Monday, December 6, 2010

Is God Cruel?

Have you ever encountered someone who says something like, "The God of the Old Testament seems cruel. He's not at all like Jesus"? It is not an uncommon error. There are so-called evangelical Bible scholars who insist that the God of the Old Testament is not the God of the New Testament. I have had conversation with a scholar who teaches his students precisely that. He explains that anything the Bible attributes to God that he cannot picture Jesus doing or saying must be an error. Much can be said about the weakness of his hermeneutic. But his error assumes that Jesus, in his incarnation, revealed everything there is to reveal about God. This of course is not true. In his first advent, for instance, Jesus did not reveal the wrath of God. Rather, Jesus came proclaiming the mercy of God (although he certainly warned about hell and the judgement to come). Is there any question that upon his return Jesus will reveal certain realities about God that he did not directly reveal in his first advent?

There is much debate and confusion surrounding the nature of certain Old Testament laws and some of God's directives to his people. One issue that is frequently raised is God's command to his people to destroy the Canaanites. Was God calling for genocide? Was God justifiably using his people to bring judgment upon a pagan and violent people? Does the Bible justify slavery and polygamy? A new book by apologist Paul Copan addresses these issues and many others. I have not yet read the book but I have found Copan helpful in the past. The new book is
Is God a Moral Monster: Making Sense of the Old Testament God.

Justin Taylor has posted some highlights from Dr. Copan:

THE HUMANIZING NATURE OF ISRAEL’S LAWS IN CONTRAST TO THE REST OF THE ANCIENT NEAR EAST: I argue that virtually point-for-point, Israel’s legislation is significantly morally elevated—even if not ideal or universal. God meets Israel in the midst of deeply embedded fallen social structures and elevates them, even if not to the ideal level (cp. Matthew 19:8, where Moses permits certain laws because of the hardness of human hearts). The Mosaic Law’s morally elevated status is apparent in the far less-severe nature Israel’s punishments; the Mosaic Law’s lack of mutilation texts (I argue that Deuteronomy 25:11-12 is definitely NOT a mutilation text); the protection of runaway slaves from their masters (anti-return laws); servants automatically freed if bodily harm comes to them from their employers (anti-harm laws); and so on.
CANAANITE WARFARE DIRECTED AT NON-COMBATANTS: Noncombatants were not targeted in the Canaanite (or Amalekite) campaigns but rather non-civilian military, political, and religious centers (“cities”) like Jericho, Ai, and Hazor; these were not civilian centers. War texts using comprehensive language regarding “women” and “children” are stock ancient Near Eastern phrasing, even if women and children are not involved.
HYPERBOLE AND ANCIENT NEAR EASTERN BRAVADO: The biblical text, like other ancient Near Eastern war texts, uses exaggeration or hyperbole (.e.g., “let nothing remain,” “everything that breathed”). However, the biblical text itself (especially Judges, which is literarily linked to Joshua) reveals that a lot of breathing Canaanites remained and lived among the Israelites. “Wiping out” all the Canaanites was not what Moses intended in Deuteronomy 20 (the term “driving out” or “dispossessing” is much more prominent in these texts—which is NOT the same as “wiping out”). So Joshua (who didn’t literally destroy everything that breathed) “carried out what Moses commanded.”
CONCUBINAGE AS HAVING A “SECONDARY WIFE”: A “concubine” often refers to a “secondary” wife rather than a female used for a male’s sexual pleasure (e.g., after the first/“primary” wife has died—like Abraham’s wife Keturah after Sarah died).
POLYGAMY PROHIBITED: Leviticus 18:18 indicates that polygamy is prohibited by the Mosaic Law; it is not morally permissible even if less than ideal—which is unfortunately commonly assumed by Christians.
OLD TESTAMENT SLAVERY AS INDENTURED SERVITUDE: While critics commonly equate Old Testament “slavery” with the antebellum South’s common harsh treatment of slaves, the term “slave(ry)” is misleading and should be understood as “contractual employment” or “indentured servitude”—much like a sports player who is “owned” by a team or a person contracted to serve a set time in the military. Normally, according to the Law of Moses, servitude within Israel was poverty-induced, and it was to be voluntary and temporary (no more than seven years). I deal with a number of difficult servitude passages.
NEW TESTAMENT SLAVERY AND ONESIMUS: I dip into the New Testament on the topic of slavery, as this is a different issue than Old Testament indentured servitude. In addition to arguing for the radically humanizing treatment of slaves in the New Testament, I argue that Onesimus was in all likelihood not a slave; that interpretation of Philemon comes significantly later in church history. For example, there are no “flight” verbs in Philemon, which would be strange if Onesimus had run away. Various scholars argue that Philemon and Onesimus were not only (alienated) Christian brothers, but possibly biological brothers as well.

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