I wonder how many people have been thrown off of their inevitable search for God by what they perceive as not just the inconsistency of the characterization of God in the Bible’s Old Testament compared to His portrayal in the New, but by His seemingly severe, some would say immoral, characterization in the Old Testament. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could find and describe one, integrated, consistent whole of the Divine Nature across the entire Bible? Imagine being able to perceive God’s essential God-ness through a new lens, and so enable others to see beyond their personal prejudices. Looking for such a God is the task of this piece.
In what follows, we are not concerned with formulating a God who integrates the Muslim’s Allah or the Hindu’s Vishnu (nor any other religion’s idea of divinity) with the God of the Bible. This exercise is purely one of attempting to describe an integrated, consistent God across the Hebrew Bible and the Christian New Testament. Nor are we particularly concerned with casting the Christian doctrine of the Trinity back onto the Hebrew Bible. Our assumption is that there is One God[i], and, that He is the unique subject of the entirety of the Hebrew and Christian Bibles.
Nor are we here in the business of providing a proof of God. His existence, for what I consider to be sound reasons[ii], is assumed.
In his book The God Delusion, atheist Richard Dawkins writes a scathing rendition of God as he sees Him in the Old Testament[iii]. Dawkins says:
“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.”
And, on the other extreme, we have John (1 John 4:16):
So we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him.
So the lines are drawn: on the one hand, a sociopathic God; on the other, Love itself. Let’s see if some reconciliation in our understanding of these two starkly distinctive images is possible.
Causes of Contention
The overwhelming basis for contention between the two images is simply the Bible’s portrayal of God’s involvement in what appears to its casual readers as genocides and raw vindictiveness and brutality (i.e. emotion-charged characterizations).
The question we need to explore is: when we read these accounts of divine-decreed violence against whole populations, what are we reading, and how should we understand these texts (vs how we may have been trained to understand them by our modern context)?
Before diving in, it might be useful to identify who it is that is bothered by these stories/characterizations in the first place.
First, there are the atheists, sometimes called the “New Atheists” (the significance of “New” being lost on me. An atheist is an atheist, “New” or traditional.) Common in this circle are Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, and some others. For this group, it is not so much an intellectual argument about offensive verses in the Tanakh that animates them as much as the fact that many of us continue to worship God. This they can’t tolerate for lots of, I would speculate, psychological and political reasons.
Next, there is the wide array of people who are sometimes more than willing to believe in and accept the teachings of Christ, but cannot countenance His “father” being what, in their superficial assessment, is a genocidal sociopath. These folks, in relying on their own moral compass and superficial knowledge of the Tanakh, are easily embarrassed by the characterization of its God, and so persuaded by the New Atheists’ charges of His immorality. Sadly, the result too often is that they abandon their budding Christian faith altogether. And so, the New Atheists win. This is what we should endeavor, from knowledge and moral humility, to counter.
Contentious Stories/Phrases in the Tanakh
So, what are the points of contention? Let’s review some of them and simply identify what the skeptics object to. Later, we’ll do some analysis, including of their competence to judge.
The primary moral argument in all of these stories, including the flood, is that the victims were “innocent”. In the Flood story, of course, God wipes out the entire population of the earth except for the “righteous” Noah and his family (and, of course, the animals he preserves on the Ark.) In particular, the skeptics object that the children were unjustly sacrificed. In our modern moral estimation, children are always innocent. However, this is not, in the case of the Flood, what the Bible states. Gen 6:5 says:
The LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.
The children may have been somewhat less evil than their parents. But was it their destiny to follow their parents into “evil continually”? This seems to be the moral judgment made by God. In this, as in all of our examples, God’s judgment (sometimes after long periods of patience and mercy) is against abject unrighteousness here called “evil”.
Sodom and Gomorrah
The common understanding of this story involves the wickedness of the populations of these two towns as epitomized by their unnatural sexual activities. We get this sexual overtone from the story (Gen 19:1-29) in which the townspeople surround Lot’s house in which are his family and two (heavenly) visitors:
5And they called to Lot, “Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us, that we may know them.” 6Lot went out to the men at the entrance, shut the door after him, 7and said, “I beg you, my brothers, do not act so wickedly.
The sexual overtone comes from the word “know”, and (disgustingly) the fact that Lot offers them his daughters instead, which they ignore.
