Squaring the Culture

"...and I will make justice the plumb line, and righteousness the level;
then hail will sweep away the refuge of lies,
and the waters will overflow the secret place."
Isaiah 28:17

08/21/2008 (8:56 am)

That Mean Old Testament God

I’ve been dividing my attention the last few days because I’m devoting myself to studying Christian apologetics while at the same time attempting to maintain a political blog. This morning, I surrender. I’ve been reading Richard Dawkins’ book The God Delusion, and I’ve been reading a discussion by philosophy professor Paul Copan about the Old Testament God entitled “Is Yahweh a Moral Monster?”. Both address the charge that the Old Testament God is a narcissistic, querulous old goat. You get to hear my thoughts — because I’m a narcissistic, querulous old goat.

The complaint about how angry the Old Testament God seems usually comes from people who don’t read the OT regularly. I’ve been studying the OT on and off for 35 years, and I can attest that this view is a mistake. The OT God is a good parent but a real softy; He’s got a powerful touch, but he’s patient almost to a fault. If you want to see what He’s like when He decides enough is enough, you have to visit the Apocalypse of John in the New Testament.

Dawkins in his book fills an entire paragraph with negative adjectives to describe the Old Testament God. Christopher Hitchens, in his rant god Is Not Great, fills the book with them (Frank Turek pointed out that Hitchens’ entire thesis is “God does not exist, and I really hate Him.”) Neither has the excuse that they don’t read the Old Testament enough to understand it, the way most other people do; theirs is a more deliberate obtuseness, I’m afraid. But they’re making pretty much the same errors everybody else makes.

The three basic errors one makes when calling Yahweh a monster (there are more, but I’m limiting myself) are anthropomorphism, parochialism, and the assumption of finality. In English, please: people tend to imagine that God is a man, people tend to judge other cultures as though their own culture is perfect, and people seem to think Old Testament law was supposed to be the ultimate in human law.

Anthropomorphism first. God is not a man, and it’s never proper to apply God’s laws to God as though He had to obey them. They emanate from His character, but the laws are really for us, and it’s not even possible for God to break them. God cannot steal, for example, because everything already belongs to Him. God cannot bear false witness because to speak falsehood violates the nature of God. God cannot commit murder because God already takes all lives — God is the one who controls who lives and who dies, and at what age. God is going to take every one of our lives someday. The thing that makes murder wrong for us is that we’re not God, but we’re taking for ourselves a decision that belongs to God, the decision regarding the length of another person’s life; murder is thus actually a form of blasphemy. Furthermore, where death seems to us to be final, God knows the dead as well as He does the living. To God, taking a person’s life is like moving that person from the Cincinnati office to the Philadelphia office; they haven’t gone away, they’ve just changed states(1).

We do well to remember that God is not a man whenever the Old Testament prophets offer us God using the language of human emotions, as well. God is “jealous,” and regards the worship of idols as “adultery,” according to the prophet Hosea. Skeptics jeer at what they call God’s narcissism, but they’re being silly. To infer that God is narcissistic because He’s using the language of a human lover is about as sensible as to infer, when the Psalmist says “God will enfold you under His wings,” that God is a great, big hen. It’s a metaphor. It communicates something about eternal, infinitely loving Deity that goes beyond the ability of human language to describe, so He defers to our limitations and offers it in terms that have a similar emotional force to us. We understand marital intimacy and the feelings that attach to it; He wants us to understand that breaking intimacy with Him is more egregious than that, and egregious along the same lines.

Next, parochialism. It’s also an error to judge the Ancient Near East as though they were responsible to observe modern laws. Parochialism is the tendency of humans to assume that their own way of doing things is the right way. We all tend to do it, and it’s always a mistake. We need to judge them by their own standards, not by ours. It’s not that there are no absolute moral standards — there are, and they don’t change — but that their responses to those absolute standards were shaped by their culture, not by ours.

I can’t see any good reason to assert that 21st century sensibilities are necessarily better than those of the 2nd millennium BC in all areas, especially if we’re talking about 21st century, post-modern, Marxist-influenced, multicultural utopianism, which is less a system of moral thinking than it is a social disease, IMHO. Ours is a grotesquely immoral culture. There were more murders in the 20th century by governments killing their own citizens than there were murders of all sorts by all people of all prior ages, combined. And if you think that’s just because of modern technology, think again; the Soviets managed to off perhaps 70 million people mostly by withholding proper food and medical attention, and the Rwandans did in half a million people in 3 weeks using machetes and spears. And that’s just murders; let’s talk about the sexual incontinence that’s killing an entire continent(2), and has unleashed an epidemic of venereal diseases here in America (80 million suffering from HPV or genital herpes infection — and no, condoms don’t stop the spread of viral diseases. Birth control is not disease control.) And then we can talk about consumerism, shallowness, greed, narcissism, cowardice… My immediate, internal reaction to anybody accusing God of immorality is usually “Look who’s talking.” The point is not that our immorality excuses God’s, but rather that the likelihood that our assessment of God is lucid, given our own moral distortion, is zero. If we even have a shred of ability to judge what’s moral, it comes from God Himself, and reflects His character; to judge Him as though we were sufficiently moral to do so is logically absurd.

