“Anyone who claims to admire and worship the biblical God has either abandoned all sense of moral judgment or has never actually read the Old Testament. Since most believers are good people, I prefer to assume the latter. I think the world would be a much better place if people would actually read the book.” – Dan Barker, atheist, converted from Evangelicalism. News flash: believers have been reading both Testaments for 17 centuries. Maybe, just maybe, it’s Dan Barker who has missed something.
Many people who are attracted to Jesus and the teachings of the Sermon on the Mount, see the God of the Old Testament as brutal and completely different from Jesus. This is well and good except that Jesus was immersed in the Old Testament and committed to it. The New Testament has him quoting the Old Testament 78 times, with selections from Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Deuteronomy, Psalms, Proverbs, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, Hosea, Amos, Jonah, Micah, and Malachi. When Satan tempted Jesus in the desert, he quoted O.T. each time (a useful reminder that Scripture can be misused). Jesus parried by quoting other Scriptures. On the cross Jesus called out to his Heavenly Father three different times, one of which was a quote from Psalm 22. The Sermon On the Mount includes the following statement: Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets (the Old Testament); I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished” – Matthew 5.17,18.
But Jesus’ connection to the God of the Old Testament went beyond a commitment to the writings—he specifically identified with him. I and the Father are one. – John 10.30. “The Son can do nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees the Father doing. For whatever the Father does, that the Son does likewise.” – John 5.19. Even more striking, Jesus made this claim: “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am.” – John 8.58. This is a quote of Yahweh’s introduction to Moses. When Jesus made this statement the Jewish leaders picked up stones, intending to executed him for blasphemy. They had understood him correctly as meaning that he equated himself with Yahweh.
This leaves us with a dilemma. How can we admire Jesus when he identifies with the cruel Yahweh of the O.T.? At this point many people draw on the Thomas Jefferson playbook. Mr. Jefferson, an idealist of sorts, was the principal writer of the Declaration of Independence, a strong influence in the U.S. Constitution, and the prime mover in the establishment of the University of Virginia. He also “wrote” his own New Testament by retaining the moral Jesus, while excising all miracles and references to Jesus’ divinity. You might say that Jefferson was the original cut-and-paste master, foreshadowing the advent of word processing. Essentially, Mr. Jefferson wrote the Book of Me. Of course, Jefferson was incapable of conforming to his Book of Me. He was against slavery, and he wrote in the Declaration of Independence, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal”, but he did not live according to his own book. He owned slaves all his life. At his death he saw to the freedom of seven of his slaves. Jefferson is an example of how people fail to measure up to their own standards. People are also not good at formulating their own standards. We formulate them badly and then we fail to live by them consistently. It’s a conundrum. The only way out of the conundrum that I know of is the grace of Christ. And if this is so, there must be some way to make sense of the “brutality” of Yahweh.
Let’s consider for a moment what I call the god-logic. God can manifest in innumerable shapes and varied raiment, but what he (or she or it) is boils down to very few options. The first possibility is the atheist option—that there is no god. In this case humans are skewered. We experience our meaningless time on earth, grab what gusto we can until we break down, die, and decompose. The second option is that god is cruel or apathetic towards humans. If this is the case, we’re skewered. There is no life-strategy for this option since god, at best, will ignore us and, otherwise, will play with us like a cat plays with a mouse until, well, it’s skewered to death. The third option is that god is very good but is limited in his abilities. He is Superman. He can do a lot but he can’t keep up with all the problems. We might as well cheer him on and hope he can spare some attention our way but, fundamentally, we’re skewered again. At some point in time every ball will hit the floor. The fourth and final option is that god is good and in control of the universe. This is the only option that provides us with hope.
This is actually what the God of the Bible claims of himself. Here are a few of the many verses of the Bible that illustrated this: I will meditate on the glorious splendor of your majesty, and on your wondrous works. Men shall speak of the might of your awesome acts, and I will declare your greatness. They shall utter the memory of your great goodness, and shall sing of your righteousness. Psalm 145:5-7. But Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” Matthew 19.26. He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power. After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high. Hebrews 1.3. Have you not known? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable. He gives power to the faint, and to him who has no might he increases strength. Isaiah 40.28,29.For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. Colossians 1:16–17. The Lord is good to all, and His tender mercies are over all His works. Psalm 145:9. No one is good but One, that is, God. Mark 10:18. He loves righteousness and justice; the earth is full of the goodness of the Lord. Psalm 33:5.
We sometimes hear ministers say that we should not be so foolish as to attempt to judge God. This is an important truth but only in the sense that God is far more knowledgeable than we are, so what may appear to us to be an injustice only appears that way because we do not see the situation fully. But we must be careful in suggesting that God’s love and justice are something foreign from the love and justice he requires of us. To the contrary, Scripture is quite clear that we are to be his image bearers and that we are to be like him in love and wisdom and goodness and justice. He is our model. Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children; and walk in love, just as Christ also loved you and gave Himself up for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God as a fragrant aroma. – Ephesians 5.1,2. So the Christian concludes that there must be good reasons for the acts of God that appear to conflict with the things he says about himself.
I must make a disclaimer here and point out that what you are about to read is the reasoning of one Christian who has been exposed to the views of many other Christians. I am not infallible and I cannot guarantee that what I write is true. I can only say that what I am writing represents my understanding. I do hope that it fairly represents God. If you come across something that seems to be in error, I invite you to bring it to my attention. I believe with all my heart that we all should be in the practice of adjusting ourselves to the truth rather than in the practice of contorting facts to meet our preferences.
There are guidelines that aid in the interpretation of writings and, in this case, the Bible. We will not consider all exegetical principles here, but there are three that I think merit special attention as we attack the problem of reconciling the gracious Jesus with the frequently violent God of the O.T.
The first principle is: There is a difference between descriptive and prescriptive passages. Much of the Bible is prescriptive, i.e., it prescribes right behavior, even as it defines wrong behaviors to avoid. But there are also a surprising number of biblical passages that are merely descriptive. A clear Biblical theme is that people are sinners. The heroes of the Bible, with the exception of Jesus, are always revealed as morally flawed. Sampson was a simpleton. Moses committed murder. David committed adultery and murder. Paul was a murderer and a persecutor of the Church. Zealous Peter had a tendency to let his mouth run ahead of his brain. Knowing that a biblical hero acted in a certain way never, in itself, implies that what he did was a good thing.
One example of this, I believe, is the story of the encounter of Elisha and a gang of boys. The passage reads this way: He went up from there to Bethel, and while he was going up on the way, some small boys came out of the city and jeered at him, saying, “Go up, you baldhead! Go up, you baldhead!” And he turned around, and when he saw them, he cursed them in the name of the Lord. And two she-bears came out of the woods and tore forty-two of the boys. – 2 Kings 2. 23,24.
It’s easy to see why Elisha would have been infuriated by the juvenile gang of brats that had nothing better to do than roam about in search of defenseless victims. Maybe we all would like to have a few bears at our disposal on occasion. But sitting in our chairs, being of calm mind and having some emotional separation from the situation, we have to say, “Wasn’t that punishment a bit disproportionate, Elisha? Why didn’t you just call for a raincloud to drench the little monsters? Maybe a couple of near-miss lightning bolts to stand their hair on end.”
God gave Elisha special authority, certainly, but he didn’t necessarily give Elisha perfect control of that authority (see Moses striking the rock). For me this is a descriptive passage, particularly if considered in the light of Christ. Jesus was tortured, slandered, and murdered. He had at his disposal 12 legions of angels. He could have wiped out all the Romans and all the self-serving religious leaders in Jerusalem, and after having done so, could have walked away, grinning like the Cheshire Cat. But he didn’t, because his life’s purpose was to give life, which he accomplished by gaving up his own. Christians believe Jesus was God. This clearly makes his life more authoritative and informative than the Elisha’s, even if Elisha was God’s servant. Because of this, and because the passage in 2 Kings makes no comment as to the righteousness of Elisha’s act against the boys, there is no need for Christians to come to his defense.
The second principle is: Scripture interprets Scripture. There are numerous reasons why the canon of Scripture is what it is. (Canon, literally “rule” or “measuring stick”, is a reference to the list of books that make up the Bible.) There is not complete agreement about the list but most Protestants recognize 39 O.T. books and 27 N.T. books. The Roman Catholic Bible includes seven additional O.T. books: Baruch, Judith, 1 and 2 Maccabees, Sirach, Tobit and Wisdom. These seven books have relatively little to do with differing Catholic/Protestant theologies. One of the principles for determining the canon is that the individual books are in essential agreement with the collection. While each book brings something unique, the uniqueness is a clarification and/or an expansion of the whole, rather than a contradiction. We could use a statue as a metaphor for the canon of Scripture. The statue is best understood by looking at it from many perspectives. “Scripture interprets Scripture”, then, expresses the idea that better understanding is gained by looking at a subject using the full revelation of Scripture rather than focusing on a small part. As a theologian friend of mine put it: “Scripture taken out of context is just…wrong.” There are statements in Scripture that seem to be outliers. However, Christians who have a high view of Scripture do not want to be dismissive of anything found in the canon. In practice, what usually happens with outliers is that they are seen as unresolved puzzles, while Scriptural guidance is primarily taken from the ideas that integrate well with biblical themes.
The third principle is the idea of progressive revelation. God interacted with his people through a series of covenants (contracts). There are a number of covenants in the Bible but the most notable ones are with Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, and the New Covenant (given by Jesus). One implication of covenantal revelation is that each successive covenant not only adds information but provides clarity to the preceding covenants. Using the statue metaphor, think of it as the proximity factor. While the first covenant may have allowed a look at the statue from many angles, all views were from 100 yards away. The second covenant brought us to 80 yards, and so forth, until the New Covenant allows us to walk right up to the statue and touch it. Put our hands in its side, if you will.
When Jesus instituted the Lord’s Supper with his disciples, just before his crucifixion, He took the bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” And likewise the cup after they had eaten, saying, “This cup that is poured out for you is the newcovenant in my blood.” -Luke 22.19,20. The language of the Communion ritual looks back and reminds the listeners of all the covenants that went before, even as it proclaims its superiority to them.
This is illustrated again in Christ’s Sermon on the Mount, which is essentially a commentary on the Law given to Moses. Jesus made it clear he was not abolishing the earlier laws, nor the earlier covenants but, as he put it, “fulfilling” them. His fulfilling was a fundamental shift from an understanding according to the letter to an understanding according to the spirit.
We are all familiar with traffic STOP signs. The letter of the law says that we are to drive up to these signs and bring our vehicles to a full stop. Then we are to proceed through the intersection when it is safe to do so. When we do this we are obeying the letter of the law. The spirit of the law says that roads are made available by the community for the community. We stop at stop signs because we want to be safe and we want to respect the needs of others to be safe. STOP signs are not fundamentally about requiring people to stop, even though the lettering is quite clear about that—they are fundamentally about loving and caring for our neighbors as we love ourselves in the course of our travels.
