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Apologetic Issues in the Old Testament, Part 1

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July 15, 2013 Tags: Biblical Authority, Biblical Interpretation
Apologetic Issues in the Old Testament, Part 1

Today's entry was written by Richard Hess. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of BioLogos. You can read more about what we believe here.

Note: Today’s entry on the BioLogos Forum, by Old Testament scholar Richard S. Hess, was first published as an appendix to (Downers Grove: IVP Academic; Nottingham: Apollos, 2011). Hess begins with a consideration of some of the chief issues addressed more popularly in recent pro-atheist books. He then discusses arguments made by the so-called “minimalists” and criticisms of the historical witness of the Bible. Finally, Hess discusses perhaps the most important apologetic issue in the Old Testament, that of Deuteronomy, Joshua and divinely ordained genocide.

An apologetics addendum on matters relating to the Old Testament can include a great variety of items. Guided by the author of this volume and my own thoughts as to what may be of most value, I have chosen to focus on three items that might assist us in appreciating some of the major apologetics issues for this era. I will begin with a consideration of some of the chief issues addressed more popularly in recent pro-atheist books. I will then consider the so-called minimalists and criticisms of the historical witness of the Bible. Finally, I will look at perhaps the most important apologetic issue in the Old Testament, that of Deuteronomy, Joshua and divinely ordained genocide.1

New Atheists and the Old Testament

First, I would like to deal with a few of the specific charges made by the “new atheists.” Space does not permit me to examine the details of every issue that is discussed. So I will attempt to focus on some of the main charges in three well-known books by authors also famous for taking this position: Sam Harris, The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason; Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion; and Christopher Hitchens, God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything.2

Harris draws in references to the Old Testament here and there to sup- port his opinion. A favorite text is Deuteronomy 13:6-16, partly quoted on page 18 and partly on page 82. For Harris obedience requires that you stone “your son or daughter” when they “return from yoga class advocating the worship of Krishna.” It also justifies the Inquisition. The latter of course is an obvious error by Harris. It may have been used to justify the Inquisition, but that does not mean it was interpreted correctly. In fact, to apply this text to a young participant in yoga is misleading. First, the text uses a verb for “entice” (Hebrew root swt) that explicitly refers to those who are successful in leading others to do something ( Judges 1:14), often contrary to God’s will (as in Jezebel’s leadership of Ahab [1 Kings 21:25]). Second, the statements attributed to those condemned to die are commands (first person cohortatives), “We must worship other gods.” Third, the issue here is not one of personal belief, but explicitly one attempting to lead the community away from its ancestral faith. Fourth, all this ignores the ancient context of this legislation. Deuteronomy is presented as an ideal set of laws and punishments in an ideal theocracy where the nation follows God. This is not unique. The legal collection of Hammurabi, hundreds of years earlier, functioned in a similar manner. It was an ideal set of laws designed to demonstrate the justice and righteousness of the king. Despite thousands of Old Babylonian texts, including court decisions, we have virtually no certain example in which this legal collection was appealed to in order to adjudicate a specific case. The same is virtually true of Deuteronomy. In fact, if we were to read the history of Israel in the Old Testament the picture is not that of a people fearfully observing this law lest they face death at the hands of their own family. The reality as presented is just the opposite. In every generation huge numbers of the people turn away from God with impunity. In fact, the era of Ahab and Jezebel is one of the few where their assassinations at the hands of Jehu are attributed in part to their sin. Yet even here the later prophet Hosea promises divine punishment on the dynasty of Jehu for the excessive brutality of Jehu’s massacre of the Baal worshipers (Hosea 1:4). Mercy triumphs over judgment, as it does so often in the Old Testament. Thus the most severe of commands may be set forth at one place, but God’s mercy enables Israel to accomplish what they could not or would not. At one point, in Deuteronomy 10:16, God commands Israel to circumcise their hearts. But later God promises that he will circumcise the hearts of the people (Deuteronomy 30:6). Yes, we can cherry pick harsh texts in the Bible. However, in the larger context the picture is different. God is characterized by mercy rather than judgment (Hosea 6:6; Matthew 9:13; 12:7).

