What About the God of the Old Testament?

By James Rochford.

One of the most powerful punches of the New Atheism is their rhetorical jab at the so-called “God of the Old Testament.” Repeatedly, the New Atheists attack the moral atrocities of the Old Testament, as evidence that God cannot be worthy of directing and leading our lives –let alone our universe. For instance, in his book The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins writes,

The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character of all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.[1]

In God is Not Great, Christopher Hitchens writes,

We ought to be glad that none of the religious myths has any truth to it, or in it. The Bible may, indeed does, contain a warrant for trafficking in humans, for ethnic cleansing, for slavery, for bride-price, and for indiscriminate massacre.[2]

In The End of Faith, Sam Harris cites Deuteronomy 13 and writes,

One look at the book of Deuteronomy reveals that he has something very specific in mind should your son or daughter return from yoga class advocating the worship of Krishna… While the stoning of children for heresy has fallen out of fashion in our country, you will not hear a moderate Christian or Jew arguing for a ‘symbolic’ reading of passages of this sort.[3]

While few would agree with their rhetoric, many Bible readers are often shocked, when they read through the pages of the Old Testament (OT). In fact, even the most stoic Bible reader will have moments of shock and horror at the atrocities that he finds there. See for yourself:

Selling your daughter into slavery?

(Ex. 21:7 NASB) If a man sells his daughter as a female slave, she is not to go free as the male slaves do.

Can’t cut the grass on Saturday?

(Ex. 35:2 NASB) For six days work may be done, but on the seventh day you shall have a holy day, a sabbath of complete rest to the LORD; whoever does any work on it shall be put to death.

Can’t eat shellfish?

(Lev. 11:10 NASB) But whatever is in the seas and in the rivers that does not have fins and scales among all the teeming life of the water, and among all the living creatures that are in the water, they are detestable things to you.

No beard-trimmers?

(Lev. 19:27-28 NASB) You shall not round off the side-growth of your heads nor harm the edges of your beard. 28 You shall not make any cuts in your body for the dead nor make any tattoo marks on yourselves: I am the LORD.

No pigskin footballs?

(Lev. 11:7-8 NASB) The pig, for though it divides the hoof, thus making a split hoof, it does not chew cud, it is unclean to you. 8 You shall not eat of their flesh nor touch their carcasses; they are unclean to you.

No cotton and polyester blends?

(Lev. 19:19 NASB) You are to keep My statutes. You shall not breed together two kinds of your cattle; you shall not sow your field with two kinds of seed, nor wear a garment upon you of two kinds of material mixed together.

Killing disobedient children?

(Deut. 21:18-21 NASB) If any man has a stubborn and rebellious son who will not obey his father or his mother… Then all the men of his city shall stone him to death; so you shall remove the evil from your midst, and all Israel will hear of it and fear.

Even a quick and cursory reading of the OT will reveal cruel and unusual laws like these and many more just like them. What do we do with these passages?

Tips for Interpreting OT Law

What about an Eye for an Eye?

What about OT Slavery?

What about the Canaanite Genocide?

What about the “Cursings” in the Psalms?

What about Polygamy?

What about Rape?

What about Capital Punishment?

Why the Arbitrary Laws?

[1] Dawkins, Richard. The God Delusion. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2006. 51.

[2] Hitchens, Christopher. God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. New York: Twelve, 2007. 102.

[3] Harris, Sam. The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason. New York: W.W. Norton &, 2005. 18.