Category Archives: Theology

Old Testament God: Monster, Morph or Myth? (3)

Dr Copan repeatedly makes the point that the law of Moses was God’s way of meeting people (the Israelites) halfway, and permitting certain things (e.g. slavery) because of the hardness of human hearts. He refers forwards to Jesus’s comments on divorce in this regard (Matt 19:8).

Please consider the following:

1. There are a multitude of deeply cruel instructions given in the Old Testament, most of which are prefaced with “Thus says the Lord”.

Here’s an example from Deuteronomy 22:20-21. The context here is an instruction for what a man should do if, on his wedding night, he suspects that his bride is not a virgin:

“If, however, the charge is true and no proof of the young woman’s virginity can be found,  she shall be brought to the door of her father’s house and there the men of her town shall stone her to death. She has done an outrageous thing in Israel by being promiscuous while still in her father’s house. You must purge the evil from among you.” (italics are mine)

(Naturally, there is no mention of the possibility that the man might not be a virgin. This was clearly no cause for concern.) And unfortunately so much more like this. How is this meeting people halfway? And even if one could rationalize it like this, how could a loving God bear to live with this compromise when it must have meant that countless women lived in genuine fear of their lives, and their daughters’ lives, much like they do in present day conservative Islamic states?

I currently have no rational way to marry this portrayal of God, with that of the portrayal in the New Testament of God as a God of love.

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2. Slavery is regulated in the Old Testament, which was a big step forward in the ancient near-Eastern world.
(In other words, how master’s treated their slaves was subject to certain rules.) However, considering the enormous impact the Judeo-Christian faith has had and continues to have on the world, why would God endorse slavery at all? A simple declaration of “No human shall have the right to own another human, or have another human working for or serving them without compensation” could have saved millions of lives and an unquantifiable amount of suffering and despair. Many sincere (and insincere) Christians have through the ages used the scriptures as a defense for this practice. And yet a simple instruction to the contrary could have avoided this whole issue.

Another argument Dr Copan employs to defend God as he is portrayed in the Old Testament involves the practice of exaggeration. He states that it was common for historical narratives in the ancient near-East to freely use hyperbole or exaggeration.
So e.g. When a leader declared “We annihilated the enemy and left nothing alive”, everyone knew that it was advisable to read this with a pinch (or bag, depending on the size of the ego) of salt. He gives the example of Joshua, who is instructed by Moses to “Kill every living thing.” They go and do the deed, and declare that nothing breathing was left alive, yet in the next few chapters it states that they’re fighting the same enemy – so clearly there were some who escaped the carnage. Dr Copan says this as if it is more acceptable to kill, e.g. 200 people than 300, and then to lie about it. My problem is with the instruction (allegedly coming from a good God), not particularly with how or whether it was carried out.

Finally: Dr Copan concludes his argument that God is not a moral monster by saying that this is a God who is the ultimate cosmic authority, and that he is entitled to do whatever he wills with whoever offends him. Using the analogy of Aslan in Narnia,

“He is good, but he is not safe. We can never become comfortable or complacent.”

This simply doesn’t work for me, as a defense of God’s nature or as an explanation of why God is portrayed so differently in the Old Testament versus the New. If Dr Copan’s explanations were all I had to work with, I would have to conclude that God is indeed a moral monster.

Old Testament God: Monster, Morph or Myth? (2)

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During my search for answers regarding the nature of God (particularly how he is portrayed in the Old Testament), someone recommended I watch Paul Copan’s talk entitled “Is God a Moral Monster?” I also downloaded his book by the same title, with the subtitle Making Sense of the Old Testament.

Before I unpack Paul Copan’s argument, I’d like to preface with this thought: God, being all powerful, omniscient and omnipresent, could have chosen any way to reveal himself to humankind. According to the authors of both the Old and New Testaments, he chose primarily the vehicle of the scriptures for this purpose, which are described as being God-breathed (2 Tim 3:16). These scriptures are a witness for all ages about the character and acts of God. Some Christians believe in the inerrancy of the Bible (i.e. that the text contains no errors, and is, at least in the original, the perfect Word of God). Others take a more nuanced view, saying that all texts are written from the particular point of view of the author, which is influenced by culture, education, geographic location etc. This perspective says that we must always be aware of that context before attempting to interpret the text. (Great article re: problematizing biblical inerrancy here if you’re interested.) In any event, regardless of which viewpoint you choose, it is a good idea for Christ-followers to know what you have signed up to.
The current part of my journey, after 26 years as a Christian, is to interrogate those parts of scripture that I am deeply uncomfortable with, so that I can defend my beliefs with integrity and a commitment to truth.