The first problem that Richard Dawkins addresses in his chapter on the Old Testament concerns Noah’s generation. The morality of Genesis 6–9 is “appalling” because God takes “a dim view of humans,” so he drowns them with their children and innocent animals. A few points escape Mr. Dawkins’ thirty-six-word summary at the top of page 238. First, according to the text God created all these people and thus holds an implicit right over their existence. Second, the rationale for the flood was the violence that filled the earth so that, with the exception of Noah, all the people devoted themselves to violence (Genesis 6:11-13). Unlike the comparable ancient Near Eastern flood account that Dawkins cites (Utnapishtim of the seventh-century b.c. Epic of Gilgamesh), the flood did not come because the gods were fed up with the noise of so many people (i.e., a means of population control). Rather, the Bible ascribes a moral cause, uncontrolled murder. This, of course, is the reason for the prohibition of murder immediately after the flood in Genesis 9:6. Third, in a text very conscious of chronology and sequence, it is important to note that Noah was five hundred years old (Genesis 5:32) at the point when the events leading up to the flood begin, and six hundred years old (Genesis 7:6) when the flood itself began. This would allow up to one hundred years during which Noah was building the ark and preparing for the flood. The story thus presents a century of mercy, during which everyone who cared to learn of the coming judgment, symbolized by the ark that was under construction, could learn of it from Noah. Unlike the Utnapishtim story, there was no command to keep this a secret. That no one, aside from Noah’s family, turned from their murderous violence (cf. Genesis 4:23-24) itself testifies to the wickedness of that generation and their wanton destruction of what God had created. Finally, God could not have ended that generation and its murderous inclinations without destroying it entirely. Note that the text never states that children were killed. This is not to deny that the picture evoked would have included whole families. Rather, it stresses the terrible consequences of murder and violence in the eyes of God. Neither the murders by Cain or Lamech ended in their own deaths. But this merciful act of God only led to greater and greater violence. Perhaps Mr. Dawkins has a better solution to end this growing cycle of bloodletting. The author of Genesis did not. That world ended and a new one was created, beginning with the righteousness of Noah.

Dawkins then turns his attention to Lot and his daughters in Genesis 19. The focus of Dawkins seems to be that of Lot offering his daughters to the angry mob who wished to rape the “men” who had come to warn Lot and his family of the impending judgment against their hometown of Sodom. This is paralleled with the terrible Judges 19 story of the gang rape of the Levite’s concubine in Gibeon. Describing this as a “misogynistic ethos,” Dawkins manages both to ignore the purpose of these stories and to violate the basic canons of reading Hebrew narrative. First, the purpose of these stories is not to present the ideals of how women (or men) should be treated in ancient Israel. It is to describe the ultimate in the lack of hospitality in both Sodom and Gibeon. Common morality throughout the ancient world (and in Israel) demanded that anyone visiting a town should be shown courtesy and hospitality. The evil men of both of these towns were not lusty homosexuals but rather those who rejected this tenet of common morality and sought to degrade and abuse visitors. In both cases their utter violation of hospitality brought terrible judgment upon them, their town and (for the incident of Judges 19) their tribe. This selfishness and lack of concern for the vulnerable lies behind Ezekiel 16:49, which identifies Sodom’s sin as “they did not help the poor and needy.” Its main concern was not sexuality any more than these stories were intended as models on how to treat one’s daughters or other female family members. No text in the Bible presents Lot or the Levite as moral ideals. Rather, these texts describe corruption and degeneration on both sides. It is probably for this reason that those who constructed the order of the canon for the Christian Old Testament chose to put Ruth immediately after Judges. The scroll of Ruth describes a beautiful love story of faith in which a Moabitess freely takes on devotion to the God of Israel out of love for her mother-in-law, and through this act comes to fall in love with Boaz of Bethlehem. The presentation here is less about the role of women or men, and more about living in a world where love, peace and family can still exist as values despite the presence of cruelty and violence.

