“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.”
– Richard Dawkins, author of The God Delusion
Where does Richard Dawkins find these adjectives about God?
Is he right?
if you Google “Horrible Bible verses”, you’ll find all sorts of fun websites that list out the exact verses Dawkins is drawing these conclusions from.
1 Samuel 15:2-3 is a good summary example of these types of verses: 2 This is what the Lord Almighty says: ‘I will punish the Amalekites for what they did to Israel when they waylaid them as they came up from Egypt. 3 Now go, attack the Amalekites and totally destroy all that belongs to them. Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys.’”
There are several key preconceived ideas Dawkins and those with his agenda bring to Scripture that drastically color the way they view it:
1. Rebellion against God (sin) isn’t a big deal
2. God has no right to judge people
3. All of the focus is on judgment, none of it on rescue. (Whereas in reality, the overarching story of the Bible is a story of rescue.)
I could do a separate blog post on each of these notions, but the key theme to all of them is the perception that we are gods. Dawkins, like the rest of us, wants to be god of his own life, therefore he approaches God as if he (Dawkins) is the judge, not God. This is the same thing that Adam and Eve did, and is the same thing we do whenever we sin. You will never convince or persuade someone that God is God (and to read his Scriptures as such) if that person holds fast to desiring to be their own god / judge.
Onto the practical aspect of these texts…These texts are still Scripture. They are still God’s authoritative truth to us. So how do we read, understand, and explain them, without having to be so embarrassed and confused by them?
The key to understanding the challenging texts of the Old Testament is to understand that God’s chosen people, the Israelites, were chosen by him to be a light to the world. Isaiah 49:6 tells us plainly what the purpose of the people of God was in the Old Testament: I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring my salvation to the ends of the earth.
Everything that happened in the Old Testament was meant to either shine this light or was meant to keep this light from going out. A key component to this light was the land God had promised his people as part of the covenant they made with him. (See Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28 for how this land would shine this light if the Israelites stayed faithful, and vice versa). This was the land promised to Abraham in Genesis 12 and entered by Moses/Joshua ~800 years later.
If you were to go to China to tell them about Jesus, what language would you speak? Chinese, obviously.
If you were to go to the Ancient Near East, what language and culture would you use to show them the light of the true God? Theirs.
So what was their language and culture in how they understood deity and faith?
This was a very polytheistic culture (belief in many gods), and those gods were constantly competing. This was an agrarian culture and a conquering / militaristic culture. If your army beat my army, it meant your god was more powerful (more real) than mine. If your crops were bigger than my crops and your animals fatter than mine, it also meant your gods were better than mine.
So what would be a way that God could reveal himself to this world in a way they’d understand him as the most powerful and most real God of them all? By having his people’s land be fertile and peaceful. This is what would draw people to his salvation. And he put in place all sorts of laws (many of which we now find strange) to set apart his people, making it externally obvious who the people who follow him are, and that it’s no coincidence they have the most fertile land and the most peaceful existence.
There was also the reality that in a barbaric, raiding, warring culture, the Israelites had to protect themselves. The people they were attacking weren’t neutral parties but were legitimate enemies who were more often on the offensive than on the defensive and had their sights set on the Israelites lives, their children’s lives, their flocks, and all of their possessions. We are talking barbaric raping and mutilation here. If this were your family, you can bet you’d be fighting back as well. The truth is, it is impossible for us to understand what it was like in the barbaric era of 1450 B.C. and when we dismiss God because 2015 A.D. is so much more advanced (by God’s grace) than 1450 B.C. was, we are doing ourselves a great disservice and we are missing the point of what the Old Testament is trying to show us.
The hard truth is that every person and nation on earth deserves God’s judgment, because we are all sinners (what Dawkins etc. disagree with). So when we read Scripture with this understanding, while the judgment that happens isn’t pleasant (it was never pleasant for God either), we see it is just. We should be thankful we have a God who is against the barbaric rape of children, sacrificing of children, sexual orgies full of forced prostitution and the many other acts of violence and idolatry associated with the Amalekites and other neighboring cultures of this time period. For us to question his judgment of these things puts us in a precarious position.
We see in the Old Testament how God was preserving the light of his people, so that the entire world would eventually have the opportunity to be saved. Giving the world the opportunity to be saved is a very loving thing.
What if the Israelites’ light (faith) had been permanently extinguished? (Which could have happened if some of these pagan groups had been allowed to remain in the Israelites’ vicinity, sadly including the children and the cultural idols they would have identified with)
No Israelites / Jews.
No Jesus (who came in the Jewish bloodline of King David).
We ought to praise God that He graciously preserved the light of the Israelites in the Old Testament. And we ought to take sober warning that sin definitely deserves judgment. Whether that comes in the form of a flood, the earth opening up, fire coming from heaven, or any army devastating a land. (And it’s very important to note that he used the same judgment on his followers. There wasn’t preferential treatment of one ethnicity over another, it was a preservation of the light. God used the Assyrians and Babylonians to bring judgment on the Israelites; look no further than the entire book of Lamentations describing this. Also note the hundreds of years of warning given to the people before this judgement happened!)
In looking at this sobering judgment, we also must see that it all points to God’s rescue. A rescue that none of us deserve. And a rescue that is offered to all.
Which part of these verses stand out to you? Which part do you think stands out to Richard Dawkins?
Romans 2:4-5 Or do you show contempt for the riches of his kindness, tolerance and patience, not realizing that God’s kindness leads you toward repentance? But because of your stubbornness and your unrepentant heart, you are storing up wrath against yourself for the day of God’s wrath, when his righteous judgment will be revealed.
Sin incurs the wrath of a Holy God.
Without wrath, there’s no need for forgiveness.
Without the need for forgiveness, there’s no need for a Savior.
Thank God the story of the Bible is a story of rescue.
Thank God He doesn’t give us what we all deserve.
Thank God He never gives up on us.
John 3:17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.
It’s not easy to understand all of this. And it’s impossible to put ourselves in the year 1450 B.C. to really see what it was like. But it is essential that as Christian we understand the Bible as God’s consistent word, and not pick and choose the parts we like. Once you start picking and choosing, the authority of the entire thing goes out the window.
And a final thought: it’s amazing how upset we get about guilty people being justly killed in the Bible, but how we typically don’t bat an eye at the only innocent person who’s ever lived, Jesus Christ, being unjustly killed for the sins of the guilty.
Other posts in this series:
- Understanding Weird Parts of the Old Testament: Old vs. New Covenant
- Where the old covenant came from and why it doesn’t apply to us.
- Why the old covenant is still God’s Word to us and why it is still useful for teaching, rebuking, and correcting (i.e. 1 Timothy 3:16)
- Why the entire Bible matters, even if Rob Bell says it doesn’t
- Why the Weird Old Testament Laws Ever Existed
- Why God was Justified to Bring Harsh Judgment in the Old Testament
- You can’t have the New Testament Jesus without the Old Testament God
A sermon I did recently on this topic: