Monday, November 20, 2006

The God of the Old Testament

It has become a commonplace in religious discussions to hear how the God of the Old Testament was wicked, mean, petty, cruel, vindictive, belligerent, selfish, and egotistical, or that the God of the Old Testament was "too harsh". This charge is rarely contested. The more time I spend studying the Old Testament, the more I come to see these charges as not merely unjust, but as hatefully distorted.

The entire case against God in the Old Testament seems to rest on a handful of battles, the flood, and the fact that slavery was permitted under the Torah's legal system1. At best, this is special pleading where a few passages are conveniently selected and then pitted against the whole. This approach makes a habit of pointedly ignoring the context of justified jugdment or protection.2 It may make effective rhetoric, and that may be all that's wanted. But it lacks an intellectually honest assessment of how the Old Testament actually portrays God.

The Old Testament shows God as emphasizing:
  • Justice - One of the overriding concerns of the Law of Moses is whether justice is done.
  • Beauty - Both the beauty of creation and the emphasis on beauty in the tabernacle and Temple show God's love for beauty.
  • Purity - Moses' Law covered spiritual purity, emphasizing the worth of the person and praiseworthy aspects of redeemed humanity. It also covered physical purity to the extent that the Law of Moses is one of the earliest instances of modern infection control on record, far ahead of its time.
  • Holiness - the Law of Moses emphasizes not only God's holiness, but God's transforming effect on his people to make them holy as well.
  • Blessings - God's emphasis included physical blessings such as rest and spiritual blessings of his favor and goodwill.
  • Forgiveness - The Law emphasized forgiveness by making regular provision for it by way of daily rituals, annual festivals, and regular cycles of additional forgiveness where debts were forgiven, slaves were freed, and all various economic inequities were restored. Again, the ancient code has the advantage on our modern codes in the regular cycle of forgiving long-term debt so that people are not haunted by debt for their whole lives.
  • Wisdom - The Old Testament has wisdom literature in the book of Proverbs, but also elsewhere portrays wisdom as an attribute of God and one of the spiritual blessings evident in the faithful, even the simple.
  • Compassion - One of God's most defining aspects was held to be his compassion, part of God's own self-identification as he revealed himself to Moses.
  • Mercy - God likewise singled out mercy as one of his identifying attributes when he revealed himself to Moses. God's mercy is seen time and again in his laws, his promise of redemption, and in his patient interactions with sinful people.

In the Old Testament, God's character is shown as faithful, merciful and just. His disposition is shown as loving towards mankind.

None of this is to disclaim any of the passages that make modernists squirm, or that are used as debate-fodder by anti-Christians. It is just to mention that, on a fair reading of the Old Testament, God is portrayed very differently than the commonplace portrayal of a petty vindictive tyrant. He is portrayed as the one bringing justice, mercy, and restoration.



1 - Yes, I'm aware that the slave trade as we knew it from American history was outlawed in the Torah (Exodus 21:16). The type of slavery where someone was forcibly kidnapped and sold carried the death penalty for the slave trader. However, there were other types of slavery permitted. Some of the permitted forms of slavery still seem objectionable to us today, regardless of the fact that the whole evil framework of mass kidnapping behind slavery in the Americas was a capital offense under the Law of Moses.
2 - "Justified judgment" applies not only to the flood or to battles, but also to thieves who could be made slaves temporarily if it was the only way they could repay their debt to those they robbed (Exodus 22:3). This is one of the respects in which I believe the ancient Biblical law was more enlightened than our modern Western-style law where there is no requirement that the victim's loss be made good by the thief.

10 comments:

DugALug said...

WF,

This idea is not new. It is the basic precept of the Gnostic belief. In a nutshell, they believed that the Spirit couldn't dwell with the flesh, thar mankind needed a bridge (kind of okay, so far, but it sounds a little shaky), and Jesus was the 'replacement' God. to the grumpy/mean old OT God (whoa! the train's come off the rails).

It is beleived that John's Gospels were written to specifically dispell these false teachings.

Any theology, that sees the NT God as anything other than the OT God is purely wrong.

Great post and thanks for the great reminder.

God Bless
Doug

Weekend Fisher said...

Yah, good point. I think the only thing that's new lately (as opposed to the days of the Gnostics) is that the Christians have stopped contesting when people bash the "OT God". I've seen Christians join in ...

DugALug said...

the Christians have stopped contesting when people bash the "OT God"

That is sad, but this too is not new. Marcion, was considered one of the big Christian movements of the early church was a gnostic to the core. In fact, his followers were so strong that it was said that over half of the Apolstle's creed was written to renounce there 'fractured' theology.

You are right though about Christians not defending the full Gospsel. I think this comes down to some foundational instability. Any Gospel/theology MUST be all-encompassing of the entire Bible. If it is exclusive, as many of these 'Loving God', you end up with a shallow facade of the true Gospel.

Thanks for the great stuff.

God Bless
Doug

Mike said...

I really like this article. It's so easy to blast the Old Testament when one really doesn't give it time and study through the complexity of the books. I'll definitely recommend this to people I discuss this with. Keep up the great thinking!

In Christ,

Michael Pace

Glen said...

