Full Title: Is the God of the Old Testament a just God?
Orthodox tradition tells us that the Old Testament is the infallible revelation of a supreme and just God. This supreme and just God is said to be the creator of the Human species. We Humans, however, are said to be alienated from God. This alienation supposedly began with the very first Humans, Adam and Eve, who disobeyed God in the Garden of Eden. The Human race was then condemned once again by the Law that God later gave to Moses. Conventional “orthodox” wisdom tells us that we Humans are condemned before God because we are inherently incapable of obeying him, and of keeping his laws. But–so the story goes–because God loves us, he sent his own Son, in the flesh, to be tortured, mutilated, and nailed to a Roman cross, so that God can now finally forgive us…
In my opinion the purpose of this dogma–as recited above–is to lay a massive guilt trip on people. Baptists, Catholics, Jehovah’s Witnesses, etc., etc., all have a version of this guilt trip that they try to lay on people. Its purpose is to inform you that you have offended your Creator, and that the evils of the world are all your fault. Therefore (so the logic goes) you need to accept the blame. On this basis orthodox tradition offers a path to salvation for its guilty converts, where they spend the rest of their lives saying “I’m sorry” to their Creator.
In this article I want to examine the foundation of the judicial standard by which orthodox Christians condemn everyone on behalf of their angry, jealous God. This standard I refer to is the Old Testament; which is the foundation of orthodox Christian theology and ethics. I quite simply question whether there is any viable standard of justice, or a relevant theology thereof, in the Old Testament.
Historically the God and Justice of the Old Testament have always been subjects of speculation and doubt. Among Jews, a notable example can be seen in the Hellenistic Jewish philosopher, Philo Judaeus (25 BC–45 AD). Philo was an example of an educated cosmopolitan Jew who could no longer accept the Bible at what we would call “face value.” Philo believed that it was the wrong approach to read the scriptures literally, and to accept the biblical accounts as literal reports of God’s activities. Philo believed that the true message in the scriptures was not to be found through the straight forward reading, but through allegory. Philo wrote regarding the scriptures “let us then, not be misled by the actual words, but look at the allegorical meaning which lies beneath them” (On Mating, 172). We must note here that the word “allegory” is a Greek term which described the method by which the older Greek philosophers converted the arcane myths of Homer into symbols of lofty philosophical truths. Philo was applying this method to the Bible. (J. Dunn, Unity and Diversity in the NT., pg. 86f. C. Pfeiffer, Between the Testaments, pg. 87f. See also Luc Brisson, How Philosophers Saved Myths: Allegorical Interpretation and Classical Mythology.)
Philo regarded the literal biblical accounts of God as material intended for lesser men who lacked wisdom: “But the Scripture, which at all times advances its conceptions with respect to the deity, in a more reverential and holy tone, and which likewise desires to instruct the life of the foolish, has spoken of God under the likeness of a man…attributing to him, with this view, the possession of a face, and hands, and feet, and of a mouth and voice, and also anger and passion…not indeed using all these expressions with strict truth, but having regard to those who are to learn from it…” (On Dreams, 1:234-237)
As for the supreme Deity himself, Philo wrote in reference to scripture that “the living God is not of a nature to be described, but only to be” (ibid. 1:230).
From the passages quoted above it is obvious that Philo did not regard the Bible as a literal account of the true living God. Philo believed that the biblical God that most Jews believed in was really a lesser god; and which Philo referred to alternately as a second god, or chief angel, or logos (On the Confusion of Tongues, 146; Q&A on Gen., 2:62). This was the form of God as seen by men of lesser moral stature who were incapable of approaching God out of a pure motive, or in a pure spirit (On Abraham, 24:121ff.). Philo even referred this second god as the shadow of God: “But the shadow of God is his logos… And this shadow, and, as it were, model, is the archetype of other things” (Allegorical Interpretation, 3:96).
All of this theosophical art on the part of Philo is evidence of the fact that he could not accept the biblical accounts of theology and justice at face value.
The Old Testament scheme of God and Justice was also questioned by some New Testament writers as well, some of whom were contemporaries of Philo. St. Paul, for example, was unable to affirm consistently that the Law of Moses was given by God as is stated plainly in the Old Testament (Ex. 20:1f. Lev. 26:46f.). Paul wrote instead that the Law was “ordained by angels” (Galatians 3:19). And, in Philippians 3:5-8 Paul explicitly referred to the Law as “rubbish” (in my KJV the word is “dung”). And in Acts 7 St. Stephen likewise states that Moses received the Law from an “angel on Mount Sinai” (Acts 7:38) and that the entire Law was given through the “disposition of angels” (Acts 7:53). Stephen also denied that God asked for the Temple that Solomon built (Acts 7:47-48, cf. 2 Samuel 7:12-13, 1 Kings 5:3-5).
