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Is Yahweh a Moral Monster? - Page 3

As we move beyond the Pentateuch, the same themes continue. Stories illustrate ethical living with role models who live wisely, show graciousness, and make remarkable sacrifices: three of David's mighty men who exhibit loyalty and self-sacrifice, risking their lives to bring him water from Bethlehem (2 Sam. 23); David's refusal even to touch Saul despite the opportunity (1 Sam. 24); Abigail's wise handling of a troublesome situation (1 Sam. 25); and so forth. These narratives also inform us that Israel's kings, no matter how powerful, are not above God's law: Nathan confronts David about his murder and adultery (2 Sam. 12); Elijah challenges Ahab's murder of Naboth (1 Kings 21); Uzziah is struck with leprosy for assuming priestly prerogatives (2 Chron. 26). And even more importantly, Israel's story reveals a God who stoops and condescends, working faithfully to fulfill his promises despite his people's faithlessness. Their defiance is especially clear at the golden calf incident (Exod. 32). Israel, whom Yahweh embraces as his covenant bride, cheats on him while still on the honeymoon! Dennett's charge of "jealousy" is misguided. God responds out of hurt and anger-a reaction we should rightly expect when such betrayal takes place. Yet God repeatedly "remembers" his covenant and his promises. He helps Israel be fruitful and multiply, bringing blessing to the nations, delivering his people from slavery and death. Yet we also see Yahweh's consistency in carrying out his threats to do to Israel what he has done to other nations (Num. 33:56; Josh. 23:15).

As we read the OT narratives, we detect a clear Ethos (a moral environment or atmosphere), as Eckart Otto affirms, rather than an Ethik (mere moral prescriptions).[33] These stories and role models in the OT canon remind us that lawcodes and rule-following are inadequate. Rather, we see in them a spirit directing Israel to higher moral and spiritual ground.

4. The dangers of moving from "is" to "ought."

It is a commonplace that OT authors are reticent to make moral judgments in their stories.[34] When the new atheists draw assume Scripture's moral deficiency based on patriarchal trickery, Mosaic murder, or Davidic adultery, they miss the point of the text. David, for instance, is not being portrayed as an exemplum but as a mixed moral bag-similar to Greek tragedies in which the hero has his deep flaws. In John Barton's words,

David is not an exemplum but a person like ourselves, who illustrates the difficulties of the moral life not by what he teaches but by what he does and is. . . . The story of David handles human anger, lust, ambition, and disloyalty without ever commenting explicitly on these things but by telling its tale in such a way that the reader is obliged to look them in the face and to recognise his or her affinity with the characters in whom they are exemplified.[35]

We could add how OT narrative writers subtly "deconstruct" major characters such as Gideon or Solomon by exposing their questionable leadership qualities and their spiritual compromise.[36]

While the new atheists are correct in pointing out moral flaws and horrendous actions of OT characters, they often imply that "if it's in the Bible, it must be approved by the author." Yet we see from 1 Corinthians 10 that many of Israel's stories involving stubbornness, treachery, and ingratitude are vivid negative role models-ones to be avoided. The OT's "is" does not amount to "ought." (Christopher Hitchens's remarks about "the ungrateful and mutinous children of Israel" is quite right!) OT descriptions are not necessarily normative. Moreover, the hero status given by the OT to Abraham, Moses, David (and echoed in the NT) is rooted not in their moral perfection but more so in their uncompromising dedication to the cause of Yahweh and their rugged trust in the promises of God rather than lapsing into the idolatry of many of their contemporaries.[37]

B. We must allow the OT ethical discussion to begin within an ANE setting, not a post-Enlightenment one.

1. Taking into account the harsh, cruel conditions of the ANE.

According to Bruce Birch, we moderns encounter a certain barrier as we approach the subject of OT ethics. Simply put, the ANE world is "totally alien" and "utterly unlike" our own social setting. This world includes slavery, polygamy, war, patriarchal structures, kingship, ethnocentrism, and the like. His advice is this:

Any treatment of the Hebrew Bible with regard to ethics, especially as an ethical resource to contemporary communities, must acknowledge the impediment created by the simple fact that these texts are rooted in a cultural context utterly unlike our own, with moral presuppositions and categories that are alien and in some cases repugnant to our modern sensibilities.[38]

The new atheists miss something significant here. They assume that the ANE categories embedded within the Mosaic Law are the Bible's moral pinnacle. They are, instead, a springboard anticipating further development-or, perhaps more accurately-pointing us back toward the loftier moral ideals of Genesis 1 and 2 and even 12. These ideals affirm the image of God in each person, lifelong monogamous marriage, and God's concern for the nations. The implications from these foundational texts are monumental.

2. Incremental "humanizing" steps rather than a total overhaul of ANE cultural givens.

As I shall develop further below, we should not view the OT as offering an ideal ethic for all cultures across the ages. Rather than attempt to morally justify all aspects of the Sinaitic legal code, we can affirm that God begins with an ancient people who have imbibed dehumanizing customs and social structures from their ANE context.[39] Yet this God desires to draw them in and show them a better way:

if human beings are to be treated as real human beings who possess the power of choice, then the "better way" must come gradually. Otherwise, they will exercise their freedom of choice and turn away from what they do not understand.[40]

To completely overthrow these imbedded ANE attitudes, replacing them with some post-Enlightenment ideal, utopian ethic would simply be overwhelming and in many ways difficult to grasp. We can imagine a strong resistance to a complete societal overhaul. Think of the difficulty of the West's pressing for democracy in nations whose tribal/social and religious structures do not readily assimilate such ideals. Or even if a structure like slavery is eradicated, this does not mean that the culture's mindset will be changed along with it. Consider how antebellum racial prejudice was not erased by abolition and the North's victory over the South. Prejudice would take new forms such as separate-but-equal (Jim Crow) laws and organizations like the Ku Klux Klan.

As Alden Thompson argues, God is incrementally "humanizing" ANE structures within Israel to diminish cruelty and elevate the status of, say, slaves and women-even if such customs are not fully eliminated.[41] So when Joshua kills five Canaanite kings and hangs their corpses on trees all day (Josh. 10:22-7), we do not have to explain away or justify such a practice. Rather, this reflects a less morally-refined condition. Yet such texts remind us that, in the unfolding of his purposes, God can use heroes such as Joshua within their context and work out his redemptive purposes despite themselves. Indeed, we see a God who endures much rebellion and moral decline throughout the time of the judges and during Israel's monarchy, when idolatry was commonplace and religious reforms were rare. Even later on when the Jews returned from Babylon, Nehemiah was properly appalled by Jews opening themselves up to idolatry by marrying foreign wives (for example, Neh. 13, esp. v. 25). Throughout the OT, we see a God who is actually quite patient as he seeks to woo and influence a stubborn, idol-prone people.[42] God's legislation is given to a less morally-mature culture that has imbibed the morally-inferior attitudes and sinful practices of the ANE.

According to Birch, we should acknowledge rather than ignore or downplay morally-objectionable practices and attitudes within Israel such as patriarchalism, slavery, ethnocentrism, and the like. He adds a crucial point, however: none of these practices and attitudes is "without contrary witness" elsewhere in the OT.[43] The new atheists gloss over any "contrary witness," focusing only on the morally problematic. However, closer examination reveals that Scripture itself (rather than twenty-first-century critics) has the resources to guide us regarding what is ideal and normative and what is temporary and sui generis in the Bible.[44]

John Goldingay urges us to appreciate the tension between the ideal and the actual-between the high standards God desires from his covenant people and the reality of dealing with a sinful, stubborn people in a covenant-unfriendly ANE environment.


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