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Is Yahweh a Moral Monster? - Page 2

A Nuanced Response to the New Atheists

The new atheists are certainly rhetorically effective, but I would contend that they have not handled the biblical texts with proper care, and they often draw conclusions that most Christians (save the theonomistic sorts) would repudiate. And this judgment is not the refined result of some post-Enlightenment moral vision, but the biblical writers themselves point us toward a moral ideal, despite the presence of human sin and hard-heartedness. These new atheists give the impression of not having the patience for careful, measured replies, yet this is exactly what is required. John Barton warns that there can be no "simple route" to dealing with OT ethics.[17] Bruce Birch considers OT ethics as something of a "patchwork quilt."[18] Thus, it calls for a more subtle and cautious approach than the new atheists take.

I hope to set in order some of this untidiness. I have attempted elsewhere to address at a popular level various OT ethical questions-slavery, the Canaanite question, "harsh" moral codes and "strange" Levitical laws, Abraham's offering Isaac, the imprecatory psalms, divine jealousy, divine egotism, and so forth.[19] So I shall intentionally skip some of these specifics except for illustrative purposes. My chief object is to outline a nuanced response to the new atheists' charges in order to discern the powerful moral vision of the OT. While acknowledging the drastically different mindset between ANE and modern societies, we can overcome a good deal of the force of the new atheists' objections and discern the moral heart of the OT, which is a marked contrast to the new atheists' portrayal. Indeed, a number of the moral perspectives within the Law of Moses (for example, laws regarding restitution or gleaning to aid the poor) can offer insights for us moderns. One more thing: At the risk of overlap and potential repetition, I have tried to make subtle differentiations in my subpoints.

A. The Law of Moses is embedded in a larger biblical metanarrative that helps illuminate ethical ideals in ways that mere law-keeping cannot.

1. The Sinai legislation integrated into the broader Pentateuchal narrative.

In his Old Testament Story and Christian Ethics, Robin Parry points out the mistake of treating the Mosaic Law as a legal code while completely ignoring nonlegal narrative texts that surround it.[20] The absence of such narratives is glaringly apparent in cuneiform ANE Mesopotamian law codes such as Hammurabi. The Mosaic covenant (Exod. 20-Num. 10) is incorporated into the Pentateuch's larger narrative of God's dealings with the patriarchs and then the people of Israel. Additionally, if Christ is the end of the Law, both its fulfillment and its terminus (Rom. 10:4), then we have an even wider canonical context available to assess OT ethical concerns.

We should not be deceived into thinking that the biblical narrative comes to a sudden halt at Sinai. The Mosaic legislation is embedded in and surrounded by a broader narrative framework that continues after the Israelites move on from Sinai.[21] This fact should inform our perspective on moral codes in the Pentateuch, as we shall see. In other words, God instructs Israel not by laying down laws or principles but by telling stories of real people as they relate to their Creator and Covenant Maker.

2. Motive clauses rooted in history.

Also unlike the Code of Hammurabi and other Mesopotamian law codes are the various "motive clauses" in the Sinaitic legislation that ground divine commands in Yahweh's historical activity. For example, the first commandment with a promise is: "Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long . . ." (Exod. 20:12). Indeed, the prologue to the Decalogue affirms God's saving activity in history: "I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You shall have no other gods before Me" (Exod. 20:2-3). Or, "Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy . . . for in six days the Lord made heaven and earth . . . and rested on the Sabbath" (Exod. 20:8-11). Such motive clauses would be most plausibly situated in Israel's redemptive, storied setting.[22]

Israelites are commanded to imitate Yahweh, who acted in history and, in doing so, set a pattern for them. By contrast, cuneiform laws such as Hammurabi are never motivated by historical events: "unlike biblical laws, no cuneiform law is ever motivated by reference to an historic event, a promise of well-being, or . . . a divine will."[23] In other ANE codes, the law is given by human kings and monitored by gods. Unlike kingship in the ANE, Yahweh's rule did not require an earthly human representative. [24] Thus, within the biblical narrative, laws are personally revealed by Israel's God.

There is an obvious apologetical point here: God's activity in history-particularly in Israel's deliverance from slavery in Egypt-largely generates the motivation for Israel's own treatment of slaves, foreigners, and the underprivileged within its borders. Without this historical context, it is hard to account for such an emphasis.

3. Narrative moral insights and moral exemplars as more fundamental than legal codes.

Richard Hays writes of the NT that "the narratives are more fundamental than any secondary process of abstraction that seeks to distill their ethical import."[25] That is, we gain insight into, say, the more abstract commands or guidelines found in the New Testament (for example, epistles or the Gospels' teaching sections) by observing what takes place in these historical narratives. They serve as illustrative material for teaching sections. Recently, Richard Burridge has forcefully argued this point: The four Gospels present Jesus' life and deeds, not merely his teachings, in the Greco-Roman genre of biographical narratives or "lives"-bioi or vitae-to inspire mimesis ("imitation") in the reader.[26] The same pertains to the Acts of the Apostles. Evangelicals have tended to overlook theological themes embedded in its historical narrative, privileging the "clearer" theological instruction of the epistles. However, as Craig Keener and Max Turner have noted, Luke is certainly attempting to give theological instruction throughout his Acts narrative.[27]

Likewise, OT historical narratives often present role models in action who make insightful moral judgments, show discernment, and exhibit integrity and passion for God-aside from the Prophets, the Psalms, and the Wisdom books, which also provide moral illumination. According to John Barton, the OT ethical model incorporates the imitatio Dei, natural law, and obedience to God's declared will,[28] and we see narrative undergirding and permeating each of these themes. Brevard Childs observes that the Torah's legal material is consistently intertwined with narrative, thus providing "a major commentary within scripture as to how these commands are seen to function."[29]

Unlike the new atheists, we should not approach the Law of Moses as a holiness code detached from its broader narrative and canonical context-as though this legislation offers an ultimate ethic with nothing further to consider.[30] And while Christians can rightly criticize negative moral exemplars and actions with the best of the new atheists, we should also recognize commendable characters and their virtues well-Abraham's selflessness and generosity toward Lot (Gen. 13) or Joseph's moral integrity and sexual purity as well as his astonishing clemency towards treacherous, scheming brothers (Gen. 39, 45, 50).

Or consider race (remember Dawkins's "xenophobic" charge). Yes, the Pentateuch's legal code in places does differentiate between Israelite and non-Israelite slaves (for example, Exod. 12:43, where non-Israelites are not to partake in the Passover); it grants remitting loans to Israelites but not to foreigners (Deut. 15:3); it allows for exacting interest from a foreigner but not from a fellow Israelite (Deut. 23:20); Moabites and Ammonites are excluded from the sanctuary (Deut. 23:3).[31] To stop here, as the new atheists do, is to overlook the Pentateuch's narrative indicating God's concern for bringing blessing to all humanity (Gen. 12:1-3). Even more fundamentally, human beings have been created in God's image as co-rulers with God over creation (Gen. 1:26-7; Ps. 8)-unlike the ANE mindset, in which the earthly king was the image-bearer of the gods. The imago Dei establishes the fundamental equality of human beings, despite the ethnocentrism and practice of slavery within Israel.

Indeed, another Pentateuchal narrative, Numbers 12, gives an insightful theological perspective about race. Moses marries a black African woman-from Cush/Ethiopia, which was south of Egypt and under Egyptian control at that time. The term "Cushite" is mentioned twice for emphasis. Aaron and Miriam are very upset about this marital arrangement-perhaps a power struggle because a new person has entered into the circle of leadership. Despite the objections by Moses' siblings, Yahweh resoundingly approves of Moses' marriage to a black woman, highlighting his approval by turning Miriam's skin white![32]


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