God in the Old Testament

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God in the Old Testament


By Peter S. Williams



Many people are sometimes unsure what to make of certain portrayals of God in the Old Testament. One either accepts the reality of the events described or not, and one either accepts the reality of their divine cause or not. If one denies the reality of the events, this is only a problem if the Bible demands to be interpreted as requiring the events: “The Christian Fathers, sure that the Old Testament was a necessary and legitimate part of the Christian heritage, defended it by the method of allegorical interpretation. The Cannanites, who were to be exterminated in the name of God, were allegorized as the powers of sin and evil.”[1] This method may or may not be correct (probably not), but the logic behind it seems to me to have been correct.

It may help to say that I personally think (as many Christians think) that the first eleven chapters of Genesis needn’t be taken literally (although the flood seems to have some historical background, on a local level), or the story of Job – I take these as theological myths (I think Job is clearly a theological story rather than history). One of the answers to the problem of suffering in Job is that Job meets God; he realizes that his perspective is finite and that, however difficult the problem of evil may be theoretically and existentially, he knows that God is real (because he has met Him), and that there therefore must be an answer, even if he isn’t intelligent enough to understand it. Christian thinkers have provided several good responses to the so-called ‘problem of evil’ that may be relevant to anyone asking questions about God’s goodness in the light of particular Biblical stories. For example, we cannot call anything really evil without a real standard of goodness to judge this by; but an absolute standard of goodness could only be God Himself! Thus evil cannot disprove God’s existence; in fact, there is a sense in which it proves His existence!

One might well argue that a careful reading of the texts in context leads one to conclude that they happened only somewhat as a first reading indicates:


“some conservative scholars allow that the writer of Joshua probably engaged in a bit of bravado from time to time, using a type of rhetorical hyperbole that was common among the chroniclers of warfare in the ancient near East. In Joshua 10:20, for example, the writer proclaims that the Israelite army “wiped out” its enemy during a campaign in southern Judea, but in the very next phrase he describes what became of “the survivors”. . . The type of hyperbole found in Joshua also is evident in ancient Egyptian, Assyrian, and Hittie military inscriptions describing the magnitude of enemy defeats. One Egyptian stele from the fifteenth century BCE, commemorating the exploits of Thutmose III in the Euphrates, makes the grandiose claim that “the heads of the Asiatics are severed, none escape (death).” However, a few lines later it brags that thousands of prisoners were captured. That the inscription “is describing real events, albeit with rhetorical flourishes and propaganda, is undeniable,” says Hoffmeier.”[2]


In other words, while the book of Joshua should be judged no less historically reliable than similar contemporary writings, exaggeration in military matters was common-place in the ancient Near East, and we shouldn’t take Biblical accounts that suggest terms such as ‘genocide’ to out post-twentieth century minds at face value. Nor should we forget that the Cainannites as a culture were hardly innocents: “The Cannanites, for example, used to ritually sacrifice newborn babies by burning them alive. There’s evidence that they would perform some “religious” ritual of tying together the legs of a woman in labor, and leave her there until she died!”[3] The data suggests that the aim of the military campaign against the Cannanites, far from being genocide, was to evict them from the Promised Land. It may be the case that the Cannanite (and no doubt Jewish) deaths involved were the lesser of two evils: “If, with this, one considers God’s universal perspective, one must ask not only what is the lesser of two evils for the individuals involved, but what is the lesser of two evils for the entire world throughout history?”[4] It would be strange to claim to be in a better position than God to answer this question! “One final consideration on this. If one believes in an afterlife, as I do, then the death of the Canaanites is not really the end of their life at all. It may be just the beginning of an eternal life with God. What God does for historical purposes is not necessarily an indication of how God judges people eternally.”[5]

Like Job, I don’t need to be able to counter every proposed defeater for my belief in the Christian God in order for that belief to remain reasonable, or even for it to have the preponderance of evidence in its favor. As William Dembski writes: “Christian belief in God is not based on God’s blocking every avenue of doubt, but rather on God’s doing enough – both in our hearts and in the world – to elicit faith.”[6] I can have sufficient reason to believe that the Christian God exists to rebut proposed defeaters, even if I cannot produce a coherent account of all the available data. My inability on this score may be due to my finite state and perspective rather than the existence of a contradiction in the facts, whatever they are. As Gregory Boyd writes:


“it’s always best to work from the known to the unknown. Jesus Christ is the person in whom God is fully revealed. This, for me, must be my central definition of God. Whatever else God is like, He can’t be different than the God I encounter here. “If you see Me,” Jesus says, “you see the Father” (John 14). If something in scripture appears to contradict this, I must confess ignorance and suspend judgement. I don’t always know why God did what he did in the Old Testament. But since I know on other grounds that God is all-loving and all-wise, I must simply trust that He had wise and loving reasons for doing that He did.”[7]


Of course, you may doubt the soundness of my rebutting reasons, but you can see, I hope, the validity of the approach. The fact that I have a few jigsaw pieces I can’t seem to fit into my picture doesn’t worry me unduly if I have the corners and edges and large portions of the picture coherently assembled in such a way that I can be confident of the picture. In other words, one has to follow the weight of the evidence. I happen to believe that the weight of the evidence points towards the truth of Christianity – but again, I would point out that this is a less fundamental issue than that of the existence of a Deity as such. My confidence in this approach stems from three facts:


