Category Archives: Violence in the Old Testament

The Pooh Principle: Violence in the Old Testament Part 8

The Pooh Principle: Violence in the Old Testament Part 8

Winnie-The-Pooh-psd58477I should make one thing clear from the start. When I use the word “pooh” I am not speaking of the cuddly bear that we all know and love from the childhood stories created by A. A. Milne, and later popularized in animated form by Walt Disney. No, rather than using the harsh sounding “poop” common in the American vernacular, I am using that gentler form of the word as expressed by my English friends. Poop is what Americans find in their children’s dirty diapers, pooh, on the other hand, is what the English find in their children’s dirty nappies. Although it may be an unpleasant subject to dwell on, pooh provides a good introduction and analogy for this installment of Violence in the Old Testament.

photo from
photo from

As a father, I could theoretically choose to never change a dirty nappy (diaper). I could let my young child go through its early life laying in the mess that it created. Of course, this would certainly raise objections by others, but first and foremost, it would suggest that I am not a very loving or caring father. On the other hand, as a loving father I would certainly choose to change my child’s nappy no matter how often he filled it with pooh. Neither the frequency nor the quantity would prevent me from performing the loving duty of a father. Furthermore, even though I didn’t make the pooh, and am in no way responsible for its production, yet I would still choose to remove it. Part of the hazards of the removal process may mean that I end up smelling like pooh, and even get some on me. This might cause people to misjudge me. Perhaps they will think I stink, or perhaps they will spot some pooh on me and assert that I am a filthy, unwashed, walking lump of bacteria. Nevertheless, as a loving father, I will persist in removing the pooh.

Although this analogy may have its limitations, and I hope that I will not be considered irreverent in using it, it is a somewhat light-hearted way of introducing a very serious topic. If we draw parallels to the story above, then God is the loving father and the pooh is sin. Just as a father chooses to change a dirty diaper, so God has chosen, in His love, to deal with our sin. God didn’t make the sin, nor is He responsible for its presence in our world, but He has chosen to deal with it and remove it. As a result, God takes the chance of smelling like sin, and even getting sin on Himself. Consequently, people may misjudge God and attribute things to Him that are not actually true. Allow me to explain how this analogy reveals an important biblical truth about God and sin.

War and Salvation History

salvation-historyLet me begin by noting that the story of the Bible presents a certain view of history. The story is all about God acting in history to bring salvation to a world lost in sin. German theologians have coined a certain phrase to express this idea: Heilsgeschichte, which simply means “salvation history.” Although God can and does work in miraculous ways through nature, according to the Bible, He has also chosen to work in and through human beings who are sinful and imperfect in order to save them. Therefore, if God is going to do anything in this world, He is going to do it in the context of a sinful environment.

One of humankind’s worse sins is War. War is a great evil and war, bloodshed, and enmity between people are all a result of sin. “War appears to be an ever present reality of historical existence, both ancient and modern” (Peter Craigie, The Problem of War in the Old Testament, p. 43). Therefore, if God is going to work in human history, then He must stand in some kind of relationship to war.

World-War-Two-Soldiers-TrainingAs an example, let’s look at World War II. For many years while Hitler took control of Europe, consigned Jews to concentration camps, and bombed Britain, America stayed neutral and did not enter the war. Many Europeans thought that it was immoral for America to allow Hitler to commit the atrocities he did without taking a stand against him. Following the bombing of Pearl Harbor, American finally joined the war effort against Nazi Germany and Japan and together the allied forces defeated tyranny.

Someone standing aloof from history could make the judgment that it was immoral of America to idly stand by, as some Europeans did. On the other hand, another person might argue that war is always wrong and it was, therefore, immoral for America to enter the war. Atheists use similar arguments against God. God can be accused of letting people and nations get away with the worst crimes. What a terrible God who allows evil to run rampant in our world. However, as soon as God is pictured in the Scripture as a Warrior, He is accused by these same atheists of being a moral monster! The point is simple: God can no more idly stand by than America could during World War II. War is a fact of our existence; a terrible fact, yes, but anyone who gets involved in our world will not be untainted by it. Craigie therefore concludes: “We perceive, though not always clearly, that war is a form of evil human activity in which God participates actively for the purposes of both redemption and judgment; in this participation, God is the Warrior” (The Problem of War in the OT, p. 43).

The fact is, God’s participation in war makes God look bad. It can even make God look morally bankrupt, but God is willing to take that chance in order to save sinful human beings. Greg Boyd puts it this way: “God in his love, appears as ugly as our ugly hearts require him to be, and as beautiful as our redeemed hearts allow him to be” (Greg Boyd “How Do You Reconcile the wrath of God in the Old Testament with a Loving God?” This same idea is asserted in Scripture. In 2 Samuel 22:26-27 (which parallels Ps. 18:25-26) David states, “With the merciful You will show Yourself merciful; with the blameless man You will show Yourself blameless; with the pure You will show Yourself pure; and with the devious You will show Yourself shrewd” (NKJV). A lot depends on one’s point of view!

What God and Nanny McPhee Have in Common

nanny-mcphee-returnsBoyd illustrates the above idea by referencing the movie “Nanny McPhee.” In the movie, a young father (Colin Firth), following the death of his wife, is at his wits end in dealing with his seven rebellious children. Nanny McPhee arrives in order to instill obedience and respect for authority. When the children first meet her she is the ugliest old hag imaginable. However, as the children learn respect and obedience, Nanny McPhee’s ugly features begin to disappear, until, by the end of the movie, she morphs into the lovely Emma Thompson! The point is that Nanny McPhee was never ugly, she was only perceived that way by the rebellious children. When the children have their, shall we call it “sin,” dealt with, they see Nanny McPhee for the beautiful, loving person she really is.

War, and other sin, can make God look pretty ugly because of His choice to participate in our world. This idea has Scriptural precedent. Isaiah says the following about the suffering servant: “He has no form or comeliness; and when we see Him, there is no beauty that we should desire Him. He is despised and rejected by men…Surely He has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; Yet we esteemed Him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities; the chastisement for our peace was upon Him…and the Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all” (Isa. 53:2-6). The apostle Paul writes: “For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him” (2 Cor. 5:21). Indeed, these Scriptures affirm, that like the loving father who is willing to smell like pooh and even get some on him, our Savior was willing to take on our sin. It made Him look unattractive, it even caused people to misjudge Him, according to Isaiah, but He did it for love’s sake. It was our mess, but He took responsibility for cleaning it up.

Once we realize the tremendous love expressed through Christ’s death on the cross, just like Nanny McPhee, He no longer appears unattractive and revolting, but He becomes the most beautiful Being in all of Creation. It depends on our point of view. The atheists see an ugly God because their vision is clouded by their own rebellion, but if they were to submit to His cleansing power, their vision would be transformed and they would see the Lord in all of His beauty (Ps. 27:4).

The Moral Failure of Biblical Characters: Violence in the OT Part 7

The Moral Failure of Biblical Characters: Violence in the Old Testament Part 7

lotAnother area of the Old Testament that frequently comes under attack by the new atheists is the moral failure of biblical characters. For example, Dawkins calls attention to Lot’s drunken incest with his daughters (Gen. 19:32-36), Abraham’s lies about his wife Sarah (Gen. 12:11-15; 20:2), and Jephthah’s vow which results in offering his daughter as a burnt offering (Judg. 11:30-31, 35-40). To be honest, these stories, and others like them, disturb Christians as well as atheists. These actions by supposed “biblical heroes” are among the reasons that Christians are uncomfortable with the Old Testament. Why does the Old Testament include stories like these, and what response can Christians offer when confronted about them?

Moral Failure and False Assumptions

First, let’s begin by observing the false assumptions made by those who charge God and the Old Testament with promoting moral failure. This accusation of the new atheists gives the erroneous impression that because the Bible declares the moral failure of an individual, it must be countenancing that person’s behavior. This wrong assumption, and not the Old Testament stories themselves, is the real problem. I wonder if a similar accusation would be made about an author, whether writing a biography or novel, who included negative stories of moral failure and violence? Does that mean the author is condoning the bad behavior? We intuitively recognize that stories about violent or immoral behavior are not normally an author’s way of saying, “Here’s an example to pattern your life after!” The author does not tell the story so that we will imitate the behavior, but for some other purpose integral to the plot. The same is true with these kinds of stories in the Old Testament. They are not told so that we might imitate them, but so we might learn about the nature of sin and, hopefully, turn to God and not make the same mistakes. One Bible scholar refers to such stories as “negative example stories.”

Available from Amazon USA / UK
Available from Amazon USA / UK

He writes, “Negative example stories present a character in a negative light as an example to avoid” (Robert B. Chisholm Jr., Interpreting the Historical Books, Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2006, p. 34). Some (nonbiblical) books go to great lengths to portray the hero in a positive light and the villain in a bad light. This, of course, is a distortion of reality. One difference between the Bible and other literature is that it is honest in its portrayal of people. Whether hero or villain, good traits and bad are laid bare for all to see. In fact, the consistent testimony of Scripture is that everyone, even people of faith, have faults. The greatest saints can be guilty of the most despicable sins. The reason these stories are told reflects the overall plot of Scripture which is to declare, “Everyone is in need of a Savior.”

Moral Failure and the Importance of Context

This observation points to the next response, a response we have talked about before: context! Once again, the new atheists are guilty of lifting a story from its context and holding it up as an example of God’s and the Old Testament’s depravity. Let’s take a closer look at some of these stories in context and see if there is any credibility to the new atheists’ claims. For a test case we will examine the Book of Judges, which is (in)famous for its stories of brutality. In fact, it is the Book of Judges that records Jephthah’s sacrificing of his daughter (noted above), not to mention the gang rape of a Levite’s concubine by the men of Gibeah, probably one of the most horrifying stories in all of the Old Testament. If any stories could sustain the new atheists’ claims, it would certainly be these.

Rape of the Levite's concubine
Rape of the Levite’s concubine Judges 19:22-30

The Book of Judges is historically located following the events of the Conquest in the Book of Joshua (we have previously looked at the Conquest, see articles three and four of this series). The Book of Joshua ends with a commitment by the Israelites to follow their God Yahweh (Josh. 24:24). Although the people are far from perfect, they follow the Lord all the days of Joshua and the elders that outlive Joshua (Josh. 24:31; Judg. 2:7). Based on what we learned in lessons five and six of this series, we know that a choice for the Lord is a choice for life (e.g., Deut. 30:19-20). Therefore we are not surprised that, at this point in their history, Israel is blessed. Things change, however, at the beginning of the period of the Judges. We learn that Israel forsakes the Lord and begins to worship the gods of the Canaanites. Judges 2:11-19 is recognized as a summary statement of the book. These verses state that Israel falls into a pattern which consists of: 1) falling away from the Lord; 2) experiencing punishment (see article six in this series); 3) crying out to the Lord; 4) the Lord raising up a deliverer; and 5) the people falling back into sin after the death of the deliverer (judge) which starts the cycle all over again.

