Why I Believed 05 – The Crises that Precipitate Losing Faith: OT Ethics

This post is part of a series.

In the previous post, we discussed the challenge of evolutionary (and creationist) views of origins to faith. That may seem insurmountable to some, but this challenge is even more faith-crippling. Let’s hear from the author:

Crisis 2: Old Testament Ethics

Why does the Old Testament incessantly violate my idea of right and wrong? Why does it regard women in such a poor light? Why are the people of Yahweh supposed to wipe out men, women and children but are allowed to take the virgins for themselves [Deuteronomy 21:10-14; Numbers 31:17-18]? Why are the sacrifices offered in the tabernacle called food for Yahweh [Leviticus 21:21-23]? Why does Yahweh need sacrifices anyway? Can’t he simply forgive those who ask for his forgiveness, just as we humans forgive each other?
Why do some people get zapped instantly for touching the ark inadvertently [2 Samuel 6:1-8] while Aaron, Moses’ brother, gets off scot-free after making a golden calf for the people to worship [Exodus 32], and then he becomes the leader of the priesthood and the recipient of the best of all the offerings of the people? Why do women suspected of adultery have to go through some bizarre ordeal of drinking bitter water and seeing their womb swell and thigh waste away, while no provision is made for women to test their husbands for the same offense [Numbers 5:11-31]? God, the weight of all these troublesome passages, and many more, add up in my mind to foolishness. Daniels, Kenneth W.. Why I Believed: Reflections of a Former Missionary (pp. 31-32). Kenneth W. Daniels. Kindle Edition.

Related to the problem of evil (why did a good, omnipotent God allow evil at all?)[ref]The Two Great Mysteries of the Bible (wholereason.com)[/ref] is the problem of God’s apparent cruelty in the Old Testament.

How People Face or Ignore Old Testament Cruelties

The spectrum of response, from revulsion to acceptance, includes:

1. Absolute Rejection

Rejection of the Bible and the Bible’s God as trustworthy, worthy of emulation, and ethical. Many people don’t start here, but many, like Daniels, end up here. All of the machinations of apologists end up being unconvincing for such individuals, and combined with other personal objections to faith, cause them to leave faith permanently.

PROS: This decision can be a superficial reaction, but it can also be arrived at through serious thought and commitment to positive values. 

CONS: Writing off the scriptures ignores their significant role in modern history in valuing human life and creating part of the platform for creating the free and prosperous West.

2. Decisional Moratorium

No world view can answer all questions well or completely, and Christianity, though it offers answers to such hard questions, may not offer answers sufficient for the doubter, or even the faithful. But based on good answers to other important questions, a person may merely put the unanswered hard questions on the back burner, saying to themselves “What I have confirmed about this worldview is enough for me to maintain a faith commitment, even if the unanswered questions are troublesome.”

PROS/CONS: Some may use this approach to dodge difficulties, but others, including myself, take this pragmatic approach in order to not accidentally throw out the baby with the bathwater. Discarding faith for a few important objections may in the end not be the wisest path.

3. Cultural Contextualization

Some approach troubling Old Testament ethics by saying “those were normal mores for the time, we should not judge them anachronistically, applying our standards to their times.” For instance, forgiving some of the brutality of the Crusades because that was just how war was fought then.

PROS: Cultural contextualization is certainly a part of meaningful Bible interpretation – we should avoid anachronistic application of modern knowledge and values to cultures we don’t understand yet.

CONS: If we assume that there are at lest some objective moral truths, then some motives or actions are always immoral, despite culture or time frame.

Was chattel slavery ever acceptable to God? We’re not talking indentured servitude, or the very common situation of being provided living quarters by your employer because common land ownership was not available. [ref]PODCAST: Work and Slavery (wholereason.com)[/ref] Excusing the violation of timeless moral truths seems disingenous.

4. Progressive or Permissive Morality

Often, with the underlying assumption of objective moral truths, progressive revelation of morality is also invoked, assuming that God had a reason to slowly awaken human mores rather than giving it to them all at once. 

There is a fascinating book discussing the possible separate moral arcs in scripture regarding slavery, women, and sexuality. Interesting, the author of Slaves, Women, and Homosexuality: Exploring the Hermeneutics of Cultural Analysis argues that the scriptures arc towards increasing liberty for women and slaves, but for LESS when it comes to sexuality.

