This post is a book review, and not intended to be an in-depth discussion of the issues in question. [See these previous posts: Polygamy, incest and gang rape in the Bible? – and – Understanding weird or disturbing Old Testament laws for some commentary.]
In the photo, you can see the title and author of this book by IVP, 2011. I have a copy to give away which is in very good/nearly new condition. Please leave a comment that you would like to be considered for receiving it. USA only.
I definitely give this book a good review and recommend it to you. It is not an in-depth book for the scholarly, but that doesn’t mean it is superficial. It tackles troubling Old Testament passage. While the author is a professor at a seminary, he has a down-to-earth writing style that makes the book accessible to your everyday Christian.
An excellent point in the first chapter is that Christians can’t just ignore the troubling passages! People like Richard Dawkins (the hostile atheist) love to bring them up, and Christians can develop doubts or concerns about these passages too. I liked this thought from the book:
“One of easiest ways to misrepresent Scripture is to just ignore problematic texts. Because Bible teachers so frequently avoid certain texts when writers like Dawkins discuss them, it can seem that atheists are reading the Bible more carefully than people who view it as the Word of God.” (page 17)
Each chapter of the book addresses a seeming contradiction about God in the Old Testament (although the New Testament is touched on as well). The chapters include: Angry or Loving? Sexist or Affirming? Racist or Hospitable? Violent or Peaceful? and several more. I was particularly interested in the issue of the Canaanite genocide which was touched on in the racism chapter, and covered more fully in the violence chapter. The author did a good job offering some possible explanations within the limits of a book with only a chapter on each issue.
I thought his general advice on the passages where God gets angry could apply to other issues too:
“Fear of tough texts won’t help…The only way to understand them is to read, study, discuss and teach them…If you are troubled by passages in the Old Testament in which Yahweh got angry, here are 3 pieces of advice. First, ask why Yahweh got angry. Be open to finding a legitimate reason….Second, read the whole context….Third, have reasonable expectations. You won’t be able to resolve all the problems. But some work will help you understand these passages better and save you embarrassment over your lack of biblical knowledge and over the behavior of God.” (pages 41-42)
The author, I must emphasize, doesn’t just speak generally but specifically refers to the troubling passages.
I’ll close with this excerpt regarding certain harsh punishments (death!) for non-capital offenses in the OT law. It was a different time and place and that must be taken into consideration.
“It is first necessary to point out that Israel’s justice system was very different from our own. We can’t naively assume that their system was similar to our overly complicated matrix of jails, prisons, lawyers, trials, appeals, and levels of local, state, district and national courts. In ancient Israel, a city was lucky to have a judge (Deut 16:18-20). Justice, therefore, needed to be simple, swift and straightforward. While we might throw a criminal into prison to serve time, that wasn’t an option in Israel particularly during their wilderness wanderings when their laws were given….Even with this acknowledgement, Israel’s laws can still seem draconian.” (page 104)
The author goes on to point out that some of the harsh punishments were directed towards crimes that targeted the weaker members of society, and this can also help bring context.
Each chapter offers discussion questions at the back of the book, for your own thoughtful consideration or for reading this book with a group.
Laura, I’d love a shot at receiving the giveaway copy. Thanks, and thanks for the review.
Laura Droege said:
Those tough texts in the OT have often baffled me. The portrayal of violence isn’t the issue for me; it’s the laws and punishments. (The ones about a young woman being raped and having to marry her rapist are the most problematic for me.) I appreciate his point about the need for swift justice; I have never thought about that practical aspect. I guess the Israelites couldn’t just create a portable jail tent, right?
Hey Laura, he actually specifically addresses the raped woman having to marry her rapist in the book. His chapter on sexism was exceptional I thought. I glossed over it in my review – Since egalitarian type issues are a frequent topic of my blog, I didn’t want to make it the main focus of the review. I think I will plan a post where I share some of his thoughts about the treatment of women – and I’ll be sure to share his thoughts about a woman marrying her rapist. While not a slam-dunk, he gave me a perspective I’d not quite considered before.
Laura Droege said:
Oh, good. I’m glad he covers that subject!
I’m planning a post for next week on the rape laws.
Laura Droege said:
I look forward to reading it.
Jamie Carter said:
As I understand it, the sexual ethic of the Old Testament is very much in favor of men. In general, they’re the ones that have the economic power in that world to buy and sell in their own right. Whatever property they have at the time that they die is separated so that the firstborn son gets a double portion and the other sons equally split what’s left. I think there was some provision for the wife, but daughters pretty much got nothing. These rules were in place so that the men could be reasonably certain that whatever children the woman had were by him. Since their society was patriarchal, men were first class citizens and women were second class citizens. It was a punishment for the rapist to have to provide for the girl for the rest of his life because he was prohibited from divorcing her. This kept her from becoming a prostitute. Was it ideal? Certainly not! It’s just the way it was thousands of years ago.