So, at the behest of his angelic visitors, Lot, along with his wife and daughters, high tail it out of town the next day and God destroys the towns and their inhabitants.
Those who object to the morality (or, rather, the lack thereof) portrayed in this story apparently object to God’s judgment on the apparent homosexual behavior, something that in today’s culture is nearly universally accepted[iv]. This, I suppose, is to be expected.
But there’s more to the story of Sodom and Gomorrah than meets the Gen 19 eye. Back in Gen 14, God sent His priest Melchizedek to the King of Sodom, and Abram. From such an encounter, we are led to believe that the King of Sodom was at least introduced to Abram’s LORD and became aware of the nature of his God and His attitudes toward the kind of thing that would overwhelm his town. If so, the practices being carried on in his town should have alerted him to their detestable nature in the sight of Melchizedek’s and Abram’s God.
A stretch? I don’t think so. Seems more like a “fair warning”.
The Canaanite “Conquest”
This, seemingly, is the poster-child for God’s immorality as seen by the skeptics and constitutes the majority of the case for Dawkins’ characterization, above. The basis, substantially, is found in Dt. 7:2, where God instructs Moses on how the inhabitants of the land He is giving Israel are to be dealt with:
 and when the LORD your God gives them over to you, and you defeat them, then you must devote them to complete destruction. You shall make no covenant with them and show no mercy to them. (ESV – see also Dt 13:15, Deut 20:17 )
These are the alleged instructions for genocide. But are they? Immediately, God goes on to prohibit the Israelites from marrying these same people:
 You shall not intermarry with them, giving your daughters to their sons or taking their daughters for your sons,  for they would turn away your sons from following me, to serve other gods. Then the anger of the LORD would be kindled against you, and he would destroy you quickly.  But thus shall you deal with them: you shall break down their altars and dash in pieces their pillars and chop down their Asherim and burn their carved images with fire.
Surely you can see the problem, or at least the inconsistency, here. In our English translations God says: “completely destroy them, and, you know, don’t make any covenants with them and don’t marry them, either their sons or their daughters.” If they were “completely destroy”ed, obviously no one would remain to marry or enter into any other covenants. So, apparently, “completely destroy” doesn’t mean what we think it means. We’ll look at this in a moment.
In Joshua 6:21 we read similar language concerning the author’s assessment of Israel’s treatment of Jericho:
 Then they devoted all in the city to destruction, both men and women, young and old, oxen, sheep, and donkeys, with the edge of the sword.
The Judgment against Amalek
In 1 Sam 15 we see Samuel reciting the edict of the LORD:
 Thus says the LORD of hosts, ‘I have noted what Amalek did to Israel in opposing them on the way when they came up out of Egypt.  Now go and strike Amalek and devote to destruction all that they have. Do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.’”
Later on, we read Saul claiming to have wiped them out (1 Sam 15:7 – “And Saul defeated the Amalekites from Havilah as far as Shur, which is east of Egypt.  And he took Agag the king of the Amalekites alive and devoted to destruction all the people with the edge of the sword.”), though he goes on to explain that he kept the good livestock (nothing about letting some of the Amalekites, themselves, live), thus disobeying the letter of the command[v].
The issue here is the unequivocal language of 1 Sam 15:3: nothing “alive” of the Amalekites was to be “spared”. And this is where we must recognize the idiomatic language being used.
It was the norm in ancient proclamations of attacks on one’s enemies, or the later boasting of its success, to use hyperbolic bravado. We see this not only throughout the Hebrew Bible (including many of the stories we’re looking at here), but throughout the battle records of all the nations of the Ancient Near East[vi].
The purpose of such language was to build ethnic/national pride in the success of their peoples and kings, not to record an accurate history of the events described.
In the case of Saul and the Amalekites, the reality was something quite different. The Amalekites were not, apparently, annihilated as they show up later in 1 Sam 27:8 with David fighting them. Then they show up again in 1 Sam 30 attacking the Israelite town of Ziglag, burn it, and capture all of its inhabitants.
In their book Did God Really Command Genocide?: Coming to Terms with the Justice of God[vii], Copan and Flannagan make the obvious point:
“So even though Saul ‘utterly destroyed’ the Amalekites (15: 8, 20), the text makes clear that many Amalekites remained so that David would not only— once again!— fight against them so that ‘not a man of them escaped,’ but after this battle, four hundred Amalekites fled on camels (30: 17 NASB).”