  • The philosophical arguments for God convince me that God exists and is necessarily good.
  • The Historical evidence of and for the New Testament account of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection is in my opinion very strong – and based upon this evidence I think the classic trilemma about Jesus (was he lying in claiming deity and so a bad man, or genuine but incorrect and so mad, or genuine and correct?) forces me to accept his divinity and to see in Him the fullest revelation of God by God, a revelation that speaks of love, divine suffering and forgiveness, and so on. All of the historical data in this argument is more certain that that concerning events in ancient Egypt, etc.
  • My personal experience of God (as well as that of many people I know and respect) is channeled and conditioned by the acceptance of a Christian theology centered upon Jesus, and this experience is such that I must either consider it genuine or delusory to the extent of suspecting feeble-mindedness or mental instability. Discounting the latter option leaves me with the former, as the principle of credulity encourages me to do, and reveals to me once again a God who is undoubtedly good. Of course, the third piece of evidence is not fully open to a non-believer.


Thus, on the historical and personal evidence I am convinced that the Old Testament events in question are either a) incorrectly ascribed to God’s will (i.e. they either happened, but not by God’s will; or are at least in part hyperbole, myth, or legend), or b) the events did happen as an initial reading of the texts suggests (or pretty much so), but are not in fact incompatible with the goodness of God. (The suggestion that option a undermines the Old Testament is, I believe, misplaced, in that it fails to take seriously the idea of progressive revelation and the holistic nature of scripture.)

While you might try to argue: ‘God (apparently) did x, x is (apparently) an evil thing for God to do, therefore God is (apparently) evil (or nonexistent)’, this can be turned around to: ‘God (apparently) did x, although x is apparently an evil thing to do, if God did it then x cannot be an evil thing for God to do, since God is necessarily good; therefore if God did x then it was not evil of God to do (or bring about, even indirectly) x’. A case in point might be any instance where God apparently causes – whether directly or indirectly – the death of people (in a way, doesn’t He cause our death simply by giving us life in the first place?!) Since God stands in a unique relation to humans, the relation of creator to creation, one cannot assume that moral laws applicable to humans, such as ‘thou shall not kill’ (which has always been interpreted with certain caveats anyway) must apply to God. I certainly don’t have the right to end your life without good reason (perhaps self-defence, or to protect the innocent) because I would be taking what I did not give; but God is the author of all life; besides, perhaps God has a good reason in these cases, whether or not we know what they are or might be. Can we really be sure that it is impossible or even unlikely that God might have good reason to cause or allow events for which we can see no good reason?

I think one would be quite right to note that the Bible is a product of primitive religious communities; and while it would be right to draw from this fact the conclusion that a careful and sensitive reading of the Bible will be required to reach the truth, it would be wrong to conclude on this account (with what C.S. Lewis dubbed ‘chronological snobbery’) that the Bible must be worthless and have nothing true to say to us. Chronological snobbery is, as Lewis put it: “the uncritical assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that account discredited. You must find out why it went out of date. Was it ever refuted (and if so, buy whom, where, and how conclusively) or did it merely die away as fashions do? If the latter, this tells us nothing about its truth or falsehood.” Rather, as I said above, one ought to take seriously the notion of progressive revelation. Rev’d Dr. Rex Mason explains:


“God took these people of the ancient world as and where He found them to begin His work in them and with them. But He did not leave them there. There are some very different attitudes towards ‘foreigners’ expressed later on in other parts of the Old Testament (e.g. Isaiah 19:24 ff., Zechariah 7:20 ff.). . . The Old Testament is the story of a growing apprehension of the true nature of God and His purpose for men in the world, a process which was to move to its fulfilment in the life and death of Jesus.” (Old Testament Studies.)


It takes time for God to reveal himself to people, and for Christians the Old Testament is best read in the light of the New Testament, and particularly with Jesus – as God’s prime revelation – in mind. To take two parts of the Bible and contrast them as contradictory is to miss the wood for the trees, for it is the Bible as a whole that is the inspired literary word of God: “Very few Christians have taken a ‘dictation’ view of the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. It is more typical to think of the Spirit as overseeing the writings of many different individuals, to ensure that, taken together, they convey insight into spiritual truth, without putting words one by one into their minds. It seems clear that the personalities and beliefs of the writers were not simply over-ridden by the Spirit, but rather used to build up a set of documents which would, as a whole, give insight into the nature and purpose of God.”[8] This means reading with an eye to historical context, literary type, and in the light of what we reasonably believe from such sources as science, philosophy, theology, church tradition and personal experience.

[1] Mason, Old Testament Studies.

[2] Jeffery L. Sheler, Is The Bible True?, (Harper Collins, 2000), p. 110.

[3] Gregory Boyd, Letters from a Skeptic, (Kingsway, 2000), p. 135.

[4] ibid.

[5] ibid, p. 136.

[6] William Dembski, The Creation Hypothesis, p. 315.

[7] Boyd, op cit, p. 135

[8] Keith Ward, Christianity – A Short Introduction (OneWorld, 2000), p. 109, my italics.