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The God of the Old Testament

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November 1, 2010 Tags: Divine Action & Purpose
The God of the Old Testament

Today's entry was written by Karl Giberson. You can read more about what we believe here.

In Part V of the BioLogos series, “Exposing the Straw Men of New Atheism,” Karl Giberson included some not-yet-fully-developed thoughts about whether science can trump revealed religious truth and about the reliability of certain Old Testament passages about the nature of God. Albert Mohler picked up on these statements, demonstrating how they can be misunderstood unless they are more fully developed. We asked Karl to expand on his views about each of these topics.

The BioLogos Forum is a place for conversation. Please think along with us about the points Dr. Giberson raises. We may not all agree, but surely each of us would concur that these ideas are worthy of consideration.

The Old Testament—and the God it reveals—has had a long and colorful relationship with Christians. New Testament authors appealed to the Old Testament as they made their case that Jesus was the Messiah; some early Christians debated about the extent to which the Old Testament and its laws were even relevant to their faith; and the caretakers of the canon made controversial decisions about which Old Testament books to include.

Many contemporary Christians also struggle to understand the message of the Old Testament, in the light of challenges from higher criticism and science, not to mention internal issues, like the complicated portrayals of God. We read in the Old Testament, for example, that God walked in the Garden of Eden and couldn’t find Adam and Eve when they hid. We read of God enjoying the smell of the burning fat of a sacrifice, or letting Moses see his back, or negotiating with various leaders. These references, which tend to be in the earlier parts of the Old Testament, have an anthropomorphic character to them that invites a more literary, non-literal interpretation.

We read of God controlling everything that happens in ways that would delight even the most rigorous five-point Calvinist. God sends the rain; God hardens pharaoh’s heart; God sends a fish to swallow Jonah; God makes older women fertile. There seems to be no difference, in the minds of Old Testament thinkers, between saying that “something happened” and “God made something happen.” I read the Bible as a Wesleyan, not a Calvinist, though, and wonder about this worldview. I wonder if what is coming through here is not so much a set of affirmations that God does particular things, but rather than God does everything. But, speaking again as a Wesleyan, if we are simply affirming that God does everything, then it seems that the significance of God doing particular things is diminished. My Calvinist brothers and sisters, however, have some helpful ways to think about that. They also have their own reservations about my belief that the creation has some autonomy and things can happen without God doing them. Both viewpoints are an important part of the BioLogos discussion.

For many Christians, the greatest challenge of the Old Testament is the morality of God’s actions as described by various authors. As Christians we cannot—and must not—read the Old Testament except through the lens of God’s revelation in Christ; the New Testament authors make this point over and over again. But sometimes that lens seems to become a dark glass, at least to me. Christians have long wondered whether the God revealed in Jesus could really have commanded the Israelites to kill all the women and children in Canaan. Could the God that inspired Mother Teresa to dedicate her life to serving hopeless Hindus, have inspired the Psalmist to rejoice in the bashing of babies heads against the rocks, just because they were not Jewish?

In our modern, more pluralist and culturally tolerant times—where we have learned the dangers of demonizing those who do not think like us—it grows ever harder to think that a God who loves all humanity would destroy all but a handful of people in a worldwide flood. It’s also hard to imagine that the residents of any city—men, women, children— could be so uniformly degenerate that all of them could justifiably be destroyed in a hail of fire and brimstone. My office overlooks a pre-school and there is nothing so innocent as those toddlers running about at recess. I am simply unable to imagine any scenario where God—as I understand him—would rain brimstone down on their heads, or drown them in a flood.

In my last blog I expressed some empathy for the much-despised Richard Dawkins who castigates Christians for choosing to worship the tyrannical God of the Old Testament:

“In The God Delusion,” I wrote, “Dawkins eloquently skewers the tyrannical anthropomorphic deity of the Old Testament—the God that supposedly commanded the Jews to go on genocidal rampages and who occasionally went on his own rampages, flooding the planet or raining fire and brimstone on wicked cities.”

I had something of a personal reaction when I first read this concern of Dawkins. I wanted to say “Wait a minute! This is not the way most Christians think about God.” Some of this reaction is contained in my blog last week.

There are two guiding principles to my reading of Old Testament portrayals of God: 1) Do those portrayals faithfully agree with how Jesus himself reveals God in the New Testament? And 2) To what degree are the inspired-but-clearly-human authors of the Old Testament portraying God within their own limited cultural horizons—turning him into their “Commander-in-Chief” as Christians on military crusades have done throughout history? Since I am not a Biblical literalist, I am quite comfortable with acknowledging a genuinely human component to inspired Scripture, what Pete Enns and others have called the incarnational model of inspiration. These are my prejudices. They profoundly color how I read the Bible. Others start with different assumptions—I won’t call them prejudices—and read that same Bible differently.

In my limited understanding—which is not necessarily shared by everyone who contributes to BioLogos—the revelation of God in Scripture and elsewhere is progressive. The dark glass through which God is viewed becomes less dark and better focused over the many centuries that gave rise to the Scriptures and our traditions of interpretation. Earlier visions of God must be measured against later visions. With this understanding it seems to me that we can raise serious questions about ancient claims that God likes the smell of burning fat, or rejoices in the violent deaths of infants. For me, these are passages where Biblical writers created God in their image, forgetting that the real truth is the other way around.

The same Psalmist that rejoiced in the deaths of infants also wrote that “The earth is fixed and cannot be moved” (Psalm 93:1) If science can help us move beyond this latter affirmation of geocentrism, why can theology not help us move beyond the former endorsement of infanticide?

All of God’s revelation demands interpretation, whether it be in the Bible, in Nature, in the tradition of the church, or in our own lives. All is seen “through a glass darkly” in that wonderful phrase of St. Paul. There is no such thing as “uninterpreted revelation,” and we are called to move humbly along a path toward truth and reminded in so many ways that we must not forget that we don’t presently possess the truth in any final form as a club to be wielded against those who disagree with us.

In my blog last week I reflected on this progressive nature of revelation, noting that new science regularly trumps old science, and that new science sometimes even trumps Scripture, where Scripture expresses itself on matter open to scientific investigation. My comment “science trumps revealed truth,” was not a literal statement, of course, for absolutely nothing could trump revealed truth. What science trumps, in addition to older science, is our interpretations of revealed truth. I cannot agree with those, like Al Mohler and Ken Ham, who believe they possess an “uninterpreted truth.” I think, for example, of the well-educated, biblically literate, and deeply spiritual Christians in the 17th century who were sure that God had revealed in Scripture that the earth did not move. Poor Galileo—elderly, in poor health, and wearing a truss to keep his hernia in check— was forced to his knees on the hard marble floor in Rome with his hand upon the Bible and made to acknowledge that God had revealed in the Bible that the earth was stationary.

The advance of science has freed us from our prior error in assuming that geocentrism was “revealed truth.” I personally believe that the advance of theology has freed us from our assumption that God could rejoice in the killing of non-Jewish babies.

I still believe in and worship the God of the Old Testament. Yahweh is indeed the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. But there are some aspects of that Old Testament picture where I think the humanity of the biblical authors comes through. I am thankful for this New Covenant.

Dr. Karl Giberson is a physicist, scholar, and author specializing in the creation-evolution debate. He has published hundreds of articles, reviews and essays for Web sites and journals including Salon.com, Books & Culture, and the Huffington Post. Dr. Giberson has written or co-written ten books, including Saving Darwin, The Language of Science & Faith, and The Anointed: Evangelical Truth in a Secular Age. He is currently a faculty member at Stonehill College in Easton, Massachusetts, where he serves as the Scholar-in-Residence in science and religion.

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RBH - #38244

November 3rd 2010

With reference to the lack of agreed methods of resolving conflicts in theology, Jesus and Mo captures it beautifully.

leadme.org - #38250

November 3rd 2010

Jon, that’s an interesting thought, about Paul.  Still, though, I can’t wrap my head around how the “tensions” might be “resolved.”  Every such “resolution” I’ve seen strikes me as a desperate, desperate contrivance.  And it seems to me, that even if I were to find some plausible resolution, it would still have to go so far against the plain grain of the original texts that I’m not sure what the point would even be.  If we have to jump through such desperate hoops to make the Bible (adequately) harmonize, why even bother?  Far better a resolution, at least in my mind, to just accept that the OT “terror texts” don’t reflect the character of God, leave that question at that, and then begin to work through the theological implications (admittedly uncomfortable, at times).

Again, I really admire Greg Boyd, and one of his chief theological interests as of late is in trying to resolve these tensions within the construct of infallibility.  He’s got a forthcoming book on the subject, which I will definitely check out.  But here I tend to side with C. S. Cowles, who has framed the likely Canaanite perspective on the conquests in the words of Holocaust survivor Elie Weisel:


Rich - #38251

November 3rd 2010


There’s a “lack of agreed methods of resolving conflicts” not only in theology but in philosophy, literary criticism, art criticism, historical interpretation, political theory, ethics, family relationships, marriages—in short, in just about every enterprise that’s culturally, intellectually, or socially important and interesting to human life.  So is all of human life just stupid confusion, except for science?

It’s precisely because people who study subjects like theology, philosophy, literary criticism, history, political theory, etc. have learned to live with ambiguity and make balanced judgments between competing claims, that they are less mechanical, less simplistic, less reductionist, black-or-white, and right-or-wrong thinkers than most scientists.  This is notable in the debates here.  Quite often the Ph.D.s in the sciences here are mechanically dismissive of every single point raised by their opponents; ID can’t be just *partly* wrong; it has to be *all* wrong; neo-Darwinism can’t be just partly right; it has to be *all* right.  They thus confirm the public’s picture of scientists as high-grade technicians who focus on pedantic correctness, but are not very mentally flexible, and not very wise.

leadme.org - #38252

November 3rd 2010


Not far from us, flames were leaping up from a ditch, gigantic flames. They were burning something. A lorry drew up at the pit and delivered its load—little children. Babies! Yes, I saw it—saw it with my own eyes … those children in the flames. (Is it surprising that I could not sleep after that? Sleep had fled from my eyes.)

So this was where we were going. A little farther on was another and larger ditch for adults. I pinched my face. Was I still alive? Was I awake? I could not believe it. How could it be possible for them to burn people, children, and for the world to keep silent? I heard my father whisper, “May His Name be blessed and magnified . . .”

For the first time, I felt revolt rise up in me. Why should I bless His name? The Eternal, Lord of the Universe, the All-Powerful and Terrible, was silent. What had I to thank Him for?


leadme.org - #38253

November 3rd 2010


Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, which has turned my life into one long night, seven times cursed and seven times sealed. Never shall I forget that smoke. Never shall I forget the little faces of the children, whose bodies I saw turned into wreaths of smoke beneath a silent blue sky.

Never shall I forget those flames which consumed my faith forever.

Never shall I forget that nocturnal silence which deprived me, for all eternity, of the desire to live. Never shall I forget those moments which murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to dust. Never shall I forget those things, even if I am condemned to live as long as God Himself. Never. (Elie Wiesel, Night (Avon Books, The Hearst Corp., N.Y., N.Y.), pp. 42ff., p. 78)

Cowles goes on to comment:

I ask myself: can I imagine the God I know and worship stoking those flames? Can I envision Jesus at the wheel of that truck, backing it up and pulling the lever which dumps living children and babies into the flames? If this approximates the character, will and purposes of God—past, present or future, then I too, like Elie Wiesel, must turn away in horror from such a Hitler-God.

leadme.org - #38255

November 3rd 2010

Matthew #38129:

I agree with you that the apparent Biblical endorsement of geocentrism in Joshua 10 does nothing in my mind to undermine the concept of infallibility (as distinct from inerrancy).  Neither, in my mind, does the apparent Biblical endorsement of a young earth.  The crux of the matter, for me, revolves around the portrait of God revealed in certain parts of the OT.  This portrait, in my mind, involves intractable theological conflicts with the portrait of God as revealed in Christ.

