Most of the information in this post comes from Paul Copan’s book Is God a Moral Monster: Making Sense of the Old Testament God. It is an excellent resource for connecting the Old Testament with God’s justice and mercy in the New Testament.
The main complaint about our God by the new generation of atheists is that the God of the Old Testament is a harsh, unforgiving tyrant who is quick to anger and has a desperate need for praise and worship. He engages in genocide of the Canaanites and the Amalekites, for example, by telling Israel to wipe them out. Not only that, he even gives Israel weird, harsh and abusive laws to live by. These appear to be laws that endorse slavery and abuse women, among other things. All this to appease a God’s megalomania, believe the critics.
What that tells us is that they don’t know the Bible and they certainly don’t want to know God. Let’s leave aside for the moment the fact that God created humankind and the universe we live in and that therefore he owes us nothing.
By Abraham’s time the Amorites, the leading tribe among the inhabitants of the land known as Canaan, were already marked as great sinners. God was willing to give them an additional 400 years because their sinfulness was not sufficiently bad to do something about it. The Apostle Peter explains God’s reason for waiting before intervening in2 Pet. 3:9.
By the time Israel moved in the people of the land were so corrupt that, for example, many would burn their own babies alive as a sacrifice to a god known as Molech. I think I can see why this might irritate the God who told mankind to “be fruitful and multiply.”
Exodus 17 describes the reaction of the Amalekites to the appearance of Israel close to their border. Israel went around the Edomite lands after Edom’s leadership refused permission for entry to Israel. The Amalekites (an Edomite tribe) attacked a people who had no army without provocation. Amalekites were closely related to Israel through Esau, Jacob’s brother. The obvious undying hostility of this people to Israel so many centuries later is why God declares holy war.
The so-called genocidal side of God is much more tempered and reasonable than the critics will allow themselves to admit. Of course, this does not make those who wish to live as though God does not exist very happy, because there is eventually a Judgment on their actions. And that judgment is based on God’s rules, not our own human ideas.
What about the laws of the Old Testament. Aren’t they harsh and abusive? It depends on what you are comparing them to.
We tend to look at the Old Covenant law as out-of-date, crude and morally bankrupt, but we are actually missing the point. The point is that society at large in Old Testament times was already even more morally bankrupt, and that the law was intended to point Israel from where they were toward a better way of living.
The key is that change is hard. Imagine the Soviet Union, with all of its military might, trying to enlighten the “backward” tribes of a place like Afghanistan with Marxist doctrine, for example. Oh, right. They utterly failed and got their proverbial backsides handed to them in the process. Of course, a rapid imposition of American-style democracy is much more likely to succeed, right?
Of course not. If it happens at all, it takes time and a great deal of goodwill.
So how about Israel? How do you change an Egyptian-enculturated people to an entirely God-oriented, creationally-restored state in less than one generation?
You don’t. You try to do it incrementally – a bit at at time. You start from where they are and make improvements along the way.
For example, because of hardness of heart, God didn’t outlaw divorce. He allowed it in order to protect the life of a wife from a hard-hearted man in a society organized along patriarchal lines. He also prevented remarriage to the same man if the man had married someone else in the interim – to prevent a woman from being further abused by that man. In addition, unlike other nearby cultures he allowed the woman to remarry, since a divorced woman had few other options for making a living.
Yes, slavery was not abolished. It is important to note that Israel did not invent slavery, either. What God did in Israel was reinvent slavery – making it much more humane for Israelites who couldn’t make it on their own. You only got to “own” your slave for six years – after which you had to actually pay them out at the end of their term. (One might say that God invented the severance package.) God was subtly undermining the concept of slavery, turning into something more like our modern sense of paid employment. There was room and board for service, and payment at the end. It wasn’t perfect, but it was a lot better than what was practiced all around, and even in the American south.
Yes, women did not own property: unless their father had no male heirs. This is an improvement over the nations around. (Women like this were highly desirable as mates, but at least one of their kids probably had to take her family’s name.) What this meant is that women had a higher standing in Israel than in other nations around.
Yes, people, even youth, could be stoned to death for certain things, such as blasphemy, sabbath-breaking or even stubborn disobedience to parents. But there were rules to follow.
There had to be at least two witnesses and a fair trial in the case of blasphemy or murder. What the atheist fails to acknowledge is that the people had entered a covenant with God to worship, honor and obey only him. Blaspheming him certainly works counter to that covenant.
In many cases there had to be an element of blatant disobedience. Note that the context of the actual infractions immediately follows the spelling out of the command. God wanted Israel to understand that he is not to be trifled with. Blatant disregard of his instructions had to have consequences to establish a certain respect for God. Most parents understand how this works with children and youth. God was working on a national rather than individual scale.
It is important to understand also that God wasn’t giving Israel a pass when it comes to following his rules. “Most favoured nation status” was not a “get out of jail free card” for Israel. They would have their turn at national destruction at God’s hands when disobedience and evil got to the level of the previous occupants of Canaan.