Hitchens begins his attack on the Old Testament with a critique of the Ten Commandments as found in Exodus 20.3 His first attack lies with the warning of Exodus 20:5, where the worship of other gods invites divine punishment “to the third and fourth generation.” For Hitchens this demonstrates the biblical rejection of the “reasonable assumption” that children are not guilty of their parents’ offenses. The text does not make this claim. Actually, the text speaks of “visiting or bringing the sins of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me.” First, note the term hate. In this context of a covenant it refers to disloyalty, and the greatest disloyalty toward God is the abandonment of this deity to worship other gods. Thus, this is not a slight or insignificant offense. In treaty literature, hating someone creates an enemy and provides justification for war against them and for their death. Second, there is a reason for the third and fourth generation, rather than for the first and second or some later set of generations. It defines the length of time that people might expect to live so they could to see their grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Thus the text is suggesting that the effect of someone turning away from God will affect their family for as long as they live. The impact of a person’s faith or lack thereof has a direct impact on his or her own family, and that effect remains throughout a lifetime. This is not the transference of guilt, which the Hebrew text does not claim. It is instead the inevitable impact parents and grandparents have on their families; something Mr. Hitchens does not mention. The following verse contrasts the effect of sin to those in a person’s family while he or she is alive, with the effect of faithfulness and loyalty for “a thousand generations.” There is no end to the positive effect that one’s family can receive for one’s faithfulness. This is clear from the manner in which Abraham was Promised Land, descendants and blessing as he remained faithful to God in test after test (Genesis 12–22).

The next complaint seems to be related to Hitchens’s view that the command for everyone to keep the Sabbath must be the sort of thing that “a Babylonian or Assyrian emperor might have ordered . . . to keep working and only to relax when the absolutist says so.”4 However, there are no Babylonian or Assyrian legal collections (or any other known ancient Near Eastern collection of laws) that envisions a time of rest for anyone, least of all slaves and work animals. The stipulation that this should take place one day in every seven is unknown outside the Bible. No Babylonian or Assyrian ever mandated a period of rest like this. It is unheard of and unique to ancient Israel. That such an amazing mercy for the most vulnerable elements in society should be interpreted as characteristic power madness by an ancient Near Eastern dictators demonstrates just how far Hitchens has wandered from a correct understanding of the culture the Bible was writ- ten in. Because of this ignorance the contextual significance of the Sabbath law is turned upside down and ascribed the opposite of the intended meaning, which would have been clear to any slave in the ancient world.

I could go on and examine each of the charges with a point by point refutation. However, the limitations of space do not permit this. Instead, I have chosen three well-known books and examined the first one or two charges against the Old Testament in each. Repeatedly, misunderstandings of the language of the Old Testament and of the culture of the ancient world lead to absurd allegations that fit within a predetermined frame- work attacking Israel’s God as he is portrayed in the Old Testament. Careful study of the text and its context consistently reveal the opposite of the intended allegations. I will now turn to three major issues of the Old Testament: minimalism and genocide.


1. There are, of course, other important apologetics issues; for example, the development of “monotheism” in ancient Israel. Was it early in Israel’s history or something appearing only later in the seventh century b.c.? For more of this see Richard S. Hess, Israelite Religions: An Archaeological and Biblical Survey (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2007).

2. Sam Harris, The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason (New York: W. W. Norton, 2004). Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (Boston: Houghton Miff lin, 2006). Christopher Hitchens, God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (New York: Twelve, 2007).

