Consider this statement. "How does one reconcile the loving God of the Old Testament with the harsh God of the New Testament (God Behaving Badly
, p.9)?" Wait a minute, I thought as I read this statement, I can't believe the editors didn't catch this blaring mistake! But this is indeed the introduction to David T. Lamb's book, God Behaving Badly: Is the God of the Old Testament Angry, Sexist and Racist?
. The author goes on to remind us "that God in the Old Testament is consistently described as slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, but Jesus speaks about hell more than anyone else in Scripture (ibid. p.9)." I seriously recommend this book to anyone who is seeking to understand the God of the Old Testament.
Many have been troubled by the apparent harshness of God in the law. Perhaps, as we struggle to understand the complexities of the Old Testament, we should first commit to a foundational truth. God is completely righteous (Psalm 11:7). At the same time, mankind is completely incapable of righteousness (Psalm 14:1-3). When we have established an unshakeable belief in God's perfection, we can start trying to comprehend his ways in Biblical history. Dr. Lamb states, that:
the most compelling factor drawing me toward studying the Old Testament was God himself. The God of the Old Testament was fascinating to me. He became really angry, but was also extraordinarily patient. He seemed to view women and wives as property, but he also selected women as spiritual and political leaders over the nation of Israel. He commanded Israel to vanquish the Canaanites, but also to care for the poor, the widows, the orphans and the foreigners. God in the Old Testament was complex. There was so much about God in the Old Testament that I didn't understand. I thought I could study the Old Testament for the rest of my life and never feel bored. God Behaving Badly, page 10
As we approach Old Testament law and history, we should have such an attitude, humble, seeking, and reverent.
Let's talk through some specific points.
The apparent cruelty to slaves.
Earlier in Exodus 21, we see how just God is. A Hebrew slave went free in the 7th year of his slavery (Exodus 21:2), even if his debts are not paid in full. Slavery was a fact of life. Poverty drove the poor to sell themselves. And remember, we have no idea why a slave would deserve beating. Perhaps the slaveholder was a violent man; if so, we can be sure that he will have been repaid for his crime (Romans 12:19). Perhaps the slave actually deserved death for justifiable reasons, (Old Testament law dealt sternly with lawbreakers — there is a whole string of such death-deserving sins in Exodus 21), and received the lesser punishment of being beaten. Other Scriptures are so firm in their support and instruction of those who are oppressed, that to doubt the mercy of God in this one law is unwise (see Psalm 71:4; Proverbs 11:17; Proverbs 12:10; Zephaniah 3:5; 1 Peter 2:18-25).
Concerning the sale of daughters.
One very important habit we all should cultivate as we study the Scriptures is this: never trust yourself to grasp the meaning of something the first time around. Make a habit of reviewing a troublesome portion of Scripture until understanding comes. The verses on daughters being sold seems to be in the same chapter as the slave beating. "When a man sells his daughter as a slave, she shall not go out as the male slaves do" (Exodus 21:7). Get a hold of a Bible with a center or side column reference. The best commentary and explanation of Scripture is Scripture itself. Case in point:
Nehemiah provides the sad picture of the impoverished father who is forced to sell his children to pay his debts. "Now our flesh is as the flesh of our brothers, our children are as their children. Yet we are forcing our sons and our daughters to be slaves, and some of our daughters have already been enslaved, but it is not in our power to help it, for other men have our fields and our vineyards. Nehemiah 5:5
In Biblical history, there were no government programs that provided for the poor. If they had no property, equity, or saleable possessions, they were forced to place their families as collateral. Labor was the only exchange for unpaid debts. In this law, we can expect to see, behind the sad daughter, a heartbroken father. Esther was not enslaved for debt but the picture is similar. Her beauty earned her a place in the king's harem and her guardian, Mordecai was helpless to protect her. As with many kings in history, Artaxerxes' word was law, his every desire catered to. But Mordecai did not abandon Esther. "And every day Mordecai walked in front of the court of the harem to learn how Esther was and what was happening to her" (Esther 2:11).
I wholeheartedly agree that this passage is disgusting. I always thought that Lot must have been a slimy jerk, a coward, and a poor excuse for a man. The perplexing thing is that Lot gets a good report in the New Testament. He is called "righteous" in 2 Peter 2:7. But this description does not apply to his treatment of his daughters. Again, I highly recommend Dr. Lamb's book; he speaks about this very incident. He reminds us that "an absence of condemnation does not constitute an affirmation" (God Behaving Badly
, p.61). We don't have to believe that God condoned Lot's behavior. In addition, he notes that "Lot wasn't rescued because of his righteous behavior, but simply because Yahweh was merciful to him based on the intercession of his uncle Abraham" (ibid, p.61)." Look closer to this filthy piece of history and you will see that the angels shielded Lot's daughters in the absence of a father's protection. God definitely did not endorse the decision Lot made.
In the Old Testament, when we read of rape, incest, brutality, deception, theft, and greed, we must see the moral corruption originates with man, not God. We have a whole Bible whose history demonstrates the consequences of Adam and Eve's sin.
And now I come to the story of Hagar and Ishmael.
We may blame Abraham for failing to trust God and creating that whole heart-wrenching mess. Isaac was so obviously the son God promised. Ishmael was the result of Abraham and Sarah trying to help God out, since they felt sexually incapable of becoming parents. When Sarah became jealous of Hagar and her son (and what wife wouldn't be in those circumstances!?), Abraham was upset. He had cherished Ishmael as son and heir for over thirteen years. It was God who commanded Abraham to drive away the slave and her son. "But God said to Abraham, 'Be not displeased because of the boy and because of your slave woman. Whatever Sarah says to you, do as she tells you, for through Isaac shall your offspring be named. And I will make a nation of the son of the slave woman also, because he is your offspring'" (Genesis 21:12-13). God wasn't at fault just because he made a hard decision. We need to trust God to mend our mistakes for us. He has an amazing skill at transforming sorrow into joy, performing for us what only he can accomplish. And we have the proof that God kept his promise to Hagar, to make her son into the father of a great nation (Genesis 17:20 and 25:12-18).
As you study these biographies in the Old Testament, I pray that you will experience a transformation of your own perspective. Often our own worldview obscures the true meaning of the Word of God. King David said this about the law of God. "Give me understanding, that I may keep your law and observe it with my whole heart (Psalm 119:34). David saw no injustice and no sorrow in the law; he longed to obey it and benefit from its wisdom and honor. He understood the law as representing a perfect, loving God. We too need to cherish the law with the same trust and adoration.
I truly believe that God Behaving Badly
will be an enormous blessing to you. Dr. Lamb gives in-depth answers to many of the apparent inconsistencies of the Old Testament. He has also just published another book with similar frank treatment of Biblical difficulties, Prostitutes and Polygamists
. May God bring you peace and understanding.