The Bible has become a happy hunting ground for many who want to undermine faith in the God of the Bible. After all, there are a lot of disturbing tales to be found there. Dwelling on stories like these, along with aspects of the legal code dealing with slavery, capital punishment and warfare, vocal critics argue that the God of the Bible is a monster.
Richard Dawkins in The God Delusion describes the God he doesn’t believe in as a "control freak", an "ethnic cleanser" and a "malevolent bully". Leslie Scrase in The Unbeliever’s Guide to the Bible describes the God of the Old Testament as "dishonest, capricious, cruel, jealous and violent". Christopher Hitchens in his provocatively titled God is not Great claims that the Old Testament warrants slavery and ethnic cleansing.
The fact is that there are very difficult moral issues raised by what we read in the Old Testament. All sensitive Christians find problem passages. Critics catalogue a bewildering array of moral problems in the Old Testament. Stories of polygamy, genocide and slavery are highlighted in order to paint a picture of God as malevolent. What can we say in response? I think four points need to be clarified.
1. Creation Ideal
The Bible records history with a beginning, a middle and an end. In the beginning, creation is good. Men and women live in harmony. Creation has no hint of murder or slavery. These things follow the human rebellion against God. Sin disrupted creation and consequently we live in a world of evils and suffering. Some apparent evils have now become necessary – after all, not all wars are wrong, not every life taken is murder and punishment must involve some kind of pain or discomfort. Most of the Old Testament is concerned with the ‘middle’ of the story and that is not the creation ideal as it was in the beginning and as it will one day be when God makes all things new.
2. Ancient, Near Eastern Context
God revealed himself and created a nation in a real, historical context. It was a world with a slave-based economy, with city states often at war with each other, with polygamous marriages to ensure the continuation of family lines. The laws of the Old Testament regulate this behaviour. Slaves are to be treated humanely (Exodus 21:2-11). They are given rights and not seen as mere possessions. Hebrew slaves were able to buy their own freedom. Human trafficking is condemned (Exodus 21:16). In contrast to the law code of Babylon, Old Testament Israel was a light to the nations.
3. Biblical Honesty
The Bible describes history and its participants, warts and all. As we read the Old Testament stories we need to consider carefully what lesson we are actually being taught because a narrative may be descriptive but not necessarily prescriptive. It describes what happened but does not necessarily prescribe what should happen. This is important when we read the stories of the patriarchs and kings. They are flawed individuals. The Bible is brutally honest about their shortcomings. Far from being a matter of embarrassment, this helps to confirm the reliability of a text that does not gloss over the failure of its heroes.
4. Bible’s Sweep
Perhaps this is the real reason many people rail against the God of the Bible? It is not that they think he is a moral monster, but that they are afraid he is a moral judge, and that has implications for our behaviour now.
The Old Testament law and narratives do not stand alone. Jesus is now our best interpreter of what we read. So the moral teaching of the Bible cannot be summarised by a brief and brutal quote taken out of context from the Old Testament. Slavery was permitted in Old Testament law. But it was regulated. And in the light of the whole scriptural teaching, we find the reasons for its ultimate abolition (Ephesians 6:9; Colossians 4:1; Philemon 15-16 and Galatians 3:28). The Bible provided the moral impetus against slavery in the Roman Empire and against the slave trade in the New World.
But what of genocide or holy war in the book of Joshua? Several things could be pointed out. The rhetoric of warfare in the ancient world did not always mean literal total destruction, even when events are described in such terms. Furthermore, the book of Joshua does not describe a genocide. It is not a race who are being wiped out, as in genocide, but a religious practice – which was often appalling and degrading. Those who repent (like Rahab from Jericho) are not destroyed but become part of Israel. It is not the racial group that is in view but their "detestable practices".
However, after all is said, we must still affirm that God brought judgment on the nations of Canaan. It is not our place in apologetics to sanitise the Bible. For some critics, this is enough to make God a moral monster. But the fact is that Jesus continued to affirm that God is a judge who will bring a future judgment on all peoples and all nations. God’s judgment will be just. The list of Old Testament stories rejected by critics often leads to a similar dismissal of the New Testament teaching of Jesus on the existence of hell.
After all, what was the flood of Genesis or the conquest of Joshua if not a glimpse of future judgment? Hell does not demonstrate cruelty on God’s part, but it does demonstrate his holiness and our accountability. Perhaps this is the real reason many people rail against the God of the Bible? It is not that they think he is a moral monster, but that they are afraid he is a moral judge, and that has implications for our behaviour now.
© 2011 Evangelicals Now
This item was originally published in the June 2011 edition of Evangelicals Now. It is published here by the kind permission of the editors and the author. For a free sample issue or to subscribe to Evangelicals Now, click here.