If apologists are going to convince non believers that there are no serious problems in the Bible, then you have to first be honest about the nature and number of the problems. To say that the impression that God acted monstrously in the OT rests on a "few passages" is simply not true, by a long shot. There are literally dozens of passages which show God condoning, ordering, or committing mass murder of men, women, children, and even babies and animals. For a partial list, see: http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/donald_morgan/atrocity.html
That's not even counting all the other verses that seem to condone rape, slavery, pillaging, and other things often considered heinous today. You can try to defend them, but to say there are only a "few" such passages shows that you are either ignorant of much of the Bible yourself, or else are deliberately understating the problem, which can only undermine Christian credibility. Please correct the false impression you gave about the number of such verses, and please address the problem head on, rather than trying to dismiss it by mimimizing and playing a false numbers game. Its the concept that matters. Is it or is it not a thorny theological problem and Biblical inconsistency that a supposedly all-loving God instigates the mass slaughter of thousands of people, including even innocent animals and babies--not once, but many times? I think you know in your heart that it is a problem.

Craig Paardekooper said...

Yes God DID order the destruction of the Canaanites from the Promised Land. This took place 40 years after the first Passover.

To be fair, God is impartial, because He also destroyed the Jews from the Promised Land in 70 A.D. (40 years after the Passover of Christ)

So God is impartial.

Craig Paardekooper said...

Does God have the right to judge and exterminate??

If God is the Creator, then all life belongs to Him. So maybe...

If God is the Judge, and if God is absolutely good, then also maybe...

Any assessment of the ethics of God's actions must take into account whether those ethics would apply to a Creator, and to a Holy being.

They also must take into account the circumstances surrounding the judgement.

Were the people deserving of the judgement?

Why did God judge them?

Infidel.org does not try to answer these questions.

paleo said...

Craig seems to have missed my main points. I wasn't discussing whether God was "impartial" but whether the deeds I described were in any way compatible with an all-loving and merciful God. It might be impartial to cause great pain and suffering to more than one group, but that hardly addresses the issue of love and mercy. As far as his excusing it on the basis of God being God, and thus anything he does is by definition good, then all common sense and logic go out the window. Indeed, if our beliefs are not logically consistent, then please don't pretend otherwise to others. He also suggests that maybe groups slaughtered "deserved" it. Even if you could argue (which seems difficult to believe) that ever adult in the clan was evil and corrupt, it would not begin to explain why God allowed or ordered the slaughter of innocent babies and animals along with them. There's nothing loving about that, and if you can believe there is, what is your idea of love? You can try to rationalize this all you want, but if I hooked you up to a polygraph test, I am confident it would reveal that you, like almost any feeling person, really didn't believe this was loving. Search your own heart as to whether this is not so, before replying.
Thanks.

paleo said...

Craig seems to have missed my main points. I wasn't discussing whether God was "impartial" but whether the deeds I described were in any way compatible with an all-loving and merciful God. It might be impartial to cause great pain and suffering to more than one group, but that hardly addresses the issue of love and mercy. As far as his excusing it on the basis of God being God, and thus anything he does is by definition good, then all common sense and logic go out the window. Indeed, if our beliefs are not logically consistent, then please don't pretend otherwise to others. He also suggests that maybe groups slaughtered "deserved" it. Even if you could argue (which seems difficult to believe) that ever adult in the clan was evil and corrupt, it would not begin to explain why God allowed or ordered the slaughter of innocent babies and animals along with them. There's nothing loving about that, and if you can believe there is, what is your idea of love? You can try to rationalize this all you want, but if I hooked you up to a polygraph test, I am confident it would reveal that you, like almost any feeling person, really didn't believe this was loving. Search your own heart as to whether this is not so, before replying.
Thanks.

Weekend Fisher said...

Hi all

I discovered today that there were some comments a long time after the original post and discussion was completed. Joining in that trend, I'll go ahead and reply.

Since I'm replying to several at the same time I'll sum up:

Yes, in fact, the "mean God" sections of the Old Testament are rare compared to the "just and merciful God" sections of the Old Testament. Picture it as a pie chart. I'm not at all denying that there's a slice we would not like -- I'm just saying it's a small slice compared to the whole. I don't want anyone to airbrush that slice of the pie chart that goes against what we would want -- but that's exactly my point in this post: that it is wrong to airbrush the majority of the pie chart to act as if the parts that bother us are the majority. It's a perspective-check, more than anything else.

One person said there are "dozens" of places we'd object to. I haven't counted, but for the sake of the conversation I'll go along with "dozens". My point is there are probably hundreds of places where many people find comfort, guidance, or inspiration. So, dozens v. hundreds ... or, like I said, a minor piece of a pie chart.

For the record, I don't at all like a few of the things recorded. The conquest of Canaan is the first thing that springs to mind. The Old Testament portrays God as pro-Israel instead of pro-humanity at that point.

If I thought "bloodthirsty tyrant" were the correct picture of God, I'd leave off following him right away and nevermind the consequences. But I think Jesus is the correct picture of God, and I follow him.

And I'd suggest one possibility: the reason you dislike the "conquest-of-Canaan" type passages is because you also picture God -- or a good God, at any rate -- as being like Jesus. You've picked up your ideas from him, whether directly or through the culture, and follow him to some extent, whether you realize it or not. Because he is good.

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF