One of the most common objections to biblical authority is that the God of the Bible is guilty of committing immoral acts. God appears to advocate, endorse, and even commit acts that are normally seen as morally questionable. The classic example is the command to the Israelites to wipe out the Canaanites as they enter into the promised land.
In fact, it is the question of whether God endorses genocide that features heavily in the objections of atheist Richard Dawkins in his book The God Delusion (Mariner Books, 2008). It is also a prominent theme in Peter Enns’ book, The Bible Tells Me So (HarperOne, 2014). See my review of Enns here.
For these reasons, I am thankful for the good work of Dick Belcher, the John D. and Francis M. Gwin Professor of Old Testament here at RTS Charlotte. Dr. Belcher has recently published important commentaries on book such as Genesis, Ecclesiastes, and has a wonderful book on Christ in the Pslams: The Messiah and the Psalms (Christian Focus, 2006).
Dr. Belcher recently did an interview on whether God is a moral monster with AP Magazine, an evangelical, Reformed publication out of Australia. Here are some excerpts:
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.
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 theCanaanites 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.
To read the whole interview, go here.