Is the God of the Old Testament a Merciless Monster?
ABSTRACT: Non-Christians sometimes assert that God is portrayed in the Old Testament as a cruel and ruthless deity that indiscriminately orders the execution of seemingly innocent men, women, and children, or directly carries out their deaths by various means. Such a God, the argument goes, in no way represents the loving Creator or Father figure that the New Testament offers, and should in no way be worshipped or venerated. However, a closer examination of Yahweh in the Old Testament refutes the charge of the Creator being a tyrant and instead reveals a righteous, patient, merciful, and loving God who does indeed mirror the picture painted by Jesus and the rest of the New Testament writers.
In his book The God Delusion, atheist Richard Dawkins writes a scathing rendition of God as he sees Him in the Old Testament. Dawkins says: “The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.”1 Such words are echoed by atheist Charles Templeton who states: “The God of the Old Testament is utterly unlike the God believed in by most practicing Christians … His justice is, by modern standards, outrageous…. He is biased, querulous, vindictive, and jealous of his prerogatives.”2
What is it in the Old Testament that elicits such strong language from Dawkins and Templeton who want nothing to do with God? Are such portrayals of God accurate? Does the Old Testament paint a picture of God as nothing more than a cosmic bully with a hair trigger who is ready to torture or end the lives of anyone who so much as neglects a seemingly small request of Heaven?
The answers to these questions are critical because Christians today are quick to tell unbelievers about a God of love who is patient, forgiving, and slow to anger. Is there a disconnect between what Christians profess about God vs. what is actually recorded in the first thirty-nine books of the Bible?
A Brief Look at Some Old Testament Examples
The adversaries of God’s depiction in the Old Testament point to a number of Biblical references that seem to portray the Creator in a bad light. For example, front and center in their arguments is the Genesis flood that erased all life from earth except for one particular family: “Behold, I [God], even I am bringing the flood of water upon the earth, to destroy all flesh in which is the breath of life, from under heaven; everything that is on the earth shall perish." (Gen. 6:17). From this verse, it is crystal clear that it is God Himself who is choosing to cause the deaths of untold numbers of men, women, and children.
Later in Genesis is found the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah and all its people via a direct supernatural act of God: “Then the Lord rained on Sodom and Gomorrah brimstone and fire from the Lord out of heaven, and He overthrew those cities, and all the valley, and all the inhabitants of the cities, and what grew on the ground" (Gen. 19:24-25).
Charges of genocide are very common among the critics of God, with Israel’s charge of what to do with existing people in the promised land being called out as an example: “When the Lord your God brings you into the land where you are entering to possess it, and clears away many nations before you, the Hittites and the Girgashites and the Amorites and the Canaanites and the Perizzites and the Hivites and the Jebusites, seven nations greater and stronger than you, and when the Lord your God delivers them before you and you defeat them, then you shall utterly destroy them. You shall make no covenant with them and show no favor to them” (Deut. 7:1-2, emphasis added). To the skeptic, it seems plain that God is ordering the deaths of innocent people whose only crime is living in the land that He wants Israel to possess. This is reiterated several chapters later in the same Old Testament book: “Only in the cities of these peoples that the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance, you shall not leave alive anything that breathes. But you shall utterly destroy them, the Hittite and the Amorite, the Canaanite and the Perizzite, the Hivite and the Jebusite, as the Lord your God has commanded you” (Deut. 20:16-17, emphasis added).
Critics also point to the overthrow of Jericho and the violent nature of how it was carried out: "They [Israel] utterly destroyed everything in the city [Jericho], both man and woman, young and old, and ox and sheep and donkey, with the edge of the sword" (Joshua 6:21). The seemingly merciless nature of God’s similar forms of extermination is also decried in God’s command to Saul in the Old Testament to wipe out the people of Amalek: “Now go and strike Amalek and utterly destroy all that he has, and do not spare him; but put to death both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey." (1 Sam. 15:3, emphasis added). Why, the critic asks, did the children and even animals have to be killed in the Jericho and Saul campaigns? Certainly such treatment appears extreme and ruthless, doesn’t it? Referencing such events, Robert Anton Wilson states: “The Bible tells us to be like God, and then on page after page it describes God as a mass murderer.”3
In addition to these examples, various Old Testament personalities – ones who God seemingly approved of and helped – are targeted by the Bible’s detractors. For example, in the book of Judges, the story of Samson is relayed, including an episode where Samson is about to be married and makes a bet with thirty men who are to be part of the event. After he loses the bet and is forced to make good on it (he must provide thirty sets of clothes to them), Samson goes down to Ashkelon and kills thirty ‘innocent’ men for their garments: “Then the Spirit of the LORD came upon him mightily, and he went down to Ashkelon and killed thirty of them and took their spoil and gave the changes of clothes to those who told the riddle. And his anger burned, and he went up to his father's house” (Judges 14:19). As can be seen in the first part of the verse, God’s Spirit enables Samson to carry out this act – how could such a thing be empowered by a God of mercy and love asks the critic?