Jesus himself argued that God only allowed divorce (and perhaps polygamy) due to the hardness of men’s hearts, when lifelong (heterosexual) monogamy was his real design and goal for marriage. 

Because of your hardness of heart, Moses permitted you to divorce your wives; but from the beginning it has not been this way” (Matthew 19:3-8). 

PROS: There is some decent argumentation for progressive and permissive morality, and even Jesus at least argued for the latter. 

CONS: We might accept that mankind progresses in moral knowledge, but an omni God would know it all at the start. Looking at the rest of the Old Testament, it hardly seems like God was interested in handling immorality with kid gloves, waiting for the recalcitrant to awaken. Sure, God may have been patient, but he did not seem to wait forever. Destruction came upon many who acted wickedly.

Moral progressionism seems illogical on two levels. First, it excuses real moral evils. Second, it assumes that God was not willing to punish those who were immoral because they were still culturally immature. That just isn’t so. Was rape ever acceptable? Would God fail to condemn it because men were not ready to hear it yet? That’s a very poor argument.

5. Linguistic Contextualization

 A primary for understanding ancient documents, including the Bible, is to understand the genre of the work (poetry, historical narrative, symbolic apocalyptic, parable, etc.), as well as the toes of speech and idioms used in each. A symbolic apocalyptic work, for example, should not be read as literal narrative history.  And within each genre, we must understand use of devices like metaphor, parallelism, and hyperbole and idiom.

Biblical Hyperbole

One prominent example of such argumentation is done by Paul Copan in his book Is God a Moral Monster?: Making Sense of the Old Testament God. In defending the Israeli conquest of Canaan, he first argues that the Bible is speaking hyperbolically when talking of destroying all the Canaanites:

Notice first the sweeping language in Joshua 10:40: “Thus Joshua struck all the land, the hill country and the Negev and the lowland and the slopes and all their kings. He left no survivor, but he utterly destroyed all who breathed, just as the Lord, the God of Israel, had commanded.” Joshua used the rhetorical bravado language of his day, asserting that all the land was captured, all the kings defeated, and all the Canaanites destroyed (cf. 10:40–42; 11:16–23: “Joshua took the whole land . . . and gave . . . it for an inheritance to Israel”).

Yet, as we will see, Joshua himself acknowledged that this wasn’t literally so…. the early chapters of Judges (which, incidentally, repeat the death of Joshua) show that the task of taking over the land was far from complete. In Judges 2:3, God says, “I will not drive them out before you.” Earlier, Judges 1:21, 27–28 asserted that “[they] did not drive out the Jebusites”; “[they] did not take possession”; “they did not drive them out completely.” These nations remained “to this day” (Judg. 1:21).

The peoples who had apparently been wiped out reappear in the story. Many Canaanite inhabitants simply stuck around. Some might accuse Joshua of being misleading or of getting it wrong. Not at all. He was speaking the language that everyone in his day would have understood. Rather than trying to deceive, Joshua was just saying he had fairly well trounced the enemy.

Copan, Paul. Is God a Moral Monster?: Making Sense of the Old Testament God (pp. 170-171). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

PROS/CONS: Linguistic analysis, and understanding the cultural context continue to be mainstays of properly understanding and evaluating ancient practices, including biblical ones. This approach may do much to answer critics of Old Testament ethics, though certainly not all.

6. Historical Contextualization

Unlike cultural contextualization, which seeks to explain away unethical behavior by normalizing it within the past time-frame, historical contextualization provides the missing information from the context of the story, showing the deep wickedness of the victims of God’s harsh punishments, providing a just reason for such punishments. 

Hebrew Purity v. Sexual Spoils of War

In addition to possibly misunderstanding the language or idioms used in scripture (like hypberbole), we may also read into the text or miss things that come to light in historical analysis.

For example, Copan also fills in the gaps about the taking of virgins in combat – while we sensibly, if not crassly suppose that this is for the typical wartime abuse of female captives as sex slaves, not only does the Bible not explicitly say this (so we are reading that in), in context, it may actually be that these “pure” women are being saved from their impure culture so that they are NOT raped or sacrificed to pagan Gods:

What about the taking of young virgins? Some critics have crassly suggested that Israelite men were free simply to grab and rape young virgins. Not so. They were saved precisely because they hadn’t degraded themselves by seducing Israelite men. As a backdrop, have a look again at Deuteronomy 21:10–14. There, a Gentile female POW couldn’t be used as a sex object. An Israelite male had to carefully follow proper procedures before she could be taken as a wife. In light of the highly sensitive nature of sexual purity in Israel and for Israel’s soldiers, specific protocols had to be followed. Rape was most certainly excluded as an extracurricular activity in warfare.

