteenth time and sends the chariots after the escaping Israelites, the Egyptian soldiers all drown in the Red Sea.
    But, unlike those passages in Genesis that so upset me, this scary God was different. It hasn't caused a crisis of faith, but it has made me wonder: Why favor one people over the other? Why get this involved in the life of humankind?
    Maybe I can reconcile this because Exodus made me think that the Hebrew writers were trying to sell a new faith. If I was scared in my comfortable contemporary American life, can you imagine what people reading this thousands of years ago thought? Worship multiple deities and ignore The One True God? Die. It's a really hard sell, but not all that different from the fire-and-brimstone preachers of early American history.
    And Exodus' recounting of history is probably in line with stories Egyptians and Israelites could understand, with all-powerful and mystical deities that were prevalent at that time and demanded sacrifices.
    It also seems to me that most of the plagues are explaining away the natural phenomena that were going on while the text was being written. Why else would locusts destroy the earth? Or gnats? Or what about a long period of darkness? But the images were pretty vivid. Reading about the locusts, all I could think about was an assignment in South Dakota in 2009, when I refused to leave the car because locusts were everywhere. I literally couldn't move. If I were Pharaoh, I would have freed the Israelites right away.
    The killing of the first-born babies isn't so easily explainable. No natural phenomenon there. Instead, the event is tremendously sad, especially for this first-born daughter. I understand why Pharaoh finally changed his mind.
    In the end, this scary God is proving a point with the Egyptians, and by extension, all of the Hebrews' enemies: "The Lord shall reign forever and ever." And while I might not like the Exodus story, this God is still my God.