A Response to Critics’ Objections
From the above examples, it would seem that those questioning God’s justice, love, and mercy have a fairly solid position in their complaints. However, let’s now dig a little deeper into each example and see if there isn’t more to each story than what appears on the surface when single sets of verses are clipped from the text and used to attack the character of God.
The Genesis Flood
In Genesis 6, God’s judgment upon the world at large is found in these words: “The Lord said, “I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the land, from man to animals to creeping things and to birds of the sky; for I am sorry that I have made them”" (Gen. 6:7). While the universal flood certainly seems extreme on the surface, there are a number of factors that should be kept in mind.
First, the Bible makes it clear that violence and evil had grown to be extremely pervasive so that it literally touched everything and everyone that existed at that time. Genesis 6:5 states: “Then the LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great on the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.” The author of the Pentateuch indicates that some of the sin was sexual in nature (cf. Gen. 6:1-2), and that the evil permeated and filled the earth. This erases the argument that God drowned ‘innocent’ people in the flood that He brought.
Next, during the construction of the ark, which lasted at least 100 years, Noah is described as a ‘preacher of righteousness’ (cf. 2 Pet. 2:5) to the people around him. This means the people had 100 or so years to listen to the message of Noah and repent of the sin that was bringing the flood waters upon them. So in the end, we find God using His messenger to proclaim the truth of repentance and judgment before a fully corrupt culture that refused to be moved even after 100 years of being exposed to it. And we find God’s mercy being displayed on the one family who followed and obeyed what God had commanded.
Sodom and Gomorrah
The destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah is covered in Genesis 19, however what is oftentimes overlooked are the mentions of those two cities in Genesis prior to their judgment. In Genesis 13, Abraham and his nephew Lot separate from one another because their flocks had grown too large for the land they both lived in. Lot chose to move into an area Genesis describes as “like the garden of the Lord (Gen. 13:10)," which was the area of Sodom. In spite of the wickedness that already existed in the city (cf. Gen. 13:13), God still blessed the land in which they were living, Illustrating what is sometimes called His common grace, which causes His rain to fall on the just and unjust (cf. Matt. 5:45).
God also provided for their rescue from harm as well as spiritual instruction. Genesis 14 chronicles the story of Sodom and Gomorrah’s war, initial defeat, and plunder by rival kings, but then also details how Abraham rescued Lot who had been taken captive and others who had been with him. It also speaks about how Melchizedek came out to meet the king of Sodom, as well as Abraham whom he blessed. From this it seems plausible to believe that the people of that land had been exposed to God’s truth by Melchizedek, and perhaps others, for about 25 years.
But even though they lived in a land blessed by God, were rescued from enemies by God’s servant, and had been given spiritual truth by God’s priest, the people chose to live sinfully before their Creator. Genesis 13:13 says, “Now the men of Sodom were wicked exceedingly and sinners against the Lord.” Later, in Genesis 18, the Bible records God as declaring, “The outcry of Sodom and Gomorrah is indeed great, and their sin is exceedingly grave (Gen. 18:20).
Yet, the writer of Genesis then details an interesting conversation between God and Abraham. As God contemplates carrying out judgment against the cities, Abraham asks if God would dare destroy good people with the bad. He then begins to whittle down a hypothetical number of good people left in the city of Sodom, starting with fifty and ending with ten, asking after each amount if God would still destroy the city if that particular number of good people resided within its walls. In the end, God says He would not destroy the city if He could find at least ten good people within it.
But in Genesis 19, two angels come into the city and are sheltered by Lot. The Scripture then says this: “Before they lay down, the men of the city, the men of Sodom, surrounded the house, both young and old, all the people from every quarter; and they called to Lot and said to him, "Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us that we may have relations with them" (Gen. 19:4-5, emphasis added). The writer is careful to note that the evil men were both young and old and came from everywhere. Evidently the required ten righteous men could not be found and God acted in judgment upon the evil culture. Lot and his family, however, are rescued from the coming judgment and escape it.
The account of Sodom and Gomorrah, which culminates in the encounter involving Lot, the angels, and the men of the city is a vivid description of the type of pervasive evil that causes God to act after He blesses circumstances, rescues from harm, and gives spiritual guidance. The New Testament refers to the destruction of these cities as an example of judgment yet to come (cf. 2 Peter 2.6) with the sexual perversion aspect of the sin being specifically cited (cf. Jude 7).
