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Should We Shun the God of the Old Testament?

March 17, AD2014 22 Comments

“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, The God Delusion

“…the dangers of believing in a God whom we cannot but regard as evil, and then, in mere terrified flattery calling Him ‘good’ and worshiping Him, is still greater danger. The ultimate question is whether the doctrine of the goodness of God or that of the inerrancy of Scriptures is to prevail when they conflict. I think the doctrine of the goodness of God is the more certain of the two. Indeed, only that doctrine renders this worship of Him obligatory or even permissible.” C.S. Lewis, Letter to John Beversluis, God in the Dock

“…As an old saying put it, the New Testament lies hidden in the Old and the Old Testament is unveiled in the New.” Catechism of the Catholic Church #129 (reference is to St. Augustine of Hippo).

While reading a very fine post by Matt Briggs, You can’t get something from nothing, a commentary on Hart’s The Experience of God, I came across the following comments to his post:

“The Abrahamic tradition – all its branches – conflates the infinite entity which has a huge number of names given to it – God, Brahma, the Tao (I think), the Source and probably numbers of others, which is by definition unknowable and beyond space and time and may or may not have a personality – with Yahweh, the vicious, bloodthirsty, jealous and utterly unreasonable god of a desert people in 3000 BCE. Some time around then, some priest came up with the idea that THEIR god was chief among them all, and made it stick.”

“However, why must everyone confuse this putative Being with that rank imposter – the vicious, jealous, bloodthirsty deity of an ancient nomadic desert tribe?”

I’ll disregard the nascent anti-semitism (anti-judaism?) of these comments and put them down as due to naive, untutored knowledge of Holy Scripture, that cherry-pick the bad amongst all that the Old Testament offers. They bring to mind the 2nd century heretic Marcion, a Gnostic who proclaimed that the god of the Old Testament was a demiurge, an evil and lesser counterpart of God, the Father of Jesus, and that the Old Testament was not to be regarded as Holy Scripture. Tertullian and Augustine both disproved his arguments.

Now I’ll admit that I am bothered during my daily readings in the Liturgy of the Hours when I come across ” that your feet may wade in the blood of your foes, while the tongues of your dogs have their share.” (Psalm 68:23) and particularly Psalm 149, which occurs frequently for the Morning Prayer:

“May the praise of God be in their mouths and a double-edged sword in their hands, to inflict vengeance on the nations and punishment on the peoples, to bind their kings with fetters, their nobles with shackles of iron.”

There are other parts of the Old Testament that disturb contemporary sensibilities: Abram offering his wife Sarai to the Pharaoh, as his sister (Gen 12:10-20); Joshua slaughtering all the inhabitants of Jericho down to children and animals, except for the prostitute Rahab (Joshua 6:1-27); Judah, Er, Onan and Tamar in a story straight out of the raunchiest TV soap opera (Gen 28).

What can we say to all this blood, guts and sex?  That God did not intend His word to be proclaimed by dictating machines: the Holy Spirit inspired those who put Scripture into writing, but the words and matter would be that which would be meaningful to the intended audience. I would guess that in Hebrew, like contemporary Arabic, imagery was an important component of the message. Moreover, in the warlike world of the ancient Middle East, a God who did not smite your enemy was not really a God worth worshipping. And can one claim any peace loving message from the Greek, Roman, Norse or Teutonic pantheon?

All the above neglects the fundamental message of the Old Testament:  that God has chosen his people Israel, the children of Abraham, to be a light unto the world, that he is a forgiving and loving God, who over and over again has forgiven them for straying from him.

We see the messages of love: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord” (Lev 19:18); “for whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge: thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God” (Ruth 1:16); Hosea 11. Moreover, if we believe that our life on earth is only an interlude in an eternity–heaven, hell, purgatory–and that even for those who did not or have not yet heard the message of Christ there may be salvation, then these bloody deaths are secondary in achieving what God wills — that He be known, first to His Chosen People, and then through Christ and the Apostles to the world.

Thus, the Old Testament commandment to love your neighbor (and the alien in your midst) becomes the New Testament commandment to love your enemy. Benedict XVI’s comment sums this up:

“The great difficulty with the Old Testament, because of its lack of rhetorical beauty and of lofty philosophy, was resolved in Saint Ambrose’s preaching through his typological interpretation of the Old Testament: Augustine realized that the whole of the Old Testament was a journey toward Jesus Christ. Thus, he found the key to understanding the beauty and even the philosophical depth of the Old Testament and grasped the whole unity of the mystery of Christ in history as well as the synthesis between philosophy, rationality, and faith in the Logos, in Christ, the Eternal Word who was made flesh.” -Church Fathers: from Clement of Rome to Augustine.

I urge those more knowledgeable than I in Scripture (and there are many) to flesh out these arguments.