Copan, Paul. Is God a Moral Monster?: Making Sense of the Old Testament God (p. 180). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Persistent, Pervasive, Cruel Cultural Wickedness

Reading the Bible’s often abbreviated version of history, we may miss the fact that some cultures were not only warned by God (like Nineveh was warned by Jonah, and spared when they repented, Jonah 3) before being punished (by God or Israel’s armies), some were so wicked that there was no hope for them.

We can see this in such stories as the destruction of Sodom, where Abraham (supposedly) has a conversation with God, asking him not to destroy it if just a few righteous men can be found in the city. In fact, there were not even 10! (Genesis 18-19).

The Noah Movie, and Man’s Wickedness

I really enjoyed the recent 2014 Noah movie starring Russel Crowe – it did not follow the biblical narrative strictly, but it made some nice assumptions, and portrayed a complex set of emotions in Noah. [ref]27 Critical musings on the film Noah (wholereason.com)[/ref]

But what I enjoyed most was the brutal depiction of the out of control cruelty and blood lust of mankind. We may blanch at such hyperbolic depictions, but to put it into modern perspective, imagine a country or people that rape and pollute the land, kill each other and their neighbors in constant warfare, murder and torture children as part of their religion, and have no guilt about it. If this was the case of the antediluvian population, perhaps drowning them was not so harsh after all. 

PROS: In principle, we all agree that some people may be beyond remediation, and like a rabid dog, can only be put down. It may even be possible that entire cultures become debased by things like religions that are superstitious or require human sacrifice, like the bloody Mayan culture depicted semi-historically in Mel Gibson’s movie Apocalypto.

CONS: I’m not sure there can be sufficient justification for murdering whole cultures, including women, children and animals. Sure, the children could grow up to become your enemies again (like Moses did, stupid Pharaoh’s daughter!), but not the sheep! 

7. Covenant Separation

When viewing other’s religions from our own, we can adopt one of many “theology of (other) religions.” Paul F. Knitter has written a foundational book on this subject, suggesting four main views:

  • Replacement – my religion replaces others because it is more perfect or the only right one.
  • Fulfillment – your religion predicted and came before mine, so mine is the fulfillment of your true but partial revelation.
  • Mutuality – we each have part of the truth and need one another, and where we disagree, we agree that one or all of us may be wrong.
  • Acceptance – all religions pretty much teach the same thing or seek the same ends, differences do not matter. 

The majority of modern Christians support the Replacement Theology (I rest more in the Fulfillment category, even with respect to religions outside of the Judeo-Christian circle, see Eternity in their Hearts as an example of this theology).

But when you adopt a replacement theology, you may be more likely to separate the Old and New Testaments, agreeing that the Jewish version of God was harsher, but that this was a different era, and disconnected from the NT picture of God. 

PROS/CONS: This view is somewhat simpler and clean, but it denies that the OT God and the NT God are the same person. While we may be under the “New Covenant,” I’m not sure that the moral law has changed. Jesus himself said:

Don’t misunderstand why I have come. I did not come to abolish the law of Moses or the writings of the prophets. No, I came to accomplish their purpose. ~ Jesus (Matthew 5:17)

8. Moral Accommodation

This last position, perhaps the least defensible of all, is to accept that such things were and ARE moral. God still judges nations today through war, and there were and are contexts in which slavery or rape is justified. That’s a real hard sell to anyone who wants moral clarity, but it works well if you just want to “believe what the Bible says” without entertaining doubts. Not me.


I personally think the best approaches to evaluating Old Testament ethics involve contextualization (5 and 6 above), but even these may not be entirely convincing to many who stumble over the God-approved wars and practices of the Israelites, not to mention the direct killing of people by God directly, including the deluge of Noah. 

With that said, I also think it wise to adopt an agnostic stance (#2 above) in light of the fact that there are some sensible explanations, and there are so many other possible confirmations of the existence of the Biblical God, that we would be wise to not let this one area alone trip us up.

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