The Destruction of Jericho
Critics of God’s actions in the Old Testament specifically cite the following verse as a perfect example of ‘overkill’ in how God dealt with Israel’s enemies: "They [Israel] utterly destroyed everything in the city [Jericho], both man and woman, young and old, and ox and sheep and donkey, with the edge of the sword" (Joshua 6:21). How, they ask, could God look with approval on the death of women and young people?
The answer to that question, and the overall justification for the destruction of Jericho, becomes more clear when one does a little research on the Canaanites who populated the city.
Canaan, who was a descendant of Ham (cf. Gen. 10:6), was cursed by Noah for an act that Scripture is not too clear about (cf. Gen. 9:20-25). His descendants became an incredibly sinful people who practiced extreme cruelty, incest, idolatry, bestiality, homosexuality, cultic prostitution, and child sacrifice (by throwing their own children into altars of fire). God warned Israel to not mimic Canaan’s ways: “When you enter the land which the Lord your God gives you, you shall not learn to imitate the detestable things of those nations. There shall not be found among you anyone who makes his son or his daughter pass through the fire, one who uses divination, one who practices witchcraft, or one who interprets omens, or a sorcerer” (Deut. 18:9-10).
And yet, unfortunately, Scripture records that Israel failed to remove Canaan fully from the land given to her by God and suffered the consequences of their disobedience: "They did not destroy the peoples, as the Lord commanded them, but they mingled with the nations and learned their practices, and served their idols, which became a snare to them. They even sacrificed their sons and their daughters to the demons, and shed innocent blood, the blood of their sons and their daughters, whom they sacrificed to the idols of Canaan; and the land was polluted with the blood. Thus they became unclean in their practices, and played the harlot in their deeds" (Psalm 106:36-39). Only a complete removal would do, with even the animals needing to be killed, likely due to the practice of bestiality.
The only ones saved were the prostitute Rahab and her household, which helped Israel in the attack on Jericho. This is an interesting point in that Rahab knew of Israel’s victories and the blessings of God upon the nation. If she knew of Israel’s fame, then it is reasonable to assume the rest of the city knew it as well. They could have easily escaped their destruction. However, they stubbornly chose to remain and fight Israel instead.
The Judgment against Amalek
The book of 1 Samuel contains the account of God’s orders for Saul to destroy the people of Amalek. The Amalekites were descended from Amalek (whose name means ‘plunderer’), who was the son of Eliphaz and grandson of Esau. They were a wicked and warlike people, and were the first to oppose Israel after her liberation from Egypt (cf. Exodus 17:8). As descendents of Esau, they were likely aware of God’s promises to Jacob, but rather than honor God’s choice of Israel, they instead elected to be their enemy.
The Amalekites were particularly cowardly in their attacks on Israel and would deliberately murder the weak and elderly who sometimes lagged behind the core group of Israelites who were making their way to the land promised them by God (cf. Deut. 25:17-19). The book of Judges (6:3-5) records that they consistently allied themselves with other nations to commit genocide against Israel.
Amazingly, God chose not to destroy the Amalekites until some 400 years had elapsed from their first sinful acts against His people. Such an incredibly long period of time shows the patience of God and dispels any notion that God is quick tempered and rushes to judgment against those who are sinning before Him.
Scripture also contains God’s warnings to the Kenites, who were a people living among the Amalekites, to depart so they would not be caught up in the coming judgment (cf. 1 Sam. 15:6). Such a warning had to have also been heard by the Amalekites, and it is reasonable to assume they could have fled the land as well, but they chose not to.
Although God commanded Saul to completely destroy the Amalekites, he disobeyed and did not completely do as he was told (cf. 1 Sam. 15:9-26). Some were allowed to live, an outcome that ultimately resulted in another attempt of genocide upon Israel. The book of Esther records that a man named Haman – who was of Amalek descent – tried to have all the Jews killed in the land of Persia, but he was ultimately stopped by Queen Esther herself.
Samson and the Sons of Ashkelon
Bible naysayers decry Samson’s murder of 30 men of Ashkelon descent, which is recorded in Judges 14:19. However, they overlook a number of important things.
First, Ashkelon was a city of the Philistines, a people who persistently oppressed and brutalized Israel. The Philistines were notorious for their idol worship and worshiped the false gods Dagon, Ashtoreth (the spouse of the false god Baal), and Baalzebub. The rituals of Ashtoreth typically included temple prostitution.
The thirty ‘companions’ of Samson were of Ashkelon descent and clearly lived up to their reputation for violence and cruelty. When challenged by Samson’s riddle and bet, they threatened to murder his fiancée and destroy her father’s home by fire if she did not get Samson to reveal the riddle’s answer to them (which she did).
