We just cannot avoid the fact that parts of the Old Testament depict God as a bloodthirsty warrior.
This is one of the reasons why Andy Stanley wants to unhitch from the Old Testament, and why Richard Dawkins has irreverently described God as “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.”
Now I have little time for Richard Dawkins’ tortured logic and misguided faith in humanism, but I cannot ignore the biblical grounds for his indictments.
Here are just two of the many troublesome passages of scripture:
A case of mass murder, kidnapping, and sex trafficking
Judges 21:1-23 records a disturbing event in the life of the people of God. Some of the men in
the village of Gibeah, in the territory of the tribe of Benjamin, raped and killed the concubine of a visiting Levite. Warriors from the other tribes gathered and decided to punish the offenders. However, the people of the tribe of Benjamin refused to hand them over and instead declared war on their fellow Israelites and massacred 25,000 of their warriors. The other tribes also lost many men and were so outraged that they swore an oath that in future they would not give any of their daughters in marriage to a man from the tribe of Benjamin. But, it wasn’t long before they realised that their oath would eventually result in the extermination of one of the 12 tribes, so they gathered to discuss the problem. All cities in Israel sent representatives to this meeting except Jabesh-Gilead and because of this, the others decided to send soldiers to that city to kill all its men and non-virgin women. They did this and then took the remaining 400 virgins and gave them to the men of Benjamin to have sex with.
Now they committed this unjust and barbarous act in the name of the God of Israel. They met together, prayed, offered up sacrifices and then came up with their macabre solution… so surely God had willed it. There is nothing in the biblical record to suggest that God had spoken to them, but this was their obvious conclusion. This is typical of several Old Testament accounts of apparent divine ‘evil’.
A sinister version of pick-up-sticks
Numbers 15:32-36 records a more clear-cut case, which reads: ‘While the Israelites were in the desert, a man was found gathering wood on the Sabbath day. Those who found him gathering wood brought him to Moses and Aaron and the whole assembly, and they kept him in custody because it was not clear what should be done to him. Then the LORD said to Moses, “The man must die. The whole assembly must stone him outside the camp.” So the assembly took him outside the camp and stoned him to death, as the LORD commanded Moses’. We don’t know why the man was violating the commandment to do no work on the Sabbath. Perhaps he needed to make a fire to cook his food and had been too sick to gather the wood the day before – we just don’t know. However, it seems that Moses enquired of God what to do and believed that God’s answer was that the poor man should be stoned to death! Now, what are we to do with this?
Is God really petty and harsh?
Perhaps He was setting an example of what would happen to defiant Sabbath-breakers? But hang on a moment, didn’t Jesus Christ later say; “If you had known what these words mean, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent. For the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath”? (Matthew 12:7-8) Moreover, to make it even clearer He said, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27-28).
Some theologians try to justify God’s apparent Old Testament ‘atrocities’ by claiming that He was righteous and judicial in ordering slaughter, mayhem, and stomach-wrenching barbarism. These atrocities include the slaughter of half a million Israelites at the hands of their fellow ‘children of God’ (2 Chronicles 13:17), the eradication of everyone (including children) living in Heshbon (Deuteronomy 2:32-35), and 42 children mauled by bears for calling a prophet ‘baldy’! (2 Kings 2:23-24)
When we encounter these incidents in scriptures, we can respond in one of three ways.
- We can reason that God must have had a good reason for acting no better than a pagan deity of the nations surrounding Israel;
- OR that we must just accept these portrayals of God because they are in the infallible scriptures and must, therefore, be true depictions of aspects of God’s nature;
- OR that something else is going on here that we need to understand.
I believe that the scriptures are inspired and trustworthy, but that something else must be going on here. Why? Because Jesus Christ presented a portrait of the Godhead that is radically at odds with the sort of portrayals I have been describing. Jesus is ‘the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being. (Hebrews 1:3). He is ‘the image of the invisible God’ (Colossians 1:15) for ‘God was pleased to have all His fullness dwell in Him’ (Colossians 1:19).
So, ask yourself the question: ‘Would Jesus say and do the things attributed to God in the problematic Old Testament passages?’ No, He would not! Therefore, something else must be going on here.
There is plenty of evidence in the Old Testament that the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is good, loving and righteous, so we need to seriously interrogate the passages that appear to contradict this. Dr Gregory Boyd is the latest Christian scholar attempting to do just this. He recently wrote a two-volume, 1 492 page, book titled ‘The Crucifixion of the Warrior God’. Here is a link to a video of Greg summarising his book for us. Fortunately for us ordinary folk, he condensed his Magnum Opus down into a much smaller book called ‘Cross Vision: How the Crucifixion of Jesus Makes Sense of Old Testament Violence’. His main thesis is that the Old Testament characters, such as Moses, were so influenced by the gods of the ancient near east that they projected their characteristics onto the God of Israel. He also believes that the scriptures are the result of a cooperation between selected men and God and that any barbarism portrayed is the result of the human author’s limited understanding of God’s true nature. He holds that God allowed these misrepresentations to stand in the sacred text because of His compassionate accommodation of human frailty and because He wanted the Bible to be an accurate record of how His people saw Him and the world. For Dr Boyd, Jesus is the final revelation of God’s character and nature and so His disclosure of the Godhead trumps all other disclosures.
The fact that God revealed His true nature in and through Jesus Christ is important to all of us.
Decoding the Bible through a Jesus-centred lens is the only satisfactory way of making sense of Old Testament ‘blood and guts’ passages and the equally bemusing New Testament accounts such as the killing of Ananias and his wife (Acts 5:1-11).
It also helps us realise that there is no darkness in God and that we can trust in His loving-kindness towards us. We can love God for who He truly is rather than fearing Him because of who others think He is. A Christocentric interpretation of scripture also helps us appreciate the entire Bible, Old and New Testaments, as God-breathed and reliable.