Rich - #38266

November 3rd 2010


I have a question for you.  You’ve said many times that the Church has no authority to command the consciences of Christians in anything not taught by the Scriptures.  You’ve used this principle to criticize the Roman Church.  I’d like your assessment of a case where Protestant Churches appear to have done this.

As you know, in many small congregational churches, and even in entire Protestant denominations, the drinking of alcoholic beverages is condemned.  People who have the odd drink of wine with their Christmas turkey have been removed from Sunday School teaching positions; in some cases non-abstainers have been asked to leave churces Now, unless these actions can be justified on Biblical grounds, they involve commanding the conscience in a way unwarranted by Scripture. 

What do you say?  Is it a Scriptural teaching that Christians are not to drink alcoholic beverages?  And if not, have those Churches which have taken disciplinary action against drinkers (not drunkards, just drinkers) been exceeding their authority?  If so, will you condemn that excess as much as you would condemn, say, the old Catholic rule of not eating meat on Fridays?  And can you answer this in 1250 characters?

RBH - #38289

November 4th 2010

Rich wrote

There’s a “lack of agreed methods of resolving conflicts” not only in theology but in philosophy, literary criticism, art criticism, historical interpretation, political theory, ethics, family relationships, marriages—in short, in just about every enterprise that’s culturally, intellectually, or socially important and interesting to human life.  So is all of human life just stupid confusion, except for science?

I’m aware of that.  I had a liberal education and taught 20 years in a good liberal arts college. 

A good deal of human life is lived in confusion; the gratuitous insertion of “stupid” is unnecessary.  Of that list, just one item—theology and its object of study, religion—purports to provide strong directions for living, where the directions differ across claimants.  Read Martin Rizley above.  His first post accuses Giberson of the Marcionian heresy and he pronounces with high confidence on one way to read scripture to the exclusion of other ways on no ground beyond an idiosyncratic treatment of scripture that appears to be impervious to arguments proffered in various comments.  And those offering the counter arguments are equally impervious to Martin’s claims.

RBH - #38290

November 4th 2010

Rich wrote

It’s precisely because people who study subjects like theology, philosophy, literary criticism, history, political theory, etc. have learned to live with ambiguity and make balanced judgments between competing claims, that they are less mechanical, less simplistic, less reductionist, black-or-white, and right-or-wrong thinkers than most scientists.

One of the lessons I learned in the course of my (scientific) Ph.D. work was to tolerate uncertainty and ambiguity.  But I also learned that there are systematic ways of getting to right answers to a good many questions of deep and important interest, with “right” defined in terms that all the participants in a dispute could agree on.  I don’t see that here.  I see here no way of reaching agreement on even the fundamental grounds of the disputes.  Yet religion is supposed to provide us with clear moral guidance and in the U.S., at least, the basis for law-making.

RBH - #38291

November 4th 2010

And I will note that “balanced judgments between competing claims” is an interesting locution.  It seems to imply that the several claims are of equal (in)validity, and that the middle ground is preferable to a correct answer.  Well, BioLogos is trying to occupy a middle ground, making a “balanced judgment” between competing claims, and it’s getting shot at from both directions precisely because there is no systematic and mutually accepted way of evaluating competing religious claims.

Rich - #38299

November 4th 2010


I’m glad if you learned to tolerate uncertainty and ambiguity in your scientific work.  That doesn’t appear to be the case for a number of posters here who claim Ph.D.s or some science background.  When confronted with an author or a position they don’t agree with, they seem incapable of saying:  “This author makes good point A, B. and C, and I learned something new from D, and I need to think harder about the challenge to conventional thinking E.  However, F is weak, and G and H are downright erroneous.  The author could have made his case stronger by X, Y, and Z.  I hope the author will do this in the future.”  Instead it’s more like:  “Page 1 -  Junk.  Page 2 - Crap.  Page 3 - B.S.  Page 4 - undergrad error.  Page 5 - Author is dishonest.  Page 6—Author has religious motives.  Page 7—Author is plotting a theocracy.  Page 8—Wrong chemical name, author obviously incompetent.  Page 9—Author’s evidence is all from literature before 2004; doesn’t keep up.  Page 10—Author is an IDiot.”  This is the stuff written by some representatives of “science” on this site, when the subject is ID.  I’m completely unimpressed.  People who write like this may be well trained, but they aren’t educated.

