Apologetic Issues in the Old Testament, Part 1

| By Richard Hess

Note: Today’s entry on the BioLogos Forum, by Old Testament scholar Richard S. Hess, was first published as an appendix to <em(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.

Apologetic Issues in the Old Testament, Part 1



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.


About the Author

Richard Hess

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 theNew American Bible, the Holman Standard Christian Bible, the English Standard Version, and The Common English Bibletranslations 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. Dr. Hess is a member of a dozen scholarly societies, and has done postdoctoral research at universities in Chicago, Jerusalem, Cambridge, Sheffield, and Münster, and has held National Endowment for the Humanities, Fulbright, and Tyndale House (Cambridge) postdoctoral fellowships and grants. He was lecturer in Old Testament and Hebrew at International Christian College, Scotland, and Reader in Old Testament at Roehampton University, London. Having lectured at more than one hundred scholarly societies, universities, and colleges, he has recently given invited lectures at SAIACS, Bangalore; Min Zu University, Beijing; Lancaster Bible College Graduate School; Faraday Institute, Cambridge University; New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary; Hebrew Union College, Cincinnati; and Whitely College, Melbourne.For a complete list of Dr. Hess’ activities and publications, please see here.


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