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Is the God of the Old Testament a Moral Monster? Part 2

Chris got into a lot of trouble yesterday and he wants you to help him figure out why. It all started as he woke up, got dressed, drove down Pennsylvania Avenue and parked in a spot with a sign that read: “Reserved for the President of the United States.” Then he walked into the White House and headed straight into the Oval Office. He took off his shoes, loosened his tie and walked behind a big beautiful desk that had a nameplate which read, “Barack Hussein Obama, President of the United States.” He noticed that the mail server was left open on the computer monitor and he began to read many interesting emails from Senators, Congressmen, and foreign Heads of State.  It was really fun responding to those emails. However, he kept getting interrupted by the continuous ringing of the president’s phone. He answered some of the calls, penciled in several appointments on the huge desk calendar, and agreed to sign several important pieces of legislation.  While he was at it, he vetoed several pieces of legislation that were on the desk and signed others into law. That’s when the Secret Service came storming in and seemed really upset at him. He doesn’t understand why!  He did exactly what President Obama would do. “Aren’t we both human beings?” he asked. “Why is it ok when Obama does it and not when I do it?” he asked the arresting officer. “I think it’s wrong that I should be punished for doing something that someone else can do without getting in trouble!” he argued with the judge.
What’s wrong with Chris’ rationale? Why is his argument wrong? Why can’t he go into Obama’s office and answer the president’s calls or respond to his emails, or perform other presidential responsibilities?
We all understand that the President of the United States has the authority to do many things that we cannot do.  Because of the president’s role as the Commander in Chief, his responsibilities are far greater than those of any ordinary citizen. What Chris fails to understand is that responsibilities are dependent on roles. Although the president and Chris are both human beings—they have different roles. Obviously, the responsibilities that accompany their roles are also quite different.  Nobody would disagree that there are certain things the President can do that are not considered wrong, but would definitely be wrong if we did them.
The same can be seen in the contrast between the roles and responsibilities of parents and their children. We have all heard our children ask why they have to go to bed early and we get to stay up late. How is that fair?  We understand that we have different roles and responsibilities. We can cross the street whenever we feel like it and they can’t do it unless they are holding our hand.  Besides, if I did what my small children did all the time we would have starved to death, because eating, sleeping, and playing doesn’t get the rent paid nor does it put food on the table. Those are my responsibilities, not theirs.  We are not expected to behave in the exact manner as our children—that is not our role.
Likewise, God is not subject to morality in the same way that you and I are.  As the creator and sustainer of the universe and everything in it, God has responsibilities that are exclusive to His position. The same way we don’t have a problem understanding that the President can do things we cannot and parents can do things kids cannot—we need to understand that God can do things we cannot. This is precisely how the Bible presents God to us. The Westminster Confession of Faith does a great job in describing God’s role and responsibilities thoroughly,
God, the great Creator of all things, doth uphold, direct, dispose, and govern all creatures, actions, and things, from the greatest even to the least, by his most wise and holy providence, according to his infallible foreknowledge and the free and immutable counsel of his own will, to the praise of the glory of his wisdom, power, justice, goodness, and mercy.[1]
God vs. Man
As the ultimate authority over His creation, there are things God can do and are not considered evil that would be evil if we did them. Numerous Old Testament passages are misunderstood because the interpreter demands that God’s actions be limited by human roles and responsibilities, much like the child that asks, “how come you don’t have to go to bed, dad?”[2]  For example, when God accepts worship it is a very good thing. However, when humans receive worship it is often called idolatry. There are a number of passages in the Bible that make this abundantly clear. Even angels refuse to be worshiped. Worship is reserved only for God. He is the only one that is truly worthy of worship.  When man chooses to give worship to something other than God, he is usurping what belongs exclusively to God. Not only is this unacceptable, but it is also foolish. The Apostle Paul points this out in Romans 1:22-25 (NKJV),
22 Professing to be wise, they became fools, 23 and changed the glory of the incorruptible God into an image made like corruptible man—and birds and four-footed animals and creeping things. 24 Therefore God also gave them up to uncleanness, in the lusts of their hearts, to dishonor their bodies among themselves,25 … who exchanged the truth of God for the lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever…”
Another responsibility that rests exclusively on God’s shoulders is the numbering of someone’s days.  If we take it upon ourselves to put an end to someone’s life it is considered evil, and rightfully so. However, as our creator, if God chooses to put an end to someone’s earthly life, he has the right to do so. William Lane Craig is on point when he argues,
He is certainly not subject to the same moral obligations and prohibitions that we are.  For example, I have no right to take an innocent life.  For me to do so would be murder.  But God has no such prohibition.  He can give and take life as He chooses.  We all recognize this when we accuse some authority who presumes to take life as “playing God.”  Human authorities arrogate to themselves rights which belong only to God.  God is under no obligation whatsoever to extend my life for another second.  If He wanted to strike me dead right now, that’s His prerogative.[3]
We must be quick to point out that this does not mean God is independent of moral goodness. It certainly does not mean that God is capricious or that His actions are whimsical or unpredictable.  It simply means that there are responsibilities that God has that are much higher than any we will ever have in this world. Theologian Wayne Grudem summarizes the point well when he affirms,
“…we should remember that there are things that are right for God to do but wrong for us to do: He requires others to worship him, and he accepts worship from them. He seeks glory for himself. He will execute final judgment on wrongdoers. He also uses evil to bring about good purposes, but he does not allow us to do so.”[4]
A God of Love and Justice
It is also imperative that we not ignore God’s justice.  We welcome a God of love. It is, in fact, our desire for God to be loving at all times and in all circumstances that leads us to cringe when we read passages where God appears to be anything less than loving.  However, anyone who has been the victim of a crime or suffered an injustice desperately demands a God of Justice to make his presence known.  Any portrait of God that depicts him lacking one of these two attributes is flawed.  We would reject a God lacking in justice as quickly as a God lacking in Love. And yet, when God exercises judgment—many have a difficult time accepting it.
Thus, an understanding of the God of the Old Testament must begin by understanding that His role and responsibilities are far greater than ours. There are things He can do that are not evil when He does them but would be if we were the perpetrators.  This is not to say that God is immoral, but rather to highlight that He is not subject to the same morality and prohibitions that we are. This is something we readily accept in our everyday lives and thus should not be so difficult to entertain regarding God. Furthermore, we need to understand that God is driven as much by love as He is by justice.  Only in God can we find the perfect balance between the two: it is love with justice and justice with love. We would not consider a God lacking in either attribute to be worthy of our worship.
God’s love and justice is the topic we will explore further over the next few weeks. Next week we will consider the key hermeneutical principles that apply to the Old Testament passages used by critics to accuse God of genocide, ethnic cleansing, infanticide, etc.
Footnotes
[1] The Westminster Confession of Faith (1647) as presented in C. Brand, C. Draper, A. England, S. Bond, E. R. Clendenen, T. C. Butler & B. Latta, Ed.,  Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary (Nashville: Holman Bible Publishers, 2003), 1340–1341.
[2] Several of the passages will be considered in upcoming portions of this study, including the Conquest of Canaan and Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac.
[3] William Lane Craig, “Slaughter of the Canaanites” Q & A  http://www.reasonablefaith.org/slaughter-of-the-canaanites#ixzz2M6t78hVq  Accessed 2/17/2013.
[4] Grudem, W. A. Systematic theology: An introduction to biblical doctrine (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Pub. House, 2004), 329.
 
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