St. Stephen actually denied numerous cardinal points of Judeo-Christian tradition and theology. And in Acts we read that Stephen was prosecuted accordingly by the Jewish religious authorities, who accused him of “uttering blasphemous words against Moses, and against God” (Acts 6:11). He was executed accordingly; and Paul (“Saul”) stood by as the sentence was carried out. This was the same Paul who would later spread similar doctrines among the Greeks.
Other New Testament writers also questioned the theology and justice of the Old Testament. The author of Hebrews states in agreement with Paul and Stephen that the Law of Moses was the “word spoken by angels” (Heb. 2:2). We also learn that the Law was “unprofitable” and made nothing “perfect” (Heb. 7:18-19). And finally the author states “For if the first covenant had been faultless, then should no place have been sought for the second” (Heb. 8:7). The writer here introduces the idea that the Law was at fault; whereas in Psalms 119, we learn that the “Law of the Lord” is without fault. Evidently the theology of Hebrews does not reflect the “orthodox” school. If we read carefully we learn that the Law of Moses, a.k.a. the “Law of the Lord (YHWH)”, is faulty and was spoken by angels – not God.
And then there is the evidence in the Gospels: In Matthew 11:27 Jesus proclaimed that “no man knows the Father but the Son” thereby indicating that Moses had no knowledge of the Father. In Luke 6:35 Jesus made his appeal to the “highest” God, who is “kind to the unthankful and the evil” whereas the God of the Old Testament exercised his judgment, and vented his wrath, against the unthankful and the evil (e.g. Numbers 14). This passage from Luke shows clearly where some NT writers did not see the God and Law of the OT as constituting a just standard by which men and women were to be judged.
And then there is the passage in John 1:17-18, “For the Law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ. No man has seen God at any time” and in John 17:25 where Jesus said “O righteous Father, the world has not known you” (cf. Isaiah 64:4). Here again the cardinal points of orthodox Judeo-Christian theology are rejected, not affirmed (cf. Jn. 9:29).
The later Gnostics and Marcionites were well-known for their rejection of orthodox principles of biblical theology and justice. We need not labor on this point. A concise summary of this position has been placed neatly in the mouth of Simon Magus in his challenge to Peter as found in the Clementine Homilies,
“When I went away yesterday, I promised to return today, and in a discussion show that he who framed the world is not the highest God, but that the highest God is another who alone is good, and who has remained unknown up to this time. … If then he is the Lawgiver, he is just; but if he is just, then he is not good. … Now a lawgiver cannot be both just and good, for these qualities do not harmonize.” (Homily, 18:1)
In the passage above “Simon” admitted that the Lawgiver was just, but not good. In my view this is just another way of saying that the Lawgiver is not really just, let alone good. Now, why exactly some early Christians rejected the God and Law of the OT is a question that historical records tend to obscure. It is easy enough to guess why. The Catholic Fathers refused to report the strong side of Gnostic arguments: and the extant Gnostic writings are too few and fragmentary to provide a complete report. From the Catholic side, the best explanation comes from Irenaeus in his complaint about Marcion: (Against Heresies, 1.27.2.)
“[Marcion] advanced the most daring blasphemy against Him who is proclaimed as God by the Law and the Prophets, declaring him to be the author of evils (cf. Isaiah 45:7), to take delight in war (Deut. 2:24ff.), to be infirm of purpose (1 Sam. 1:35), and even to be contrary to himself (cf. Psalms 40:6, Numbers 28).”
I inserted the scriptural citations above so that my readers can get an idea of the theological questions that Marcion must have had, and which complicated his efforts to reconcile the Old and New Testaments in accordance with his idea of an ethically consistent theology.
Extant Gnostic literature is less explicit in this regard, in terms of a concise summary. The bias against traditional Old Testament theology is a forgone conclusion in the extant texts. One of the few really good examples of commentary can be seen in the Nag Hammadi text “The Testimony of Truth.” Here the author offers a commentary on the Garden of Even story: (Cf. J. Robinson, Nag Hammadi Library, HarperCollins: 1990, pg. 455. NHC: IX, 3.47f.)
“But what sort of God is this? First he maliciously kept Adam from eating of the Tree of Knowledge. And secondly, he asked, ‘Adam where are you?’ If God had foreknowledge would he not know from the beginning? And afterward he said, ‘Let us cast him out from this place, lest he eat from the tree of life and live forever.’ Surely he has shown himself to be a malicious grudger. And what kind of God is this? For great is the blindness of those who read, and they did not know him.”
