Is God Homicidal?
Writing in the New Wine Magazine, Simon Coupland explores the subject of "Is God homicidal?"
Simon Coupland goes on to ask such questions as "How can we defend the violence in the old Testament, which God appears to have commanded? Simon says that this question is one of the primary questions asked by atheists, but he goes on to say that it is widely acknowledged by Bible scholars as being a particularly sticky issue.
‘What about the violence in the Old Testament?’ is a question that comes up again and again when I visit small groups of Christians to answer their questions about faith. It’s also one of the charges that critics throw at us. In his best-selling attack on religion, The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins writes: ‘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, sado-masochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.’
Bible scholars similarly recognise there’s a problem. In his Tyndale commentary on the Old Testament book Joshua, Richard Hess writes: ‘Few of the many issues raised by the book of Joshua create more difficulty than the question of how a loving God could command the wholesale extermination of nations that inhabited the Promised Land. There is no easy or simple solution to this problem.’
So there is no simple answer. Yet I believe that there are some significant factors which can help us to say with integrity that these passages are Scripture. In this series of articles we will consider three simple solutions that are sometimes offered, but which turn out not to be answers at all, then three helpful thoughts which are not complete solutions to the problem, but do offer a way of coping with it.
Cut out the Old Testament
If my experience is typical, this is how many Christians operate, even though they may not be aware of it. It’s not that they reject the Old Testament as Scripture, but in their everyday Christian life they never read or study it, and in home groups they turn to the gospels and epistles or particular themes and issues, but rarely, if ever, open the first half of the Bible.
Other Christians overtly say, ‘I can’t understand the Old Testament and I don’t know why it’s in our Bibles’, and consciously ignore it. Some have got the impression that there are two different gods – the jealous, wrathful God of the Old Testament who smites people with thunderbolts, and the loving, forgiving God of the New Testament.
An old dispute
This is nothing new; in the second century a church leader called Marcion argued the same thing. Marcion taught that there were two gods: the God of the Old Testament and the Father revealed by Jesus. He believed that Paul was the only true interpreter of Jesus and that most of the books regarded as authoritative in the Church of his day were wrong. So he produced his own canon of Scripture, leaving out the whole Old Testament and also much of the New. But God has a wonderful knack of turning attacks on him to his advantage, and what happened was that Marcion’s attempt to distort the fledgling Christian faith led to the wider church agreeing its own list of accepted books, which became more or less the New Testament canon that we know today.
The early Christians also agreed, against Marcion, that the Hebrew Bible was their Bible too, to be read, studied and quoted. Thus when Paul wrote to Timothy, ‘from infancy you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness’ (2 Tim 3:15-16), it wasn’t the New Testament Scriptures to which he was referring, as they were still being written, but the Hebrew Scriptures, the Old Testament.
Splitting with Jesus
The fact is that if we reject or neglect the Old Testament, it has a series of unfortunate consequences. First, we are no longer following Jesus, because he clearly regarded the Hebrew Bible as the Word of God. See for instance Mark 7:13, where he criticised those who were neglecting the care of their parents, with these words: “You nullify the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down.” Or Matthew 22:29, where he told the Sadducees with regard to the resurrection: “You are in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God.”
Second, we have to cut out large parts of the New Testament too, as almost all books quote the Old Testament, many of them numerous times. So Jesus said in Mark 12:10, “Haven't you read this passage of Scripture: ‘The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone’?” (Psalm 118:22). In other words, Jesus expected his listeners to know the Old Testament, to respect its authority and to see its relevance. The other New Testament writers likewise assumed that their readers knew the events described in the Old Testament, and built their theological arguments upon it. For instance, in a long passage about Abraham, Paul wrote, ‘What does Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness”’ (Rom 4:3).
As those two passages demonstrate, another thing we lose if we ignore the Old Testament is an understanding of the context into which Jesus came and the way he saw himself and his mission. So in the synagogue at Nazareth Jesus read from Isaiah 61 and added, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” (Luke 4:21). In effect Jesus pointed to the prophet’s writing and said, ‘That’s me!’ Or on the road to Emmaus, ‘beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself’ (Luke 24:27). Wouldn’t we love to have a fuller record of that conversation? But God leaves us to do the work for ourselves, which means immersing ourselves in the Old Testament, reflecting on it and making the connections Jesus made.
Finally, if we cut out the Old Testament we deprive ourselves of much that even critics of the Hebrew Bible recognise as worth treasuring: the riches of the Psalms, the ten commandments, stories like that of Ruth, the foreign widow who becomes David’s great-grandmother and much more. I was fascinated to read an article in Good Housekeeping magazine in 2000 by the broadcaster Jenni Murray. She describes organising the funeral of a BBC colleague who had no religious faith, and how difficult it was to find something appropriate for the committal, when the mourners say their final goodbye. She eventually chose something suggested by the British Humanist Society: ‘To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose on earth...’ clearly unaware that she was quoting Ecclesiastes 3!
An unchanging God
It’s also important to emphasise that there really aren’t two different gods in the Bible, the angry one of the Old Testament and the loving one of the New. For a start, if we study the Hebrew Scriptures we discover that the God revealed there is the God of the Exodus, who rescues his people from slavery and demonstrates his character in these words: ‘The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin’ (Ex 34:6-7). This description of God runs like a scarlet thread through the Old Testament: see Numbers 14:18, Nehemiah 9:17, Psalms 103:8 and 145:8 and Nahum 1:3.
Jesus clearly identifies his Father as the Old Testament God. See for instance John 6:45: “It is written in the Prophets: ‘They will all be taught by God.’ Everyone who has heard the Father and learned from him comes to me.” What’s more, Jesus speaks just as much of judgement as he does of mercy. When I was a baby Christian someone suggested that I go through the gospels and highlight all the promises of Jesus. I did, and it was great! But a few years later I noticed that Jesus also gave many threats and warnings, so I decided to highlight those in a different colour. I was amazed and slightly shocked at the number of times Jesus warned people to sort themselves out and respond to God - or else! Passages like this one from the Parable of the Unmerciful Servant: “In anger his master turned him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed. This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart” (Matt 18:34-35).
So the Old Testament speaks of judgement, but it also speaks of grace, and the New Testament is exactly the same. The God of the Hebrew Bible is the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, and if we’re followers of Jesus, which for me is a pretty good definition of a Christian, then we should ‘read, mark, learn and inwardly digest’ (from The Book of Common Prayer) the Old Testament as well as the New. For as Paul says, these are the Scriptures which ‘are able to make you wise for salvation’ (2 Tim 3:15); they reveal the Father to us and they point us to Jesus.
This material appears copyright of New Wine Magazine and is used with kind permission.