3. Hitchens, God Is Not Great, pp. 98-100.

4. Ibid., p. 99.


Dr. Richard S. Hess is Earl S. Kalland Professor of Old Testament and Semitic Languages at Denver Seminary. He is also the editor of the Denver Journal, the Seminary’s online theological review journal, and the Bulletin for Biblical Research. Dr. Hess earned a PhD from Hebrew Union College, an MDiv and a ThM from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, and a BA from Wheaton College. He is a member of the Committee on Bible Translation for the New International Version and serves as Old Testament and archaeology editor for the forthcoming NIV Study Bible. Dr. Hess has also worked for the New American Bible, the Holman Standard Christian Bible, the English Standard Version, and The Common English Bible translations of the Old Testament. His current research projects include commentaries on the books of Genesis and Kings, an Introduction to the Old Testament, Hebrew grammar, and the study of ancient Near Eastern texts related to the Old Testament.

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Jon Garvey - #81870

July 15th 2013

I have to say it’s refreshing to read a straight and detailed justification of the biblical text, even though the loink with science and creation ins’t that clear to me (unless it’s via the circuitous route of the New Atheists), who vent their spleen against theistic evolution and the Bible).

Another guy to read, in more detail, on the ethics of Old Testament Law, and especially Deuteronomy, is OT scholar Chris Wright, who’s a good guy as well as a good scholar. His concern is less to justify OT ethics as to show what they have to teach us in our own context.

Both these writers avoid the tiresome Gnu habit of beginning and ending with “primitive bronze age peasants” prejudice rather than wide scholarship.

Nick Gotts - #81875

July 16th 2013

First, according to the text God created all these people and thus holds an implicit right over their existence.

No, creating something does not give you “an implicit right over their existence”.


Second, the rationale for the flood was the violence that filled the earth so that, with the exception of Noah, all the people devoted themselves to violence

Right, all those violent babies just had to be drowned, didn’t they? Just like Yahweh had to slaughter the firstborn of all the Egyptians (after first “hardening Pharoah’s heart” so he could show off). Just like he had to order Joshua to commit genocide on multiple occasions.

Really, I’ve seldom come across such a combination of the vile and the feeble as this post.

Jerry Wickey - #81884

July 16th 2013

Have you thought about these things carefully?  Have you considered the events described in a modern context?  Aren’t the modern US wars in the MidEast killing children?  Should we be there?  How about WWII?  Should we have fought that war at all?  The tragic death of many children are a result of the Allies choice to fight against Hitler.

If we put our involvment in WWII in Biblical terms.  Our war effort could be written like this.  “We decided to kill many innocent to rid the world of Hitler.”  I find the honesty of the Bible comforting.  Its language is frank and honest.  Perhaps you shouldn’t get so hung up on the phraseolgy of anceint language so much and thing about the world around us.  

Here is a linguistic riddle for you.  “We all live in the same world.  What is true for me is also true for you.”  You won’t be able to tell me why that is a false statement without getting hung up in the limitations of implied conditions.  If you don’t understand how these things work, please refrain from commenting.  If on the other hand you have honest quesitons rather than merely snide remarks, you are welcome to ask them here.

Nick Gotts - #81886

July 16th 2013

First, no the USA should not be murdering children in the Middle East.

Second, there’s rather a big difference between our position with respect to just wars such as WWII and Jahweh’s, in that he’s supposed to be omnipotent. So he could just have made people good in the first place, or reformed them with a click of the celestial fingers, rather than committing genocide.

Your last paragraph is just pointless burbling. And as far as I am aware, I don’t need your permission to comment.


Lou Jost - #81915

July 18th 2013

Nick, well said. This post is one of the most disgusting and dishonest bits of apologetics I have seen in a while. I’m too busy to comment much these days, but I couldn’t let it go by without saying something. Why do certain people feel compelled to defend this stuff? The silver lining in such silliness is its ability to make some alert Christian readers question their beliefs.

There have been a number of other weak posts lately on BioLogos, especially some of recent “Miracles” posts. Hope this is not a trend.

Lou Jost - #81916

July 18th 2013

This post reminds me of William Lane Craig’s justification of child killings in the OT. It was ok for the Israelites to kill them because they would go straight to heaven. (Oddly, he also thinks abortion is terrible…) Taking this to its logical conclusion, better to kill all the children and send them straight to heaven rather than risk them growing up into atheists doomed to hell.