This ancient writer recognized the injustice of the Creator as reported in the Law. He realized that this was not the supreme Being, and he wondered at the blindness of so many people who read these OT passages and failed to recognize this. Indeed this writer has only scratched the surface of the issues involved.
Right now I want to take my readers on an excursion through the Old Testament. And on our little trip we will look at examples in the scriptures where “God” is not really the lofty and just being that he is made out to be. (The material below is based in part on the research in Thomas Paine’s book The Age of Reason.)
Let us begin with the passage from Isaiah 45:5-7. This passage is unique in that it describes what I consider to be the overall ethical nature of the Old Testament. The highlights of this passage are as follows:
“I am the Lord, …there is no God besides me: (6) …I am the Lord and there is none else. (7) I form the light and create darkness: I make peace and create evil: I, the Lord, do all these things.” (cf. Mt. 7:17-18, James 1:13-18)
This passage is meaningful and relevant to the two popular conceptions “orthodox” Christians hold regarding the Old Testament: The first being that the Old Testament is the revelation of a supreme God; and second, that the God of the Old Testament is just and good. (Henceforth, the term “Old Testament” will be abbreviated as “OT” where appropriate.)
I believe it is a mistake to assume that the Old Testament is the revelation of a supreme God: The reason being that the writers of the OT have immature ideas about the nature of God. In the OT we see God portrayed as displaying a nature, and behaving in ways, that are inconsistent with the ways a supreme God would behave – which would certainly be the opposite of the way that we sinful Humans behave. Yet what we witness in the OT is a God who behaves like a petty tyrant who has fits of rage – which is a weakness. Thus we have this implausible scenario in which the supreme God acts like a fool.
Moreover, we see this supreme God depicted as the creator of a race of beings that it cannot govern: And then, predictably, in classic Human form, this God responds to its own lack of power by getting angry and destroying its own creation (Gn. 6-7).
Another example is where this God is depicted as using one group of people, the Israelites, to exterminate another group of people including their defenseless children. And I want to emphasize the level of brutality implied in these biblical scenarios. The Lord’s followers, in obedience to their God, are slaughtering little children with their swords. And the Israelites are specifically commanded to commit these atrocities in a number of OT passages (see below). There is no logical reason why I should believe that these OT scenarios are evidence of a supreme and righteous God or a higher spirituality. And if I try to read the Old Testament in accordance with such a prejudice then I find that what I am reading is unreal and contradictory in terms of the basic moral principles that Christians expect everyone to abide by in a civilized world.
Another example of the dubious justice of the OT may be seen in Genesis 3. This is where Adam and Eve disobey the commandment by the Lord not to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. In reaction to this infraction, the Lord spoke these enigmatic words: “Behold, the man is become as one of us, knowing good and evil.” (Gen. 3:22)
It was after the utterance of these enigmatic words that Adam and Eve were driven away into the hostile wilderness in order to make sure that they would die. But why should the Lord be concerned about Adam becoming just like him? Perhaps the Creator feared that with the knowledge of good and evil Adam and Eve would recognize that the Creator was something other than good. This is a most plausible theory as to why this God would not want his creation to know good from evil. This is the type of ignorance that would be fostered by a king or tyrant. A tyrant would not want his subjects scrutinizing or making value judgments regarding the tyrant’s activities or morality. The author of Genesis 2-3 appears to have been thinking along these lines when he wrote this fable. This man did not worship a just God: he worshipped a tyrant, and he believed that the tyrant alone has the right to decide what is good and evil – just like a petty king or war-lord.
To me there is no question that the author of Genesis 2-3 is a man of suspect character. Do we really want this man shaping our conceptions of who and what the supreme Being is like? And do we want this man’s base ideas serving as a standard by which we judge ourselves and our children?
Another question is why should Adam and Eve be held accountable for an act of disobedience if they had no prior knowledge and understanding that an act of disobedience is evil? In other words: how can Adam and Eve be held responsible for their errors if they had no knowledge of good and evil when they committed their infraction? Is this really an act of justice? Any reasonable and moral person would have to answer no. To accept the Bible here as a “just” standard we must discard all of our practical notions of right and wrong, which we would expect from our peers, and from the courts.