Rich - #38301

November 4th 2010


Re Martin Rizley.  No one has been more critical of Martin on this site than I, and for some of the same reasons that you give.  As I said before, he’s trapped in a hermeneutical circle and therefore his arguments are impervious to correction.  There is no data or reasoning that can be proffered which would ever alter his mind, because all data and reasoning are filtered by his theological assumptions before they are allowed to be applied.

But in this I find him no more dogmatic than the defenders of neo-Darwinism here.  All criticisms of neo-Darwinism are put through their filter, as are all arguments in favor of ID.  They are every bit as incapable of granting a point as Martin is.  I’ve been arguing for nine months here and not one has said:  “You are right; Behe did not say that; I misread him”; or “You are right, the article I cited on marine lactation did not offer an evolutionary pathway to lactation; I just grabbed the title off the internet because I didn’t have any evidence to back my claims”; or “You are right; Margulis *is* launching a frontal attack on neo-Darwinism in that passage”.  Dogmatism is not the preserve of preachers.  Scientists with professional egos practice it, too.

Martin Rizley - #38303

November 4th 2010

leadme.org,  To compare Israel’s solemn obedience to God in waging war on the Canaanites to Hitler’s genocide of the Jews is an illegitimate comparison.  Yes, both events involved killing and bloodshed; both events involved the death of babies and children.  But the one event was based on the sovereign, judicial decision of God Almighty, the righteous Judge of all the earth, who chose to grant His redeemed people the land of Canaan as a dwelling place, to execute judgment on the pagan peoples who had defiled the land for more than four centuries through idolatrous worship, sexual perversions, child sacrifices, etc., and to use His own people as His executioners—a decision which we have no right to criticize, if we only think for a moment who we are   (As Paul puts it, “Who are you, O man, who answers back to God?)  The other event was based on the egocentrical ambitions of a crazed megalomaniac, a mere man, who fancied himself to be a god, and who would stop at nothing to realize his idolatrous goal.  For God to pursue HIs own glory in all things is not idolatry, because He is God!  For man to pursue his own glory is idolatry,because he is not God.  (continued)

Martin Rizley - #38306

November 4th 2010

Redemptive history has progressed to a new stage since the conquest of Canaan.  The revelation of God’s fearsome judicial vengeance displayed in His judgment of the Canaanites was a necessary backdrop to the glorious revelation of His redemptive grace which is now being poured out on all nations through Jesus Christ.  We will never return, thankfully, to that earlier stage in redemptive history, now that Christ has fulfilled the redemptive plan of God by His one propitiatory sacrifice on the cross.  Now, the only sword that God’s people will ever be called to use in advancing His kingdom is the sword of the Spirit, the Word of God.  But if you deny that God was acting at that earlier stage of revelation and that He directed His ancient people to do what they did is to say that Jesus came to reveal a different God to us than the God of the Old Testament.  That is to revive the ancient heresy of Marcionism.  You might say, “But Jesus has revealed God to me—and the God I know would never do what God did in the Old Testament!”  I would urge you to read again Jon Garvey’s very insightful comments about Jesus’ and the apostles’ attitude toward the Old Testament.

leadme.org - #38308

November 4th 2010

Martin, we’re not going to agree, so I’ll drop it.  Thanks for the discussion!

Rich - #38312

November 4th 2010


No, I did not say that the middle answer is always the right one, or that all claims are of equal merit.  But it’s very rare, in science or in any field of human endeavor, that one position is 100% right and all competing claims are 100% wrong.  Galileo was right against Aristotle, but wrong against Newton.  It might be that one position is 80% right and a rival position 20% right.  So the proper attitude is collegial debate, with an open mind.  Do you think that Jerry Coyne, P. Z. Myers, Richard Dawkins, Eugenie Scott, etc. have open minds regarding the fundamental correctness of neo-Darwinism?  Do you think that Margulis, self-organizational models (Newman etc.), updated neo-Lamarckian models, etc., are 100% wrong approaches that don’t deserve a place at the table?  Compromise for the sake of compromise isn’t the right approach, but neither is dogmatic partisanship.