The acts that Samson carried out were simply an act of judgment by God upon the people of Ashkelon, and are part of a larger sweeping story of God using Samson (and others) as His weapons of justice against a blasphemous and evil people. The story of Samson ends with him killing thousands of Philistines by causing the building they were in to collapse. Samson was also killed in the act, although he himself was saved by God as evidenced by the fact that he is recorded in the ‘heroes of faith’ section in Hebrews 11 (cf. vs. 32).
A Discernable Pattern
From the above examples, we see a distinct pattern emerging from the judgments brought by God upon various peoples:
- God declares an annihilation form of judgment to stamp out a cancer
- The judgments are for public recognition of extreme sin
- Judgment is preceded by warning and/or long periods of exposure to the truth and time to repent
- Any and all ‘innocent’ adults are given a way of escape with their families; sometimes all given a way to avoid judgment via repentance or leaving a particular region. It should also be noted that expulsion from a land was the most common judgment, not extermination. This pattern goes all the way back to the ejection of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden (cf. Gen. 3:24)
- Someone is almost always saved (redeemed) from the evil culture
- The judgment of God falls
Far from being innocent, the objects of God’s judgments were involved in gross sin and committed acts of great barbarism, such as ritualistically burning their own children to death as offerings to their false gods. Amazingly, instead of immediately destroying the peoples involved in such things, the actual opposite is found: the Scripture conveys that God had incredible patience and waited until the full measure of their deeds were completed. For example, while speaking to Abraham about the future exodus of Israel from Egypt, God says the following about the Amorite people: "Then in the fourth generation they will return here, for the iniquity of the Amorite is not yet complete” (Gen 15:15).
One has to ask if mankind today would be as long-suffering with such horrible acts? Were such acts as those chronicled in the Old Testament catapulted into the twenty-first century and globally broadcast via CNN, there would no doubt be a universal outcry with military action being prescribed if such actions were not immediately halted. Why then do God’s critics feel justified in labeling the Creator as morally unjust even when God waited, in some cases, for centuries to punish the peoples involved?
What About the Killing of Children?
Critics still point to the killing of children in a number of the accounts listed above (e.g. the Flood, Amalek, etc.) and protest that God was not justified in calling for the taking of their lives. To address this charge, a number of things should be understood.
First, the typical Israeli rules of engagement included a warning and declaration period of the coming, impeding war. Women, children, the elderly, and others who wished could easily flee far ahead of the fully announced military attack. Only those who (or whose parents) stubbornly remained would face war and its outcome.
Second, in the case of Amalek, it has already been shown that the entire culture had been corrupted by the sin of the adults. From the perspective of eternity, there was no hope for any child who was left behind. Scripture speaks to the fact that any child who dies before they know enough to be morally accountable before God are taken to be with Him (cf. 2 Sam. 12:23), so while some children may have been killed in war, they were ultimately saved by God from becoming what their parents were.
Last, socially and physically, the fate of children throughout history has always rested with their parents, whether they were in good hands (in the case of Noah) or bad (Amalek). The actions of the parents were the final determinant in the temporal/earthly well-being of the children.
After carefully examining the chief Old Testament examples that atheists use to label God as unjust, it has been demonstrated that their criticisms and characterizations are unfounded, and their understanding of the various situations flawed. Further, rather than living up to Dawkin’s caricature of being a vindictive, impatient, quick-tempered, and bloodthirsty deity, the image of God that instead emerges from the Old Testament after a thorough study has been made is just the opposite; God is portrayed as forgiving, patient, and slow to bring forth judgment. However, He is also revealed to be a holy, just, and righteous God who will bring justice about in His time. In short, the God of the Old Testament matches the God of the New Testament to a tee.
While some may argue that correcting the skeptic’s faulty view of God is not that important, quite the opposite is true. An accurate understanding of the nature and characteristics of God is paramount; a fact captured well by A.W. Tozer who writes: “What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us. The history of mankind will probably show that no people has ever risen above its religion, and man’s spiritual history will positively demonstrate that no religion has ever been greater than its idea of God.”4
It is true that the Bible contains graphic stories of sin, evil, and death. But it also includes the overarching grand story of love, redemption, and grace. It showcases a God who asks us to not criticize Him about His acts of justice, but instead One who kindly encourages us to come alongside Him and grieve over a world that has misused the gift of freedom given it to do wrong instead of right. When that happens, and God acts in His righteousness, the world discovers that consequences exist for evil behavior, which is something the prophet Isaiah speaks to: “At night my soul longs for You, Indeed, my spirit within me seeks You diligently; for when the earth experiences Your judgments the inhabitants of the world learn righteousness” (Isaiah 26:9).
So is the God of the Old Testament a merciless monster? After a thorough review of the facts, the evidence overwhelmingly demands an answer of ‘no.'
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