I think this was what Jesus was saying. The letter of the law is not the point. The critical concern is to delve deeper and recognize the spirit of the law. When you come to grips with that you have gotten up close and touched the statue. When you see how every law is about loving God, loving your neighbor, and loving yourself, and you come to direct your actions and your heart accordingly, that is when you have come up close and personal.
So the third exegetical principle is that the Bible is understood best in a kind-of reverse chronological order, which generally means that the Old Testament is interpreted in light of the New. This is not to be understood as the latter overruling the former. Rather, it is a case of the latter providing a more mature explanation. The Apostle Paul explains it in this way: Now before faith came, we were held captive under the law, imprisoned until the coming faith would be revealed. So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian, for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. (Galatians 3.23-26). Some translations use the word “tutor” in place of guardian.Paul’s use of law here refers to the Old Testament in general, but more particularly it refers to the law given by Moses. Paul is saying that God’s people were like children in Old Testament times but with the revelations of Christ and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, God’s people are no longer under the authority of the law-guardian, but as “sons” (children) of God, have the maturity and responsibility to judge right and wrong.
With these exegetical principles in mind the task of examining the “hard” behavior of the Old Testament God can proceed.
It doesn’t take long to come across a tough passage in the Bible. I think the first one is the most difficult of all. Adam and Eve were given the Garden of Eden, over which they had full discretion, except for the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. They were warned that if they ate from that tree they would die. Of course, they did eat from the tree and then they were cursed to live on a cantankerous planet instead of the supportive garden, and their bodies began the slow decay that ends in death.
Wasn’t that a terrible reaction on God’s part? Wasn’t he the one who made them? As an omniscient being, didn’t he know they would fail the test he put before them? And if he knew they would fail, isn’t the failure really a failure of his design? And if that’s the case, on what grounds does he punish Adam and Eve?
I think we have to say God did know Adam and Eve would bring the curse down on themselves even at the moment when he was reflecting on the creation and calling it “very good”. So here’s where things get tricky with respect to the workings of an omniscient God. Let me be clear here that I am trying to explain something that I cannot fully understand. Also, understand that Christians disagree about this. The Bible doesn’t really explain how human responsibility fits into a scheme in which God is in complete control. God insists that humans make good decisions (responsibility) but it is also clear that whatever insights we may have are gifts from him. While humans are functioning on a linear timeline, in which every decision is either good or bad, the transcendent, timeless God is working both inside and outside of history. His plan accounted for every human decision over the span of human history.
When Adam and Eve disobeyed, the fundamental problem was that they failed to trust him. It was a disaster…but it was not a tragedy. It was a disaster that set in motion a historical drama that resolves in a situation that greatly improves upon the original Garden. What I think this says about God, about the nature of the universe, and about the nature of humans, is that there is value in the learning process and in the struggle. Some of the lessons that stick with us best come through our mistakes and failures. Getting back up is in itself an important lesson. Perseverance is an important lesson, whether in the face of extreme adversity or in the face of boredom-depression. God could have made creatures who would waltz through life. But apparently God wanted us to struggle, both individually and as a human race. It has been and continues to be a very hard test. The objective of God’s boot camp is to train a people of wisdom, a people of self-sacrifice and service, a people of love, and a people of humility. For more on this subject, see the seven-part series called “Suffering”, found at eastonomither.com.
And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. -Romans 8.28. In God’s sovereignty, every trial, every hardship is not indicative of a capricious, cruel god, but of a God who brings forth benefit from both the good and the bad. Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. –John 12. 24. Ultimately God provides deliverance for his people, but earthly history means that his people are participants in the process of his victory. For his people there is a profound sense of gratitude, as well as a deep sense of accomplishment. In all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. -Romans 8.37-39
One of the most peculiar accounts in the Bible is the story of Noah. This is a favorite for kids, mostly because many of them end up with toy arks and a set of paired animals they can play with. But the story is actually a very grim narrative in which all people on earth except Noah and a few family members are drowned. Was this God’s do-over? Were people so awful he had to clean house and try again? If it was a do-over, it clearly didn’t work. In fact my sense is that the story of Noah is more of a demonstration of what Christian theologians call “original sin”. The idea of original sin is that, once Adam and Eve sinned, they and their descendants were infected with sinful inclination. This does not mean people are devoid of good. It means is that every thought and action is tainted. We can’t act or think purely.
Once in awhile I get a hankering for chocolate chip cookie dough. I never cook the dough; I just mix it up and eat a blob or two each day until it’s all gone. I know, I know, raw eggs carry a risk of salmonella. So far my tame game of Russian roulette has done me no serious harm. This is not the point of my story.
A number of years ago, when I was still living with my parents, I had the urge, so I gathered up the ingredients. One of the ingredients is butter. If you use real butter you have to melt it a bit so it mixes well. My mom often stocked soft margarine, which came in small tub containers. I opted for the margarine since it meant less work for me. So I mixed everything up, including the most important element, the chocolate chips. My mouth watered in joyful anticipation. I took a bite. Ugh!! What was that?! The dough tasted like…garlic! Turns out my mom had mixed the garlic into the margarine to be for other very special purposes. I like garlic bread…but it turns out I do not like garlic chocolate chip cookies. At all. I tried to eat that dough; I really did. But I couldn’t. With tears welling, I threw the entire batch into the trash can. And there you have it: a little garlic ruins the entire batch. A little sin permeates and ruins everything.
