Monday, February 11, 2019

Anonymous Asks (26)

“Why is God so morbidly violent in the Old Testament?”

This is certainly God’s Old Testament reputation among unbelievers and the aggressively anti-Christian, isn’t it? I love to quote Richard Dawkins on this subject, since his description is possibly the most vitriolic I’ve ever encountered: “The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.”

Well, at least he said “arguably”. Good. I’m going to argue it.

My own conviction is that people who rant on about the nastiness of Jehovah really don’t know very much about him. Where Old Testament history is concerned, they are uniformly unread. From Dawkins right down to evangelical YouTube preacher Andy Stanley, all Jehovah’s detractors pretty much assume their own conclusions. To date, I have yet to see any of them deal with the perfectly valid counterarguments to their absolutely false thesis.

So without further ado, here are five reasons the God of the Old Testament is really not so bad. In fact, if you read the Old Testament carefully and frequently, you may well come away convinced he could not possibly behave any other way.

 His interventions in history are comparatively rare

It is certainly true that lots of people died in the Old Testament as a result of God’s direct, personal interventions in history. But what is not often considered is how infrequent these supernatural judgments really were. I know there are disputes about Old Testament dates, but for the sake of argument let’s use the most conservative possible chronology currently in circulation. (Being conservative is important for the sake of this particular argument because we want to use the shortest conceivable intervals between judgments. Experts who reject the much-maligned James Ussher chronology would need to use even greater intervals between God’s judgments.)

Assuming we accept as a bare minimum interval the dates Ussher calculated, here are the intervals between major judgments that may be directly attributed to God:
  • Between Creation and the Flood, over 1600 years.
  • Between the Flood and Sodom and Gomorrah, 350 years.
  • Between Sodom and Gomorrah and the plagues of Egypt, roughly 600 years.
  • Between the plagues of Egypt and the plagues on Israel in the wilderness, part of one generation.
  • Between the plagues on Israel in the wilderness and the destruction of Samaria by Assyria, 700 years.
  • Between the destruction of Samaria and the destruction of Jerusalem by Babylon, 120 years.
  • Between the first destruction of Jerusalem and the second, to Rome in A.D. 70, 670 years.
All dates are approximate. I am leaving out so-called “judgments” which could be attributed to to commonplace wars between nations, not because God does not claim ultimate responsibility for many of them in scripture, but because they are not obviously supernatural events. Throughout history, these have always piled up the body count, but the extent to which we can call them direct and personal judgments on nations and peoples is at very least arguable, depending on your worldview. I am, however, including the various Israelite and Jewish diasporas, notwithstanding the fact that they were inflicted by proxy, because of their overwhelming significance in history and scripture, not just for the Jews but for the world. A judgment by proxy on, say, Tyre or even Egypt, does not remotely rise to that level of importance.

In any case, what we can definitely observe here is that God’s direct, personal judgments of nations and peoples are exceedingly rare. Generation after generation after generation passes, often very wickedly indeed, during which the God of the Old Testament appears to bypass the issue of human sin entirely. This is the very argument made by the apostle Paul in Athens: “The times of ignorance God overlooked.”

Paul’s take is exactly right. Rather than asking why God judged so much in the OT, we might well ask why he didn’t judge more.

 His interventions were always preceded by lengthy warning periods

The Old Testament reveals God as exceedingly reluctant to judge sin. His preference is always that men should repent and enjoy better outcomes. This is why he sent the reluctant Israelite prophet Jonah to the Assyrian capital of Nineveh to warn of his imminent judgment: he doesn’t like doing it. He told Jonah precisely that, and Jonah complained bitterly about it, because he knew it to be 100% true:
“O Lord, is not this what I said when I was yet in my country? That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster.”
Jonah was desperately eager for the Assyrians to get their comeuppance for their terrible assaults on the country of his birth, but God was eager for the Assyrians to repent and save themselves from his wrath.