Our last example involves Samson, a banquet he attends with thirty Philistines, and a riddle (Jud 14:10-20).
Samson says if his thirty guests can solve his riddle in the seven days of the feast, he’ll give them thirty changes of clothes. If they can’t, they must give him thirty changes of clothes.
They can’t solve it, but his wife(/fiancée?), a Philistine, intercedes for her countrymen at their behest and implores Samson to tell her the answer, as if he doesn’t, they have threatened to kill her and burn her father’s home. On the seventh day, Samson succumbs to his wife’s pleadings and gives her the answer, which she gives to her people.
So now Samson is on the hook for thirty sets of clothes. But the issue here for skeptics is not Samson, per se, but God’s alleged inspiration of him to violence. In Jud 14:19 we read:
19And the Spirit of the LORD rushed upon him, and he went down to Ashkelon and struck down thirty men of the town and took their spoil and gave the garments to those who had told the riddle. In hot anger he went back to his father’s house.
The word “rushed” (6743. צָלַח ṣālaḥ, צָלֵחַ ṣālēaḥ:) is descriptive of the Holy Spirit’s effect of strengthening its recipient.
So what the author seems to be communicating is this: Samson was duped by a people who had fought and demonstrated cruelty against his countrymen, the Israelites, from the first days of Israel. The author uses this image of God’s Spirit, remembering these affronts being carried out against Israel, now in the person of Samson. This produces a kind of righteous indignation in Samson. But Samson acts on this indignation in his own power, not God’s: “In hot anger he went back to his father’s house.” The message here seems to be that Samson acted of his own emotions.
Idiom, Hyperbolae, Bravado, and Intended Meaning
We’ve already mentioned that recorded proclamations by leaders of their power and military successes in the Ancient Near East were universally overstated, full of language hyperbolically claiming the complete annihilation of their opponent. Rarely was this, however, actually true.
First, let’s look at the idiom being used in Joshua (and in Deut. 20). In their book [vii], Copan and Flannagan identify the idiom (identified from Ancient Near Eastern military literature research carried out by Kenneth Kitchen[viii], K. Lawson Younger Jr[ix], and others) being used in these military accounts as a “transmission code” – a standard way, full of hyperbolae, to describe such things to one’s readers (for various social and political reasons). The basic idea is that virtually all documents of the period (late Bronze age) describing military conquest used the same set of literary constructs to declare them: literary units called “syntagms” – a set of word phrases used consistently to describe these military objectives (e.g. “leave no living thing”), or results (“all were annihilated by the edge of the sword”).
So the author of Joshua (and, perhaps, Deut. 20, and parts of Judges, 1 Samuel, etc.) were influenced by the standard military rhetoric of the day, inasmuch as they used it to tell their own stories.
The question we should ask (which Copan and Flannagan did not ask) is: If the human authors of these military accounts borrowed, or at least used, common rhetoric of the day to describe God’s intentions in a particular case, is the author’s rendition what God actually told him to say? Or, asked another way, are we to believe that God gave direction to Joshua, Saul and others in the language of the military rhetoric of the day, and if so, why? Why did YHWH feel compelled to express himself in the military rhetoric of the late Bronze age?
Well, maybe He didn’t. Maybe we’re simply seeing the result of the human authors’ interpreting the commands given them by YHWH in terms they were familiar with, and so applied in expressing God’s will.
This is a very deep rabbit hole to explore: more than we can do any justice to here. But it is unassailably true that God is the primary author of His scripture – the inspirational source, but that the prophets and scribes who physically wrote it out are its secondary, physical authors. And it is not clear where the influence of the one ends and the other begins.
What we can be quite sure of in the Canaanite Conquest narratives is that God expressed His will that the people of Israel, as they moved into the land, not be influenced by Canaanites to adopt the worship of their idols. Thus, His admonition to Israel to not make any covenants with them (e.g. marriage, other contracts, etc.). God wanted Israel for Himself, for their own good, and not a people that would worship pieces of wood and metal. That was clearly His overriding motivation that Israel, unfortunately, thwarted.
But the purpose of such proclamations wasn’t to record historical truth but rather to build up the perception and reputation of the King/leader making it, and/or his nation[ix].
