The Moral Failure of Biblical Characters: Violence in the Old Testament Part 7
Another 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.”
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.
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.
It is not enough, however, to say that Israel falls into a deadly cycle. This cycle is actually a downward 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).
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.