My personal favorite in the “weird laws” department is the jealousy law in Numbers 5:11-31. If a man is intensely jealous and thinks his wife is having an affair, without evidence, he must see the priest with his wife. The priest sprinkles some dust from the floor of the tabernacle into a glass of water and makes her drink it after pronouncing a curse on her if she has been unfaithful.
If her womb shrivels up and she dies a horrible death he was right. End of problem.
If nothing happens, he is never allowed to accuse her again and is never allowed to divorce her or abuse her in any manner.
(Guys, if you want to get rid of her you have to get this one right the first time.)
Unlike other cultures around, he doesn’t just get to murder her. Unlike other cultures with a similar “test to the death” the mixture she drinks isn’t poisoned, which would require the gods to intervene to save her. You can imagine how often that happens. In this case Yahweh only intervenes if she is actually guilty. A definite improvement.
There are a couple of good angles from which you can approach the food laws of Leviticus 11.
Angle 1) Keeping within the kinds: Sea, Land and Air Animals. Don’t blur the categories.
Eating animals that are that are clearly of is symbolic of not mixing true and false religion by mixing with other nations. Why not eat unclean animals? God has limited himself to only one particular people, Israel. They limit themselves to serving God.
Angle 2) Fall, death and abnormality (Gen. 3)
Abnormality in appearance or function is a departure from God’s perfect creation. So anyone in God’s direct service and any animal offered to him as sacrifice must be without blemish in appearance and must be physically healthy and without defect in structure or senses.
Avoiding certain animals in sacrifice or for eating was not unusual. For instance, other Ancient Near Eastern cultures considered the pig an abomination, too!
What is interesting is to analyze the differences between “clean” and “unclean” animals. Some have noticed that Israel didn’t eat predatory animals, perhaps because they eat blood. We must respect the “life in the blood.” That’s why Jesus died via shed blood. (Lev. 17:14; Gen. 9:4; Exod. 22:31)
Don’t eat fish without scales and defenseless (hoofless) animals – victims of predation because they represent the alien, the widow, the orphan, the poor and the oppressed. Holiness and predatory activity (preying on the vulnerable of humanity) don’t mix. (Deut. 14:29; 16:11; Isa. 1:17)
In Paul Copan’s words, “Vaginal blood and semen are powerful symbols of life, but their loss symbolizes death.” Menstrual blood means a potential life has been lost. Spilled semen also represents the loss of potential life. Therefore to lose one of these fluids represented moving in the direction of death.
In the same way, cooking a kid in its mother’s milk is a mixture of life-giving milk with death of the kid this milk is supposed to keep alive. When you think of it, that is kind of disgusting. (Exo. 23:19) Similarly with killing a mother sheep or cow and its young on the same day. (Lev. 22:28)
Unlike other nations, Israel had certain restrictions regarding when they could have sex with their wives (not during their time of the month). This keeps wives from being entirely possessions to be used exclusively for male pleasure.
The law was designed to highlight the “holiness gap between Israelites and God. This placed them in a position to seek God’s grace and purification. Such was the role of animal sacrifice, which pictured an animal being sacrificed to substitute for the sinner. God, by grace, allows a substitute.
The same priciple applies in the story of Abraham being asked by God to sacrifice Isaac. They become a picture of God offering his own Son Jesus as the ultimate substitute for sin.
Copan notes that Richard Hess sees a pattern in the sequence of sacrifices in Leviticus:
- First: purification from sin offering
- Second: burnt offering indicating total dedication to God
- Third: fellowship or ordination offering
Hess (and presumably Copan) sees a parallel with how one becomes a true Christian. The Christian life begins by confession of sin, then dedication to God, and then fellowship with God. Even though Christ has fulfilled this part of the law, what it teaches remains valid.
One might even say that the New Covenant requires in reality what the Old Covenant required in symbol. That is why in Gal. 3:24-25 Paul calls the law a tutor to lead us to Christ. The law’s sacrifices, priesthood, even its holy days pointed forward to Christ as their ultimate fulfilment.
Just as a side note: Passover and Pentecost have obvious fulfilment in the Gospels and Acts. I leave it to you to find the fulfilment of the fall festivals of Trumpets, Atonement and Tabernacles in Christ. (The book of Hebrews is a good place to start regarding Atonement. Others might not be so easy unless you are looking for Christ’s return.)
The point of all this is that the objections of the New Atheists do not come from careful examination of the scriptures. It takes care and patience and study to understand the Old Testament and its several covenants. Yes, I said several. If you read carefully, you will see that God makes two covenants with Adam, one with Noah, at least two with Abraham (Ismael and Isaac), two with Israel, One with Aaron, one with Phinehas (Aaron’s grandson), with David, and with Solomon.
Jesus is the one that all of these covenants point to. Redemption in him is the goal they all