The pattern of spiritual and moral failure in Judges
The pattern of spiritual and moral failure in Judges

It is not enough, however, to say that Israel falls into a deadly cycle. This cycle is actually a downward spiraldownward_spiral that becomes worse with every generation of apostasy. Through this downward spiral, the Book of Judges comments on the powerful negative effects of sin if left unchecked generation after generation. This pattern is evidenced through the lives of the judges. As we follow this downward spiral through the book, the judges themselves begin to show symptoms of the same degenerative qualities that have infected the people of Israel. A number of Bible commentators note that this degeneration becomes particularly evident with Gideon. After a rough start, Gideon does well, but by the end of his judgeship, he has led the people back into idolatry (Judg. 8:26-27). The story of Gideon’s son Abimelech (Judg. 9) is an interlude in the story of the Judges showing how association with the Canaanites and their gods is adversely affecting Israel (just as God had warned–Deut. 7:1-4). By the time Jephthah and Samson arrive on the scene, they are as depraved as the people they are supposed to rescue. Jephthah’s offering of his daughter as a sacrifice is not told as an example of piety, but as an example of what happens when God’s people allow themselves to be affected by the idolatrous culture around them. It is not accidental that the enemies Jephthah fought against were the Ammonites (Judg. 11:6) and (apparently) the Moabites (Judg. 11:15-18). Child sacrifice was a feature of the worship of Milcom (sometimes called “Molech”) the god of the Ammonites (IVP Bible Background Commentary, pp. 132-133, 365). The Moabites were also known for practicing child sacrifice (2 Kgs. 3:26-27) and their chief god Chemosh is specifically mentioned by Jepthah (Judg. 11:24). Through Jephthah’s rash (and unprovoked) vow, the story makes a negative comment on him and other Israelites who have allowed themselves to become infected by the culture of their enemies. As Bible commentator Daniel I. Block states, “Far from being agents of spiritual change, the deliverers demonstrated repeatedly that they were a part of the problem rather than a solution” (Judges, Ruth, New American Commentary, p. 40).

Available at Amazon USA / UK
Available at Amazon USA / UK

Another way in which the Book of Judges describes this degeneration is through the increase of violence in Israelite society. This is particularly evident in the portrayal of women. The beginning of the Book of Judges depicts several strong independent women. One (Achsah) is a landowner confidently asserting her rights before her father (Judg. 1:13-15), another (Deborah) is a prophetess and Judge (Judg. 4:4-5) who inspires even the men to be courageous (Judg. 4:8), while a third (Jael) is a heroine aiding Israel in the defeat of a feared enemy (Judg. 5:24-27). By the end of the book, however, the image of the strong independent woman is replaced by the image of woman as victim. Women are raped, kidnapped, and treated as chattel (Judg. 19:25-29; 21:20-23). Far from condoning violence and the mistreatment of women, the Book of Judges graphically portrays what happens when a society abandons God so that everyone can do what is “right in their own eyes” (Judg. 17:6; 21:25).

Moral Failure Exemplified: The Canaanization of Israel

If readers are shocked at this kind of behavior, then the Book of Judges has achieved at least one of its purposes. Atheists and unbelievers are up in arms about these stories, as they should be, but what they fail to realize (or ignore) is that: “The theme of the book is the Canaanization of Israelite society during the period of the settlement” (Block, p. 58). In other words, it is ironic that the atheists who want to protect the poor Canaanites from the wrath of Israel’s God, become indignant when faced with Canaanite-like actions! What we see at the end of the Book of Judges is not the way God has instructed His people to live. What we see are the effects of Canaanite culture on Israel! The atheists cannot have it both ways. If they want to defend the lifestyle of the Canaanites, then they must defend the rape of the Levite’s concubine as perfectly permissible; otherwise,  they must recognize the justice of God in seeking to eliminate such behavior. By the way, this is why Israel, as well as Canaan, gets a taste of God’s judgment in the Book of Judges. Once again, far from being xenophobic (as the new atheists insist), God shows Himself to be no respecter of persons.
In the end, we must marvel that the justice of God leaves anyone standing! This is a testimony to God’s incredible longsuffering and kindness, desiring all to repent and come to life. This is the other amazing message in the Book of Judges, and once again we see another Old Testament book whose stories are bathed in the context of God’s grace.

“You Reap What You Sow”: Violence in the Old Testament Part 6

“You Reap What You Sow”: Violence in the Old Testament Part 6

What-You-Sow-Is-What-You-ReapIn my last article I looked at the nature of God and sin as a reason for the need of judgment (I would encourage you to read or reread that article before continuing, as many of the ideas presented there are important for the discussion here). In this article I will provide a second reason for judgment. The easiest way to sum up this response is with the biblical teaching “You reap what you sow” (e.g., 1 Kgs. 2:32; Hos. 8:7; Gal. 6:8). Although many passages declare that God brings judgment on wicked human beings, the Bible also teaches that sinful people experience the consequences of their own choices, bringing judgment on themselves. Perhaps one of the clearest statements of this principle is found in Psalm 7:14-16: “Behold the wicked brings forth iniquity; Yes, he conceives trouble and brings forth falsehood. He made a pit and dug it out, and has fallen into the ditch which he made. His trouble shall return upon his own head, and his violent dealing shall come down on his own crown” (NKJV).

