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Is Yahweh a Moral Monster? - Page 9

4. The seriousness of sin and the sovereign prerogatives of Yahweh.

Like Narnia's Aslan, Yahweh, though gracious and compassionate (Exod. 34:6), is not to be trifled with. The new atheists seem to resist the notion of Yahweh's rightful prerogatives over humans precisely because they seem uncomfortable with the idea of judgment in any form.[88] Yes, Yahweh begins with the thus-and-so-ness of life in the ANE, graciously accommodating a sinful people surrounded by sinful social structures in hopes of directing them towards the ideal.[89] Deuteronomy regularly notes the radical sinfulness and stubbornness of Israel, not their moral superiority over other nations. In 9:4-13, Yahweh reminds Israel that their inheriting the land is not by virtue of their own "righteousness" or "uprightness" but rather because of the other nations' "wickedness." After all, Israel is "a stubborn people"-indeed, "rebellious" ever since they left Egypt. God must reveal himself with holy firmness-at times, fierceness-to get the attention of these rebels, not to mention the surrounding nations.

The new atheists consider Yahweh to be impatient, jealous, and easily provoked. In actual fact, God endures much rejection from his people. God is often exasperated with and hurt by his people, asking, "What more was there to do for My vineyard [Israel] that I have not done in it?" (Isa. 5:4). Again: "How I have been hurt by their adulterous hearts which turned away from Me, and by their eyes which played the harlot after their idols" (Ezek. 6:9). And again: "I have spread out My hands all day long to a rebellious people, who walk in the way which is not good, following their own thoughts, a people who continually provoke Me to My face" (Isa. 65:2-3).

Thus when Dawkins accuses God of breaking into a "monumental rage whenever his chosen people flirted with a rival god"-as "nothing so much as sexual jealousy of the worst kind"-he seems to show utter disregard for the significance of the marriage covenant-and, in particular, this unique bond between God and his people. Israel had not simply "flirted" with rival gods, but had cohabited with them, going from one lover to another, "playing the harlot" (cp. Ezek. 16 and 23). Hosea's notable portrayal of Israel as a prostitute-not a mere flirt-is far more serious than Dawkins's casual dismissal. The appropriate response to adultery is anger and hurt. When there is none, we rightly wonder how deeply and meaningfully committed to marriage one truly is.

5. The repeated call to imitate Yahweh's character and redemptive activity as capturing the OT's ethical spirit and providing an abiding moral norm.

Brevard Childs remarks that OT ethics is not a mere cultural phenomenon of mimicking ANE cultures. Rather, it offers judgments and wisdom based on the context of a divine-human covenant relationship and the human response to God's character-an imitatio Dei.[90] God's holy character becomes a norm for Israel: "be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy" (Lev. 19:2). In addition, his redemptive activity serves as a model for the people of Israel to follow: "He executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and shows His love for the alien by giving him food and clothing. So show your love for the alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt" (Deut. 10:18-19).

Likewise, in Deuteronomy 24:18, Yahweh tells his people: "But you shall remember that you were a slave in Egypt, and that the Lord your God redeemed you from there; therefore I am commanding you to do this thing." This is the chief reason Israel was to show compassion to the poor, the stranger, the oppressed; Israel was in a similar position while enslaved in Egypt, and Yahweh repeatedly reminds Israel of his partiality to the dispossessed.[91]

The model of Yahweh's character and saving action is embedded within and surrounding Israel's legislation. This is what Christopher Wright calls a "compassionate drift" in the Law. This drift cannot be reduced to a moral code, but involves something far deeper:

protection for the weak, especially those who lacked the natural protection of family and land (namely, widows, orphans, Levites, immigrants and resident aliens); justice for the poor; impartiality in the courts; generosity at harvest time and in general economic life; respect for persons and property, even of an enemy; sensitivity to the dignity even of the debtor; special care for strangers and immigrants; considerate treatment of the disabled; prompt payment of wages earned by hired labour; sensitivity over articles taken in pledge; consideration for people in early marriage, or in bereavement; even care for animals, domestic and wild, and for fruit trees. . . . it would be well worth pausing with a Bible to read through the passages in the footnote, to feel the warm heartbeat of all this material.[92]

Along these lines, Mignon Jacobs notes an OT "theology of concern for the underprivileged."[93] Yahweh's character and activity provide God's people-indeed, all humanity-with a clear moral vision.

In their zealous preoccupation with the negative in OT ethics, the new atheists neglect this repeated undertone in the Law of Moses itself-Yahweh's gracious, compassionate character and his saving action.

6. The planned obsolescence of the Mosaic Law and its fulfillment in Christ.

A final consideration for our discussion is the self-confessed "planned obsolescence" for national Israel and the Mosaic Law. Although Sinai makes significant advances over surrounding ANE cultures, the Law is not viewed as the final word. A new covenant will come, in which the Law is written on the heart-a covenant bypassing the old one and incorporating the nations as the people of God (for example, Jer. 31; Ezek. 36-7). In the words of N. T. Wright, "the Torah is given for a specific period of time, and is then set aside-not because it was a bad thing now happily abolished, but because it was a good thing whose purpose had now been accomplished."[94]

Robin Parry reminds us that if we allow that the Christ-event is part of the plot line, then we are obligated to allow it "cast its significance back onto our understanding of earlier texts."[95] The broader canonical context of the NT sheds light on OT legal texts and further draws out the creational designs and the "compassionate drift" found in OT texts. Yet we cannot forget that the Hebrew Scriptures themselves reveal a moral development and a dynamic ethical response to emerging situations. (For instance, the killing of the Canaanites, which is limited to Joshua's generation, stands in sharp contrast to Israel's duty to "seek the welfare" of Babylon where it was exiled [Jer. 29:7].)

 Again, in their own right, OT texts provide us with enduring, normative perspectives about human dignity and fallenness and with moral insights regarding justice, faithfulness, mercy, generosity, and the like. Indeed, Christ is often reaffirming this by normatively citing OT texts about loving God and neighbor or calling Israel back to live by God's creational designs rather than hardened hearts.[96]

However, given an enlarged canonical perspective, the OT anticipates a further work that God achieves in Christ. Hebrews reminds us that he brings a "better" and more substantial fulfillment out of the OT's "shadows." He fully embodies humanity's and Israel's story. So if we stop at OT texts without allowing Christ-the second Adam and the new, true Israel-to illuminate them, our reading and interpretation of the OT will be greatly impoverished.


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