We can see this fairly clearly in the Bible’s accounts of Israel’s Canaanite conquests. God’s admonitions were to either dispossess or destroy the inhabitants of the land. What actually occurred? The Bible tells us (Judges 1:27-2:4):
 Manasseh did not drive out the inhabitants of Beth-shean and its villages, or Taanach and its villages, or the inhabitants of Dor and its villages, or the inhabitants of Ibleam and its villages, or the inhabitants of Megiddo and its villages, for the Canaanites persisted in dwelling in that land.  When Israel grew strong, they put the Canaanites to forced labor, but did not drive them out completely.
 And Ephraim did not drive out the Canaanites who lived in Gezer, so the Canaanites lived in Gezer among them.
 Zebulun did not drive out the inhabitants of Kitron, or the inhabitants of Nahalol, so the Canaanites lived among them, but became subject to forced labor.
 Asher did not drive out the inhabitants of Acco, or the inhabitants of Sidon or of Ahlab or of Achzib or of Helbah or of Aphik or of Rehob,  so the Asherites lived among the Canaanites, the inhabitants of the land, for they did not drive them out.
 Naphtali did not drive out the inhabitants of Beth-shemesh, or the inhabitants of Beth-anath, so they lived among the Canaanites, the inhabitants of the land. Nevertheless, the inhabitants of Beth-shemesh and of Beth-anath became subject to forced labor for them.
 The Amorites pressed the people of Dan back into the hill country, for they did not allow them to come down to the plain.  The Amorites persisted in dwelling in Mount Heres, in Aijalon, and in Shaalbim, but the hand of the house of Joseph rested heavily on them, and they became subject to forced labor.  And the border of the Amorites ran from the ascent of Akrabbim, from Sela and upward.
[2:1] Now the angel of the LORD went up from Gilgal to Bochim. And he said, “I brought you up from Egypt and brought you into the land that I swore to give to your fathers. I said, ‘I will never break my covenant with you,  and you shall make no covenant with the inhabitants of this land; you shall break down their altars.’ But you have not obeyed my voice. What is this you have done?  So now I say, I will not drive them out before you, but they shall become thorns in your sides, and their gods shall be a snare to you.”  As soon as the angel of the LORD spoke these words to all the people of Israel, the people lifted up their voices and wept.
So the Israelites didn’t actually commit genocide or infanticide or whatever-other-cide. In fact, God says because they didn’t, He’s going to make them (the Canaanites) “thorns in your sides”. But, were they instructed to kill all Canaanites? After all, this is the main complaint of those opposed to God (the term “skeptic” is actually too soft a term for most of them).
Here we have to dig into the text a bit to try to understand what its authors were trying to communicate, aside from hyperbolic braggadocio.
The Hebrew Bible translators, confronted with the term 2763. חָרַם ḥāram, typically render it (in verb form) “destroy” or “completely/utterly destroy”. But it can have other shades of meaning, e.g. “accurse”, or, more obscure in the Canaanite context, “devote”. This latter idea appears to be that those subject to “haram” are devoted to something: in extreme cases “to the LORD”. So, as in Lev 27:28, things that are “devoted” to the LORD shall not be sold. But in the Canaanite usages, it carries the connotation of “devote to destruction”, meaning, apparently, to single out the Canaanite tribes to be completely removed from the land, by whatever means necessary.
But there’s another sense of its meaning besides “destroy” or “devote to destruction” and that is to cause to forfeit. This sense certainly ties in with God’s intent to remove Canaanites from the land in deference to the Israelites. So was He commanding Israel to cause the Canaanites to forfeit their landholding (forfeiture), rather than our English translations of “utterly destroy”? I think that is entirely plausible, and even likely.
We need to remember God’s purpose for removing the Canaanite tribes from their land – God was giving that very same land to Israel. The Canaanites were to be “haramed” “that they may not teach you to do according to all their abominable practices that they have done for their gods, and so you sin against the Lord your God” (Deut. 20.18). God wanted there to be no Canaanites living in and among the Israelites as they were debauched and their lifestyles would, He knew, eventually rub off on the Israelites, polluting and thus defiling them.
The word consistently used in the Hebrew Bible in passages having to do with Israel’s taking possession of the land of Canaan by God is 3423. יָרַשׁ yāraš: a verb meaning to take possession, to inherit, to dispossess, to drive out. It occurs some 204 times in the Hebrew Bible nearly all of which are about Israel inheriting Canaan, being dispossessed of it for their own unfaithfulness, and finally being allowed to repossess it following their return from exile. And, in text after text, we find a direct interplay between this verb and the verb ḥāram.