Thanks for contributing Jamie! I particularly like your concluding thoughts: “Was it ideal? Certainly not! It’s just the way it was thousands of years ago.”
I’d like to be considered to receive the book.
As you know, the moral problems in the Bible were one of the things that ultimately led me away from Christianity. While I probably wouldn’t agree with Lamb’s perspective, I at least appreciate his calls for Christians to be more informed about those passages.
You know, one thing that’s always bothered me about the “different place and time” argument is that I don’t understand how it could have gotten so bad. Should it be the case that our justice system today is better than the one under Israel’s theocracy? Sometimes people talk like the OT laws were just making the best of a bad situation — like God had to “meet them where they were” and slowly bring them to a better place. But how did they get so bad to begin with if God was right there from the beginning? Either he came along, finding them in a sorry state, or he was there from the beginning. Or, of course, it could just be a story.
Hi Nate, we have already discussed this before and I’ve offered some commentary. I believe mankind is sinful, so we have a tendency to become worse left to our own devices. I think we can see times throughout history when things were better and things were worse… for various reasons. The Gospel can bring transformation to people and societies, but this is still a sinful and broken world awaiting the final redemption. And it is easy to overlook the injustices of our own times. Even in our so called enlightened and modern age, look at the horrors of the 20th (and 19th) century…mass genocide in many countries, wars, slavery, etc.
Yes, you’re right. There have certainly been some terrible tragedies and injustices in modern times. Though much of that seems tied to technology rather than a pervasive attitude throughout mankind. And I guess the biggest difference is that most people wouldn’t argue that those horrors weren’t in accordance with God’s commands.
Could be. But God hasn’t had a noticeable hand in people’s affairs for 2000 years, yet the morality of those living under the Old Testament seems inferior to that of today. The other problem is that your explanation would indicate God was absent before the Old Law and people were left to figure things out for themselves. If that’s the case, then it seems problematic to judge them so harshly when he wasn’t around to correct them. That’s why when we see ill-behaved children who have neglectful parents, we blame the parents rather than the children.
To me, it just seems really difficult to maintain that the OT is completely inspired in the face of these moral issues. I think that’s why a number of Christians today (like Peter Enns) lean toward a position that some of the OT is strictly man-made. That some of the things in it are attributed to God incorrectly. Is that something you view as a possibility, or do you see major problems with it?
Just a brief reply Nate. “Though much of that seems tied to technology rather than a pervasive attitude throughout mankind.” But humans are behind technology and decide how to use it.
“your explanation would indicate God was absent before the Old Law.” I don’t see my explanation as inferring that. And I do believe God was at work before the Law, working in ways that were less overt as His plan began to unfold through the call of Abraham but before that as well.
I can appreciate certain points that Peter Enns makes (having only read about his views second hand, and not directly read his books) but he takes things too far in my opinion. I think Enns sometimes creates false dichotomies or either/or options when there are other ways to see things. I think the OT is completely inspired, yet it is presented by humans who had certain reasons and methods of portraying events. But this is another topic in and of itself which I can perhaps blog about in the future. I actually have a book in my “to read” pile related to this…
Thanks for stopping in Nate.
Thanks for the reply Laura. I won’t take much more of your time, but there were just one or two additional things I wanted to dig into.
Very true — it’s just that one individual can wreak far more destruction with technology than they used to. So whereas 3000 years ago, violence accounted for many deaths because more people were violent, they account for deaths now because fewer people are violent, but those who are have access to dangerous technology. So I till think the curve of morality is sloping up.
This is the part that really interests me. If God was at work with people before the Old Law was given, why did mankind become so depraved that God sent the flood (if you believe that was real)? And how did they get bad enough that God couldn’t teach them that slavery was wrong, teach them about racial and gender equality, and find solutions to problems that didn’t require genocide?
Again, Christians often speak as though God had to work the long game with humanity. That whole “meet them where they were” idea. But if humanity can be pulled out of that slowly, then it shows it’s not our innate nature to be that depraved. It must have taken time for mankind to get that bad. To me, this implies neglect.
Sorry for not making this comment shorter, but let me give one more illustration. If children have a supporting and guiding influence right from the beginning, they almost never become deviants. It’s only when they’ve been neglected and mistreated for years that they become extremely problematic and require people to “meet them where they are.” So if God was present with mankind from the very beginning, how could humanity have gone so far astray?
i hope all that makes sense… I’m super tired! 🙂
Hi Nate. I do believe I get what you are saying. I’m not sure how to best reply.
Regarding the curve of morality going up. Couldn’t that be attributed to God’s “common grace” in this world? But I still have doubts about things generally being better now. It seems really easy to be blind to the sins or injustices of our own time. For example, in 18th/19th century England and America, many failed to see the slave trade and enslavement of blacks for what it was. What are we blind too? What will people 100 or 200 yrs from now look back on, and think “how did those people miss it or allow that??”
