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.

The Fellowship of the Saints

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“To utter one’s deepest fears about their faith is for some only slightly less risky than buying heroin on a street corner…”  (Peter Enns)

For several years I labored under the mistaken impression that I was the only doubting Christian around and that there was no-one I could turn to with my questions and thoughts. In my narrow-mindedness I felt that, either one was a Christian, getting on with one’s spiritual journey and presumably growing closer to God, or one was an unbeliever, out in the wilderness. I on the other hand was somewhere in between, trying to hold on to my faith in the middle of a storm of doubt. Where did I belong?

I was careful not to “bare my soul” to anyone, not even my closest friends, as I didn’t want to be responsible for causing them to question their own faith. In no way did I want them to experience the pain I was feeling, of being an “unbelieving believer”.  I realize now that I should have spoken up a lot sooner, and that in fact at some stage I crossed the line into hypocrisy (or at the least, deception by withholding the truth). I thought I was simply being a weak Christian for having all these questions and doubts, and that I needed to pray more diligently or read the Bible more consistently/prayerfully/faithfully in order to find my way out of the wilderness. The trouble was, when I prayed or read the Bible I was confronted with ever more questions. The cognitive dissonance I was experiencing was tearing me apart, and I never felt it more keenly than when trying to engage with a God who for many years I had regarded as my Father, my Comforter, my source of wisdom and truth. It was a dark night of the soul, where week after week at church I would be confronted with the ever-growing distance that stood between my fellow believers and I.

After years of having a passive approach to these questions (hoping that they would magically resolve themselves – has anyone ever had success with this approach, I wonder?!) I started reading about other Christians who also struggled with their faith. Some of these fellow believers moved from fundamentalism to a more nuanced version of Christianity, while others left the faith altogether. I found unspeakable encouragement in discovering the journeys undertaken by others, knowing that I was not alone – far from it, in fact. I was surrounded by “a cloud of witnesses” without ever having realized it. This is what enabled me to find the courage to face my own questions and to “come out” as a skeptic.

I have listed some of the most helpful books and blogs that have encouraged me on my journey, on my Resources page.