Let’s look at a typical example. In Jos 3:10 Joshua instructs Israel:
 And Joshua said, “Here is how you shall know that the living God is among you and that he will without fail drive out (יָרַשׁ yāraš) from before you the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Hivites, the Perizzites, the Girgashites, the Amorites, and the Jebusites.
This verse represents an instance of a common theme throughout the Canaanite conquest narratives: It is claimed that God is the One who will dispossess the Canaanites from their land. But when we get to Jos 6:21, talking about the destruction of Jericho, we read this:
 Then they devoted all in the city to destruction (way·ya·ḥă·rî·mū: from חָרַם ḥāram), both men and women, young and old, oxen, sheep, and donkeys, with the edge of the sword.
The way to think about this God-Israel relationship is not that God was an advanced guard who independently cleared out a city’s inhabitants prior to the Israelite’s attack on it, but that God was acting in and through the Israelites to “drive out” their enemies. God is the force, the One Who animates and empowers His people to be successful in their attacks, sometimes overcoming otherwise insurmountable obstacles (as in the case of Jericho’s walls).
But we are still left to wrestle with the extent to which language, such as Jos 6:21, is hyperbolae. Since a substantial fraction of the חָרַם ḥāram references in the Hebrew Bible (a total of 48) come from the book of Joshua (14)[xi], it seems a safe bet that its author was a bit of a zealot when it came to describing the military prowess of the God+Israel force. (By the way, there are at least nine other “destroy” Hebrew verbs[xii] that the Biblical writer could have chosen to use, but didn’t, to convey God’s instruction to Israel, some of which are unequivocal about the “annihilation” aspect of their effect.)
So even if the words of God to the Israelites concerning their dispossession of Canaan from the land were absolute, it is quite likely that they only carried the meaning to their hearers of “that’s the goal, but that’s not the realistic expectation. We just need to do what is necessary for us to move into the land He has given us.” After all, these people were quite familiar with hearing absolute admonitions from their leaders while experiencing virtually no judgmental consequences if they failed in their efforts to achieve them. The Israelites of this time were thoroughly experienced with the God of forgiveness: Psalm 106:45
And He remembered His covenant for their sake,
And relented according to the greatness of His lovingkindness.
So it would likely be prudent to heavily discount such total-annihilation language, particularly as the Bible itself goes on to explain either explicitly that such a total annihilation never actually happened, or implicitly, by referring later in the chronology to a new appearance of a people (e.g. the Amalekites) who God “devoted to destruction” (חָרַם ḥāram) at the hands of Saul (1 Sam 15:3).[xi] If they were totally destroyed, why are they showing up a hundred years later?[xiii]
Our Moral Basis to Judge
The premise of the Hebrew Bible is that it is the story of the interaction with and motives toward the people of Creation by their Creator God. If that is incorrect – that there is no Creator God being revealed – then any assessment of the morality of the God it represents is valid, since, by definition, there is then no absolute morality.
If, on the other hand, the Creator of the Universe a) does exist, and b) is represented in the Hebrew Bible with some veracity, then there is an absolute morality – His. In that event, our moral judgment of the words describing Him or His actions can only yield, at best, an imperfect application of the morality of which He is author.
The basis for the expulsion of the Canaanite clans from Canaan was not the moral superiority of the Israelites. On the contrary, we’re told (Deut 9:5):
 Not because of your righteousness or the uprightness of your heart are you going in to possess their land, but because of the wickedness of these nations the LORD your God is driving them out from before you, and that he may confirm the word that the LORD swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.
God had two reasons to dispossess the Canaanites from their land: 1) It was Canaan that He had promised to Abraham for his descendant’s homeland (Gen 13:14-15), and 2) the inhabitants of that land were debauched – practicing temple prostitution, fornication, worship of idols and guilty of sacrificing their own children to their idols, as recounted in Deut 18:9-12).
(If you doubt the evidence for this child-sacrifice practice, I encourage you to have a look at my friend Joel Kramer’s video from his visit to Biblical Canaanite Gezer with a tour group. Eye-opening, to say the least.)
So if there is absolute good and evil, then the author of those concepts is free to judge their presence or absence in an individual, or a nation of individuals.
If there isn’t, then the critics – the God disclaimers – are free to hold their opinions, as they are as entirely baseless as anyone else’s opinion.
