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Is the God of the Old Testament a Moral Monster? Part 5

The inspiration of the Bible and its inerrancy are beyond question, but they are often misunderstood by those standing on the outside looking in.  For example, many of the modern critics of God take stories from the Old Testament and assume that the behavior of its characters reflects God’s moral demands of us all. Consider Sam Harris’ critique,
If the bible is true we should be stoning to death for heresy, adultery, homosexuality, worshipping graven images and other imaginary crimes. To put to death idolaters in our midst reflects God’s timeless wisdom.[1]
Not only is Harris completely ignoring the narrative context, but he is also extrapolating from different Old Testament passages what he considers to be the morality imposed upon us by God.  However, just because a story appears in the Old Testament does not mean God approves of the decisions or the behavior of the characters involved.  This simple principle sheds light on many misread and misinterpreted passages of the Old Testament.  The key is to make a clear distinction between inspired content and divine expectations.  God chose to include every story in the Old Testament as part of His revelation and He did so for a purpose.  The fact that the stories appear in the Bible means the human authors were inspired to record them for posterity.  HOWEVER, the content of the stories including the decisions and behaviors of the characters are not necessarily models for imitation or declarations of divine expectations.  Clearly, many of the stories are examples of what we are NOT to do.
When we consider the main characters of the Old Testament and their less than heroic blunders, we begin to see that the Old Testament is unique as literature in the ancient Near East.  It is an oddity in antiquity that the biblical heroes are mostly anti-heroes.  The Bible isn’t always telling you, “look at Lot, or Moses, or David or Joshua and imitate them.” It is usually quite the opposite. It is more like “look how God is still gracious to these wicked sinners and how God chooses to use them in spite of…” Any story that involves humans is a story fraught with failure, weakness, and imperfection.  So why would these stories be included in the Bible? We can look to Paul for a powerful response in 1 Corinthians 10:6-11,
6 Now these things became our examples, to the intent that we should not lust after evil things as they also lusted. 7 And do not become idolaters as were some of them. As it is written, “The people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to play.” 8 Nor let us commit sexual immorality, as some of them did, and in one day twenty-three thousand fell; 9 nor let us tempt Christ, as some of them also tempted, and were destroyed by serpents; 10 nor complain, as some of them also complained, and were destroyed by the destroyer. 11 Now all these things happened to them as examples, and they were written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the ages have come. [emphasis added]
While there are numerous stories in the Old Testament where this principle is of ultimate relevance, let us consider four common stories that seem to attract much attention from critics.
As a father I am disturbed by the way Lot handled the mob of men who showed up at his door. A clear reading of Genesis 19 shows that God sent two angels to rescue Lot and his family from Sodom and Gomorrah prior to destroying the cities. Lot had the angels come and stay the night as a guest with him and his family. However, the wicked men of the city came to Lot’s house demanding he turn over the angels for they intended to rape them. What does Lot do? The unthinkable (Genesis 19:6-8),
6 So Lot went out to them through the doorway, shut the door behind him, 7 and said, “Please, my brethren, do not do so wickedly! 8 See now, I have two daughters who have not known a man; please, let me bring them out to you, and you may do to them as you wish; only do nothing to these men, since this is the reason they have come under the shadow of my roof.”
Critics look at the passage and erroneously conclude that it reflects God’s moral demands on us all, to which I respond, ‘where did you read that?’  There is no way that the narrator of Genesis 19 wants you to extract a moral example from the story of Lot offering his two daughters in exchange for his guests.  In doing so, he is acting wickedly.  They seem to overlook the fact that the town is not saved on account of Lot’s righteousness nor is Lot himself saved on account of his righteousness. In Gen 19:29 we see that it’s on account of Abraham that God saved Lot and his family.  NOWHERE does this passage even remotely suggest that God approved of Lot’s actions—nor does it even remotely suggest that we should imitate Lot.
How can anyone read the story of Abraham and Isaac in Genesis 22 and come away with accusations of child abuse and bullying or claims that Abraham acted disgracefully? This is exactly how Richard Dawkins describes the story and adds that you should be arrested today if you try this.[2] But, does God demand that we do this today? OF COURSE NOT!  Did God have Abraham actually murder Isaac? OF COURSE NOT!  Can we extrapolate from this story a moral mandate to offer up our children in sacrifice? OF COURSE NOT!  Can we accuse God of promoting murder or filicide from reading this story? OF COURSE NOT!  Paul Copan makes a great point that we should not “look to Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac as a timeless standard for “family values.”[3]
Either out of ignorance or malice, critics seem to blatantly disregard the narrative context.  The point of the story in an ancient Jewish context—an ancient Mediterranean context—is precisely that God forbids child sacrifice. For He will always provide the sacrifice. Abraham had no doubt that God would not have him sacrifice Isaac and he expresses it explicitly in the text itself on two separate occasions. First, he reassures the young men that have accompanied him on the trip, “ And Abraham said to his young men, “Stay here with the donkey; the lad and I will go yonder and worship, and we will come back to you.” (Genesis 22:5).  On the second occasion, Isaac is wondering about the lamb for the sacrifice and asks his dad and Abraham responds in no uncertain terms, “My son, God will provide for Himself the lamb for a burnt offering.” (Genesis 22:8).  I would agree with John Njoroge that,
Although we could quibble over the psychological damage this did to poor little Isaac—but I bet that if Abraham and Isaac were here they would be praising God that through this dramatic moment this teaching was branded into the mind of Israel.[4]
What stands out is that God does not require child sacrifice as many of the surrounding nations did.  There is no doubt that this is a deliberate set-up story to say “this is not how things work in the divine economy.”
