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Moral monster?

Who is the God the Old Testament portrays?

-Richard Belcher talks to Peter Hastie-

Dr Richard Belcher Jnr is the John D. & Frances M. Gwin Professor of Old Testament and Academic Dean at the Reformed Theological Seminary in Charlotte, North Carolina. In 2014 he visited Australia to lecture at the Presbyterian Theological College of Victoria on “Preaching in the Book of Judges”. Dr Belcher has recently published important Bible commentaries on the books of Genesis and Ecclesiastes.

Critics of the Bible claim that it contains so many obscene and cruel stories that it can hardly be the work of a holy and righteous God. Do they have a point?

Obviously, this is a pressing issue today. In the past people who have had moral problems with the Bible have said, “Well, the Bible contains some stories and practices that are offensive to many people and this undermines its authority”. But today some of the more passionate atheists like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens have gone a step further and said, “the Bible’s views on morality are dangerous”.

This represents a change in the way that people are viewing the Bible. They are not simply saying that it is wrong; they are claiming that it is evil. Moreover, they go a step further and suggest that the teaching of the Bible should not even be tolerated; instead, it should be rejected as “hateful”.

In response, I would point out that when the Bible describes an event it does not mean that it necessarily condones it. The Bible paints an honest picture about the fallen world and it certainly includes some confronting stories. However, the inclusion of some of these stories does not mean that God approves the actions of their characters. On the contrary, they are often condemned. What we need to understand is that God is able to use these stories in ways that further His purposes by teaching us things we need to know about Him, ourselves and His grace towards sinners.

Do you think it’s fair to say (as some people do) that the Old Testament represents God as full of wrath and vengeance, while the New Testament portrays Him in terms of love, mercy, and grace?

This view is based upon a false dichotomy. The reality is that we find that the God of the Old Testament is also presented as a God of love and compassion. We see it clearly in the aftermath of the Golden Calf incident, where Moses describes God as merciful and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness (Exodus 34:6). If you look at the way God relates to His people in the Old
Testament, He is always faithful to His covenant promises and is long-suffering toward His own people when they disobey Him. It’s a false perception that the God of the Old Testament is just a God of vengeance.

It is a false expectation that we can live in a fallen world without suffering and awkward moral problems.

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On the other hand, of course, Christ Himself spoke some very harsh words of judgment to the self righteous of His day (Matthew 23) as well as to those who rejected Him (Matthew 13). In fact, if you look at the Bible and its presentation of salvation, there’s no contradiction between God’s justice and judgment on the one hand, and His mercy and compassion on the other. He has devised the gift of salvation in such a way that His just demands can be met in His compassionate response to undeserving sinners. So God has, in essence, through the gospel, satisfied His justice while offering grace and mercy to sinners through Christ’s life, death and resurrection.

Do you think it’s realistic in the light of the Fall and God’s curse on sin to expect that life is going to be problem-free and that we won’t suffer things like pain, and confusing moral problems?

No, it’s not realistic. I think it’s an entirely false expectation that we can live in a fallen world without suffering and awkward moral problems. We learn from the book of Job that even a blameless person can suffer and face lots of confusion as he tries to make sense of life and God’s ways in the world. Job never did anything to attract his particular suffering. Even Jesus, who was entirely innocent, suffered. Of course, His suffering was for a specific purpose. As followers of Jesus, we may be treated in the same way as Him. Since we live in a fallen world that is under the judgment of God we are never really going to escape pain, suffering and perplexity.

Does God have any purpose in bringing pain into the world because of sin?

Since God is wise and sovereign, He can use many things that may seem to strange to us in carrying out His purposes. For instance, He can use pain and suffering to bring us to an end of ourselves and to draw us to Christ.

Sometimes, as a consequence of our own sinfulness, we experience consequences related to our actions that remind us that sin never pays and that true blessing is only found in God.

And God can also use pain and suffering for our sanctification and perfection.

Suffering can also be a warning to us. Some of the stories in the Bible – like the Fall – warn us about the effects and consequences of sin. When we read these stories we are challenged to overcome sin so that we don’t suffer the same consequences.

Should we see God’s judgments in events like the Fall, the Flood, and the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah as a series of warning signals from Heaven about an ultimate judgment that faces us all?

