Monday, May 07, 2007
The Objectionable Parts of the Bible
What part of the Bible bothers you the most? Personally I've had the hardest time reconciling the parts of the Old Testament where God seems to command genocide. I have a hard time worshiping a God that sometimes acts like Hitler. Not surprisingly, many of my atheist friends object to those passages too.

However, it's instructive to realize that what bothers us about the Bible from our 21st century mindset is not what has bothered skeptics in other cultures and time periods. Timothy Larson from Wheaton College has an interesting post on the Christian Century's Theolog blog about what atheists in the Victorian era found objectionable about the Bible. Perhaps not surprisingly they weren't bothered by the violence and racism (acceptable "virtues" even for atheists back then), rather it was the sex and alcohol that they found most troubling about the Bible back then! Just goes to show that much of what we consider to be "absolute" morals are very much bound up in our time and culture.

What do you suppose it will be in another 100 years?


posted by Mike Clawson at 9:51 AM | Permalink |


At 5/07/2007 07:03:00 PM, Anonymous Dan Harlow

Mike, I have a theory as to how you can justify the Old and New Testament.

If you are a parent then think back to how you used to act when you were single. You might have been "wild and crazy" back then. Now once you have children, you mellow out, you calm down and take a more forgiving frame of mind towards your fellow man.

If God was created in mans image - though I suppose you would say it was the other way around :) - then isn't God behaving like a single guy in the Old Testament (crazy bachelor always getting into fights and angry all the time) but once He has a kid (Jesus) he mellows out and gets all "turn the other cheek" on humanity?

I know that sounds funny, but I am serious. In fact, I've mentioned this to other people who believe in God and usually right after they stop chuckling, their eyebrows kinda raise up and they nod their heads a little bit as if that really does make sense.


At 5/07/2007 09:00:00 PM, Blogger Mike Clawson

Interesting theory Dan... personally I never really had a "wild and crazy single guy" phase (I got married when I was 21), but I guess I get your analogy. There is a sense in which Israel's understanding of God does tend to reflect their own need for a God of justice and vengeance, or later for mercy and compassion.

Though I would suggest that there is actually a deep continuity between the God of the OT and the message of Jesus. God was merciful and compassionate in the OT too (and has a streak of anger against injustice in the NT as well). The main thing that I see about God throughout scripture is that, in the words of C.S. Lewis "He's not a tame lion."

Though I'd also suggest that at the same time Jesus' message was a radical break from what most of his people wanted God to be like. In 1st Century Palestine the Jews still wanted a God of violence and justice, which is why they kill Jesus when he failed to live up to these expectations.

Jesus may be more "mellow", but back then, as today, a God of peace is still more radical than a God of violence.


At 5/08/2007 06:08:00 PM, Blogger Dan Barnett.

As nice as your theory sounds, there's one problem. God doesn't change and never will. The reason why there is so much violence "from" God in the OT is becaouse of his covenant with Israel. This old covenant was just thrown aside by his chosen people. For this he handed them over to their enemies, and very brutally. On the flip side, when Isreal was following God and seeking him alone, he handed their enemies to them, brutally as well. In the new NT, Jesus talks about the new covenant. It is now open to all. They are no longer, for the most part in constant war. God seems more merciful, but really, he is the same God as he always was. Beyond that, He will be this genocidal god in the future as well, as the valley is filled with the blood of his enemies. The whole point of what he does and allows, is to bring himself the utmost glory. He does this in many ways, and many are simply unappealing. You can debate with an atheist all day, but the bottomline that I've discovered is they see him as a criminal, and we see him as Almighty God.


At 5/08/2007 08:40:00 PM, Blogger Mike Clawson

No offense Dan B, but if you're right about God actually being a genocidal God, then I'm pretty sure I don't want to be a Christian.

I mean, I think you're wrong, but if I thought you weren't I would renounce my faith on the spot. A god like that would be indistinguishable from the devil IMHO.

Just being honest...