God blessed Noah in chapter 9 of Genesis. By chapter 11 we’re on to the story of the tower of Babel, where the people became invested in empire-building and a kind of self worship. Things fell apart again pretty quickly after the flood.
The Flood demonstrates that we can’t fix the human race by getting rid of “evil people.” We may think that racial cleansing will solve our problems, or we may think that the eradication of people with strange beliefs will return our society to good health, but such notions are proven here to be false. Alexandr Solzhenitsyn said it well: “If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them! But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.”
So does this explanation of the Flood justify killing all the people on the earth? There are two reasons why God may do what he did through the Flood. The first reason is that God is the author and giver of life. His giving of life is a blessing to all. To some he gives life for a short time, to others he gives life eternally. But in either case, life is a gift. An everlasting life is preferable, certainly, but a short life is preferable to no life.
The other reason is that God is just and judges with perfect justice. He knows everything. When a trial is held before the Lord’s throne there is no fact discovery. All the facts are known. The Judge in this case knows more facts about the case than those being judged. O Lord, you have searched me and known me!You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from afar. – Psalm 139.1,2. So while right behavior is generally defined for humans by acting the same way God acts, some things are reserved for God alone. Judging people is one of those things—not that we should not have civil order and civil punishments, but that the judging of hearts and motives is the province of God. There is only one lawgiver and judge, he who is able to save and to destroy. But who are you to judge your neighbor? – James 4.12.
But why is it necessary for God to judge? Why can’t he just live and let live? The answer lies partly in the holiness of God, and the answer is also not oblique or mysterious to our own experience. Wickedness is destructive. Whether it is our own wickedness or the wickedness of others, it destroys. Some wickednesses, such as shooting people or escapism via hallucinogens, result in fairly obvious destruction. Some wickednesses, like gossip or relational apathy or eating a half gallon of ice cream every day, work more slowly. I am convinced that, even if our bodies did not age, and humans did not procreate, our numbers would diminish rapidly. If we started with today’s 7.6 billion people we would be nearly extinct within 150 years. Mostly people would kill each other. The remaining few would be so exasperated with everyone else that they would be living as hermits. These hermits would eventually injure themselves, and with no one around to help, die from their wounds. The Bible is clear that God cannot be in the presence of wickedness. What it hints at, I think, is that neither can we.
Evil must be cut out. How can this happen without killing everyone? Well, it can’t. This is why Jesus insisted that we must be “born again”. A supernatural transformation is necessary for anyone to survive. A supernatural transformation is necessary for many in order that society can survive. This is essentially the Gospel. God says he will provide the transformation for us. We cannot do it but he can. If we trust him with our lives he will grant us the transformation. If we will not trust him then he will do nothing with us. I have a friend who likes to point out that Jesus often asks the question, “What do you want?” God gives us what we want. If we want him he says “Good,” and gives himself to us. If we want something else, such as, “I want to be in charge of my own life, he says, “Okay.” Of course, the problem of being in charge is that you are left with the limits of your own power.
Trials of Job
Job is a man who has everything and who also happens to be a responsible servant of God. Satan comes to God for an afternoon chat and God points out Job as a model of humanity. Satan says, “Big deal. He loves you because you shower him with all good things. Put him under duress and see how quickly he will turn his back on you.” So God takes up the challenge and gives Satan considerable latitude in dealing with Job.
Satan goes right to work, sending catastrophe after catastrophe until Job has lost his wealth, his children, and his health. His wife piles on and says, “Curse God and die so you can be done with your misery.” Then his friends come around and tell him he’s being punished for evil behavior, and he needs to repent. But Job doesn’t know what to repent of, so he refuses. Finally, God comes to Job and tells him he should trust him because he is all-powerful and all-knowing. Job and God come to terms and then God restores Job to a status more wonderful than what he enjoyed in the first place.
The basic narrative is frustrating because it seems like a lot of fuss and misery, only to bring the situation to more-or-less where it started. It’s not that funny but it reminds me of a Jerry Seinfeld bit in which Jerry describes a horse race from the perspective of the horses. The horses know there is urgency because the jockeys keep whacking them with their crops. So they run and sweat and practically burst their lungs in order to reach the destination. Past the finish line, one horse, panting, looks over at his friend and says, “We were just here! What was the point of all that? That was the longest possible route to get to where we started! Why didn’t we just stay here?…then we would have been first!”
Fundamentally, Job is a story about the depth of man’s character. Did God create shallow-minded creatures motivated strictly by their circumstances, or did he create creatures capable of faithfulness in spite of circumstances? The book of Job proves the latter. Was God trying to prove something to Satan? No. Satan is a powerful creature who dramatically impacts the course of human history but, in the final analysis, Satan matters not a whit. Who matters is God’s people. What the story of Job says is that God is creating his people with character and depth. We are not a superficial creation; we are an exalted creation. The unmarred faithfulness of Job leads me to believe that the story is a parable. But the truth of the story, the truth of God’s determination to produce a holy people, is an important truth. To make that truth possible, Jesus had to die and pay for our sins, while we had to be reborn and in-dwelt by the Holy Spirit, but the end result is the same. God’s greatest creation is humanity and he determined from the beginning that he would see to completion his vision of a glorious human society. The book of Job is a promise from God to his people.