Only a deeply religious person could set aside their humanity and swallow such rot. This is what is most frightening about religions. People can be so easily persuaded to do horrible things in its name.

GJDS - #81878

July 16th 2013

I am intrigued, and perhaps amazed by statements such as this, “.....I would like to deal with a few of the specific charges made by the “new atheists.” 

It is inconceivable that any theist would feel a need to justify God before atheists, especially those who are more anti-theists rather that non-believers. It is obvious that these people would not believe in God – the relevant point is to ask, “Why do they not believe, and yet feel compelled to make charges?” It is obvious that if a person did not believe in any matter, they do this because they have considered the matter and have quietly and soberly made a decision to ‘not believe’. If however they are filled with aggression and wish to make charges, they are motivated by such aggression and disquiet – thus they indulge in making charges because of this and not because they provide insights or new understanding on theological matters. Conversely those who have decided to believe are just as capable at understanding and considering text such as the Bible and they too have quietly and soberly made a decision ‘to believe’

The simple and obvious point is that we believe God is the creator of heaven and earth, and He determines the course of events; this is belief. The converse is non-belief. Our justification before God can only be on the basis that we live just and blameless lives. These are matters for serious discussion. If we can show each other that we are blameless, just, and do not do anything that is evil, we are than in a position to make pronouncements, and others would undoubtedly listen to us, on the basis they can see the just and righteous life. This would amount to a relevant approach to the question of God by the aggressive ‘new atheist’. 

As for myself, I would rather listen to an atheist, an agnostic or a theist, who discusses how we can live in peace, that 100 atheists, theists, or whatever, who are determined to make charges, find fault, or indulge in ignorant ranting about God or deities they do or do not believe in.

Hopefully I am not guilty of indulging in a rant by posting these comments. I do however wish to voice my disapproval at human beings who appear to judge God, or trying to justify God to others.

Jerry Wickey - #81885

July 16th 2013

If living in peace is your goal, then perhaps you should embrace the prophets.  

“they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruninghooks: nation shall not lift up a sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.”

This is the desired goal of the prophets from Moses to Isaiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, Joel, Micah etc.

The more apropos question is how do we get there?  Many moderns have a wishy washy belief that “we just have to all get along”  But this is merely a useless tautology.  How do we get along?  Well… hum.. I guess we just have to get along.

If a parent cleans up every mess a child makes, does the child grown up clean or does the child grow up incapable of cleaning up after himself?  God is a good parent.  He often tells us to “Clean up our own mess”  

Frankly I trust the Creator to understand human nature and what it takes to get us to our common goal better than upstarts who have thought about it for less then a single lifetime. 

GJDS - #81911

July 18th 2013

Trusting God that He understands us is self-evident to those who have faith in Him. My comments are directed to the character of human beings - is it words that get us to peace, or words and deeds by people of good faith and good character? I prefer to look to human beings of good character and good deeds. It is easy to talk about doing good - much harder to actually do it - indeed so much so that we have to rely on God for the capacity for good.

Spending time on useless discussions that re in fact distortions of biblical accounts (re atheists and their nonsense about God and genocide) is just that - useless discussion.

Jerry Wickey - #81883

July 16th 2013

Regarding Exodus 20  third and fourth generation

“for I the LORD thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me;”

I want to point out that the phrase “visiting upon the children” does not necessarily imply that God singles out ones descendants.  God is not the one carrying out the “punishment.”   When someone engages in harmful activity, the consequences often effect that person’s children.  When a community adopts harmful practices everyone is harmed, even innocent children.

God is warning us that when we adopt harmful practices, everyone gets hurt and the effects can continue for generations.  This is the very reason God is “jealous” over his attention to his law which “leads unto life.”   Discarding the “law” will harm even one’s children. 

Nick Gotts - #81900

July 18th 2013

I’m always amused by how willing religious apologists are to deny the plain meaning of the text when it’s inconvenient.

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