“The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all of 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.”
– Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion)
Gee, Richard, tell us how you really feel.
As the world’s best known and most gleefully antagonistic atheist, Richard Dawkins doesn’t pull punches. But is he, in the words of the immortal bard Donald Trump, “telling it like it is?”
Not really. Dawkins himself has admitted that the infamous quote above doesn’t reflect a wholly honest assessment of the God of the Bible, and, in fact, was crafted first and foremost as a comedic bit of hyperbole to get a laugh at public addresses. Which it does. Quite effectively.
But still. It is a little bit accurate, isn’t it? I mean, God did command the Israelites to kill a whole mess of Canaanites, whose primary offense was pitching their tents on the wrong piece of Middle Eastern dirt at the wrong time. They were, in the words of our English Bibles, “devoted to destruction” or “devoted to the Lord.” Killed. Wiped out.
That seems to fit the definition of “genocide,” does it not? What are we supposed to think about that? How should we respond? “No, our God isn’t a genocidal bully, he’s a genocidal God of love!”
So we try to change the subject by appealing to Jesus. “Yes, but Jesus! Isn’t he a nice fellow? Look! Here he is holding a little lamb … and playing with children … and cross-stitching Bible verses onto tiny pillows…” Pay no attention to that Old Testament God behind the curtain! We’ve got a much nicer God today! An upgrade! God 2.0! And there is some truth to that, not in the sense that God has changed, but in the sense that Jesus is a clearer picture of who God is. What the Israelites saw from a distance the apostles saw face to face. So there’s that.
But still. All those Canaanites.
At some point we really have to look the OT God in the face and give some rational explanation for what we see. And that’s what I’m going to do. Or at least attempt to do. I’ve got 3 points, because pastors everywhere say that’s the right number of points to have. And here we go …
First, the good news: God’s OT record might not actually be as bad as we’ve been led to believe. No really. Hear me out. I owe this idea to my friend John Walton, a leading OT scholar and frequent guest on my podcast, who is writing a book on this very topic. Walton points out that the language we have in our English Bibles today – all that “devoting to destruction” – might actually be misleading. Misinterpreted. There’s a very tricky Hebrew word in question here – the word herem. To herem has typically been translated to the English phrases “devote to destruction” or “devote to the Lord.”
Based on extensive research into ancient near eastern thought and writing, Walton now believes a more nuanced reading of herem would be to “make ineligible for human use.” To mark something or someone as “off limits.” He gives the example of a demilitarized zone, like the strip of land in between North and South Korea. No one can enter that zone. It is not eligible for human use. It has been put under herem. So when a whole tribe of people was put under herem, Walton believes, rather than destroyed, they were ruled out for intermarrying or assimilation by the Israelites. No cohabiting. In other words, the command to herem wasn’t a command to kill, it was more accurately a command to “evict.”
This interpretation actually fits better with the language God himself uses in the OT to describe his intent with the inhabitants of Canaan. Rather than saying “I will destroy them,” God repeatedly tells Israel “I will drive them out.” Eviction was the intent. Not destruction.
Of course, not everyone is willing to be evicted. When a tribe or part of a tribe refused the eviction notice, a military action was required to clear the land for God’s purposes. But the ensuing deaths in those cases, Walton argues, were consequences of war, not genocide.
This doesn’t eliminate the fact that people were killed at the command of God, but it does dispense with the charge of outright genocide. So about that killing … how was that “okay?”
Here’s a question for you. A lot of people died in World War II. Some were killed by the bad guys (Nazis! Boo!), but others were killed by the good guys. By us. Even innocent civilians, during bombings of German and Japanese cities. Some people have argued that this killing was evil and should never have happened. But most historians – and ethicists – believe at least some of the civilian death was justified for the reason that it brought an end to a war which, had it dragged on, would have killed many, many more civilians.
In other words, there is, in some cases, a moral calculus to be done that can justify something we would normally decry – the death of civilians – if the outcome is the avoidance of death for many, many more. A terrorist is driving a car bomb toward a crowded market, and you can take him out with a drone strike that has a 20% chance of killing more than just the terrorist. Moral calculus. We hate it, but we realize it is a necessary part of facing down evil. World leaders, gathered around tables in darkened rooms, make these calculations everyday.