At 5/10/2007 01:02:00 AM, Anonymous es

The OT reflects the people who wrote it and the times they lived in. Nasty and barbaric. The NT reflects the moderating Greek and Roman influences. That's why it's a kinder, gentler, more civilized god.

Of course if you think an actual deity was responsible for the writing, you have a more difficult problem to solve. But you can always fall back on "it's mysterious and hard to understand but god has his reasons."

Somehow I think you're smarter than that. But Xians have fooled me before. :)


At 5/10/2007 01:29:00 AM, Blogger Mike Clawson

es, that's an interesting theory, but if you think that the Greeks or Romans were "kinder", "gentler" or "more civilized" than the Old Testament Jews, then I'd guess that you probably don't know much about Classical History. There's nothing kinder or gentler about Roman crucifixions or any of the numerous other tortures they devised to subjugate and oppress the peoples they had so violently overrun. And try reading about some of Alexander or his successor's behaviors towards their enemies. They're all regular Hitler types. Nothing exceptionally civilized about any of them.

Sorry, but I think you have to look elsewhere to explain away Jesus' message of non-violent peacemaking, religious/racial inclusiveness, and compassion and justice for the oppressed.


At 5/10/2007 06:50:00 PM, Blogger Richard Wade

Bravely spoken to Mr. Barnett. As I’ve said before, I think a person’s concept of God reflects the kind of person they are inside. I wouldn’t trust him with any power.

Whether or not es is correct about the character of the two historical periods of the OT and NT, his/her question does bring up a puzzlement I have had for a long time. I’m not well versed in scripture but I am asking respectfully. If both works correctly reflect God, then why do the two portrayals seem so very different? The OT God seems to be a direct lift of Jupiter, later called Zeus: Murderous, vindictive, jealous, vain and capricious. He’s always around, talking to people, getting in their face, making people do this, feel that, hardening hearts, writing on walls, smiting folks, He’s a real pain in the neck, just like Zeus. In fact if a book about Zeus and the OT were both written for the first time today, there would be lawsuits for plagiarism. But centuries later in the NT he’s had a personality makeover. He’s nicer. He’s also harder to find. In fact he’s downright invisible. No more writing and smiting. Now you can only reach him through his agent.

Dan Harlow thinks it’s analogous to he grew up and got mellow. es thinks the people who wrote the NT were from a kinder and gentler time. I don’t know if the social landscape of the NT era was “kinder and gentler,” but perhaps people were getting a little more sophisticated, and the invisibility thing was becoming more of a problem.

You said to Dan Harlow that he’s still the same good ol’ God we know and love/fear, pretty loving but don’t piss him off. But then you say, “Jesus' message was a radical break from what most of his people wanted God to be like. In 1st Century Palestine the Jews still wanted a God of violence and justice, which is why they kill Jesus when he failed to live up to these expectations.”

So is it the good ol’ God or the new, improved God? I’m not making fun; it just doesn’t jive for me. And either way, it sounds like Jesus is the one who was re-inventing God. Did Jesus create God? He just didn’t give people the product they wanted? It sounds to me like Jesus was a man who wanted to propose his new idea of God and it was so radical it freaked out the orthodoxy. But that’s just a story about an idealistic guy who was naïve about people, like so many other stories.

As I’ve said before, please excuse my theological ignorance.


At 5/11/2007 10:20:00 AM, Anonymous Jeff L.

The Bible, both Old and New Testaments, reflect the same God. He is unchanging, and the Bible is his Word. We cannot look at the judgment of the people of Canaan, or later of the Israelites themselves, outside the context of the Fall. God promised death to Adam and Eve for breaking his commandment and introducing sin in the world. He is a holy God and as such must punish sin. His holy nature is reflected in the Old Covenant (we have two words, covenant and testament, for the same word in the original languages).

Under that Old Covenant (Testament) we are condemned by our own actions - we cannot attain to the holiness of God on our own strength. Yet, in his love (God is a righteous God and a God of love), he promised that he would provide a way that would satisfy his wrath against us (I deserve his judgment as do all people). It is the New Covenant (Testament), instituted by Jesus Christ, by which we have access to God. Faith in Christ - in his perfect life, dreadful crucifixion (where he undeservedly, but willingly bore the wrath of the Father), and victorious resurrection - and faith in him alone saves us from the judgment of our sinfulness and makes us sons and daughters of the Eternal God.

As children of our age, we look at the Bible and what God did in the history recorded there and are offended. This is a natural response, given our underlying belief that each of us is basically good, though we all mess up from time to time. I would give grace to myself at those times, making excuses when I speak unkindly to my wife or glare angrily at fellow commuters who don't recognize my rights, but would self-righteously pass judgment on God for the deeds I deem contrary to my contemporary moral sensibilities. Yet, my ability to discern right from wrong comes from God. The definition of good and evil, righteousness and sin, comes from the God of the Bible, and it is only when I understand the good news communicated in Scripture that I realize I am free to love and obey him and act kindly and lovingly toward my fellow man. No human is right to commit murder (let alone genocide), but God, as Creator, judges rightly when he finds us guilty of breaking his law. Escape from that divine judgment comes not in living a life I subjectively define to be "good", but by placing my faith in the complete and free work of Christ on the cross. And all of this is meant, not to give us warm fuzzies, but to bring glory to God, who alone is worthy of praise.


At 5/11/2007 07:11:00 PM, Blogger Dan Barnett.

Richard Wade said...
"Bravely spoken to Mr. Barnett. As I’ve said before, I think a person’s concept of God reflects the kind of person they are inside. I wouldn’t trust him with any power."

Not to belittle Mike's courage or boldness, but what is so brave about what he said? He said that if my "view" of God is correct than he doesn't want to be a Christian. If being a christian is dependant on what type of God is, then you've missed the point. God the the creator of every thing there is. He created each one of us. He has every right to demand that we follow him. Following God is based on knowing he is God, and knowing his intention for us(glorify him/follow him/serve him), and following him because he has called us to. If I serve God based on whether or not I like everything he does or has done, then I will never truly know him.
God does not change. If you think he does, you have misread. My perception of God is based on what Scripture reveals to me about him. Nonetheless, if I found out tomorrow something about God that I disliked, I would still serve him, because He has sought me out and called me to. Why is it so troubling to see God ordering death? He ordered his own son's(His own) death. WHat is so troubling about it? Atheists have a bias of anger toward God and interpret everything through that bias. If you follow Christ because you think he will contiually see to it that you are completely happy, then you're not following Christ at all, you are following your own created god.


At 5/12/2007 10:39:00 AM, Blogger Mike Clawson

Hey Richard,

Great question! (Sorry it's taken me a while to get back to you.) I'll just let Dan and Jeff speak for themselves since I obviously don't entirely agree with their theology anymore. Instead I'll take a stab at my own answer.

The first thing I'd say is that I understand your concern about the difference between the God of the OT and the God of Jesus. You're not the first person to see this distinction (cf. Marcionism). And I can't say that I have all the answers. There are still plenty of parts of the OT (and the NT for that matter) that don't make sense to me and some that really disturb me. I don't think I'm completely capable of justifying all the ways of God throughout the Bible (but I'm not sure I should be able to - that's kind of what I mean by him not being a tame lion - if I understood everything about him I'd doubt that he's really God).

But anyhow, to your question. It's easy to caricature God in the OT as "Murderous, vindictive, jealous, vain and capricious", but I think that may result simply from a surface reading of the text without really delving into the meaning of the stories. Personally, I didn't really start to understand the OT stories until I started to understand injustice and how much God hates it. As I became aware of all the injustices in our own world - from sex trafficking, to modern slavery, to exploitation of the poor, to gender related violence, to genocide, etc., etc. - I started to realize that most of the time when God seems so angry or violent in the OT, it's because he's angry at these kind of injustices. That's the tension throughout all of scripture is that God is both a God of love but also a God of justice. He fights for the cause of the oppressed, the poor, and the abandoned - so it's natural that he would seem a fearful and vindictive God to those of us (like most of us in modern Western society) who more closely identify with the wealthy oppressors. But try reading the Bible through the eyes of a Latin American peasant, or a Sudanese refugee, or a Southeast Asian sweatshop worker - suddenly the God of the OT seems like a welcome figure of liberation and justice.