I agree that humanity seems less “barbaric” today. Our sins may be more cultured or less obvious, but they are there. I think of abortion. A controversial issue I know. But there have been about 56 million abortions in the USA since Roe vs Wade. What a loss of life which can also be viewed as rather barbaric. Or what about structural injustices seen in our modern ways of doing business and running countries? Etc.
But your other question. “If God was at work with people before the Old Law was given, why did mankind become so depraved that God sent the flood (if you believe that was real)?” Your illustration is a good one. God seems like a neglectful parent. Why did he let things get so bad?
First, “become so depraved.” After the Fall, humanity was depraved. Murder happened pretty quickly. Yes, Scripture indicates things deteriorated, but that core depravity was there already.
But to the bigger point. I’m not sure how to best answer. I do believe that God was at work in the world before the Law. We can see hints and more straightforward examples of it in Genesis. Such as the godly line of Seth that followed after God. Light was there. I think this comes down to that tension between God’s sovereignty and humanity’s free will. God is often patient and merciful and gives people time. Some people respond, others do not. The other option is that God could have stepped in in a stronger and more overt way – not been neglectful as you word it. But is that what we really want? A God who forces himself upon us? Then instead of complaining about God’s neglect, we’d be complaining about God being a dictator and our lack of freedom to choose.
I hope I’m not just evading your real questions. But that is what I can offer in reply. I think we can all be guilty of trying to put God in a box. Why didn’t God do this or that? But God is God, and we are not. We will not be able to understand everything about God and his work in this world. If we could figure it all out, I don’t think that would be much of a God worth worshiping.
As we are in the Christmas season, I am reminded of how God stepped into this world in such a tangible and concrete way. God became human. This changed the course of history. Many believed, but many did not – then and today.
Nate, I think to a certain extent we are debating around in circles. Each of us sees things from a different perspective. We each begin with different assumptions, and that influences our arguments and thoughts.
Thanks for the dialogue.
Yes, you’re definitely right about us coming at this from two different directions. That does make it hard. And for what it’s worth, I don’t really think there are answers to many of these questions.
I think your point about cultural blind-spots and the other moral failings that we still have in today’s society is spot-on. We are definitely far from perfect. I just view western civilization’s efforts at promoting equality and trying to protect the most vulnerable as a net positive, though there are setbacks. It seems like we’re beginning to see the innate value in every person much better than we used to.
As to man’s depravity, I know a number of Christian sects claim that it set in at the Fall, but this seems to bring up some additional questions. If it set in so quickly, does that indicate it’s part of man’s nature? And if it’s part of our nature, isn’t God more culpable there than we are? We didn’t create ourselves, after all. Also, if it’s part of our nature, why do we seem to be improving in the areas I mentioned above?
If it’s not part of our nature, but was just a result of Adam and Eve eating from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, what does this say about knowledge and how it factors into our relationship with God? Why would suddenly understanding the difference between right and wrong cause someone to choose wrong? Many times, it seems to work in the opposite way. Often, once someone becomes aware that one of their practices is harmful to others, or breaks some law, they try to stop doing it.
I’m not sure that it would work out that way. For one thing, the Bible claims that God did interact with people in that way many times, yet this didn’t force people to serve him. And I don’t think it would limit our freedom to choose at all — it would just make it clearer what our choices really are. Right now, there are those like myself who don’t even believe in this god. So when I don’t serve him, it’s not out of rebellion but out of disbelief. However, if I knew for a fact that he existed, then I might make a completely different choice. And the Christians who believe in some version of Heaven and Hell don’t really believe in freedom of choice anyway. If someone says “you’re free to worship me or not — just know that if you don’t, I’ll kill you,” they’re not giving a choice at all. There’s really just one option. That’s not freedom. Might as well make it transparent, if that’s really the system we’re under.
Ah, but see, this assumes the answer to the question. Instead of asking whether or not this depiction of God is believable, we’re assuming it’s right and chalking up the inconsistencies to our own failures. What if this god isn’t the true God? What if the writers of the Bible didn’t get everything exactly right? When we get some difficult questions, if we short-circuit our investigation by saying that we can’t ask or understand some of these things, then we may be cutting ourselves off from the truth of the situation. I think it’s vital that we ask how much sense this stuff makes.
And if God is real, wouldn’t he want us to keep asking these difficult questions? Especially if he has some kind of reward / punishment at the end? Otherwise, Muslims, Hindus, Wiccans, etc would be completely justified in ignoring any inconsistencies they find in their own religions — the very inconsistencies that might help them leave a false religion for a true one.
Anyway, please know that I’m not asking you to actually provide answers for all these things. Like I said, I’m not sure it’s possible to. These are just things that I think about. Thanks for your patience in letting me talk with you about this stuff! 🙂
Everyone – I have not forgotten about this post and the giveaway. I’ve just gotten consumed with some things recently – holiday and otherwise. I’ll pick a winner in the new year, and respond to anyone I didn’t respond to.
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The book winner is GeoJono! I’ll be contacting you to get your address. Thanks to all who interacted or commented on this post.
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