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The Morality of God in the Old Testament

How are we to understand the Israelites being commanded to wipe out all the Canaanites in Deuteronomy and Joshua? What do we make of the various Psalms that call down curses on the enemies of the writers and God? Perhaps, like me, you are troubled by these and similar things, such as the account of the Flood, in the Bible. Atheists like Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris, point to these accounts as evidence for the moral corruption of God (whom they believe is really a fiction). Christians come under attack for their beliefs in a God whom some describe as a moral monster. Some would ask what right Christians have to condemn the recent actions of the Islamic State in Iraq or Syria, when the Old Testament provides evidence of God’s people doing similar things, and at the behest of God?

Let me say that this isn’t really the atheist’s problem—this is a problem that Jews and Christians need to deal with. For the atheist, the problem is not with God—for he/she/it doesn’t actually exist—but with the people who claim to believe in God. Their criticism is fundamentally against religious people who justify their immoral behaviour in the name of an imaginary divine being. However, for the Christian who believes that God is real, that he has revealed himself to people, and that he is involved in human history—there are real issues to consider when it comes to trusting that God is morally pure. This is an important matter for us to consider carefully.

In examining these issues, I’ve recently read a brief book by G.K. Beale, called The Morality of God in the Old Testament. The book focuses on the commands of God to destroy every man, woman and child of the Canaanites (e.g. Deut 20:10-18) and also on the imprecatory Psalms (e.g. Pss 7, 35, 55, 58, 68, 79, 109, 137) which call upon God to judge and destroy his enemies.

the morality of god in the old testament

Beale explores various proposed solutions for dealing with the difficulties raised by these passages. First, he describes how people argue that wartime ethics differ from peacetime ethics. While this may be true, it doesn’t account for the commands to kill non-combatants. Secondly, he explores the suggestion that the command to kill women and children is not intended to be taken literally, but as a metaphoric way of describing a total victory over the Canaanites. Beale demonstrates that while there may be something in both these suggestions, neither adequately explain the meaning of the texts.

Instead, Beale offers a five-fold approach to engaging with these issues. His approach gives important nuance and perspective to interacting with the difficult moral issues of the Old Testament.

Beale argues that we need to recognise the uniqueness of the Canaan episode. It does not offer a paradigm for continued activity in the Old Testament, let alone the New Testament. Instead, it should be seen as a once-only, historic actioning of God’s redemption of Israel, as the nation enters into the land of promise. This salvation/judgement event is also to be understood as a type of what is to happen through Christ’s first and second coming.

It’s sobering to remember how much my own moral failings corrupt my ability to recognise what is right and true and perfect.

There is more to his argument than this, but he demonstrates how it is important to allow Scripture to be understood in its full biblical context. The critiques offered by Dawkins and others show little or no understanding of the overall shape of the Bible or the saving purposes of God in the Old and New Testaments.

I still find the matters being described troubling, but no more so than the reality of death and the promise of eternal judgment for all who dismiss God. As a Christian I need to grapple with why God allows any suffering, evil or death, and especially with the moral rightness of God judging people for eternity. It’s sobering to remember how much my own moral failings corrupt my ability to recognise what is right and true and perfect. It’s totally presumptuous (and deluded) to think that I can claim to be morally superior to God, and judge him for his actions. This becomes clearest to me when I remember that God loved the world so much, that he sent his only Son, Jesus, to die in our place, so that all who trust in him will not perish but have everlasting life. This most perfectly shows the moral character of God.

Dave McDonald is National Director for the Fellowship of Independent Evangelical Churches in Australia. He and his wife Fiona have four children, two daughters-in-law, and two grandchildren. He has lived in Canberra for the last 26 years, where he has served as the pastor of a church called Crossroads, and more recently Stromlo Christian Church. Dave blogs at macarisms.com, and is the author of Hope Beyond Cure.

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