I'm very serious about this. Until we read the Bible through the eyes of the marginalized and oppressed, I don't think we'll really understand it, since the vast majority of it was written to a marginalized and oppressed people. Until we learn to get very angry about the oppressions that still go on in our own world, I don't think we will be able to understand why God gets so angry too.

(Just one example, try not to read the Exodus as a story of God smiting the innocent Egyptians. Instead read it from the point of view of an escaped slave fleeing for your life against the might of the most powerful empire on earth at that time. Put it into our own times. What if the story was about God standing in the way of the Nazis as they were about to perpetrate the Holocaust, or in the way of the Sudanese nationals as they slaughter the people of Darfur? Suddenly God's violence seems a little more justified - after all we don't fault the Allies for resisting the Nazis.)

But I think you probably get my point. Again, I'm not saying I can explain away every disturbing thing in the OT this way. But using these new lenses, the lenses of the oppressed, a lot of things about the OT have started to become a lot more clear.

BTW, I think part of the point of Jesus' message - i.e. the way his God is still connected w/the God of the OT - is that he comes to offer mercy not just for the oppressed but for the oppressor as well, because Jesus points out that the oppressed too often turn into the oppressors once the tables are turned. This is the story of Israel in the OT - everytime God liberates them from one oppressor, they turn right around and start oppressing others - so God smacks them down again. In the NT the Jews are again looking for liberation from their oppressors (Rome) but Jesus' message is that they are really oppressing themselves - through the exploitative Temple system they've set up, through their racist and exclusionary religious rules, through their own inclination towards violence and hatred. Basically what Jesus says is "This whole time you've been praying for God to smite the oppressors and bless the oppressed, but what happens when the oppressed are their own oppressors? What if the problem is that all people, oppressed and oppressors, have the same inclinations toward violence and evil and oppressing others? What if the only solution is to break the cycle of revenge and offer forgiveness and peace to both sides?

Again, this is why Jesus was crucified - the Jews were looking for just another liberation from their external enemies, and Jesus said, no, first you need a liberation from yourselves, from the enemy within. That's not what they wanted to hear, so they killed him.

Anyhow, sorry for the long answer, but this is stuff that I've just been discovering myself recently, so it's fresh in my mind. I hope I've made a little bit of sense and perhaps even answered some of your question.




At 5/12/2007 04:02:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous

>I have a hard time worshiping a God that >sometimes acts like Hitler.

I'm an atheist but you've hit on something here. Even if I thought the God of the Bible was real and that I'd be condemned to hell, I would not worship him. I hope I would not have followed Hitler to stay out of Auschwitz either. I don't see one iota of difference.

I'm a former born-again Christian, so it's not like I don't know the Bible or what Christianity is about. I didn't backslide. I outgrew faith.


At 5/17/2007 03:22:00 AM, Blogger Richard Wade

Thank you for your very insightful answer, Mike. It really clarifies a great deal and it is very kind of you to go to so much effort. The only part of my question still unclear in my mind is the difference between the personality and visibility of the OT and NT portrayal of God.


At 5/17/2007 09:55:00 AM, Blogger Mike Clawson

Well, in regards to the visibility thing, that is answered (at least in part) in Hebrews 1:1-2 where the author says:

"In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom he made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God's glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word."

The idea is that in the New Covenant God is made manifest in Jesus so there isn't a need for the dramatic appearances we see in the OT.

(Though if you re-read the historical texts of the OT you might notice that there aren't really that many dramatic appearances there either. Mostly it's God just talking to specific prophets or leaders. The Exodus-style miracles only happen a few times and are separated sometimes by hundreds of years in between.)


Links to this post

Links to this post:

Create a Link