Sadly, as a result of the Israelites’ repeated refusal to follow the commands of God, they too, as He predicted, became enmeshed in the religio-cultural practices of the Canaanites who they had not “haramed” (whatever its intended meaning), ultimately bringing judgment on themselves (Psa 106:24-35) in the form of their dispossession from the land:
 Then they despised the pleasant land,
having no faith in his promise.
 They murmured in their tents,
and did not obey the voice of the LORD.
 Therefore he raised his hand and swore to them
that he would make them fall in the wilderness,
 and would make their offspring fall among the nations,
scattering them among the lands.
 Then they yoked themselves to the Baal of Peor,
and ate sacrifices offered to the dead;
 they provoked the LORD to anger with their deeds,
and a plague broke out among them.
 Then Phinehas stood up and intervened,
and the plague was stayed.
 And that was counted to him as righteousness
from generation to generation forever.
 They angered him at the waters of Meribah,
and it went ill with Moses on their account,
 for they made his spirit bitter,
and he spoke rashly with his lips.
 They did not destroy the peoples,
as the LORD commanded them,
 but they mixed with the nations
and learned to do as they did.
Either you believe that there is God who is the author of good and evil, right and wrong (Is 45:7), or you don’t. If there is no such God, then there is no morality[xiv]. Whatever you think about whatever topic (child sacrifice, abortion, sexual deviancy, etc.) is just as valid as what anyone else thinks. However, if there is such a God, then it would be best for you to treat the testimony of the Bible with humility and not commit yourself to your own judgment of its morality when, in fact, it claims that the author of morality sees things differently than you do.
And this principle applies to each of the situations we’ve considered as “contentious”: the Flood, Sodom and Gomorrah, the Canaanite conquest, Samson’s procurement of clothes and Saul’s “eradication” of the Amalekites.
Reconciling Christ and the God of the Hebrew Bible
The very same people who are willing to reject out-of-hand the God of the Hebrew Bible (YHWH) based on language in the Bible are more than willing to laud the morality of Jesus Christ, as represented in the New Testament’s gospels and epistles. To their eye, the two are the antithesis of each another, morally speaking.
I would contend that this reaction is one borne out of unfamiliarity and superficiality, not one borne of deep understanding.
Let’s examine some verses that seem to draw the two into One, rather than separate them.
The Two Greatest Commandments
The best place to start is with the Old Testament’s proclamations of its commandments. Of course, the OT’s “Ten Words” delivered to Moses at Mt. Sinai/Horeb were the foundation of the moral law given to Israel. And, we find Jesus endorsing them throughout the Gospels while, at the same time, extending them beyond how they had initially been delivered and understood (“You have heard it said…but I say…” Mt. 5:21-48).
When questioned by the Pharisee as to what the greatest commandment was (Mt 22:36-40), Jesus gave the accepted interpretation from Moses of the first commandment (Dt 6:5), and God’s command from Lev 19:18:
Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against any of your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the LORD.
Jesus said “All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”, meaning the entire corpus of laws in the Pentateuch and admonitions of the prophets could be distilled down to these two commands. To Jesus, these commands were the Law.
That puts YHWH and Jesus on the same moral page, acting out of the same motive spirit.
But, of course, the “skeptics” don’t see it this way. So which view is more accurate?
YHWH and Christ as Righteous Judges
Of course, we’ve already reviewed several of the verses where the God of the Hebrew Bible acts in righteous judgment of unrighteousness. But what about Christ? How is His righteous judgment portrayed in the Bible?
The context of Christ’s incarnation on earth is the culmination of the time of the Law and the Prophets and humanity’s rejection of God and His ways, leading to God judging them. Christ was here to announce and inaugurate the end of all of that — a New Covenant in which sin and death are destroyed.
So we don’t find Jesus threatening the unfaithful Israelites with an imminent judgment. Instead, we find Him offering His righteousness and forgiveness to all who would repent and turn to follow Him. God’s judgment on unrighteousness in 33 AD was His self-sacrifice on behalf of His humanity, not His disciplining of our unrighteousness. This is the miracle and the glory of Christ.
The principal reason that we don’t see parallels between the Hebrew Bible’s God in His judgment of unrighteousness, and the actions of Jesus is that the contexts of the periods in which they acted are completely different. Why should we, or the skeptics, or anyone else expect God’s immanence in the first (Old Covenant) context to resemble that in the second (New Covenant) context? It is obviously a senseless expectation, and one borne of a fundamental misunderstanding of the story the Bible tells.
