Hi, I really love your blog and I love your take on different issues. I’m wondering if you can help me. I have a very intelligent, seeking friend who spends his time learning about different cultures, demographics and religions. He just sent me Genesis 11 and pointed out that God brings division to humanity, and through it war, racism, and other kinds of oppression. I really don’t know what to say because that’s a really valid point, and I’ve always been huge on God bringing justice and love…
Thank you for your kind words and for trusting me with this issue. It’s a tough one — and you’re not the only one who thinks so.
I think deep inside, every single Christian in the world has an unresolved tension with the Old Testament. If the OT were a dinner guest, we’d all be staring at her from across the room as she flips furniture and tells wild stories and eats the entire martini glass. She’s kind of hot, but she’s also a tad bit crazy.
I don’t mean to sound blasphemous, but really: with all these Christian books trying to reconcile the “gracious fairy God” with the “OT monster God,” it sounds like we’re just apologizing for God all the time. Does He really need all this watered down press? Does He need better public relations? Can we really tame the God of the Bible?
Because if God is really God, then He can do whatever He dang well wants. Fortunately for us: God is “bound” by His very own nature, so however you assume God works, you’ll see His actions as immediately bad or investing in the good.
It really comes down to an issue of trust. If I truly believe God is who He says He is — that He is all-wise, noble, righteous, fair, loving, and perfect justice — then I also have to be okay with certain unexplainable actions from God which don’t make sense to my tiny limited 3 lb. brain.
That’s not a cop-out, but of course it’ll seem that way to anyone who already has an agenda against Him. People love to play “Gotcha” with the OT, but really they’re just confirming their own pre-made point of view. We’re all biased somehow towards God. I admit my own bias is to trust God, even as I struggle with some really tough things He does. My own preconceived filter is that God is ultimately eternally good, so He will use even what He hates to achieve what is good. But for many others, God must be bad, so they’ve already decided that anything God does must be inherently evil. You can’t really argue that one, because it takes an incredible amount of trust to say God is good in a broken world.
Your friend might say he’s neutral, but the human heart is constantly looking for ways to slip out of submission to any higher power. We hate the idea of God unless He does what we want — which is why we pick lesser gods like shiny toys and cheap thrills and friends-with-benefits and mindless distractions. Even Aldous Huxley, the atheist author who wrote Brave New World, freely admitted that he rejected God because he just wanted to have sex all the time.
All that to say: Even if you knew the ironclad answer to all the crazy stuff in the Old Testament, I doubt your friend would say, “You’re so totally right! Now I love Jesus.” Again, it comes down to trust. Most people don’t trust the OT without first trusting God. I don’t mean to say we shouldn’t question it — I have tons of problems with the OT and I’ll be sure to check with God when I meet Him. But unless your friend is okay with mystery and surrender and not being the main character in his own life, then the OT will always look like X-rated bloody mythology.
I’ve learned to embrace the tension. I’ve heard all the logical explanations for the OT, but I find that even academic research does little to make me “trust God more.” When we reduce the supernatural to merely dry theology, we shrink God into a deceptively selective box so that we’re not really talking about God anymore, but an abstract straw-man that is dismantled by the next best argument. I have a feeling even many Christians like it this way, because they don’t have to confront their own sin and can keep a distance from His authority.
So I’ll play along and attempt to answer a few things. There are a few reasons why I believe God is still good in the Old Testament. As always, please feel free to skip around.
1) If Jesus is really God, then this validates the goodness of God at the cross. Which means I can trust anything that happens in the OT because it will have been used for the ultimate eternal good. It doesn’t mean I like everything that happens in the OT, but it does mean that I can quit second-guessing God. In the cross, we see how both love and justice meet together. We see how the futility of man in the OT is met with the perfect mercy of God in the New Testament. The tension is resolved — my sin meets His grace. We don’t need better public relations for that, or to tame down the Gospel, or to apologize for such a scandalous grace. The Gospel is enough for me to retroactively believe that every event in the OT had the purpose of pointing to the Cross of Christ.
2) There are countless instances of God’s grace in the OT. This even more so than in the New Testament. God consistently reaches towards people of His own initiative, even when people are consistently rejecting Him. Genesis 15, one of the weirdest chapters of the OT, is drenched in God’s grace.