In the video, Dr Copan prefaces his topic of “Is God a Moral Monster?” by referencing Richard Dawkins and other atheists, who make sense of the universe by saying it is morally neutral, pitiless, indifferent. Dr Copan asks why then do they object to a God who performs or authorizes immoral acts, as surely they have no standard for judging what is moral and immoral. This is in fact a superficial reading of the “new atheists”. The fact that the universe is morally neutral means that, e.g. when a tsunami wipes out 230 000 people, this is not the act of an angry God, but simply a morally neutral (indifferent/pitiless) universe acting according to the laws of nature. Ditto for when a three year old child is diagnosed with stage 4 cancer.

As regards morality, atheists (as well as humanists) say that we don’t need a “revealed authority” to tell us what is right or wrong. We are social animals and therefore instinctively understand that hurting other humans, or doing anything that jeopardizes their welfare, should be avoided. This is why almost all religions have the same basic tenets: do not murder, do not steal, etc. These truths are therefore seen, by the atheists/humanists, as being self-evident. This definition is taken from the American Humanist Association: “Ethical values are derived from human need and interest as tested by experience. Humanists ground values in human welfare shaped by human circumstances, interests, and concerns and extended to the global ecosystem and beyond. We are committed to treating each person as having inherent worth and dignity, and to making informed choices in a context of freedom consonant with responsibility.

By contrast, in the Old Testament we see numerous examples of “revealed authority” (God’s instructions) which go against the basic principle of treating every person with inherent worth, e.g. The commandment should be restated as, “Do not kill, except when the Lord commands it”. This contradicts the principle of the intrinsic worth of every human, which Dr Copan address at the end of his talk. He says that God’s instruction to Joshua to kill all the Canaanites was not an ethnic cleansing, since there are examples in the Old Testament of Canaanites who were accepted into the fold when they followed the law of Moses. So the instruction to annihilate the Canaanites referred to all the others (the majority of the population, including women and children) who were offending God by engaging in immoral acts and needed to be wiped off the earth (this calls to mind a previous occasion when God was offended by rampant immorality and wiped out all of humankind, apart from Noah and his family).

Also bear in mind that the Old Testament repeatedly states that the Israelites were uniquely chosen by God for his revelation. This meant that the law was not given to the Canaanites (although perhaps some individuals were exposed to it through interaction with the Hebrews), and yet it seems as if they are being held accountable to it? If you were living in ancient times, illiterate and without access to the scientific discoveries of the modern era, or the richness of the Hebrew culture with its theology, laws and practices, would it be unreasonable for you to worship many gods, hedging your bets in a profoundly unpredictable world? Particularly considering that you were living in a polytheistic society, where everyone was worshiping many Gods. Before harvest, why not pray to the god of the harvest. Wanting to start a family? It makes sense to pray to the god of fertility. Why would the God of the Israelites feel that he must hold these people, outside of the fold of the Hebrew faith, accountable to a law they had never heard of?

Dr Copan’s view is that this is acceptable according to the Christian worldview, as God is the ultimate authority and can enact judgement on people however he chooses.

I find this explanation deeply unsatisfying, and it is certainly not one that I can or would defend.  Who would want to serve a God like this? How would you answer the statement below?

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Old Testament God: Monster, Morph or Myth? (1)

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I have long been puzzled by a seeming dichotomy at the heart of the Bible: the character of God as shown in the Old Testament vs the New Testament. So a few weeks I decided to embark on a study of the subject in order to get some clarity.

What I’m seeing so far:

– God did not seem to have a problem with slavery. Exodus 21 details laws around the treatment of slaves, including advice when selling one’s daughter as a sex slave, as well as guidelines for beating servants. (A beating is an acceptable form of disciplining slaves, as long as it doesn’t cause long-term injury or death.)

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– God mandated many battles, too numerous to count (although I’m sure some scholar somewhere has done this), including the familiar story of the destruction of the city of Jericho (Joshua 6). In modern times we call this kind of action a number of things: invasion, ethnic cleansing or genocide.

 

I stopped reading this story to my children years ago when I realized that the sanitized version in their Bible story books was very, very far from the reality. Actually, this goes for a lot of the Old Testament!

(Incidentally, when one of the Israelites decided to keep some of the spoils of war for himself, contrary to the Lord’s command, Joshua stoned and then burnt him, as well as his sons and his daughters. This, according to the writer, appeased the anger of the Lord. (Joshua 7:24-36)

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– Infringement of the Sabbath, including gathering sticks on the Sabbath, was given the sentence of death by stoning. This is recorded as being a direct command from the Lord (Numbers 32:36).