However, I think you are talking more about the “middle” between science and theology.  I agree with you that none of the “middle” positions advanced here is convincing.  And I would submit that it will be impossible to reach a coherent “middle” position without the help of philosophy, which is in short supply among TE/EC people.

leadme.org - #38314

November 4th 2010

I know I already bowed out, but here I am piping back in!  Just couldn’t help but notice, Martin, as I re-read your last reply, this quote:

“We will never return, thankfully, to that earlier stage in redemptive history.”

I’d urge you to think long and hard about what you’re conceding there.  If you want to respond, knock yourself out.

Dunemeister - #38316

November 4th 2010

@Martin Rizley #38203:

“I grant you that Christians holding different views believe the Spirit has given them understanding, but Spirit-imparted assurance will always be strengthened through more study and take into account the whole range of biblical teaching, whereas human misinterpretations become evident through further study and fail to take in the whole range of biblical teaching on the subject.”

Except when not. It’s simply not true that Spirit-imparted assurances will always be strengthened by more study and that human misinterpretations become evident through further study. The whole of Christian history gives the lie to such a statement. Here we have a person who believes in Augustinian original sin; here we have one who doesn’t. Here we have one who believes in sola scriptura; here we have one who doesn’t.

Besides, you seem to be saying that the Spirit gives greater assurance about what is patently obvious. If it’s so obvious, why the need for assurance?

And, once again, the question remains. What makes your particular doctrines the ones that are “plainly taught” in scripture? Just because it’s plain to you doesn’t mean that it’s what the bible teaches. I hope at least we can agree on that.

Jon Garvey - #38332

November 4th 2010

leadme.org - #38250

Your raising of the Holocaust shows that the problem isn’t so much the OT God, or even the NT God per-se, but the God ruling the world now (maybe for Karl, too). As you know a whole theology of the holocaust has arisen. One answer has been to deny God altogether, but it’s only God that renders the Holocaust so evil: without him it’s just an extinction event. Yet not only is the God of Love called into question, and the God of Rightreousness, but the Jews were (generally speaking) believers in him, and his chosen people as well. That’s why there’s no special theology on the Rwandan genocide or Cambodia.

Yet the Holocaust happened not in the Bronze age but in days of Christian antisemitism, Christian condemnation of antisemitism, Marxist and Nazi atheist ideology, Zionist aspiration - indeed, all the things we see today.

So either God is powerless to intervene in the world, doesn’t care, or in some way tolerates (which means “condones”) such things for his own deep purposes - bringing us back to Deuteronomy. At least it shows the idea that the OT world was distant and archaically savage is a myth. It’s the same world as today.

But there’s more (...)

Jon Garvey - #38334

November 4th 2010

Jesus and his followers claimed that, after his resurrection, Jesus was raised to the right hand of God, above all powers. If there is a God involved in the Holocaust, it is the Lord Jesus because God has entrusted all things to him.

When Jesus prophesied the Fall of Jerusalem (back to my original “proof texts”!), he saw an event analogous to, and in many ways as terrible as, our Holocaust. Yet his comment was that “Such things must happen.”

Acts shows what Jesus’s present reign means. In the spread of the Gospel, Jesus was not only directing apostles through visions and dreams, but directing events through governors, emperors and even storms. One of the book’s purposes is to show how Jesus himself was the reason for the Gospel reaching the heart of the empire.

Revelation, which is partly a commentary on Christ’s “Little Apocalypse” says exactly the same thing: Jesus Christ is NOW Lord of the Universe, terrible events are set to happen but are “what must take place”, yet everything is subsumed to his loving purpose (indeed to the loving purpose of his Father) to renew the world and make his reign of love visible after the destruction of all that is evil.

Do we dare sit in judgement on such things?

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