Another controversial story is found in Judges 11 where we find Jephthah, the general of Israel’s military making a rash vow to God that he would offer, as a burnt-offering sacrifice, the first thing that came out of the doors of his house to greet him upon his return. Tragically, upon his return, the degree of his folly was manifest as his only child, his daughter, ran out to greet her dad and celebrate with him his victory in battle.
Jephthah’s vow showed the complete disconnect of the people of Israel from their God. Unlike Dawkins’ baseless assertion that “God was obviously looking forward to the promised burnt offering…”[5]  God expressly forbade human sacrifice.  It was one of the reasons He brought judgment upon the inhabitants of Canaan.  God had even made provision in the Law to remedy rash vows.  Jephthah had a legal recourse that would have saved him from having to carry out the murderous act.  Jephthah’s actions are clearly not approved of in the book of Judges, nor elsewhere in the Bible. All he had to do was follow the Mosaic Torah and pay twenty shekels to the priest at the center of the shrine as compensation for the life of his daughter.
Why didn’t he?  One of the problems of this period in Jewish history is that there was widespread ignorance of the Bible in its entirety.  Neither Jephthah nor any of his advisors, nor the very elders of Israel that had recruited him had a clue as to the Mosaic allowance for the annulment of vows involving human objects found in Leviticus 27. Had the Torah been operating correctly during this time—the rash vow ought to have been overturned.
Furthermore, we cannot look at Jephthah’s decision as being virtuous or praiseworthy. Commentator D.I. Block accurately affirms,
Although the present story ends with the death of the young girl, her father is the tragic figure, presenting a pathetic picture of stupidity, brutality, ambition, and self-centeredness. Ironically, the one who appeared to have become master of his own fate has become a victim of his own rash word.[6]
Thus, we find that the story is not so controversial. It is sad. It reflects the widespread degradation of Israel during the darkest years of its history as a nation.  As Torrey summarizes it so clearly,
So the whole story instead of being a warrant for human sacrifice is intended to be a lesson on the exceeding foolishness of hasty vows made in the energy of the flesh.[7]
Should the critics bother to consult any academic commentary on Genesis or Judges they would find at their fingertips all of the key elements necessary to acquire a thorough understanding of these stories. But that is obviously they have not.
Then you have one of the most gruesome stories in the era of the Judges. In chapters 19-20 you have a concubine who is raped and murdered by the wicked people of Gibeah (Benjamites) and subsequently cut into pieces by her Levite husband who proceeds to send her pieces to the twelve tribes of Israel. Dawkins and company are quick to point out that this episode is horrible, morally reprehensible, and completely unacceptable.  I don’t know a single Christian that would disagree with that observation! What we disagree with is that the critics seem to blame God for the atrocity as if He had commanded the Levite to be such a despicable husband and heartless coward.  Some go so far as to imply that this is the type of behavior God demands of his followers. REALLY?
Not only are these affirmations completely imaginary, for they don’t appear in the text at all, but they also show a total disregard for accuracy and scholarly integrity.  What Dawkins doesn’t mention is precisely the point of the book of Judges. This is what happens when a people turn their back on God.  Judges is making the point that Israel was wicked—and had turned her back on God. To read this passage and somehow assume it establishes divine expectations of brutality, murder, and rape is not only wrong, it is also irresponsible and embarrassingly off target.
These four case studies demonstrate that a fair approach to the Bible, taking into consideration basic hermeneutical principles and a careful reading of the text within its narrative context goes a long way in demonstrating that the God of the Old Testament is not a moral monster.
I have written an additional article where I consider the impact of the New Testament on the Old Testament, particularly regarding the attempts to misrepresent God’s character. To get this additional article as well as the previous article all in as a pdf booklet, please click below and we will email it to you.
Is the God of the Old Testament a Moral Monster Booklet  Parts 1-6
[1] Sam Harris, Letter to a Christian Nation (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2006), 8.
[2] Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2006), 242.
[3] Paul Copan, “Is the God of the Old Testament Evil?” Enrichment Journal  Accessed 3/10/2013
[4] As quoted by John Njoroge in his workshop titled: “Violence in the OT” at the National Apologetics Conference in Charlotte, N.C. October, 2012.
[5] Dawkins, 243.
[6] D.I.Bock, “Judges, Ruth” in the New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1999), 372.
[7] R.A.Torrey, Difficulties in the Bible: Alleged Errors and Contradictions, (Willow Grove: Woodlawn Electronic Publishing, 1998).
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