Updated: Oct 9
Difficult verses in the Old Testament abound. Many conversations on such topics, with believer or unbeliever, are near to the following:
Person 1: There are some troubling verses in the Old Testament.
Person 2: That’s true. However, context clears those up and makes everything right. For example...
At this point, Person 2 shares what they have learned from a Study Bible, course, book, or Pastor. They may highlight how God was justified in calling for the extermination of the Canaanites given they were horrible people, and list out what horrible things were being done.
Context, both linguistic and cultural, is often a friend for the Christian or Jew offering perspective on sacred texts. There is an oft repeated phrase that highlights the value of context. “The three rules of interpretation are 1) Context 2) Context 3) Context.” I wholeheartedly agree, and my argument below is not meant to discourage readers in learning and sharing context. It is constantly needed. My argument has a narrower focus. I want to discourage readers in using context to justify horribly pictured divine action.
There are texts that no matter how much context we learn, a perfect-just-loving God will not be justified in performing such actions. Therefore, I want to suggest a different route for readers of the Bible, one that situates readers to evaluate passages in ways that a perfect-just-loving God could intend, a realistic approach.
The Suggested Route
Person 1: There are some troubling verses in the Old Testament.
Person 2: Yes, there are. In fact, Christian morality, as well as general moral reasoning, make it clear that those pictures are not good. That there are likely no morally justifiable reasons for a perfect-just-loving God doing such actions. However, the good news is that such verses are not the final say about God. Christian thinking places Jesus in that position, as well as the logical outworking of the revelation (data) throughout church history. Clearly Jesus’ own words and works challenged the ancient understandings of God’s horribly pictured action.
Morally Justifiable Reason / Likely
I have Person 2 saying, “there are likely no morally justifiable reasons for God to do that action.” Two parts of that sentence need clarity. The first is “morally justifiable reason.” By this phrase, I mean to communicate that given what a Scripture text says about God’s horribly pictured action, that there needs to exist a reason which could justify God in doing such an action. The punishment needs to fit the crime.
Since there are no justifiable reasons for God doing such actions, it would mean either God has done wrong, or God did not actually do the action that is being described. The first option is impossible. Why? Either God can or cannot do wrong. He cannot do wrong. Therefore, he cannot have done some of the actions described in the Old Testament.
The second aspect of Person 2’s statement that needs explaining is, “likely.” I mention there is likely no morally justifiable reason. I do not claim certainty on this point, only near certainty.
A Clarification: I am not saying that all verses that describe God’s actions in ways difficult for modern readers, have no justifiable conditions. Many texts supply potentially justifiable reasons, and cultural context has often been used to supply other potentially justifiable reasons. The point is that not all texts or contexts supply such potential or actual justifiable reasons. Even more, there are others that whatever they have supplied is weak at best. It appears, from some of the sacred writing’s portrayals of God, that there are likely no such reasons. It strains credulity in some cases, to come up with a justifiable reason for some of the portrayals.
Trust Blindly? / God’s Limits
Asking questions about God’s Word has everything to do with trusting that God has not intended us to be deceived about such matters. To “trust blindly” has little to do with the classic Jewish and Christian traditions of interpretation. To interpret, is to question if you have the right idea about a passage. To question, is to make sure you understand God correctly.
Moreover, some Christians might think that God can do anything he wants, even the horrible things described in the Old Testament. This is incorrect. God cannot square a circle. He cannot make 2+2=5, he cannot stop being God, he cannot make the color white have a smell (since it is a color), he cannot be controlled by the actions of others, and he cannot do evil. God is not capricious, so his actions cannot be random, especially randomly evil.
It is hard to imagine being made in the image of God, part of God’s community, loving the eternal God who has revealed himself in Jesus and being unable to call a spade a spade when looking at horrific action. To push even further, how could the God who commands patience (Galatians 5:22-23) have none? How could the God who warns against anger (Matthew 5:21-24) display uncontrollable anger? We should call a spade a spade. God would want us to.
Religious/Liturgical Vs. Moral
My argument has been that evaluating the horrible actions of God as described in some passages, and doing so from a raw, “Is God killing person A, moral or not?” perspective, that we are compelled to say, “It is not moral.” This backdrop comes from Christianity’s own rich doctrinal heritage and moral sources of authority (image of God, Incarnation).
Readers of scripture should remember there are many forms of explanation such as ontological, teleological, logical, practical, and more. When examining religious texts, we would do well to remember the spiritual, religious, and liturgical forms of explanation. Perhaps it is important that we see all three of those as one, such as spiritual-religious-liturgical. By liturgical or religious, I mean to convey that there are explanations that can be given about such texts that convey a lesson to God’s people, which is meant to motivate God’s people toward goodness.
Key Text - Uzzah
2 Samuel 6:6-8 “And when they came to the threshing floor of Nacon, Uzzah put out his hand to the ark of God and took hold of it, for the oxen stumbled. And the anger of the Lord was kindled against Uzzah, and God struck him down there because of his error, and he died there beside the ark of God.”
What morally justifiable reason could there be for God’s anger to flare quickly and for Uzzah to get killed by God? In explaining the difficulty of this passage morally to another Pastor one time, he replied to me by drawing on his understanding of the text saying, “Well, God commanded only certain people to handle the Ark, and Uzzah betrayed one of God’s boundaries.” He went on to talk about the value of treating the sacred in set-apart and non-flippant ways.