Plagues of Egypt
God’s treatments of the Egyptians via the plagues was pretty rough, particularly when it came to the killing of all their first-born. This treatment was fundamentally a punishment. They ruthlessly made the people of Israel work as slaves and made their lives bitter with hard service, in mortar and brick, and in all kinds of work in the field. In all their work they ruthlessly made them work as slaves. Exodus 1.13,14.The Egyptians held the Hebrews in bondage for 400 years. If only America had paid closer attention to the “harsh” God of the Old Testament, it would not have taken on the role of oppressor. But America did not pay attention, and America paid a similar dear price in its own Civil War. Evil has repercussions.
Remember the Sunday School story about baby Moses in a reed basket? He was in the basket because of Pharaoh. Pharaoh gave this order to all his people: “Every Hebrew boy that is born you must throw into the Nile,but let every girl live.” – Exodus 1.22. God’s most severe punishment on the Egyptians (killing of the firstborn sons) was not as severe as the population management policy put in place by Pharaoh.
The case of Pharaoh and the Egyptians must also be seen as an object lesson. How stubborn can a person get? The people of Egypt had to endure 10 separate plagues before Pharaoh finally relented and let the Hebrews go. Some critics like to key in on the verses that say, “God hardened Pharaoh’s heart”. (If God hardened his heart, isn’t it wicked for God to punish Pharaoh for what God caused?)
It’s interesting that Pharaoh has a recorded reaction to every plague. Pharaoh’s reaction to the first 5 and then number 7 is, more or less, “Pharaoh hardened his heart”. It is not until plague 6, then 8-10 that the language shifts to the notorious, “God hardened Pharaoh’s heart”. I believe the picture presented here is an example of how the practice of sin tends to make the heart calloused. Paul described it in this way: For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves. Romans 1.21-24. What both Moses and Paul are describing is a pattern of God towards rebellious people. For a time he tries to reason. He sends his representatives to try to get the rebellious ones to change their ways, and he persists in this. But after a time he throws up his hands and says, “Okay, have it your way.”
Pharaoh never did come to his senses. He and his army pursued the Hebrews right into the middle of the Red Sea, which is where they came to their end. Here is the object lesson: the “gentle Jesus” promised the same result for all who would, in their stubbornness, continue to rebel against God until their time on earth reached its end.
Well, that seems like a fundamental flaw. What’s wrong with this God that he insists people either conform to him or die? Perhaps we should consider this from another perspective. The truth is, we all want others to conform to ourselves. I find it deeply ironic that the most “liberal” faction of society is currently the most shrill in this regard. Perhaps those on the far right are more likely to shoot up a room but it is the left that will excoriate and slander nonconformists on social media, and then hound them from their jobs and and from their positions of authority. These are cruel manifestations of appropriate intuitions. Humans have this innate sense that there is a moral structure to which we should all be committed because, well, such a structure helps us get along, and it guides us to ways of flourishing rather than abuse. This is essentially what God is saying. The difference—and it’s a big one—is that God is brilliant and pure, while we possess limited knowledge that is always distorted by our sin (selfishness). God says that there will come a time when the fight to have a clean town will be over. It will be over because the town will be clean.
Conquest of Canaan
Many take umbrage at the fierce approach of the Hebrews in their conquest of Canaan. When they attacked Jericho only Rahab and her household were spared; the rest of the inhabitants were “devoted to the Lord for destruction”. They did the same to the city of Ai. The Israelites smashed the Amorites in battle, and God killed more of the Amorites with hailstones than died in the battle. They conquered Makkedah and Libnah and Lachish and Eglon and Debir as they had Jericho and Ai.
There was not a city that made peace with the people of Israel except the Hivites, the inhabitants of Gibeon. They took them all in battle. For it was the LORD’s doing to harden their hearts that they should come against Israel in battle, in order that they should be devoted to destruction and should receive no mercy but be destroyed, just as the LORD commanded Moses. – Joshua 11.19,20. Some point to this as an example of ethnic cleansing.
There are a number of elements here that must be taken into account. First of all, the Hebrews were a motley crew, a relatively small nation possessing little in the way of identity, other than their shared history of suffering and a dusty recollection of a god who had had dealings with their forefathers. When God encountered Moses in the burning bush he had to introduce himself. “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” Biblical history before Moses consisted of information in Genesis and, probably, Job. The revelations about God’s character that came to Moses through the Ten Commandments and the rest of the Law (Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers & Deuteronomy) was a quantum leap of information. “‘You shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words that you shall speak to the people of Israel.” – Exodus 19.6. This was news to them. Suddenly their identity as a people had been redefined. They were babes in the faith. One of the reasons the land had to be cleared of other people is that Israel needed a “hedge” allowing time for this new identity to be absorbed, to become an established culture.
It’s worth noting that, in spite of the merciless approach of conquest employed by the Hebrews, this did not become a defining characteristic. Their conquest was for the purpose of having a home. Israel never became an empire, nor did it ever aspire to be. It did not conquer according the pattern of the Egyptians or the Babylonians, the Assyrians, the Persians, the Macedonians, the Romans, nor of the European colonial empires that came much later. Even though Israel was a theocracy it never pursued militant expansion, as has been the case with Islam.
