Part 6: Understanding God’s Commands in the Old Testament
A Series of Responses to Jon Steingard’s Declaration of Disbelief in God
Old Testament ethical challenges have long been used as ammo against the character of the Christian God. Making matters worse, and to the detriment of Bible-believers, many pastors and Christian leaders avoid tackling this difficult topic. Whether it be God’s command to Abraham to sacrifice Isaac (which was rescinded) or to slaughter every Canaanite man, woman, and child, these commands can stop the uninformed Christian dead in his tracks when hit with these objections by the skeptical. In fact, the challenge needn’t come from the atheist; doubt can form in the believer’s mind about the moral nature of God simply by reading the text themselves. Without a better understanding of the text, these doubts can eventually lead to disbelief, as they did for Jon. Today, for the sake of time, we will specifically address the three items that Jon brings up in his post: the slaughter of the Canaanites, the command to kill Isaac, and a less common objection dealing with Job’s suffering.
The conquest of the Canaanites is among the most challenging passages in the Bible for modern readers, and most are not equipped with the necessary literary and historical knowledge to understand such verses in context. Because of this, the issue has been addressed by countless theologians, and thus one need not look far for a better understanding of these commands. Probably the most thorough and accessible book addressing this topic is Paul Copan’s Is God a Moral Monster? which I recommend highly. However, if you don’t have the time to read an entire book on the topic, others have summarized the issue. Greg Koukl, founder of apologetics ministry Stand to Reason and probably my favorite Christian apologist, explains the nature of these commands. If this issue has ever given you pause, please read his relatively short article here:
(if the link above is not clickable, be sure to include the final dash ‘-‘ at the end). This article so closely mimics my initial writing on the topic, that if you will excuse my passing of the baton on this one, you are truly better served to read his excellent summary of the issue. As Koukl and Copan articulate, there is plenty of evidence that few, if any, women and children actually would have been killed in the conquest, due to usage of hyperbole/idioms, the fact that the attacks targeted military outposts, and the purpose of driving the inhabitants out, among others. Even if there were women and children killed, the purpose was judgment on a civilization which had descended into the depths of evil (think pre-flood society or Sodom/Gomorrah) for hundreds of years, and adult women would have been just a culpable in this degradation as men. Children, on the other hand, who had not reached the age of accountability would have gone straight to heaven, as opposed to reaping the eternal consequences of joining the evil Canaanite masses in adulthood. To sum up, let me quote from Koukl as he questions the validity of the skeptic’s complaint:
If the conquest took place as the narrative describes, what precisely is evil about the destruction of the Canaanites? Was it evil for God to command it, or was it evil for Israel to obey it? It certainly seems that if God does exist, and if He were to have morally sufficient reasons for decreeing the destruction of a group of people (which He had in abundance), then the means by which he carries it out would be somewhat inconsequential. Whether God chose famine, wild beasts, pestilence, or sword, if the authority to destroy is there, then the means of judgment is incidental. Thus, if it was right for God to command the conquest, it seems right for Israel to obey the command.
It is a curious argument that God may not exist because He gave these commands. Few people question God’s existence because of His choice to send the Flood to wipe out almost all of humanity or send fire from heaven to consume Sodom and Gomorrah. Righteous judgment can come in any form.
Seeing as how there are a plethora of answers to the Canaanite question, let us turn to God’s initial command to Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. We know that God abhors child sacrifice, specifically outlawing it in Deuteronomy; in fact, it was one of the primary evils of the Canaanites for which they were judged. So what is going on here? First, we must remember that God prevented the sacrifice from occurring and did not desire it for any reason other than to test Abraham. Second, we must remember that at this point, Abraham was fully trusting in God’s promises. Though Abraham had faltered before, God had truly come through for him when Isaac was born to his wife at 90 years old. He had been reassured that nations would specifically come from Isaac. This was God’s test of Abraham to see if he so fully trusted in God’s promise that he was willing to give up his son. He passes with flying colors. The Apostle Paul reiterates that “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness” (Rom. 4:3) and that he knew God would raise Isaac from the dead (Heb. 11:17-19). In fact, Abraham even tells his servants before leaving that both he and Isaac would be returning to them. Abraham had faith that God would either call off the sacrifice or raise Isaac from the dead so that God’s specific promises to him regarding Isaac would be fulfilled. Third, God has a right to give and take human life as He sees fit, ergo He also can command life to be taken as well. Had Abraham decided on his own without a command from God to sacrifice Isaac, it would have been wrong and God would have condemned it. However, considering God’s infinite knowledge and wisdom pertaining to the timing of one’s death, we as finite humans cannot possibly dictate to Him whether His command was morally permissible in a given situation. Thus, God was neither acting against His good moral nature, nor being contradictory, and in the end Abraham was spared the sacrifice rather than wait for a resurrection.