3) Issues in the OT like slavery, incest, genocide, wrath, and so-called misogyny are not as clear-cut as they appear to be. Our current Western sensibilities have almost zero context or framework to interpret these things, plus people are always saying, “It’s in the Bible so God must be condoning them,” which is a ridiculous assertion. God was just as mad at these things as we are. But even assuming God condoned them, I would imagine that God Himself came across some moral dilemmas where He had to pick the lesser of two evils for the long-run good. I don’t think it happened this way, but if we’re always understanding other people for doing so, then I can understand God on this one too. But really, the OT is full of imperfect human failure that doesn’t reflect the perfect God.
People like to blame God and religion for everything, but can hardly stand to blame themselves. The OT is very clear that people are the problem and God is the solution. But we pick and choose this to fit our prejudices. A murderer blames his religion and everyone else says religion made him a murderer — but if it’s a rapist, let’s blame the victim, and if it’s some rich white kid, let’s blame the parents. Reminds me of how Adam blamed God for Eve, then Eve passed the blame to Satan. We’re more civilized now, right? Right.
4) Besides having the right attitude about the OT, I also believe that every single “tension” has a sufficient intellectual answer. So for your friend’s example, in Genesis 11 when the people building the Tower of Babel are struck: God’s original covenant was to be fruitful and multiply across the earth (Genesis 9:7). But now these people are trying to be God and staying in one place to build a tower, which would’ve effectively killed the human race. So God, perhaps in grief, has to divide the people so they’ll naturally travel out on their own. Now after that: Were the resulting wars and genocide really God’s fault? Or was it a consequence of people not getting along?
We have a way of reading the Bible as black-and-white without nuance, forgetting that the oral tradition of relaying Scripture would add layers that we don’t always catch. If you can witness a Jewish reading of the Book of Esther during their Purim festival, there are all kinds of mannerisms that add flesh and depth. Of course, we don’t need this extra colorization for the Bible to have power. But if we can put a little humanity in Scripture — to recognize these biblical characters struggled with the same hopes, fears, and hurts that we do — we might read the Bible with just as much reverence as we do for Harry Potter or Sherlock Holmes.
5) Any time God throws down punishment in the OT, God is accelerating the consequences of sin to display how sin eventually destroys all people. Sometimes God lets someone get away with sin for a while because God is hoping that His kindness will lead to repentance (Romans 2). But sin will always catch up to you, and God cannot delay the consequences forever (Numbers 32:23). Imagine a kind of life where there were no ramifications for anything you did: which would mean God does not love us.
Occasionally in the OT, God directly intervenes by opening a hole in the ground or sending an angel of wrath or flying in a bunch of poisonous quails (Numbers 11 and 16, 2 Kings 19:35). I don’t mean that God punishes only bad people or rewards only good people or that all bad events are examples of God’s punishment. We also can’t judge if someone is being “punished” by God or not (they did this in John 9 and Jesus flat-out told them they were wrong). But in the OT, when it’s stated that God is punishing someone, like the Ten Plagues, God does it to close the loop between our selfishness and the eventual destruction it causes. I’m sure it makes God sick to His stomach, but He does it in hopes to prevent further human selfishness, just like a good father will punish his kids to guide them in the right way.
I know this won’t possibly answer all your questions, and I don’t pretend to find this easy. I have not even begun to cover tragedies, disasters, diseases, and other planetary problems. But I continue trusting God anyway, even when it’s a tiny thread of trust. I believe God knows what He’s doing. When I read the OT, I see a God who gets involved — and I’d rather have a God who gets in our mess and rocks us with mercy and justice, even when I don’t understand it.
“… Man interferes with the dog and makes it more loveable than it was in mere nature. In its state of nature it has a smell, and habits, which frustrate man’s love: he washes it, house-trains it, teaches it not to steal, and is so enabled to love it completely. To the puppy the whole proceeding would seem, if it were a theologian, to cast grave doubts on the “goodness” of man: but the full-grown and full-trained dog, larger, healthier, and longer-lived than the wild dog, and admitted, as it were by Grace, to a whole world of affections, loyalties, interests and comforts entirely beyond its animal destiny, would have no such doubts. It will be noted that the man takes all these pains with the dog, and gives all these pains to the dog, only because it is an animal high in the scale – because it is so nearly loveable that it is worth his while to make it fully loveable. He does not house-train the earwig or give baths to centipedes. We may wish, indeed, that we were of so little account to God that He left us alone to follow our natural impulses – that He would give over trying to train us into something so unlike our natural selves: but once again, we are asking not for more Love, but for less.”
— C.S. Lewis