It’s also worth noting that the inhabitants of Canaan were far from innocent Hobbits. When you enter the land the Lord your God is giving you, do not learn to imitate the detestable ways of the nations there. Let no one be found among you who sacrifices their son or daughter in the fire,who practices divination or sorcery,interprets omens, engages in witchcraft, or casts spells, or who is a medium or spiritist or who consults the dead. Anyone who does these things is detestable to the Lord; because of these same detestable practices the Lord your God will drive out those nations before you. Deuteronomy 18.9-12
Susan C. Anthony adds the following information: “Archeology gives some hints about what the Canaanites did. On one High Place, archeologists found several stone pillars and great numbers of jars containing remains of newborn babies. When a new house was built, a child would be sacrificed and its body built into the wall to bring good luck to the rest of the family. Firstborn children were often sacrificed to Molech, a giant hollow bronze image in which a fire was built. Parents placed their children in its red hot hands and the babies would roll down into the fire.
“There was a great deal of sexual sin among the Canaanites. They believed that cultic prostitution was important to encourage their gods, Baal and Ashtoreth, to mate so that the land would be fertile and rain would come. VD may have been rampant. Many young people forced into prostitution were abused to the point of death. Even the surrounding pagan nations were appalled by Canaanite religious practices.” So in addition to the primary need of having a safe place for the new nation, the clearing of Canaan must be seen as an act of judgment by God on the wicked Canaanites.
The Canaanites, like the Egyptians, are object lessons for the rest of us. A society without sexual tethers is in danger. A society that kills its young is in grave danger. How long will God be patient with our country? Our scientific-materialistic culture scoffs at the likes of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson when they cite specific local sins as causes for natural calamities. I, too, am suspicious that Jerry and Pat are spouting ideas well beyond their understanding or authority. It’s a serious mistake to point fingers at others in the wake of natural calamities, particularly since those calamities can fall on the innocent as well as the guilty. However, from a broad brush perspective, all earthly calamities are reminders to us of a world out of sync because of sin.
To Adam he said,“Because you have listened to the voice of your wife and have eaten of the tree of which I commanded you, ‘You shall not eat of it,’cursed is the ground because of you; in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Genesis 3.17-19. It’s important that we understand that sin, itself, always reaps damage and destruction. When God warns us against sin, he is not warning us about an arbitrary list of regulations. He is warning us against actions that are harmful to ourselves and to others. When Christ set his people free, he set them free from the sentence of death, but he also set them free from the bondage of sin. Sin does not liberate—it maims and destroys.
Uzzah Steadies the Ark
In this story King David moved the Ark of the Covenant from Kiriath-jearim to Jerusalem. They put the Ark on a new cart, which was driven by Ahio and Uzzah. At one point the oxen stumbled and Uzzah put out his hand to steady the Ark. Uzzah’s reaction only seems right to us but God was angered by it and he struck Uzzah dead.
What was God’s problem? His problem was that he had given Moses specific instructions that the Ark, whenever it was moved, was to be carried on poles and only by the Levites, the priestly tribe of Israel. [Numbers 7.9]. The design of the Ark reinforced the command. He cast four gold rings for it and fastened them to its four feet, with two rings on one side and two rings on the other. Then he made poles of acacia wood and overlaid them with gold. And he inserted the poles into the rings on the sides of the ark to carry it. – Exodus 37.3-5.
David, Uzzah, and the rest of the officials had lost track of God’s instructions on how the Ark was to be carried. This was not a minor mistake. The Hebrews had managed to carry the Ark for 40 years in the desert without incident. The stone tablets of the Ten Commandments were kept inside the Ark. Whenever the tabernacle was set up, the Ark was kept in the room called the “Holy of Holies”. God’s very presence was manifested between the cherubim that stood on top of the Ark.
The idea of God’s presence was not to be taken lightly. God’s presence remained with the Hebrews as a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. This pillar stood between the Hebrews and the Egyptians when the Egyptians caught them at the edge of the Red Sea. The pillar guided the Hebrews throughout their 40 years of wandering and provided them with light at night.
Not long after the miraculous delivery out of Egypt, while Moses was up on Mt. Sinai receiving the Law, the Israelites took up a collection of gold and formed it into a golden calf. Then they proclaimed about the calf, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” -Exodus 32.4. It seems silly to us, I mean, they couldn’t even get the tense right. But it’s no more silly than the idea that the complex human body assembled itself, which is what most “enlightened” people believe today. But I digress. The point is, God was exasperated at this and threatened Moses that he was ready to leave Israel because of their being a “stiff-necked people”. But Moses interceded for the people: “If your Presence does not go with us, do not send us up from here. How will anyone know that you are pleased with me and with your people unless you go with us? What else will distinguish me and your people from all the other people on the face of the earth?” – Exodus 33.15,16.
It’s worth commenting on this idea as it moves in history past David, as well, even though he would not be knowledgeable of the following phenomena. After the Israelites were settled in the promised land and Solomon built the temple, fashioned after the design of the tabernacle, the house of the Lord was filled with a cloud, so that the priests could not stand to minister because of the cloud, for the glory of the Lord filled the house of God. – 2 Chronicles 5.13,14. In time Jerusalem became the holy city for the Israelites. Within the city was Mount Zion. On top of Mount Zion was the temple, in which was found the Ark of the Covenant, with the Mercy Seat serving as the location where God’s presence was manifested in a unique, concentrated way on the earth. Jerusalem remains a holy place for Jews to this day for this reason.