Proverbs, Esther and the Theme “You Reap What You Sow”

Previously I noted that, since God is the Author and Giver of life, any choice that excludes God is a choice of death. If this logic is pursued, then it becomes clear that we bring judgment on ourselves by making the wrong choices. This idea is stated clearly throughout the Book of Proverbs. One of the best examples concerns the speech of Lady Wisdom in chapter 8. In Proverbs 8, Wisdom claims to have been with the Lord before the creation of the world, as well as present at creation (Prov.. 8:22-31). Everything said in these verses parallels what we previously established about God’s Word (see Part 5 of this series). It is not surprising then when Wisdom states, “For whoever finds me finds life, and obtains favor from the Lord; but he who sins against me wrongs his own soul; all those who hate me love death” (Prov. 8:35-36–italics are mine for emphasis).

Haman hanged on his own gallows. Courtesy of the Digital Image Archive, Pitts Theology Library, Candler School of Theology, Emory University
Haman hanged on his own gallows. Courtesy of the Digital Image Archive, Pitts Theology Library, Candler School of Theology, Emory University

Stories in the Old Testament frequently illustrate this theme. In fact, some of the acts of violence which are recorded are not acts sanctioned by God, and this violence results in the culprit(s) experiencing the principle: “You reap what you sow.” The story of Haman, recorded in the book of Esther, is an example of this. Haman hated a man named Mordecai, the uncle of Queen Esther, because Mordecai would not bow down before him and show him the proper respect he thought he deserved (Esth. 3:1-6). As a result, Haman planned to have Mordecai hung on the gallows he had constructed, as well as have the Jewish people massacred (Esth. 3:8-15; 5:14). In the end Haman’s plan was uncovered and he was hanged on his own gallows (Esth. 7:4-10).

The Flood and the Theme “You Reap What You Sow”

The Flood resembles the statement in Gen. 1:2
The Flood resembles the statement in Gen. 1:2

Although the story of the Flood is portrayed in Genesis as God’s judgment on His creation (Gen. 6:7), there is another sense in which humans bring judgment upon themselves. Last time we noticed that Genesis 1 teaches that the Word of God created structure and order out of what was “formlessness and void” (Gen. 1:2) resulting in a good creation (Gen. 1:31). We also noted that sin is a disregard of God’s Word which results in crossing over, or destruction of, the good boundaries He has put in place. The example of a house with walls, doors, and structural beams was used as an analogy to illustrate that order and structure are necessary for a quality existence. To commit sin is similar to knocking out the beams and walls that hold the structure in place. When enough damage is done, the roof caves in. The story of the Flood is told similarly.
Genesis 6:1-6 describes the growth of sin in God’s creation until it is said, “Then the Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually” (Gen. 6:5–my emphasis). The description continues in verses 11-12 stating, “The earth also was corrupt before God, and the earth was filled with violence. So God looked upon the earth, and indeed it was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted their way on the earth” (Gen. 6:11-12). In other words, all of the good order and structure that God had built into His original Creation had eroded away. Instead of the good quality of life that God had created, there was only violence and corruption. As a result of humans kicking out all of the God-given structure that God had put in place, the roof caved in on them and the ground gave way beneath them (Gen. 7:11). If this seems like stretching the language a bit, all one needs to do is check out the language of Genesis 7 (a good modern commentary such as Kenneth A. Mathews, “Genesis 1:-11:26” vol. 1 New American Commentary, p. 376 is also helpful). Genesis 7 purposely recalls the language of Creation in Genesis 1 using similar expressions found there (e.g., Gen. 7:14–”every beast after its kind, all cattle after their kind, every creeping thing that creeps on the earth after its kind, etc. Compare Gen. 1:24-25). The difference is that the language of the Creation story occurs in reverse order in Genesis 7 until the world returns to the formlessness and void of Genesis 1:2. The message is clear: not only has God judged His creation, human beings through their sin, have “reaped what they had sown.”
This message comes through in another way in Genesis 6. After God tells Noah in verses 11-12 that the earth is “filled with violence” and “corrupt,” He pronounces judgment on it by saying in Genesis 6:13, “for the earth is filled with violence through them; and behold I will corrupt (NKJV reads “destroy”) them with the earth.” In other words, God uses the same word to speak of destroying the earth that describes the sin of the people. There are two potential messages here: 1) God’s judgment is fair; Just as people “corrupted” the earth through sin, so He “corrupts” it in judgement; and 2) people have brought judgment down upon themselves. By using the same verb for judgment that describes peoples’ sin, the Bible is declaring, “You reap what you sow.”

When God Takes His Hand Off the Wheel

When God lets go, you reap what you sow!
When God lets go, you reap what you sow!

Another way of looking at this biblical teaching is by saying that God simply takes His hand off of the controls and allows people to experience the consequences of their actions. Again, this is much like a parent who has warned their child to no avail, and finally realizes that they will only learn by experiencing the consequences of their actions. Some will object that the consequences God allows are more severe than what a parent would allow. However, this objection fails to take into account two important factors: 1) the destructive nature of sin (which we established in the previous article leads to death); and 2) the matter of human freewill. Ultimately a parent is helpless if their child exercises free will by destroying their lives with drinking, drugs, or suicide. So it is not true that a parent would not allow their child to experience serious consequences. Sometimes they have no choice! Sin has its consequences and neither a parent or God can prevent those consequences when someone is determined to go in a deadly direction. As we previously established, departure from the God of life, results in death. If God stopped a person from making decisions that led to harmful consequences, then the atheist would complain that God is unfair for not allowing free will. If God allows free will, then He is considered a moral monster for allowing the choices that people freely make to destroy themselves and others. Either way, God cannot win!

Romans 1 and the Theme “You Reap What You Sow”

Romans 1 is an example of the principle we have been talking about. This passage is particularly important for what it teaches about the nature of free will and God’s wrath. In Romans 1:18 Paul’s discussion begins with the statement: “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men….” When we hear the words “wrath of God” we immediately expect to read of God sending thunderbolts or other calamities to “let people have it” for disobeying Him. In fact, what Paul says, and this is repeated three times, is that “God gave them over” (Rom. 1:24, 26, 28). In other words, those who don’t want to follow God and insist on going their own way are permitted to do so. This permissiveness of God is an expression of His wrath according to Paul! God simply allows people to do what they want to do and to reap the consequences for their actions. This is then a passive way in which God’s wrath is expressed. God actually does nothing. He takes His hand off and allows us to do what we want. Since what we want has nothing to do with God, the Giver of life, then our choice leads to death (Rom. 1:18-32). This is the same message then that was taught in the Old Testament and once again it can be summed up in the statement: “You reap what you sow.”
Even though this all sounds like bad news, we must not forget the context of grace in which even God’s judgments are set (see Part 4 of this series). The good news is that God has provided a way to escape the power of sin and death (e.g., Rom. 7:24-25). God gives us the freedom to choose, for love must involve freedom of choice. However, the story of Scripture is that whenever people have chosen the path that leads to death, God has always graciously provided a way back to the path of life. That remedy is the free gift of His Son Jesus (Rom. 6:23) and it is received when we repent. Repentance means we turn from the path of death we are on, and turn back to God and the path of life He has illumined for us by His Word.
Near the beginning of this article, I mentioned that a number of the acts of violence spoken of in Scripture are not sanctioned by God. Atheists often refer to such passages claiming that the Bible endorses violence. I will take a closer look at this idea in the next installment of “Violence in the Old Testament.”

The Necessity of Judgment: Violence in the Old Testament Part 5

The Necessity of Judgment: Violence in the Old Testament Part 5

Why does God judge?
Why is God’s judgment necessary?

In our last article I looked at the context of grace which surrounds stories of judgment such as the Conquest of Canaan. I ended the article with the following observation and questions: “Some will object and say that it is unreasonable for God to bring judgment on people who don’t want to follow Him. Why must they receive judgment? Why can’t God just ‘live and let live?'” To these questions I will add one other, “If the God of the Bible is so gracious why does He have to judge anyone?”

I want to explore three responses to this question. In this article we will look at two responses and follow up with a third response in the next article. The first two responses require that we look at what the Bible reveals about the nature of God and the nature of sin. Therefore we will examine these ideas first to lay the groundwork, and then move to the topic of God’s judgment.

God is Pro-Life

edenThe Old Testament opens in Genesis 1 with the story of Creation. This story affirms that God is the Author of all life. Out of the darkness and void of Genesis 1:2, God brings everything into existence. According to Genesis 1, God doesn’t skimp on any of the details for His Creation. By the time He is finished Genesis 1:31 tells us “Then God saw everything that He had made, and indeed it was very good.” The word “God” is used 35 times in the Creation story, which extends from Genesis 1:1-2:3. He is the only subject of the Creation story. This means that Creation and the giving of life is God’s idea and is brought into existence by His power alone. The Creation story teaches that God is the source of all life. We could say without any exaggeration that the Creation story teaches that God is “pro-life.”
exodus-3-14God’s personal name Yahweh is introduced in Genesis 2:4 (written as “the LORD” in English versions of the Bible). God’s personal name comes from the Hebrew word for “being.” When God reveals His name to Moses He defines Himself as, “I AM WHO I AM” (Exod. 3:14). Actually, the meaning of God’s name can be translated in several ways, but the important point is that God’s name points to His eternal nature. He is the self-existent One. He is Life and Being and in need of no one or nothing for His existence. Revelation 4:8 describes Him as the One “Who was and is and is to come!” The New Testament reveals the same truth about Jesus. John begins his gospel with the words, “In Him was life, and the life was the light of men” (John 1:4). Jesus says, “I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it abundantly” (John 10:10). This sounds very similar to the declaration of Genesis 1:31. Notice, that it has always been God’s intention to give His Creation life and to give it abundantly. God is not stingy when it comes to the gift of life! Further on in the Gospel of John Jesus says, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in Me, though he may die, he shall live” (John 11:25). Again Jesus declares to His disciples, “I am the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6). Clearly the Bible goes overboard to make this point: God is life. In His very essence He is life, He is the Giver of life, and His desire is to give life abundantly.
life-giverRecognition of this biblical truth is important for several reasons. First, if God is life and the Giver of life, then it follows that rejection of God is a choice that leads to death. A person cannot say “I want life, but I don’t want God.” It’s simply not an option. In rejecting God, a person is rejecting life itself and so, biblically speaking, it becomes an oxymoron to say “I want life, but I don’t want God.” Moses made this clear to the children of Israel long ago when he said, “…I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing; therefore choose life, that both you and your descendants may live; that you may love the Lord your God, that you may obey His voice, and that you may cling to Him, for He is your life and the length of your days…” (Deut. 30:19-20). Not only does this passage state that choosing God is choosing life and blessing, it infers not to choose Him is death and cursing. Furthermore, notice that the exhortation is “choose life.” God’s desire is that we choose life. In my last article we noted the passage from Ezekiel where God says, “‘For I have no pleasure in the death of one who dies,’ says the Lord God. ‘Therefore turn and live!'” (Ezek. 18:32). The Bible could not be any clearer that God desires life for His Creation.

Sin’s Opposition to the Life-Giving Word

Bible-Verse-In-The-Beginning-Genesis-1-1-3-Let-There-Be-Light-HD-WallpaperGenesis 3 teaches that sin is a disruptive force in God’s good Creation. To understand this more completely, we need to return to Genesis 1 and examine the part that God’s Word plays in Creation. Genesis 1 teaches that God brought everything into existence by His Word. “Then God said…” is always the start of God’s creative acts (e.g., Gen. 1:3, 6, 9, 11, etc.). This is why the Psalmist (Ps. 33:6), the apostle John (John 1:1-2), and the writer of Hebrews (Heb. 11:3), all insist that the world was created by the Word of God. Therefore Genesis 1 teaches us that the Word gives life. The Word is the agent through which all life comes into being. What does this Word do? It takes the “formlessness and void” of Genesis 1:2 and begins to construct a world in which life can flourish. The Word does this by bringing order out of chaos. The Word takes formlessness and creates structure, and fills the empty void with life and life-giving substances.

God divides the light from the darkness
God divides the light from the darkness

One of the ways the Word accomplishes this is through the process of “dividing.” We are told that God “divides” the light from the darkness (Gen. 1:4), the waters above the heavens from the waters below (Gen. 1:6-7), and the day from the night in order to create seasons (Gen. 1:14, 18). We are also told that, by His Word, God gathers the waters together so that dry land can appear (Gen. 1:9-10). Another way in which God, through His Word, brings order out of chaos is by bringing forth trees, fruit, and animals “according to their kind” (an expression which occurs 10 times in Genesis 1). The point of all this is to declare that the Word brings life by creating order and structure from the chaos.

Sin’s Destructive Nature

A house needs structure!

We can all appreciate this. If we are looking for a house to live in we don’t want a pile of rubble. We need structure. We want walls, doors, ceilings and windows. We want plumbing and electricity to be in its proper place. Genesis 1 teaches us that the Word of God is good because it brings order and structure into being and creates life out of what was once an uninhabitable place. The reason sin is so dangerous, according to the Bible, is that it is a crossing-over, or destruction of the good boundaries that God’s Word has set in place. It is not accidental that when the serpent tempts Eve, he begins with, “Has God indeed said…” (Gen. 3:1). In other words, the serpent attempts to get Eve to mistrust God’s Word. If Eve oversteps the boundaries put in place by the Word, then she steps into a dangerous world. God had warned Adam concerning the forbidden fruit, “In the day you eat of it you shall surely die” (Gen. 2:17). This statement is not a threat, “You better do what I tell you or else!,” it is a warning by the Lord of life. God knows that to step outside the protective boundaries He has set up, boundaries necessary to hold back the chaos (Gen. 1:2) and produce an abundant life (Gen. 1:31), is to step into a world of death. homewreckerThis is similar to walking into a beautiful home and one by one knocking out the support beams and walls because they seem too restrictive. Knock out enough supports, or a key support, and the whole house will fall in on our head. To enter the world of sin is to leave the safety and protection of the Lord of life behind and to enter a world where only death exists. This is so because anything apart from God (the source of all life), is death. Therefore to choose against God and against his Word is to choose death.

Live and Let Die

This is why it is impossible for God to take a “live and let live” attitude toward those who rebel against Him. The simple fact is, there is no life apart from God. The best that God can do for a person who constantly refuses Him is to have a “live and let die” attitude! Thank heaven that God cares too much to simply leave it at that without trying everything possible to turn His Creation back to Him.

Reasons for God’s Judgment

There are basically two reasons then for God’s judgment of the rebellious unbeliever. First, God desperately wants to give life to all of His Creation. Therefore He warns (and even sends) judgment in hopes that people will repent and come to life. We saw this principle in our last article as noted in Jeremiah 18:6-10 and the example of the Ninevites repentance in the book of Jonah. parentThis is similar to the parent who warns a child of harm or punishment if they don’t stop doing such ‘n such. Is the parent cruel? Is the parent trying to spoil the child’s fun? We know better. We can easily see that the parent acts in the child’s best interest so that the child can have a happy productive life. The parent’s warning is motivated by love. Better to be threatened with punishment, or even experience punishment, than to experience the consequences of something worse. Why do atheists find it so difficult to grasp this principle of God’s character when they would respond similarly toward the child they love?

Charles Manson
Charles Manson

The second reason for God’s judgment is that there are some who will never accept God and His correction and, therefore, for the good of His Creation they must be dealt with. This is similar to having a dangerous individual in our society who refuses to change. Perhaps they are a thief, a murderer, or a child-abuser. How long should we tolerate the behavior of a person who refuses to change but is a danger to society? At some point judgment must occur. No one wants to live in a society where there is no justice. God is incredibly long-suffering (even more so than us!), but God will not let sin go unchecked forever. In God’s judgment, He not only hopes for the repentance of the sinner, He seeks to protect the rest of His Creation from a destructive person (or people) who refuses to change and thus endangers everyone else.
Some will object by saying that God’s judgment seems much harsher than a parent’s punishment. I will deal with this idea more in a future article, but here I will note that this response doesn’t understand the gravity of sin. As we have seen, sin leads to death because it turns its back on the One who gives life. As the apostle Paul wrote, “the wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23). If God does not judge sin, then sin runs rampant over His Creation and death is the ultimate victor. But, as we have seen, God’s desire is to give life to His Creation. Thus Paul’s statement in Romans 6:23 does not end with the bad news of death; it continues, “but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 6:23).Romans6_23
In my next article I will examine a third response concerning the biblical teaching on judgment.

The Context of Grace: Violence in the Old Testament Part 4

The Context of Grace: Violence in the Old Testament Part 4

In my last article on Violence in the Old Testament, I noted that atheists ignore the context in which the stories of violence occur. This context is a context of grace. In particular we looked at the Conquest of Canaan, a bone of contention with nonbelievers, and we surveyed the immediate context of the Conquest found in the books of Deuteronomy and Joshua and offered some responses for those who claim the Conquest is evidence of a genocidal, xenophobic god. In this article we will widen our scope by looking at the beginning of the Conquest story which has its roots in God’s promise to give Abram the Land of Canaan.

Genesis and the Context of Grace

Call of Abram
Call of Abram

The story of God’s promise to give Abram the Land of Canaan is birthed in a context of grace. According to Genesis 12:1, God calls Abram to go “to a land that I will show you,” and proceeds to make 7 promises to him (Gen. 12:2-3). These promises are underscored by one of the keywords of Genesis: “bless.” In fact some form of the word “bless” occurs 5 times in these two verses. God’s purpose in calling Abram is summed up by the well-known promise, “And in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” Notice that this promise does not exclude the Canaanites. The promise is not “all the families of the earth” except the Canaanites! Abram and his descendants are God’s chosen vessel(s) to bring blessing to every nation. In Genesis 13:14-17, God specifically promises Abram the Land of Canaan. This promise is reiterated in Genesis 15:18-21, clearly marking out the land and peoples involved.
The obvious question is, “Perhaps this context of grace is good news for the later Israelites, or other nations, but how can the promise to give Abram and his descendants the Land of Canaan be good news for the Canaanites?” I will seek to answer this below, but before doing so, there is another important detail that needs our attention. A few verses earlier in Genesis 15 God tells Abram that neither he nor his descendants will possess Canaan immediately. In fact 400 years will pass before Canaan becomes the possession of Abram’s descendants (15:13-16)!

Election Involves Rejection

"Your descendants will be strangers in a land that is not theirs and will serve them" (Gen. 15:13)
“Your descendants will be strangers in a land that is not theirs and will serve them” (Gen. 15:13)

There are three aspects of this declaration that are important for us to consider. First is the shocking revelation that Abram’s descendants will suffer affliction and slavery in a foreign land. I doubt that this sounded like “good news” to Abram. An important biblical truth evidenced here and seen throughout Scripture is that election involves rejection. Atheists misunderstand the biblical concept of election (and so do some Christians). They accuse the God of the Old Testament of being arbitrary and showing favoritism. God’s election is likened to the negative human fallibility of favoring certain people over others due to racial prejudice or some other superficial standard. God’s choices are considered fickle and capricious. Once again, this is to remove the idea of election from its context of grace. As Genesis 12:1-3 demonstrates, God chooses some in order to bless all. Furthermore, God’s chosen are not exempt from hardship, but often endure misunderstanding and rejection. Strangely, it is through the suffering of the elect, that God not only redeems them, but others. Joseph is one example in the Old Testament (among many others), while Jesus is the supreme example of this truth (the suffering Servant of Isaiah 53). Receiving the Land of Canaan then will not be an easy journey for Abram or his descendants.

Grace Waits!

Abram builds and altar
Abram builds and altar

Second, neither Abram or his descendants will be given the land immediately. God says there will be a 400 year waiting period! This waiting period demonstrates God’s justice and recognition that the land currently belongs to the Canaanites. He will not dispossess them without providing examples of how they should live, and warnings of coming judgment. The patriarchs, although far from perfect, become a living sermon to the Canaanites of the power and faithfulness of the God of Abram, as well as setting an example of worshipping the true God. Abram constantly sets up altars to the true God wherever he goes (e.g., Gen. 12:7, 8) and worships Him publicly (this is the meaning of the expression to “call on the name of the Lord” – e.g., Gen. 13:4). This same example is followed by Isaac (Gen. 26:25) and Jacob (Gen. 35:2-3, 7). Furthermore, God’s blessing on the patriarchs, as well as His protection of them (even when they don’t deserve it!), provides evidence that He is the true God and faithfully keeps His promises (Gen. 14:19-20; 21:22-23; 26:28-29; 31:29, 42; 35:6).
ten plaguesGod’s judgments are also intended to turn people from idolatry to worship of Himself. This is not only true in the book of Genesis, it is the major reason behind the ten plagues in Egypt (along with freeing the Israelites). The constant refrain found in the plague narrative is “then you/they will know that I am the Lord (Exod. 6:7; 7:5; 8:10, 22; 9:14, 16, 29; 10:2). Through the plagues all the false gods of Egypt are revealed for what they really are, and even Pharaoh’s court magicians realize the power of God (Exod. 8:19). The judgments were necessary because people do not easily give up well-entrenched beliefs and practices even if they are false. A visible demonstration of the power of the true God was actually a gracious revelation. It was the only way to break through centuries of false worship and belief and, according to Exodus 11:3, it made an impact on the people of Egypt. Furthermore, the plagues on Egypt and the crossing of the Red Sea became another witness to Canaan and the surrounding nations that Israel’s God was the true God (Exod. 15:14-15). These events not only brought fear on the Canaanites, but as we saw last week, led to the repentance of some and the worship of the true God (Josh. 2:10-11; 9:24). Centuries later even the Philistines would recall these events and realize the power of Israel’s God (1 Sam. 4:7-8; 6:5-6). This brief survey clearly shows that the Canaanites had ample positive and negative witness for believing in Israel’s God. Therefore, when the Conquest began, they had been given plenty of time and witness.

The Context of Grace Involves Announcing Judgment in Advance

Third, the statement, “For the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete” (Gen. 15:16), reveals the patience and mercy of God which is attested elsewhere in Scripture. The statement reveals that the Canaanites (referred to hear as “Amorites”) were already a wicked people. Yet in spite of that, God was not willing to simply hand over the land to Abram. God would wait. Although this statement is a warning of impending judgment, it is also a statement of amazing grace and reveals a consistent quality of God’s character evidenced throughout the Bible. The point I want to emphasize here is that God always announces judgment in advance and allows the opportunity for repentance. This characteristic is not evidence for the bullying, capricious god that the atheists like to portray, but rather of a patient God who would rather see repentance than destruction.

Jonah knew the context of grace and he was none to happy about it!
Jonah knew the context of grace and he was none to happy about it!

God’s statement in Genesis 15:16 has similarities with the words he sends Jonah to proclaim to the Ninevites: “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” (Jonah 3:4). This statement sounds like judgment is inevitable but notice two things. First, God allots a certain period of time before judgement will fall. He does not bring it unannounced. Second, as the book reveals, the reason God waits is in hope that the people will respond in repentance, which they do! (Jonah 3:6-9). As a result, God reverses His decision to judge and shows mercy (Jonah 3:10). We learn in Jonah chapter 4 that this was the real reason Jonah didn’t want to go to Nineveh. He knew how gracious God was and he quotes the words revealed to Moses long ago about God’s merciful nature (Jonah 4:2; see Exod. 34:6). The problem with Jonah was that, unlike God, he was prejudice and he wanted this hated enemy of Israel destroyed. Therefore, he didn’t want to preach a word of judgment to them because he didn’t want them to have the opportunity to repent and be saved from destruction! This story clearly illustrates the same point as the Conquest of Canaan. God does not judge people because of prejudice, but because of sin. “The iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete” demonstrates that God’s judgment has nothing to do with ethnicity (as I established in the last article) but with sin. God’s reason for waiting 40 days or 400 years is for the purpose of giving people an opportunity to change and repent. The Canaanites who did repent (like Rahab) were saved, those who didn’t experienced a judgment that was long overdue.

A Look at the Wider Context of Grace

The potter's wheel
Jeremiah at the potter’s shop (Jer. 18:1-10)


This same truth is emphasized in two other prophetic texts that are important to mention. In Ezekiel 18:30-32 God pleads with Israel and says, “‘Therefore I will judge you, O house of Israel, everyone according to his ways,’ says the Lord God. ‘Repent and turn from all your transgressions, so that iniquity will not be your ruin.'” God concludes by telling Israel He finds no pleasure in anyone’s death, but desires repentance so that they might live. Notice that, although the Lord proclaims judgment, it’s repentance that He really desires. The prophet Jeremiah relates this same principle and he does it in a way that reminds us of the story of Jonah. In Jeremiah 18 the prophet visits the house of a potter and learns an important lesson from the Lord. The verses that particularly concern us here are Jeremiah 18:6-10. God tells Jeremiah that when He speaks a word of judgment, if that nation repents He will “relent of the disaster” that He thought to bring upon it (Jer. 18:8). Similarly, if God speaks a word of blessing on a nation but the people turn from Him, He will relent concerning that word of blessing (Jer. 18:10). The New Testament also confirms that God delays judgment in hopes that people will repent. 2 Peter 3:9 states, “For the Lord is not slack concerning His promise, as some count slackness, but is longsuffering toward us, not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance.” The Bible reveals a remarkable consistency in testifying to the redemptive nature behind God’s announcement and execution of judgment. Therefore the new atheists and other skeptics do a great injustice to the biblical message when they ignore the context of grace in which these words of judgment occur.
In conclusion, to be true to the biblical account, it is important to maintain the context of grace. At the heart of God’s selection of Abram (Abraham) and Israel is a desire to bless all nations. Through the positive example of worship of the true God and revelation of His will (by His Word), God seeks to draw all people to Himself. Warning of judgment, as well as the execution of judgment, is necessary when people refuse God’s gracious invitation by continuing in their sin. This is why even the Conquest of Canaan was both good news and bad news for the Canaanites. It was good news for people like Rahab, Uriah the Hittite (2 Sam. 11 – whose name means, “Yahweh is my light”), and Araunah the Jebusite (2 Sam. 24), foreigners who served the living God and were incorporated into the people of Israel. But it was bad news for those who hardened their hearts and continued in their rebellious ways. Some will object and say that it is unreasonable for God to bring judgment on people who don’t want to follow Him. Why must they receive judgment? Why can’t God just “live and let live?” We will examine these questions in our next article on Violence in the Old Testament.