Of course, it is not as though judgment of our unrighteousness is on permanent hold. Jesus made that perfectly clear in Mt 24:36-51. God will deal, ultimately, with unrighteousness.
Comparing Devine Characters
Despite the stark contrast between the Old Testament’s context and the New Testament’s, we can look at a number of verses that expose the “heart”, if you will, of God, and see how they compare in reference to both YHWH and Christ.
I’ve prepared the following table to demonstrate the “kindred-ness” of the “two Gods” depicted for us in the Old and New Testaments of the Bible. I would encourage you to click on the hyperlinks in each to review for yourself what the Bible has to say. Only through this exercise will you have a chance of being convinced of their essential Unity.
Holy (Set apart)
Relents from Nineveh’s destruction (Jon 3:8-10),
Suffering (vs impassible)
Only for myself (I don’t expect you necessarily to be as convinced as I have become) do I see the same Spirit in both characterizations. They aren’t two separate, morally incompatible Gods, but One. Only if we can perceive this are we privileged to see the God of Creation.
There is one God at work in the Biblical record. Relying, as most of us must, on translations of the original language into English, we’re at the mercy of our translations to understand both the narratives and the essential character of the God who inspired its messages.
We should take this challenge seriously. And, if there are those who attack God on the basis of the English translations of the original words, we should, to the best of our ability, prove to ourselves that their criticisms are without merit, and understand why.
There are vast differences in God’s mission starting with creation and following through the history of Israel, its apostasy, exile, and return, and His mission to reconcile all of humanity to Himself through Christ. Until we properly internalize those distinctions, we will be, like the skeptics and the weak in faith, susceptible to the criticisms of these uninformed opponents of God.
i I, myself, am a Coexistence Modalist – one who believes the persons of the so-called Trinity are simply manifestations of the One God, each co-existing with the others. If you’re curious about this view, have a look at “Thinking About the Trinity”.
ii I have written a bit on the scientific arguments for God in “Scientific Evidence for God”. I also reviewed a book by a noted Cornell-trained PhD scientist (“Believing is Seeing”) that contains many useful insights from his knowledge and experience.
iii Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, Great Britain: Bantam Press, 2006, 31.13
iv Those claiming this story doesn’t revolve around Sodom’s sexual deviancy have developed other theories of the source of the town’s unrighteousness, such as the lack of displayed hospitality to the visitors, something the culture of the day insisted upon.
v The nation of Amalek and its king Agag had attacked the Hebrews on their way through the wilderness (Ex 17:8-13). So this is assumedly God’s judgment on the Amalekites for their earlier aggression against Moses, Joshua, and the Israelites.
vi Three Egyptian Inscriptions About Israel – Bible Archaeology Report, 8 Ancient Accounts of Bodies Piling up in Battle (scottmanning.com)
vii Copan, Paul; Flannagan, Matthew (2014). Did God Really Command Genocide?: Coming to Terms with the Justice of God. Baker Books, Grand Rapids
viii On The Reliability of The Old Testament, Grand Rapids: Eardmans 2003
ix Ancient Conquest Accounts: A Study in Ancient Near Eastern and Biblical History Writing, Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1990
x Was Israel Commanded to Commit Genocide? | Christian Research Institute (equip.org)
xi Another six of the 48 חָרַם ḥāram references appear in 1 Sam 15 talking about Saul’s defeat of the Amalekites.
xii 2874. טֶ בח ṭeḇaḥ, 6. אָ בד ‘aḇaḏ, 2040. הָרַ ס hāras, 4277. מָ חק māḥaq, 5255. נָ סח nāsaḥ, 5595. סָ פה sāp̱āh, 7703. שָׁ דד šāḏaḏ, 7736. שׁוּד šûḏ, 8045. שָׁ מד šāmaḏ, and a noun: 3617. כָּלָה kālāh
xiii This brief look at the framing of the conquest narrative has convinced me that I need to return to it for a deeper dive in a subsequent piece.
xiv Maybe we should heed the advice that before buying into our favorite English translation of the Bible we should first actually research what the words in their original language really meant, and so inform our interpretation of the narratives that use them.
xv Though if there is no first source of cosmic good and evil, where, do you suppose, do you get your understanding of those concepts?