One of the newer challenges to God and the Scriptures is to question the morality of God, particularly in the Old Testament. Both atheists and liberal theologians are finding this to be a fertile field right now. It is this challenge that Greg Beale meets in his booklet The Morality of God in the Old Testament.
He does not simply dismiss the charges made by others that God is essentially immoral to command acts often considered evil. His response is a mere 40 or so pages. It is not easy reading, but rises to the challenge. He lays out a 5-fold approach that he believes answers this problem. But first he mentions 2 common, but unsatisfactory, responses.
- Wartime Ethics Are Legitimately Different from Peacetime Ethics. Tied into this is the fact that we tend to judge the Scriptures based on our wartime ethics. As late as Vietnam we had no problem engaging in carpet bombing. In more recent conflicts we are loathe to harm civilians (unless using drones) in policies that often put our soldiers at risk. We are concerned about perception and ignore the reality of the threat they face in conflict. But this booklet isn’t about that ethical dilemma. While it is common for us to speak of a wartime ethic, Scripture doesn’t seem to offer us one explicitly.
- The Divine Command to Kill All Women and Children Is Not Meant to be Taken Literally. Some argue that documents from the ANE use exaggerated language in describing conquest similar to this. It refers essentially to thoroughly defeating the enemy. It functions as a rhetorical device. However, the Scriptures clearly indicate that particular people, like Rahab, were spared because they aligned themselves with Israel. Others escaped. So this argument does not seem to hold.
His proposed 5-fold approach tries to look at the problem from different angles. It is not a simplistic answer to the questions raised by atheists, agnostics and liberals. It is, I think, a thorough answer.
- The Commands Demonstrate God’s Justice in Response to Their Immorality and Idolatry in a Unique Redemptive-Historical Circumstance. That is a mouthful! During Abraham’s years in the Promised Land, we are told the Canaanites’ sin was not yet full. God was not ready to judge them. See how patient He is with societies and cultures. It was not that Abraham’s family wasn’t big enough, but they hadn’t sinned enough yet. By the time of the conquest they had. God was not just giving Israel the land, but judging the Canaanites. This is unique because there is no other Promised Land that needs to be conquered. The commands were not binding, but tied to the circumstances of the conquest. He was using the Israelites to execute His justice against them (just as He would Assyria against the Northern Kingdom and Babylon, and later Rome, against Judah). Everyone died because everyone was guilty and part of an utterly corrupt culture.
- The Commands Were to Remove Moral Uncleanness as Part of a Unique Redemptive-Historical Commission to Purify the Land as a Sanctuary. He goes back to the Garden and the Creation Mandate. Adam was to expand the borders of the Garden as a sanctuary for God. Israel was to treat the Land as a sanctuary. They were a corporate form of Adam as a kingdom of priests. After the conquest, the civil law laid out severe penalties for those guilty of similar sexual and cultic sins as the Canaanites.
- God’s Sovereignty Justifies His Command to Annihilate the Canaanites. As the Scriptures teach, He will have mercy upon whom He will have mercy and hardens whom He will harden. And judge too!. God is free to deal with us as He chooses. While we may be relatively better or worse that other people, in God’s eyes we are all sinners who fall short of His glory and have earned the wages of sin which are death. God is free to annihilate any nation He wants to annihilate. We usually see His patience and mercy, and therefore presume upon them as if they were required of Him.
- God’s Command is an Anticipation of the End-Time Judgment of All People, and Thus a Suspension of the Expression of His Common Grace to Unbelievers during the Epoch of Israel. This is pretty much Kline’s intrusion ethic. This is an intrusion of the final judgment in which God will annihilate all who are not His. This is not the only type of the final judgment we see in Scripture. We also see the destruction of Samaria, Judah, Babylon, Assyria and other nations. There is evidence for this in how the NT uses the OT in judgment passages.
- God’s Command and the Imprecatory Psalms Anticipate the End-Time Judgment When Love of the Unbelieving Neighbors Ceases. While we are to love our neighbor now, in the final judgment we will not love all our neighbors but only those who love Christ as we do. God’s mercy and patience toward unbelievers reaches an end. He reveals His holy hatred for sin and the wicked.
This is not an easy read. While not an academic booklet, it requires some deep thinking, and struggle as well. It is not easy to accept the truth sometimes. This is one of those times. But Beale lays out a sound and compelling argument that answers the charges or questions about the morality of God in the Old Testament.