Yes. In fact, some of these events are pictures of the final eschatological judgment, and so serve as a warning to anyone that judgment is on the horizon for those who reject the gospel. Likewise, God can also teach us about His grace through our own sin and failures. God can use our disobedience to remind us – especially when we think of King David and his failures – that there’s a righteous king who will never fail, but will accomplish God’s purposes of salvation. Of course, we see that in the person of Christ. So that’s also a part of God’s redemptive purpose in showing us some of the failures of His own people in the Old Testament.

Imagine what our neighbourhoods would be like if we all acted out the desires and impulses of our hearts.

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So judgments can be a warning to us of what is to come as well as alerting us to the present consequences of sin in our own lives. They can also generate hope that in this sinful world, where we don’t live up to God’s righteous judgments, there is someone who can meet all the requirements of the law and truly bring us salvation.

Would you agree that in the light of the Fall and our own sin that the real problem in the world is not “why is there suffering?” but “why is there any pleasure?”

That’s a good way to look at it. It is reminder that God’s common grace ensures that things are rarely as bad as they could be. Although sin affects every part of our being, people rarely give expression to all their sinful desires. If they did, life on earth would be hell. In other words, we should be thankful to God for the restraint that He exercises over sin in the world.

Imagine what our neighbourhoods would be like if we all acted out the desires and impulses of our hearts. The fact that we experience many joys and much happiness in this life is totally undeserved in view of our sin and rebellion. This means that we should look at our neighbours in a new way. For instance, if we have an unbelieving neighbour who is a moral person, we can give thanks to God that His grace has restrained his sin and made him reluctant to do evil. The amazing thing about life in this world is that it is actually a lot better than we would expect it to be in the light of the curse (Genesis 3:16-19).

When God brings judgment on people such as Pharaoh or the Canaanites is He being malicious, or does He have some other purpose in view?

In most of these situations, God’s first response is not judgment. Even in a case like Sodom and Gomorrah, God comes first to Abraham to reveal His plans to him. Abraham pleads with God, and God is willing to save the cities if there are 10 righteous people in them. So we see that God’s first response is not one of judgment. Usually God’s judgment comes after an extended period where people refuse to change, and evil reaches epidemic proportions.

God is always slow to execute judgment. In Genesis 15 we discover that God reveals that He will not punish the Amorites for at least four generations, which in those times equated to over four centuries. I don’t think that anyone could argue that God acted capriciously and was not long-suffering and just in executing His judgments. In fact, I think that most of us would be thankful that God is so forbearing and merciful in the way He executes justice.

I think we all need to pause and remember that the God of the Bible is holy and we are sinners. We deserve nothing from Him, and that’s the part of the equation we don’t understand today. If we did we would soon realise how merciful and gracious God is when He exercises such restraint towards us.

A lot of people take offence at God’s command to the Israelites to destroy the Canaanites. What do we know about the Canaanites? Did they deserve it?

That’s the way this issue is presented sometimes: the poor, innocent Canaanites, minding their own business, and then God pounces on them in judgment and destroys them through the Israelites.

Well, as I said earlier, God’s judgment wasn’t His first response. He waited for over four centuries until their evil had reached the upper limit, so to speak.

The Canaanites were a people who were very wicked in their behaviour, even engaging in child-sacrifice. They worshiped gods who were lustful, incestuous, and bloodthirsty and the Canaanites became like the gods they worshipped. The goddess of sex and war, Ashtart, was very violent. She decorated herself with suspended heads and hands attached to a girdle. She exalted in brutality and butchery.

Of course, the Canaanites also worshipped Baal, who was the god of fertility. One aspect of Baal worship involved the Canaanites engaging in sexual activity as a form of sympathetic magic to induce him to produce fruitfulness for their crops. So it’s a false picture to say that the Canaanites were innocent people minding their own business. They were extremely debauched and wicked people.

How would you answer somebody like Richard Dawkins who says that when God orders the extermination of the Canaanites He is nothing more than a moral monster?

I would answer by reminding him that the Bible says that God is a God of justice. His judgment is simply a manifestation of His justice and righteousness, and if we had a sense of His holiness, our response would be one of fear and reverence because of the holy God that He is.

I would also remind him that this judgment upon the Canaanites serves as a warning of the future eschatological judgment that faces us.

And I would also add this: God’s command to exterminate the Canaanites is not something that occurs all throughout Old Testament history. It is for a particular period of Israel’s history. It’s not as if Israel participated all throughout her history in this kind of activity. It was for a particular purpose in a limited period of her history. Further, it was confined to the time when she entered Canaan to take possession of it for herself so as to fulfil God’s purpose for her.