But that’s not all. Throughout the Old Testament, we see practices and stories which foreshadow future events, and in fact, help us better understand those future events when they occur. The law of Moses gives extensive instruction to the newly-freed people of Israel regarding how animal sacrifice should be implemented. The overarching universal ‘rule’ being presented here is that sin can only be paid for through sacrifice, or death. (Why this is the case is another of Jon’s questions that will be dealt with in a future article). Because of the detailed sacrificial system given to Israel from the very beginning, this runs to the core of the Hebrew people throughout history. This prepared the Jewish people to better understand the necessary sacrifice and bloodshed of Jesus’ crucifixion for mankind’s sin many centuries later. In the same way, the story of Abraham and Isaac parallels the sacrifice of God the Son on the cross and brings home the reality of a father giving up his son. Instead of asking “Why would God do this?”, we should ask “What can we learn through this?” Look at the parallels. Both Isaac and Jesus were long-awaited and born under miraculous circumstances; both carry the wood on which they would be sacrificed; both make reference to the sacrifice being a “lamb.” And finally, both were innocent sons being led to their death. We can’t imagine the sorrow Abraham felt as he was obedient to God in preparing to sacrifice his son (even if the death would be temporary). How much more so would God the Father be sorrowful over the death of His only Son (even if the death would be temporary)?
Jon’s third question in this category regards the suffering of Job and is a more uncommon issue regarding God’s existence or at least the questioning of His character. Here, it seems Jon’s claim is that God was playing a game with Satan at the expense of Job. However, in reality, Job’s story is not terribly unique. Throughout human history, God has allowed suffering and trials in peoples’ lives and they are better for them. Check out 2 Corinthians 12:7-10, 1 Peter 1:6-7, Romans 5:3-4, and James 1:2-4. We are told that ‘tribulation brings about perseverance, and perseverance proven character, and proven character, hope‘ and that ‘testing of faith produces endurance.’ The verse continues ‘and let endurance have its perfect result, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.’ Just as with Job, Satan is surely at work causing much of the suffering, trials, and tribulations that we experience today. But when Job lost everything, he continued to worship God saying “The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord” (Job 1:21). In the end, everything and more was given back to Job. Surely Job appreciated what he was given more after he had experienced everything being taken away. Job’s personal character and resilience would have only been increased, and his trust and reliance on God only made stronger. The dialogue between God and Satan seems to be a bit irrelevant in light of this, but even then, the literal nature of that interaction could be questioned. Regardless, how is God’s moral nature (much less existence) called into question because He allows Job’s faith to be tested by Satan? God even gave the parameter that Job’s life may not be taken, and as stated, Job is surely a much stronger man of faith for it.
We are not able to tackle every facet of the overarching claim that God seems more harsh in the Old Testament and more loving in the New Testament. Yes, the love of God for humanity does ultimately culminate in the death of His son on our behalf in the New Testament, but the entire Old Testament anticipates this event. I also believe that the dichotomy between the God of the Old Testament and the New Testament is primarily superficial. God’s moral commands and judgments in the Old Testament are reflections of His just nature and apply just as strongly in the New Testament. His laws are also far more fair and moral than those of surrounding nations in the Ancient Near East. God’s mercy is on display constantly in the Old Testament, as He relents time and time again when justice should have required obliteration. His patience is displayed regularly with both Israel and other nations, such as giving the Canaanites 400 years to turn from their rampant evil before judging them. On the other side of the same token, Jesus was not all ‘love and mercy.’ Time and again, He railed against the Jewish leaders and other hypocrites of the day. He plainly spoke of condemnation in the pits of hell and ultimate judgment for the enemies of God. Just as the God of the Old Testament interacted with love, mercy, and grace alongside justice, wrath, and judgment, Jesus did the same in His interactions with people. Different aspects of God’s perfect moral nature may be more promptly displayed in certain situations than others, but make no mistake, the same God who created us from dust, is the same God who gave His life for ours so that we could spend eternity with Him.
For further reading on the “slaughter” of the Canaanites, see the following book/links:
1Copan, Paul. Is God a Moral Monster? Baker Books, 2011
Dr. William Lane Craig:
The Bible Project: