“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.” – Richard Dawkins
Richard Dawkins, one of the most influential voices of the atheist community, writes the words above concerning the character of the God of the Old Testament. Having researched (hopefully, however poorly) and having read the Old Testament, he concludes that the God of the Bible is bad and people are better off without him. Many people agree with him. Its not hard to find a forum online where people are voicing their disgust in this “vile” being. I must admit, at first glance the certain passages of the Old Testament can be difficult to understand, but I’m convinced that they are not impossible. I don’t plan to solve the God delusion in this post, but what I hope to do is speak to a few of those “difficult” passages in hopes of showing that they are understandable and interpretable, and have great significance to the original readers and to us, 21st Century believers, as well. I’m not going to mention everything (there are great books out there for that), however I am going to discuss 3 areas/passages that I feel are most difficult for people: Deuteronomy 20:16-18 (The destruction of seemingly innocent people/Genocide), Genesis 22 (Abraham’s “test”), Leviticus 12:1-8 (Misogyny in the bible), and lastly Leviticus 25:44-46 (Slavery/Racism).
1. Deut. 20:16-18- To make this blog as short as possible, I will not include the scripture text. However, I do recommend a thorough read of the text that I’m discussing before each section. Before I begin, I will say that doing hermeneutics requires that we 1) realize and affirm that we, 21st century westerners, read with a different set of lenses (i.e. worldview) than the ancient near eastern original audience of the scriptures, 2) we must adjust our lenses to a proper worldview of the ancient near eastern people in order to properly interpret a biblical authors intent.
This divine command to kill the Canaanites is probably one of the most difficult hurdles for critics of the Old Testament God. Scholars have went to great lengths to properly explain and justify the command of the Israelites to kill the Canaanites. For in depth details, consult those sources. There is a lot that is to be said about linguistics, archeology, literary context, and semantics- I won’t bother with these things (not as though they are unimportant). I want to discuss the problem of sin (evil). Before the command to enter the land of Canaan, the Israelites were given the commandments of the Lord (Ex. 20:22-26; Deut. 5:6-21). The first commandments given were commandments regarding idol worship. God abhors idol worship. He hates it. And the Canaanites, at that time were great at it. In fact, their worship consisted of imitating the activity of their gods and goddesses. Baal, a Canaanite fertility god, was said to be stimulated by the sex acts of his worshippers on Canaanite high places. Temple sex, bestiality, homosexual activity, and child sacrifice were permitted and encouraged by this god, and the Canaanites practiced fervently. Profound moral corruption was abundant, and God could tarry his hand against them any longer. Just as Sodom and Gomorrah was ripe for judgment in the days of Abraham, so were the Canaanites ripe for divine judgment after the exodus, which would ultimately be carried out in keeping with God’s saving purposes in history. Is God no longer just for enacting judgment against a wicked people?
2. Genesis 22- Critics say that God can’t be good if he ask a man to sacrifice his son. This would suggest that he is in favor of child sacrifice and child abuse. God’s command of Abraham to sacrifice Isaac is hard. But the text doesn’t leave the reader without hints of hope. At the very beginning of the chapter, the reader is told that God came to “test or try” (נִסָּ֖ה) Abraham. The word נִסָּ֖ה suggest that this request is unusual- it is out of the ordinary. God does not usually make request as this one, and it was unique to Abraham’s situation.
We also often read these verses as a stern command towards Abraham to sacrifice his son, as if God has no compassion. Unfortunately we miss the tenderness with which God gives this command to Abraham in the English translation. A more accurate translation of verse 2 would be “Please take your only son or take, I beg of you, your only son”. Theologian Gordon Wenham writes “here we see a hint that the Lord appreciates the costliness of what he is requesting of Abraham”. God understands the magnitude of this difficult task, and would not have asked a worthier man to do this than Abraham. Furthermore, had Abraham not seen the broader purposes of this request and could not bring himself to go through with it, one commentator writes that Abraham wouldn’t incur any guilt for declining God’s pleas.
We also see hints of God’s covenantal faithfulness. God uses similar language as in chapters 12 and 17 to remind Abraham of his promise. Verse 2 reads “Take your son, your only son, whom you love, Isaac”- this is covenantal acknowledgement. God’s promise to Abraham would be fulfilled with his son Isaac. This is what makes Abraham the father of faith, despite of the difficult command he believed that God could even raise Isaac from the dead should he be put to death. We know this because Abraham said it in verse 4 “Stay here with the donkey while I and the boy go over there. We will worship and thenwe will come back to you”. There was no doubt in Abraham’s mind that the promise of God would be fulfilled through his son Isaac.
3. Leviticus 12:1-8- In these verses it explains that a woman who gives birth to a female child is ritually impure for 80 days, where as she is only impure for a total of 40 days after giving birth to a male child. Critics say that this is just one place where the God of the bible shows his sexism and misogynistic ways, claiming that women are in some way inferior to men. Upon further examination, we find that this cannot be.
Genesis 1 records for us that God created both man and woman in his own image (1:27). In the next chapter, we are told that woman was created from the rib of Adam (2:21-22). Both of these images show an equality between man and woman. There is no inferiority and the Hebrew people recognized that. Furthermore, it was not necessarily a bad thing to be impure. Impurity does not equal sinful. There were a number of things that could make a person ritually or ceremonially impure- many of them are natural body functions. A man and a woman became unclean after sex because of the seminal discharge. Sex was not viewed negative (its encouraged among spouses!) or sinful, but because of the exchange of body fluids, the people became impure, and had to go through the purity rites. A woman became impure during her menstrual period, which happens every 30 days or so. It a natural body function that cannot be avoided- not sinful but does make her impure. If a person had a skin lesion, or a cut, he or she became impure. There are many things that could make a person impure that does not necessarily mean sinful.
Now, why are the women impure for 80 days after having a little girl verses 40 days after having a little boy? I’m not sure. Scholars have no definitive reason. Some say that there may have been some historical context that was not recorded and has been lost. For example, western men will often take off their hats when entering a building as a sign of respect. Many of us don’t know how or why it shows respect, we just do it. The removing of the hat is rooted in our historical context, but many of us have lost its rationale. Likewise, the reasons that a woman remains impure for twice as long may have some other context that was lost. Keil records in his commentary that ancients believed that a woman’s vaginal discharge persisted longer after giving birth to a female child, which would naturally increase her period of impurity. Other commentators say that vaginal bleeding happens with both the mother and the newborn girl, due to the withdrawal of the mother’s estrogen after birth. So there becomes two sources of ritual uncleanness (blood flow) as opposed to one source with a male child.
Despite the rationale, critics miss the main point and that is the process by which the mother’s become pure again. The goal for any ritually impure person is to become pure again. In the case of child birth, it is the same for both male and female children. The mother was to bring a lamb and either a dove or pigeon to the priest. One would be a burnt offering and the other a sin offering, after which should would become ritually pure and could once again join the covenant people in worship. God is so merciful that he even makes a concession if the mother was poor and unable to afford a lamb. She could being two doves or pigeons and the priest would atone for her and she would become pure again. I don’t see a hateful, misogynistic God. I see a loving, caring, merciful God!
4. Leviticus 24:44-46- Slavery in the OT. It was said that slave masters in the US would quote from Leviticus as a means to justify their treatment of their slaves. This was an unfortunate, and gruesome point in the history of the United States, and I understand the apprehension against verses like these. The english text uses the word “slave”, which is accurate however it leaves a bad taste in our mouths. I prefer to use the word “servant”. I think it is more accurate and in line with Hebrew custom. Hebrew servitude was nothing like the chattel slavery found in Greco-Roman society and the early United States. In fact, it was more of an indentured servitude. The servants had legal rights and were protected. Israelite law said if the servants were treated poorly, they were free to leave (Ex. 21:26-27). Servants could rest on the Sabbath (Ex. 20:10). Master were commanded to treat their servants with compassion (Deut. 15:12-15). All of this is unlike chattel slavery. Furthermore, if an Israelite man became a servant, he and his family would be released from service in the year of Jubilee. The year of Jubilee was a designated sabbatical year, where everything restarted. There was no sowing or reaping that year as to let the ground rest. The state of Israel was reset. Any debts were forgiven, and land purchases reverted back to the familial owners. God designed it so that his people could begin afresh again.
The use of property language is problematic for some in these verse as well. First off the literal meaning of “property” in this context is money. So the servant is not a commodity to be exchanged but a person who has great value. Their dignity as a human being was inextricably held in tact. Far from the dehumanizing treatment of slaves in the south. Though “property” language is used, it doesn’t mean property owned by another. For example, football players are often traded and released. All the teams have “owners”. There is use of “property” language in this case, but it doesn’t mean that these players are owned or have become the property of another. I think the same is happening here in these verses of Leviticus.
I will say a few words about permanent servitude. A foreigner could become a permanent servant. When a person became a permanent servant, it was more than likely a move up. Permanent servants had access to food, shelter, and protection. They earned a small wage and could begin a family. It was far greater than living on the streets.
God did not intend servitude to be the way of life. God knew man’s temptation to abuse this kind of system. And Israel, of course, abused it later in their history. We read in Amos how men began to mistreat their servants and abuse them. Men began to trade servants for a simple pair of sandals. God would not stand for it. He tells the prophet Amos because of their sin, judgement was coming. And thats exactly what happened.
I hope this helps somebody. Unfortunately, I could not discuss everything in great detail, but if you have more question or want to read more, send me a message and I’ll gladly give your more thorough resources.