The irony of the Eden story overall is that Adam and Eve were not condemned by their Creator because they were wickedly depraved: They were condemned because they had, somehow, through blindness and ignorance, become just like the Creator “knowing good and evil.” The Creator’s judgment in Eden, and the repercussions for Humanity, are not evidence of either Goodness or Justice. At this point I recall again the good words of John the Baptist as reported in the Gospel of John: “For the Law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ. No man has seen God at any time.” (Jn. 1:17-18) And again there are the good words of Jesus: “O righteous Father, the world has not known you.” (Jn. 17:25)
My readers can take comfort in the fact that not all early Christians looked at things the way so-called “orthodox” Christians do today. St. Paul himself regarded the work of Moses as running parallel with the wicked “god of this world” (2 Cor. 3:12-4:4).
Now some of you may be inclined to reject the analysis that I have just set forth. And you may be of the opinion that my statements are off-base or baseless. But I will stand by what I have written because if I were to believe that the Old Testament is revelation of a supreme God, and that our sinful world is likewise the work of a supreme God, then I would be forced into calling good “evil” and evil “good.” And I will now begin to document from the Old Testament scriptures themselves that the OT is not revelation of a supreme and good God. And I will demonstrate that if we choose to think otherwise, then we will be forced to call good “evil” and evil “good.” (cf. Hebrews 5:14ff.)
Let us begin with the Lord’s commandment in Exodus 20:13, which says:
“Thou shalt not murder.”
The enigma of this commandment will soon reveal itself.
In Deuteronomy 7 the Lord/God commands his followers to attack the various nations of Canaan and to show them no mercy. And the Lord states that he has chosen Israel for this task because he “loved” them. But if they failed to obey, the Lord warns that his anger will be kindled and that he will destroy them “suddenly.”
Let us note here right away that the Lord’s words in Dt. 7:4-10 are actually a bizarre combination of love confessions and death threats. If you were talking to someone, whether a friend or stranger, and they started talking to you this way, would you trust them? – or would you think they were deranged, and dangerous? What kind relationship is it where you know that the person who claims to love you will suddenly kill you if you fail to obey them – is this truly a relationship of love and trust? Furthermore, would you want someone like this in your government, or in the White House? (Even Bush isn’t this bad.)
Needless to say, the Israelites obeyed their lover…
In Deuteronomy 2:24-37, the Lord/God commands the Israelites to invade the Amorite kingdom of Heshbon (cf. Nu. 21:21-25). Moses initiates the campaign by sending messengers to King Sihon with the ruse (i.e. a lie) that the Israelites have peaceful intentions; and that they only want permission to pass through his kingdom and to purchase supplies. Meanwhile the Lord intervenes to deliberately harden the heart of King Sihon so that the two nations are manipulated into a confrontation. In the ensuing violence Heshbon is destroyed; and all of the inhabitants of this kingdom are murdered; including all children – butchered.
The same basic scenario of mayhem and murder is repeated again in Deuteronomy 3 where the Israelites invade the kingdom of Bashan. In verse 6 we learn that the obedient followers of the Lord, “…utterly destroyed them, as we did unto Sihon, King of Heshbon, utterly destroying the men, women and children of every city.”
There is no demonstration of a higher spirituality here. As Thomas Paine once observed, this is just plain old thuggery and bloody murder.
In Numbers 31 we read where the Lord commands the Israelites to attack and destroy the Midianites. The Israelites win the battle and all the soldiers of Midian are killed – but the women and children are spared. Moses becomes angry about this and commands that all the male children and all the females who are not virgins be executed. Now, I am trying to imagine this scene: I see heavily armed soldiers, with swords, clubs or axes, walking among hundreds of defenseless women and children, and checking between the legs of these frightened women and girls, and slaying them if their genitals do not look right. And I can see terrified little boys without hope awaiting their turn; and watching as their mother’s throats are cut, or their heads bashed in with clubs.
Another interesting detail connected with this gross atrocity, in Numbers 31, is that the Midianites were the people who originally took Moses in from the desert when he fled from Egypt (Ex. 2:15-22). We can see how Moses paid them back.
Another example of the systematic murder and mayhem connected with the God of the Old Testament is found in Joshua 6. This passage contains the conclusion of the siege of Jericho where the Lord hands over the city by intervening and knocking down the walls. The conclusion to this episode is the same as in the passages above: Joshua 6:21,
“And they utterly destroyed all that was in the city, both man and woman, young and old, and ox, and sheep, and ass, with the edge of the sword.”