When Jesus came to earth he came as God incarnate (in the flesh). When Matthew relates the birth of Jesus he quotes from Isaiah, where the prophecy speaks of a son born of a virgin, whose name is Immanuel, which means, “God with us”. John, in his gospel, speaking about Jesus said, “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. – John 1.14. Some translations provide the more literal word, “tabernacled” rather than “dwelt”. The idea of God’s presence with his people does not end with Jesus. Those who are in the realm of the flesh cannot please God. You, however, are not in the realm of the flesh but are in the realm of the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God lives in you. And if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, they do not belong to Christ. – Romans 8.7-9. The phenomenon of God dwelling with his people reaches its culmination in the indwelling of God’s spirit in every Christian.
All of this is to show how important the nearness or the presence of God is to Judeo-Christian thought. God is a person. What we see is that David and Uzzah were inexcusably callous in their dealing with God. They were treating the Ark as if it were some sort of religious artifact or, perhaps, a talisman.
Consider this analogy. Imagine a young man, who a few hours after his wedding ceremony says to his bride, “Darling, I’m going out with the boys for a few beers.” She looks at him in disbelief, to which he replies defensively, “Well, don’t take it personally.”
It’s not possible to love and worship God if we pay no attention to his explanations of what it means to love and what it means to worship. As far as I’m concerned, though God’s wrath flared against Uzzah, it did not mean that God condemned him. I expect to see Uzzah in heaven. But Uzzah’s error is a clear reminder to us that God’s instructions must not be forgotten or taken lightly. God’s directions are generally easy to understand. “Love one another” is a command that virtually everyone agrees to in principle. Even Mark Twain said, “It ain’t those parts of the Bible that I can’t understand that bother me, it is the parts that I do understand.” Sometimes God gives commands that we can’t make sense of, or we just don’t like. These hard ones are the most critical for us. They are the ones that reveal whether we truly trust him, or we just like the religious trappings.
The tragedy of the Ark should have been a valuable lesson for David, but he didn’t take it to heart. When he saw Bathsheba and was overwhelmed with desire for her, he gave in to his desires. Then Bathsheba got pregnant. Oops. What to do? Bring her husband home from the front and make sure he spends some time with her. That will work as a cover. But her husband, Uriah, considered it a point of honor that he should not be enjoying the comfort of his wife’s loving arms while his men remained at the front and in danger. Oops. This calls for more desperate measures. Let’s order Uriah into an overly risky venture at the front. Uriah is killed. Success at last! David takes the widow as his own bride and no harm done. Everything is under the rug.
Then the prophet Nathan came to David and told him a story of a rich man who stole from a poor man. David was enraged by the injustice. “You are the man! exclaimed Nathan. David said to Nathan, “I have sinned against the Lord.” And Nathan said to David, “The Lord also has put away your sin; you shall not die. Nevertheless, because by this deed you have utterly scorned the Lord, the child who is born to you shall die.” – 2 Samuel 12.7,13,14. David had continued to live as if God was not real. He lived as though reality was defined by what was known by the public. He forgot God’s omniscience. The results, again, were disaster. God gives us a lot of latitude as we live our lives, but his latitude is not to be understood as permissiveness. It is meant as opportunity to live with maturity, to live as those made in his image, as stewards, and as his ambassadors.
Crucifixion of Jesus
Who would insist on the torture and murder of his own son to satisfy his demand for holiness? The short explanation is that while the Father is fully God, so, too, is the Holy Spirit, and so, too, is the Son. Understanding this, and I use “understanding” loosely, drives us to realize that the crucifixion was not the act of a cruel God but the act of a self-sacrificing God. The idea of a God suffering torture and humiliation, and then dying for the sake of his creation is shocking! The light that emanates from God in this act provides the illumination for all his other acts.
Critics like to point to Jesus’ complaint on the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” The theological explanation is that Christ was the perfect sacrifice and that his death was the only way possible for human sins to be washed away. As Paul put it: For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. – 2 Corinthians 5.21. But it is also necessary to point out that this is an example of Jesus’ immersion in the Old Testament. His statement was a quote from Psalm 22. I will not print the entire Psalm here, though I strongly recommend you read it because it is a striking prophecy of the cross. But the Psalm ends like this: You who fear the Lord, praise him! All you offspring of Jacob, glorify him, and stand in awe of him, all you offspring of Israel! For he has not despised or abhorred the affliction of the afflicted, and he has not hidden his face from him, but has heard, when he cried to him. From you comes my praise in the great congregation; my vows I will perform before those who fear him. The afflicted shall eat and be satisfied; those who seek him shall praise the Lord! May your hearts live forever! All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the Lord, and all the families of the nations shall worship before you. For kingship belongs to the Lord, and he rules over the nations. All the prosperous of the earth eat and worship; before him shall bow all who go down to the dust, even the one who could not keep himself alive. Posterity shall serve him; it shall be told of the Lord to the coming generation; they shall come and proclaim his righteousness to a people yet unborn, that he has done it. – Psalm 22. 23-31. The lament of Christ on the cross cannot be understood unless we recognize it as a reference to Psalm 22 and see how the cross is the means to Christ’s great victory.
The Everlasting Fire
What kind of God would cast people of his creation, into a place of everlasting torment? The short answer? I have no idea. The belief that God condemns the wicked to be tortured for eternity is held by a majority of conservative Christians. However, this belief is not supported by the Bible. I blame Dante and zeal within the Church to control public morality for the continued promotion of this false idea. A minority of Evangelical Christians, with whom I count myself, believe the Bible teaches the destruction of the wicked rather than their everlasting torture.