This Pastor friend of mine was unwittingly drawing on the liturgical-religious-spiritual interpretation of the passage to justify God. His answer directed attention to the point of the passage for the people of God. The pastor did not actually answer the question about how the sacred supplied a justification for killing Uzzah. The question that I was pressing him on was if it was moral for God to get angry quickly and to take someone’s life for trying to do good. Should God kill good people to ‘put the fear of God’ in the survivors? Wouldn’t it have been better for God to have caused temporary deafness, or cause everyone to have reoccurring dreams until they got the point? We all know the answer to these questions.
I suggest that we should be like David when we encounter interpretations like the writer of 2nd Samuel who pictured God killing Uzzah. We should be angered or disturbed (2 Samuel 6:9). Something feels incredibly wrong about seeing God do such things. David himself wrote a drastically different opinion about the Lord by saying, “The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love” (Psalm 103:8). The fact is, that David’s own view of God is not that of the writer of 2nd Samuel.
God's Non-Emotional Self
There is a further reason why we need to check a lot of the pictured divine action of God in the Old Testament. In many places the Old Testament authors, such as in the case of Uzzah, picture God getting angry quickly. To be sure, there are other passages that show God’s patience over hundreds of years hoping people would repent. In the case of quick jealousy or quick anger on display, it is important to point out that God cannot have flaring anger.
To be technical, God has eternal mental states that oppose evil in its many forms. But quick anger and jealousy are human descriptive words to make sense of immediate circumstances, or in some cases to offer simpler to understand ways of showing God’s opposition toward something. Why this is case is rooted in the ancient Christian doctrine that God does not have emotions. You can find a much more detailed understanding of this in a written debate I had on the topic, which can be found here DEBATE: God with or without Emotions (recapitulate.org)
The doctrine of God’s non-emotional self is rooted in understanding the full implications of God being the great “I AM” who is eternally always himself. It is also rooted in the doctrine of complete foreknowledge. To say that God foreknows all things, will imply that God does not need to get angry quickly. He is eternally for every good action and eternally against every evil action.
All these doctrines were in no way developed in the Old Testament period. The authors were working under their historical, cultural, and linguistic conventions when documenting their religious histories. To explain why God allows such misrepresentation through the centuries it is necessary to draw on the classic doctrine of accommodation. God accommodates himself to the times and understandings of the people he has called. In fact, God cannot avoid this if he has already granted free-will and rationality to human creatures.
God must be willing to be imperfectly represented through the centuries. God, being totally other, cannot be perfectly represented in human language in any one age.
With these doctrines thoroughly understood, believers who hold to Scripture being ‘inspired,’ have no difficulty in maintaining the doctrine. Any doctrine of inspiration must consider other doctrines such as foreknowledge, eternality, accommodation, and more. When this is done, and we know that every human statement falls short of accurately describing the being of God (although some are much more accurate than others), inspiration can hold. God’s grace can still be communicated through non-final means.
The first benefit of this approach is that cultural context is sometimes hard to come by for Old Testament texts. Not all readers have access to detailed contextual overviews. Even more, not all detailed contextual overviews agree with each other. This approach does not force the reader to have to have all the context about a given passage.
A second benefit of this approach is that it enables the reader to be realistic about such passages. They do not have to make up scenarios for justifying such pictures of God. They can work from the liturgical-religious-spiritual interpretations of such texts and know the point of the passage for the community of God.
The third benefit of this approach regards people questioning their faith. Questioning if God is represented morally or not in each passage has challenged the core beliefs of many a reader of these ancient texts. These persons can be affirmed in their coming to the right understanding that a perfect-just-loving God could not do some of the pictured actions of the Old Testament. However, they cannot be affirmed in their coming to disbelieve in God because of this topic.
Their own interpretive framework (familial, cultural, studied, etc.) may have let them down. However, this only points out that the framework they were working from had the wrong understanding of either God or inspiration or interpretation in the first place. God’s existence has always been independent of a text. Starting from God’s existence in such arguments as the Cosmological Argument, the Argument from Contingency, the Moral Argument, and more, make clear that leaving eternal God is illogical.
To be confused about such passages and start a process of re-thinking one’s faith is encouraged. To change one’s incorrect belief about how Scripture could be inspired or how to understand the passages about God’s horrific action can be an important and good thing for the life of a believer. But, to also change one’s belief about God’s existence because of incorrect understanding of Scripture is logically fallacious. To give up one belief because it is false (ex. Is God finally represented in all passages?) and then take up another belief that is also false (God does not exist) is wrong.
Moreover, the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ are also independent of the Old Testament being literally correct or not about God’s pictured divine action. As Richard Swinburne has written about in the Resurrection of God Incarnate; the likelihood of Jesus being who he said he was is quite good. God existing, and Jesus being who he said he was, has always been the entry points to trust in eternal God.
Later, coming up with a cogent understanding of how ancient peoples wrote their divine histories and how we are to interpret them is secondary, even tertiary. Moreover, one does not have to go into church, especially the classic churches and expect to have to agree with how God’s action is pictured to still derive a valuable lesson or receive grace. We must always remember that as Christians, we exist as a people who have a reformed understanding of God’s action. Jesus has led us in that direction.