Now there were times when Israel engaged in physical warfare – holy war – but many times that was defensive. So this is a strictly limited period during Israel’s existence, and we should not think of Israel participating in this kind of activity all throughout her history. To suggest otherwise is wrong.

Did God intend all the Canaanites to be totally obliterated?

No, He didn’t. Some were saved. Rahab is a good example of this. Rahab was living in a city – Jericho – that had fallen under condemnation. Yet she responded to the spies, believed in the God of Israel and so she and her household were saved. So there was an opportunity for people to believe and avoid destruction.

Thus, not all Canaanites were destroyed and there are examples throughout the Old Testament of non-Israelites believing in the God of Israel and becoming a part of God’s people.

Atheists often claim that God’s order to kill the Canaanites was an act of genocide and ethnic cleansing. Is this a fair charge?

No, it’s not. It’s based on ignorance. When God commands Israel to exterminate the Canaanites it has nothing to do with race. Likewise, when He tells Israel not to intermarry with the Canaanites, it’s not a racial matter. It’s a religious one. God’s concern is to promote saving faith. Thus, for the sake of future generations, they are commanded not to marry unbelievers.

Elsewhere in the Old Testament we have instances where Israelites married foreigners who were believers. This practice was approved. For instance, when Ruth becomes a believer in the God of Israel, she is able to marry Boaz. So the issue is not one of race; and this shows how baseless Dawkins’ claim is.

People who are not a part of Israel can become a part of Israel through belief in Israel’s God. So Israel is compassionate in many ways to those who are different from her.

How should we view this warfare of the Israelites against the Canaanites? Is there any reason to doubt God’s character? Exactly what purpose is it serving?

It serves a number of purposes. One vital purpose it served at that time was to maintain the purity of Israel’s spiritual life and mission. If Israel was God’s servant to bring light to the nations it could not allow itself to be spiritually compromised by allowing people to join who did not believe in the true God and His purposes for the world.

Our mission is to evangelise others, not to terrorise them and blow them up.

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Further, the destruction of the Canaanites is a picture of the final judgment that is coming upon unbelief and wickedness. But what’s particularly interesting to me is if we begin to think about what takes place upon the cross, we begin to see that God takes this judgment upon Himself. He enters into our fallen world in Christ, who, though sinless, takes upon Himself the judgment that we deserve in dying upon the cross.

When we think about God’s justice and suffering, we must remember that in Christ’s death we see God’s mercy and compassion displayed towards undeserving sinners. Further, Christ’s death for our sin reveals the extent that God is willing to go to in order to form a relationship with undeserving sinners, by taking upon Himself our judgment. I think that’s a key part of this that also needs to be emphasised. So Christ Himself comes, and He comes not as someone who is coming to destroy sinners (in His first coming); rather, He comes as one who wants to save us.

Once He has saved us He sends us out into the world as disciples. Our mission is to evangelise others, not to terrorise them and blow them up. We are to preach the gospel and give our lives in serving people. Christ gives His life; He doesn’t take the life of infidels. We are sent out to sacrifice ourselves by preaching the good news of the gospel to them.

This is a markedly different mission to the one you see in other religions. The New Testament is quite clear that our mission is not to engage in physical warfare (2 Corinthians 10:3-5). Instead, we are called to proclaim the gospel and to overcome the false ideas and arguments that keep us in bondage. Our mission is spiritual warfare, in the light of the spiritual kingdom that Christ established. Ephesians 6 and Revelation 12 talk about that spiritual warfare. When we read about the holy wars in the Old Testament we must always view them in the light of the coming of Christ.

Is there anything you would add, then, to Richard Dawkin’s claim that when Christ went to the cross, God actually was engaging in divine child abuse?

I would reject Dawkins’ view completely. It’s true that God’s relationship with Christ is one of Father-Son, but it is a relationship that is conditioned by mutual love and honour and where both have voluntarily agreed that Christ’s death for sinners is necessary for the salvation of God’s people. Dawkins completely misrepresents this understanding of their relationship to further his own agenda. When he speaks about the God of the Bible he gives a completely false picture.

Peter Hastie is the principal of PTC Victoria.

First Published in the Summer 2014/2015 Edition

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