In this scenario we also have the detail of Rahab the prostitute who betrays the city. No prostitute or whore was ever tolerated among the Israelites. And yet when a prostitute or whore is useful to them in their quest to murder others and steal their land, she is rewarded. And the lesson in this is that the end justifies the means: If prostitutes and traitors are of use in bringing about the kingdom of God, and the ruthless destruction of others, then this is “good.” This is how the Lord and his people interact with those who are different, or are in the way. In light of this I quote Isaiah 45:7 again:
“I form the light, and create darkness; I make peace and create evil…”
The moral questions of what is right or wrong, or just and unjust, or merciful and unmerciful are irrelevant issues in regard to the goals that the Creator seeks to achieve. This point is also relevant to the issue of Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the garden: If Humans are overly aware of what is right and wrong, or good and evil, then they are not of use to their Creator – but are a threat: because the OT God is not concerned about what is right or wrong: This God’s only real concern is his lack of power over the affairs of men. This pattern is in turn indicative of the fact that the men writing about this God are really just channeling their own personal frustrations into their theology (read: propaganda).
The theology and justice of the Old Testament are defined by the theme of a quest for power by people who lack power. And it is “God’s” quest for power, via the Israelites, that defines the type of spirituality, morality and ethics that we read about in the Old Testament. An example is the Ten Commandments, which contain common sense wisdom such as: Thou shalt not murder, or Thou shalt not commit adultery, or steal, or covet thy neighbor’s property, etc. The problem is that these commandments of wisdom were not given to Humanity as universals; but were handed down as a bogus deception to divide Jew from gentile. Worded another way: The Lord did not give the wisdom of the Ten Commandments for the purpose of enlightening Humanity. To the contrary, these commandments were given as a code of ethics in order to strengthen the Hebrews in their preparations to destroy their targeted neighbors, steal their land, and establish the so-called “Kingdom of God.”
That overall agenda was incorporated in the entirety of the Law of Moses, which contains over 600 commandments and ordinances. And that overall agenda is the reason that we find the Law devalued in the Gospel According to John and in Paul’s letters (i.e. Phil. 3:5-8, etc.). It’s not that Paul or John were actually against the moral wisdom of the Ten Commandments. The problem is the overall agenda which those commandments are used to validate. And this is why we learn from John the Baptist that the Law came through Moses, but the Truth came through Christ. Otherwise, we can look throughout the Old Testament, and we can find all kinds of flowery rhetoric about justice, goodness, integrity, fidelity, etc. But is this rhetoric ever really put into practice by the Lord, or his anointed Kings, or the Israelites themselves? – No. There are no moral absolutes at work in the Old Testament.
The ethics of the OT revolve around the issue of Power and total and unquestioning obedience to Power. And therefore, consequently, all morality is in fact relative to the one issue of Power. And it is within the context of that relativity that we find good and evil being intermingled in the worship of the God of the Old Testament. And this reality brings us back to the reason that the Law of Moses, and the Lawgiver, are devalued in certain NT passages which I have cited above. Furthermore, we must acknowledge that the simple worship of Power is not the same as the worship of God in Spirit and in Truth. The worship of Power is a form of idolatry, and that is the reason why we see the denial that Moses saw God in certain passages of the New Testament (e.g. Mt. 11:27, Jn. 1:17-18, 17:25, 9:29, Gal. 3:19, 2 Cor. 3:12-15).
For me personally there is no doubt that the real issue at stake in the Old Testament has nothing to do with what is right or wrong – the real issue is the acquisition of Power by the Israelites and their priesthood. They portrayed the nature of their God accordingly. In contrast with the OT, I believe that the primary concern of the true God regarding Humanity is that we Humans have a moral compass; that we are able to discern good from evil and to make our judgments accordingly. This is truly what makes us better people: and this is the true benefit of having a true gnosis of God.
Whether or not this world was created by a supreme Being is really not the issue here. The simple point I’m trying to make is that the Law of Moses, and the history of Israel, and its ethics, and its theology, are all the expression of an historic people who projected their personal problems and national woes into their conceptions of God. It is the height of foolishness for people to take these writings and erect these as a record of God and a higher judicial standard. Even the New Testament writers had their doubts about the Old Testament; and I have presented some examples above. And indeed, many more articles will be needed in order to bring all of these passages out that reflect on the issue.
I would like to conclude with one such example from the Epistle of 1 John 4:12,
“No man has seen God at any time. If we love one another, God dwells in us; and his love is perfected in us.”
Let us also note these words attributed to Jesus in Matthew 5:8.
“Blessed are the pure in heart; for they shall see God.”
One of the sublime points implicit in these passages is that Moses never really saw God. The most important implications of these statements for us is this: The only way we can really know if “God dwells in us” and that we are “pure in heart” is if we look we look within ourselves. This is a question of maturity and self knowledge. This fundamental truth is affirmed by the teachings of Jesus in the Gospel of Thomas: “When you know yourselves…you will realize that it is you who are the children of the living Father.” Amen! –jw
By James M. West. Copyright © 2002, 2007. Revised August 21, 2012.
All Rights Reserved.