About the Author:

Retired, cranky, old physicist. Convert to Catholicism in 1995. Trying to show that there is no contradiction between what science tells us about the world and our Catholic faith. Intermittent blogs at Rational Catholic and adult education classes here to achieve this end. Extraordinary Minister of Communion volunteer to federal prison and hospital; lector, EOMC. Sometime player of bass clarinet, alto clarinet, clarinet, bass, tenor bowed psaltery for parish instrumental group and local folk group. And, finally, my motivation: “It is also necessary—may God grant it!—that in providing others with books to read I myself should make progress, and that in trying to answer their questions I myself should find what I am seeking. Therefore at the command of God our Lord and with his help, I have undertaken not so much to discourse with authority on matters known to me as to know them better by discoursing devoutly of them.” St. Augustine of Hippo, The Trinity I,8.

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  • james

    The OT God who incited crimes against humanity never existed except in the minds of
    copper-bronze age religious leaders. Their chagrin, ( could they know ) at what would transpire in this 21st century would turn them into pillars of stone.

    • duhem

      James, thanks for your comment, which I’m not sure I understand. I think you agree with Dawkins and the other two comments I quoted decrying the Old Testament God. If so,I’d be most grateful if you could explain to me what part of my justification and explanation you disagree with, and why. Thanks,
      Bob Kurland

    • james

      No, I don’t agree at all with Dawkins or his ilk. I will leave you again with my first thought – The OT God ……….bronze age religious leaders. ..

    • Steve Willy

      Thanks for your steaming pile of regurgitated pseudo-intellectual neck bearded blather, you r/atheism inspired, GNU obsessed, faux-analytical proto-basement dweller. Yours is a worldview so petty, so trivial, so earth bound, so unworthy of the universe.

    • james

      your welcome.

  • Howard

    “… that cherry-pick the bad amongst all that the Old Testament offers.” Rather, cherry-picked the difficult. The Bible is not a children’s book, but there are very few grown-ups willing to do the hard work of understanind it these days — let alone willing to admit any doubt that their own moral judgments might not be correct.

    • duhem

      Howard, thanks for your comment. Again, I’m not quite sure of what you’re saying…do you agree with C.S. Lewis, that in choosing between a loving God and the inerrancy of scripture, we should choose the former?
      Bob Kurland

    • Howard

      No. When faced with an apparent conflict, there are two things to question. (1) Is my understanding of Scripture correct? Just because Scripture is inerrant does not mean my understanding of it is inerrant. (2) Is my concept of “a loving God” seriously distorted? We pretty obviously do not live in a Precious Moments universe. We live in a universe that has seen the Black Death and the destruction of Pompeii and other cities by volcanoes, for example, and great saints and thinkers have struggled to explain how a loving, omnipotent God is consistent with such events. I can understand a believer who accepts such explanations, and I can understand a non-believer who rejects the explanations, but I really cannot understand someone who has no problem with the destruction of Pompeii but who finds the destruction of Sodom unthinkable.

  • David Peters

    Bob, I thank God for the Church fathers, and that they help us to understand the meaning of the Scriptures. I love the quote from Pope Benedict. I think this is right on. The quotes from those that hate God and the Scriptures were very disturbing. Thanks for taking on this topic.

    • duhem

      Thanks David…. As Howard said, the Bible is a difficult book, and it needs study in context and as typology–the Old Testament leading to the New.

  • duhem

    James and Howard, I think you’re concerned with the problem of evil, theodicy–why does God allow or even engender evil by human agency and natural causes. In this post on my own blog there’s a picture (by Blake) of God speaking to Job from the whirlwind and one of the best comments on the problem of evil is the Book of Job. My only thought, that makes it possible for me to believe in a all-loving, all-powerful God, is what I said in the post–our life here is but a short span in an eternity of possible heaven, hell and purgatory.

    • Howard

      Ugh. I accidentally wiped out my reply. I’ll give most of it in short pieces to stop that from happening again. First of all, yes, the problem of evil is closely related, and it should be dealt with first. It has to be answered if one is to be a believer, and its answer will provide insight into the question here.

      Also, remember that Purgatory is not eternal.

    • Howard

      Regarding the conquest of Canaan: (1) Note that the story of Rahab, who became an ancestor of Christ, shows that mercy was still possible. In any event, the conquest was not completed during its bloody initial phase; Jerusalem was only take from the Jebusites by David, for example. (2) If the Canaanites had been wiped out by smallpox or the Black Death, it would trouble people no more than the destruction of Pompeii. Why, then, did God command the Hebrews to do the killing? Possibly this was so that they would be forced to “witness punishment”, like the Royal Navy used to force sailors to witness one of their number being flogged or hanged. If so, the ultimate point presumably is that no warning, no matter how visceral, will keep us from embracing sin: we’re *that* messed up. Certainly the Hebrews were worshiping the same idols as the Canaanites within a generation or so.

    • Howard

      C.S. Lewis objected to Psalm 137. But look into history: who exactly was it who “dashed Babylon’s little ones against the stone”, and was he in fact blessed? The answer is Cyrus the Great. who founded the Achaemenid Empire, which conquered all of the Middle East. He was succeeded on the throne by his son. Like it or not, by the standards of the time Cyrus was very richly blessed.

    • james

      The problem of evil is not God’s fault. It’s humanty’s fault for might not making
      right. As the saying goes If you want peace work for justice. The problem of
      mortality is our own. It is the lesson of Adam and Eve who were allegorically
      told by God that if they became intimate they would bring death into the world. The only reason we die is because we are born It’s a very simple truth. .

  • nannon31

    The dichotomy between the Testaments on tragic martial deaths brought about by God is overdone. We Christians are oddly silent about those killed in Jerusalem in 70 AD which according to Tacitus was 600,000 and according to Josephus was 1.1 million. Ai in Canaan was only 12,000 killed and Jericho could not have been much different. Jerusalem may well have been worse than all Canaan deaths. All Christian references to 70AD seem to switch their attention to architecture …no stone remaining upon another….rather than the huge number of people killed for rejecting Christ. Here’s Christ words in Luke 19:41 on….” 41 As he drew near, he saw the city and wept over it, 42 saying, “If this day you only knew what makes for peace—but now it is hidden from your eyes. 43 For the days are coming upon you when your enemies will raise a palisade against you; they will encircle you and hem you in on all sides. 44 They will smash you to the ground and your children within you, and they will not leave one stone upon another within you because you did not recognize the time of your visitation.”
    Catholic authors ( and I attended 16 years of Catholic school…8 with Jesuits) seem not to notice that God brings such things about not for sin but only for completed sin in His eyes. Canaanites killed and ate their own children for centuries (Wisdom 12) before God saw their sin as complete. Here’s God giving that principle to Abraham in Gen.15:16… ” But in the fourth generation they shall come here again: for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete.”
    Here’s Christ enunciating the identical principle in a presage of 70AD’s deaths…
    Matt.23:32. Christ to Jerusalem: ” Fill ye up then the measure of your fathers.”
    For centuries God first punished the Canaanites lightly but they did not heed those lighter punishments…”punishing them bit by bit that they might have space for repentance” Wisdom 12:10.
    Likewise for centuries the Jews turned to Baal worship in both north and south ( Samaria and Juda) and in the northern kingdom also to the golden calves set up at Dan and Bethel by Jeroboam. Jehu slaughtered the Baal worshippers by God’s order but Jehu oddly preserved the sin of Jeroboam in the north…the golden calves if Dan and Bethel. Thus God exiled the northern tribes permanently but Juda temporarily but the rejection of Christ was the filling up of those centuries of sin for Juda. Now their sin was complete or filled up and then and only then does God slaughter through in this case the use of the Romans as His tool as He previously described the Assyrians in Isaiah 10 which country went too far and wanted more conquests than God willed…” 5 Woe to the Assyrian, he is the rod and the staff of my anger, and my indignation is in their hands”… woe because Gid would punish them for going beyond their mission.

    • james

      “Catholic authors ( and I attended 16 years of Catholic school…8 with Jesuits) seem not to notice that God brings such things about not for sin but only for completed sin in His eyes…”
      And you can extrapolate this stuff to include the drowning of the world ??

    • cordy fan

      I believe the flood was local….and yes easily. The flood was local and the genre was mythic not empirical history. You see this in the dove going out and finding no dry vegetation but only 7 days later he finds a dry live twig with green leaves which would happen only if there were a border to the flood and they neared that ridge/border after seven more days and the bird thus found a twig with green leaves which never was inundated.
      Gen.8:11. ” And she came to him in the evening, carrying a bough of an olive tree, with green leaves, in her mouth. Noe therefore understood that the waters were ceased upon the earth. ” Douay Rheims

      You have this hyperbole again when Joseph in Egypt is said to feed the “whole world” because there was starvation “all over the world.” Why would someone travel from China to Egypt to eat if they were starving…when they have fishing sources and couldn’t travel far if they were starving?

    • james

      The Bahagavad-gita also talks payback – in Genesis ,God did
      not change His mind about human diet. Man did. Jesus said
      that we are worth many sparrows (not all of them). Since each
      soul has spiritual weight the karma from killing a certain number
      of them would COMPLETE a sin calling for the destruction of
      a human life. When enough humans are ready to expiate the
      complete sin armies are formed who go out and kill each other

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  • paulalovescats

    This quote up here means “translate the bible any way you want to.” It’s so full of contradictions anyway.
    http://www.bibviz.com