 

– God gives permission for the men to take female prisoners of war as their wives. If they weren’t pleased with her, they could let her go. “If you have no delight in her, then you shall set her free.” In modern times wouldn’t we call this rape?

 

thediplomat_2014-02-21_18-31-32-386x255Also, set her free to what? To wander around in a foreign land, with no way to support herself (all her male relatives having been killed in war) other than presumably prostitution?

 

 

 

– God does not seem to have a problem with infanticide, as long as it concerns the children of the enemy: “Happy shall he be who takes and dashes your little ones against the rock.” (Psalm 137:9)

Many Christians respond to these kinds of verses (as I have done for many years) by saying that Jesus brought a new dispensation, that we are no longer under the law, but under grace. But how does this work in terms of the unchangeable nature of God
(James 1:17, Malachi 3:6)? The fact that God commanded these things surely says a lot about his character. How do we reconcile this to the God of love that we learn about in the New Testament? 

I would love to hear your thoughts.

Original Sin?

The concept of Original Sin is central to Christianity. Here goes my understanding of it: God created humanity for his pleasure, in spite of the fact that he was complete in himself and experienced no lack. He gave humans free will, so that if they chose to love him (this being their ultimate purpose) it would be a love willingly given, not merely a robotic, irresistible imperative. At the outset, however, the first humans he created devastatingly chose to exercise their free will to disobey God, thereby separating themselves from him forever. Even worse, the consequences of their disobedience were passed down irrevocably to all their descendants, so that the nature of all future human beings was corrupted.

This doctrine was first fully described by Augustine, in rather poetic language.
There was no Netflix in those days, and it shows (did you get my pun?):

“Banished (from Paradise) after his sin, Adam bound his offspring also with the penalty of death and damnation, that offspring which by sinning he had corrupted in himself, as in a root; so that whatever progeny was born (through carnal concupiscence, by which a fitting retribution for his disobedience was bestowed upon him) from himself and his spouse –who was the cause of his sin and the companion of his damnation –would drag through the ages the burden of Original Sin, by which it would itself be dragged through manifold errors and sorrows, down to that final and never-ending torment with the rebel angels … So the matter stood; the damned lump of humanity was lying prostrate, no, was wallowing in evil, it was falling headlong from one wickedness to another; and joined to the faction of the angels who had sinned, it was paying the most righteous penalty of its impious treason.”

One of my first acts as a believer was to weep – genuine heart-wrenching sobs – when I understood the import of this act of treason against God. (My sixteen year old self felt everything deeply. There were no half-measures, as my long-suffering parents can attest.) Oh Adam, how could you have been so easily deceived by Eve? Why did you not hold your ground and simply refuse to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil? In that one act, you condemned humankind and indeed all of creation to groan and struggle for the rest of time under the burden of the curse you had placed on us.

I also wondered how Adam was bearing up, since presumably in the afterlife he would have received some inkling of the chaos that he and Eve had unwittingly wreaked on the world. Can you imagine knowing that you were the cause of mankind’s sinful nature and all the unspeakable sorrow that ensued? I could not help but feel (deeply, of course) sorry for them, my original, misguided ancestors.

This idea of original sin lies at the very heart of Christianity – without it, salvation (and therefore, Christ) would not be necessary.

Let’s pause and unpack what this means for our theology. This doctrine would have us believe that God created men and women, with the full knowledge that they would essentially be cursed from birth. But he made a way to rescue them through his plan of salvation, wherein he would descend to earth and show them (and indeed provide) the way back to relationship and peace with himself. However, all those who chose not to accept or believe in this rescuing act of salvation would continue to be eternally separated (damned) from God.

What does this mean for our understanding of the character of God? Since he is omniscient, he knew that this is how his act of creation would turn out before he embarked on it. He knew that many, if not most, of the billions of people he created would be forever separated from him. This punishment has been characterised differently through the ages by Christians – from eternal burning in the flames of hell, to eternal lack of all the good that emanates from the character of God (love, joy, peace, etc) and everything in between. Either way, this is not a state that we would wish on anyone, hence the evangelical (proselytizing) nature of Christianity. He also knew the immense suffering that humanity would endure, as they struggled to simply retain their foothold in an often harsh and unpredictable world, whose harshness and unpredictability was itself caused by that one act of disobedience.

But presumably it was all worth it, because he wanted the company of a creation that included humans made in his image but destined for damnation?

For years I have struggled to reconcile this doctrine of original sin with the idea that God is love – pure, unconditional and passionate love for all of mankind. It simply doesn’t make sense to me anymore.