But even granting that modern sensibilities show more compassion and restraint than ancient ones, it’s senseless to think God should have imposed our morality on the Ancient Near East culture and made them act like us. This is the third major error, supposing that it would have been appropriate for God to just tell them, “Stop acting like Ancient Near Easterners, and start acting like 21st century citizens.” That would never have worked.

We’ve just endured 5 years of the Bush administration attempting to impose Jeffersonian democracy on a modern middle eastern culture in Iraq. Jeffersonian egalitarianism and natural rights are Enlightenment concepts; they took hold in the West, not in the Middle East. Making those concepts work in a middle eastern military force, let alone a middle eastern government, was hair-pulling, crazy hard. Attempting to impose the whole of 21st century sensibility on the Ancient Near East would have been many orders of magnitude harder.

So, what’s a God to do? What He did was offer them a set of laws that looks pretty much like Ancient Near East laws at first blush, but on reflection, contains all sorts of concepts that bend the laws in a better direction. We know what Ancient Near East laws look like; we have several other codes outside the Hebrew code. In Hittite culture, for one example, men could rape female slaves without penalty. The Hebrew code acknowledged this — but made it the responsibility of the man to care for the slave her entire life, adding “You can’t divorce her, ever; you have to protect her thereafter.” And it offered an object lesson: “…for you were slaves yourself, in the land of Egypt. Remember what that was like?” In addition to creating an incentive not to blithely satisfy one’s immediate sexual craving, God humanized slaves for the first time. God did not expect the Ancient Near East to change overnight, but He introduced corrective concepts that reflect a better way. He added similar concepts to the laws of property rights, marital relations, punishments for crimes, etc. In every case, it was “You’re Ancient Near East folks, but there are concepts we need to add;” concepts which, if taken to their logical conclusion, will eventually have the effect of obliterating the Ancient Near East practice and replacing it with something more humane.

The added concepts provided cues that later civilization could notice and respond to. Thus, 12th century Dominicans, observing that God modified Old Testament slavery practice on the basis that humans carried inherent dignity as His creation, decided that it was simply wrong to own slaves at all, and abolished slavery in their monasteries — the first time in human history that slavery was actually outlawed.(3) This eventually became the law of the West, as Westerners gradually adopted the morality inherent in the Old Testament concepts that tempered the Old Testament laws, rather than mindlessly apply the laws themselves.

The point is that Moses’ laws were never intended to be the ultimate in human law, they were intended to be a marginal improvement in Ancient Near East law that could eventually lead to a more humane ethic. For this reason, the correct answer to the question, “Why didn’t God’s law require them to act humanely, like we do,” is “It did — it just took about 3000 years to produce the desired effect.” Did you imagine that we arrived at a more humane ethic because we’re inherently more humane, ourselves? Of course, we’re not. God instructed us, and eventually we got the message.

I hope that this little talk makes it possible to at least read the Old Testament without completely getting lost in your reactions. Comparing our own culture to the Ancient Near East is not like comparing apples to oranges, it’s like comparing apples to kangaroos. They were completely different in every imaginable way. And yet, viewing how God treated them gives us good instruction to understand how God treats us — so long as we’re humble enough to recognize that we’re as backward in our own way as they were in theirs.

(1) Yes, I see the pun. I, myself, recently moved from the state of Pennsylvania to the state of marital bliss. Please be assured that by this, I do not mean “Massachusetts.”

(2) Yes, I see the pun. Can you have sexual incontinence in continents?

(3) There were actually earlier civilizations that did not practice slavery; they replaced human slavery with human sacrifice, though. Both answer the question, “what do we do with those people we just conquered?” It took the progressive revelation of God’s character to suggest to later civilizations that perhaps they could solve the dilemma better by refraining from conquering peoples altogether.

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August 22, 2008 @ 9:23 am #

Excellent work. You get an “A” in Apologetics.

May I suggest;


Perhaps you’ve already heard of them.

(Author’s note: no, I hadn’t. Thanks.)

July 29, 2009 @ 8:51 pm #

I found your site because I’m studying the Old Testament now. I am admittedly a novice at Bible studies. At this point, I have to say I’m not convinced by what the Old Testament has to say. I know that God has a special place in his heart for the Jewish people because Jesus was, after all, a Jew. However, I can’t find much faith in the fact that God seemingly has absolutely no care for the rest of humanity in the Old Testament – only the Jews. Were all of the Egyptians, Moabites, Philistines, Phoenicians, etc. all so filthy that God couldn’t reveal his divinity to them so that they too may know everlasting life? Moreover, for the most part, the kings of Israel were not first rate material and the Jews themselves were wont to worship idols. This is hard to square since in those times God revealed himself so frequently and forcefully to his people. How are we supposed to believe on faith alone when the Jews would backslide unless God was standing there in the flesh shaking his finger at them? In the New Testament, I see the hand of a loving God concerned with the salvation of all that thirst to know the one true God. In the Old Testment I can’t see anything but ethnocentric mythology of a people that quite honestly were not very godly and were certainly never the most powerful nation that the world had ever seen (as God supposedly told Solomon(?) they would be).

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