As evidence of God’s reluctance to judge, we may observe that his interventions in human history have always been preceded by lengthy periods of warning, in which he urges the evildoers to stop doing evil so that he can avoid meting out upon them the consequences of their actions:
  • Before the Flood, Noah preached righteousness a bare minimum of 55 years, perhaps as much as 75.
  • In the case of Sodom and Gomorrah, God announced his intentions in advance to Abraham so that the very best and most-loved of all available men could intercede for the cities. It was decided that if ten righteous men could be found in Sodom, God would relent from judging. Needless to say, Sodom came up short.
  • In the case of the ten plagues of Egypt, Pharaoh had ten separate opportunities to repent. Each plague was accompanied by an opportunity to avert it.
  • In the case of the plagues on Israel in the wilderness, each one came prefaced by specific warnings in the Law of Moses, a bilateral covenant into which every Israelite entered voluntarily.
  • In the case of the destruction of Samaria, God gave repeated warnings over generations through the prophets Joel, Amos, Hosea, Isaiah, Micah and Zephaniah, among others. Almost half the recorded prophecy of the Old Testament is God warning Israel to repent.
  • In the case of the first destruction of Jerusalem, God gave repeated warnings over generations through the prophets Jeremiah, Habakkuk, Ezekiel and Obadiah. The second biggest chunk of recorded prophecy in the OT is God warning Judah not to do what Israel did.
  • In the case of the second destruction of Jerusalem, God sent his Son to make a final appeal to rebellious Jews. Matthew’s gospel records this effort in its entirety. But Jesus was not God’s first attempt to implore the Jews to repent. Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi, not to mention John the Baptist, had all tried first.
The effort may not have ended well, but that was not God’s fault. No sane person who looks at the history of God’s appeals to his people could rightly refer to him as bloodthirsty.

 His interventions always made things better for good people

Destroying bad people is not always an end in itself. It happens because bad people hurt good people, and God can only tolerate that sort of nastiness for so long. To do otherwise would be to minimize the value of good in the world and to allow the wicked perpetual dominance.

In the case of the Canaanites, they sacrificed their own children to various deities, incinerating them on altars like animals. Modern archaeologists have found confirming evidence of Canaanite sacrifices, right down to burial jars full of burned infant bones.

By refusing to step in and judge the sins of determinately evil civilizations, God would have effectively condemned the good people among them to further generations of abuse, persecution and death, and innocent children more than anyone.

Does that seem reasonable?

 The very people he punished perceived him as excessively gracious

Critics who fuss about the nastiness of the Old Testament God have apparently not read what his own followers said on his behalf. Here is how God’s people spoke about him:

In Exodus 33, when God says, “I will not go up among you, lest I consume you on the way”, the people of Israel mourned. That’s right, they begged God to change his mind, notwithstanding the very obvious danger to them. This is right after about 3,000 Israelites had been struck down for idolatry. Evidently those that remained did not see their God as “vindictive, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic or capriciously malevolent,” notwithstanding Richard Dawkins’ characterization. Why would they? The upside of being God’s people was too great.

David wrote, “The Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. The Lord is good to all, and his mercy is over all that he has made.” This was not merely one man’s opinion. It was a psalm. Israelites sang it for generations.

The Psalms and Prophets are full of these sorts of things.

 The God of the New Testament is just as “morbidly violent”

If you have a problem with the character of God in the Old Testament, you ought to have just as big a problem with his character in the New. Here is “gentle Jesus, meek and mild”, glorified and assuming his rightful position in this world:
“Then I saw heaven opened, and behold, a white horse! The one sitting on it is called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he judges and makes war … He is clothed in a robe dipped in blood … From his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron. He will tread the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty.

Then I saw an angel standing in the sun, and with a loud voice he called to all the birds that fly directly overhead, ‘Come, gather for the great supper of God, to eat the flesh of kings, the flesh of captains, the flesh of mighty men, the flesh of horses and their riders, and the flesh of all men, both free and slave, both small and great.’ ”
This rather violent portrayal of Jesus is not restricted to the book of Revelation. It is the way the glorified Christ is consistently portrayed by his apostles. Peter says, “the Lord knows how … to keep the unrighteous under punishment until the day of judgment.” Jude declares, “Jesus, who saved a people out of the land of Egypt, afterward destroyed those who did not believe.” And the conclusion of the book of Hebrews reads like this: “See that you do not refuse him [Jesus] who is speaking. For if they did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth, much less will we escape if we reject him who warns from heaven … our God is a consuming fire.”

In Brief

The picture of Jesus as exclusively loving and forgiving is a false one. The picture of Jehovah as exclusively terrifying and destructive is equally false. Both Testaments insist on the unity of God’s character.

The hackneyed, false “nasty Old Testament God” trope needs to go away. Its proponents are simply ignorant of scripture.

1 comment :

  1. Thanks for this very well researched and informative article. I have sent it to those I know some of whom had this wrong notion.