Aren’t there a lot of verses about the “everlasting fire”? Yes there are…and what happens when something is thrown into an everlasting fire? It is burned up. The inference that the person thrown in the fire would live there forever is inexplicable and irrational.
Well, what about that famous story about Lazarus and the Rich Man in which the Rich Man is tormented in the flames? The short answer is that that story is not a literal description but an allegory. The allegory is a warning against the self-inflicted spiritual blindness that comes to those who love money and self-indulgence. The story is useless for providing insights about the literal afterlife. (See the article, “Lazarus Revisited” at eastonomither.com for a full treatment of this allegory.) The fact is, there is not one verse in the Bible that states that God will punish humans with everlasting torment, and there are many, many verses that imply otherwise.
The question remains, why would a good God create humanity while knowing that he intended to destroy a large portion of it? It’s a hard question. For me the resolution boils down to a couple ideas. The first one is that an important purpose of life on earth is its formative effect. “I will put this third into the fire, and refine them as one refines silver, and test them as gold is tested. They will call upon my name, and I will answer them. I will say, ‘They are my people’; and they will say, ‘The Lord is my God.’” – Zechariah 13.9. The wicked are an integral part of the fire that refines God’s people; they are a critical element of the test. The tough trial results in the refined product, which is a glorified people.
The other idea is simply this: God is gracious to everyone. He gives life to all. To some the gift of life is short but it includes its joys and compensations. For others, life is given more abundantly, to the point that all corruption (spiritual and physical) are removed. When one receives a small gift, this is no cause to complain about someone else who receives a great gift. In the hand of the first is a gift. Those who receive small gifts still should still be thankful. But if you still find this troubling, well and good. Don’t settle for the small gift. The great gift is there for you to take. If you are reading this and you are not a Christian, God is calling you to repent of your self-worship and to trust him as Lord and Savior.
It also bears mentioning that the punishment of God, annihilation, is the same thing that Hindus, Buddhists, atheists, and scientific materialists are hoping for. I find it bitterly humorous that the most vocal critics of the “brutal” Christian God somehow find this “brutality” a source of comfort in their own religions.
I’ve side-stepped Islam even though it is world religion. I will say nothing more about it than it is cult that is not to be taken seriously (other than politically). Judaism is unique in that it is the foundation of Christianity. Judaism is like a crowd waiting on a platform for a train that has already boarded and pulled away. How they missed the train is explained in the Gospels. Nevertheless, the Apostle Paul, a Jew himself, promised an awakening of the Jews:As regards the gospel they are enemies of God for your sake; but as regards election they are beloved, for the sake of their ancestors; for the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable. Just as you were once disobedient to God but have now received mercy because of their disobedience, so they have now been disobedient in order that, by the mercy shown to you, they too may nowreceive mercy. For God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all. – Romans 11.28-32.
There are other “hard God” passages in the Bible but I hope I’ve faced the most difficult ones here and that you could guess how I would address the others. If you would rather not guess but are interested, please submit a specific question or problem and I will do my best to address it.
It occurs to me that skeptics might wonder why God’s behavior is such that it requires complex explanations. Fundamentally I think the answer has more to do with humans, our wide-ranging cultures, our evolving appreciation of science, growing facility with written language, ever-growing historical catalog, etc. The Bible was written by roughly 40 different authors (or scribes, more like) over a period of 1300 years. That is roughly the age of the English language. If you heard someone speaking English from 1300 years ago there is no way you would understand what they were saying. The point is that, even while we hold the entire Bible to be true and authoritative, we must be sensible enough to recognize that it was written to different audiences, and that each writing was in the vernacular of its time.
It also bears remarking that Christians, too, struggle with passages that seem to present God in harsh ways. As I argued early in this essay, we are utterly dependent on the goodness and sovereignty (ability to control history) of God. If God is not real and is not good, there is no hope. Period.
Our focus in this essay has been the passages about the “hardness” of God and, understandably, these passages are difficult to accept or understand. But if we object to God based on these hard passages, it is only fair to give God “credit” for those passages that make him attractive to us. The Bible is filled with complimentary passages about God. Here are a few examples: Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. – 1 John 4.7. For God so loved the world,that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. – John 3.16. Oh, that men would give thanks to the Lord for His goodness, and for His wonderful works to the children of men! For He satisfies the longing soul, and fills the hungry soul with goodness. Psalm 107:8-9. Here is my favorite verse: The Lord your God is in your midst, a mighty one who will save; he will rejoice over you with gladness; he will quiet you by his love; he will exult over you with loud singing. – Zephaniah 3.17.
These differences leave us with a few options. We can believe that God is capricious, or we can believe that he is a fabrication of various people with differing ideas, or we can believe that these different perspectives are complementary rather than contradictory. This last option is what Christians believe.
Most people today, because of the distorted concept of “liberty”, look to themselves as the final authority about life’s meaning. Making up one’s own mind about this issue is necessary, of course, but that is not the same thing as claiming authority. Each person lives a short while, has a few experiences, and fundamentally lives by trusting in the testimonies and reasonings of other people, present and past. Consider all the decisions you have made. How many big mistakes have you made? Consider what you or anyone else knows about the future, especially regarding what happens after death. Appointing ourselves as arbiters of truth is not just a shaky proposition—it is a clear recipe for failure.
What are your options for explaining the universe, really? The Christian option has its difficulties, certainly, but what other option is there that is not ridiculous or horrible…or both?