And then, for some reason, we deny the creator of the universe the right to make the same calculations. What was the state of the world when God birthed the nation of Israel? The world was estranged from Him, sinking in its own evil. Broken. What did God want to do? Save His world from evil. Bring it back to wholeness. What did that initially require? The establishment of a nation set apart for His purposes. A nation distinct from all those around it. To accomplish this plan required moral calculus. Actions that were not in the best interest of some (especially those who actively resisted), for the benefit of all.
Here’s the reality: Who do you trust more with this sort of moral calculus? A handful of fallen humans in a dark room staring at grainy video screens, or the all-knowing, all-seeing creator of the universe? I’m going with the creator of the universe every time. If He believes the decisions made during the occupation of Canaan were necessary for the good of all of us, I’m feeling like I should give him the benefit of the doubt. He is, after all, God. And I am not.
(Ironically, if there is no God, it’s still difficult to say the Israelites were wrong in what they did since displacing competing tribes in the ancient world was about as common as buying large tubs of cheeseballs at Costco is today. Either God commanded the invasion and justified it with his own divine moral calculus, or it was just another “day at the office” for the constantly warring tribes of the ancient near east.)
And point #3
“Okay – so maybe the killing wasn’t as bad as we’ve been led to believe (point #1), and perhaps there is some moral calculus that justifies the Israelites’ actions as being for the greater good (point #2). Still. God allowed – commanded actually – the killing of innocent people. I can’t get over that.”
A valid point. I don’t think any of us particularly like the idea of a “God of love” who occasionally turns on an innocent person and says, “You don’t deserve this, but –.”
But then we have to back up and ask a different question. Who is innocent?
No, really. Are you innocent? Am I innocent? Sometimes we completely forget the most basic of Christian teaching.
“For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”
All humanity has sinned. Who is innocent? No one. And what is the penalty for sin? What has humanity “earned” by rebelling against God?
“For the wages of sin is death.”
So who deserves the death penalty for their crimes? We all do. All of humanity. You. Me. Hitler. Mother Teresa. Billy Graham. Everyone. Now, you can say, “I don’t like that!” But you can’t say, “That’s not biblical!” You may in fact not like it, but it is in fact what the Bible teaches. We have all earned death.
So when plagues struck down Egyptians, or when Israelites struck down Canaanites, or when the ground opened up and swallowed Israelites, was God acting unjustly? Not at all. Those Egyptians, Canaanites and Israelites were, in fact, getting what they deserved. What they had earned.
Which leads to a much deeper, more theologically vital question: If a certain number of Egyptians, Canaanites and even Israelites died for their sins, why haven’t we all? Why haven’t we ALL gotten what we deserve?
And now we find ourselves face to face with the central attribute that ties together the God of both the Old and New Testaments – the fire-breathing OT God and the lamb-snuggling Jesus:
I have not died for my sins because of God’s great love for me. Out of his mercy (withholding of just punishment), I am granted a life I have not earned. Instead of paying the price for my own sins, God himself stepped in and paid the price. God died for my sins so I wouldn’t have to.
Suddenly we find a cohesive God across the entire Bible. A God whose justice demands payment for crime, but whose love and mercy steps in front of the firing squad and takes the bullet for us.
Is God a genocidal bully? Richard Dawkins’ God, perhaps. But Richard Dawkins has a very poor grasp of the God of the Old or New Testament. And that’s too bad, because I think Richard Dawkins would like the real God as much as the real God likes Richard Dawkins.
Want More Tricky Questions?
IS GOD SELFISH? (TRICKY QUESTION #1)
IS GOD CRUEL? (TRICKY QUESTION #2)
IS GOD “AN OLD MAN IN THE SKY?” (TRICKY QUESTION #3)
IS GOD LIKE SANTA CLAUS? (TRICKY QUESTION #4)
IS GOD A GENOCIDAL BULLY? (TRICKY QUESTION #5)
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