In the study of God, there is a tendency to abstract him, breaking him down into a cold list of attributes. We must be careful in so doing that we do not remove the essense of personality from him. The Bible itself never presents God as a list. An analogy can be made between what happens at a testimonial dinner or a eulogy. When discussing the guest of honor, the speakers do not commonly list his attributes. Rather, they discuss his activities, his accomplishments, the things he has done that they remember, whether humerous or sad, that contribute to their understanding of the person in view. So it is with the Bible and God. We are made aware of his attributes, who is is, not by abstract theology, but by practical outworkings of his power. The Israelites, for instance, remember that God is omnipotent because he brought them out of Egypt, through the Sea, to the promised land.
Who is God? One answer might be that God is truth. Or another, that God is good. Or that God is love. What does it mean that God is truth, or God is good, or God is love? The answers to such questions are not as easy to express as they might at first appear.
The Holiness of God
When we speak of the holiness of God two things are intended. The most obvious is that God is not the author of sin; he is completely free of sin and is completely righteous. Consider the following passages:
He is the Rock, his works are perfect,
and all his ways are just.
A faithful God who does no wrong,
upright and just is he. (Deut. 32:4)
There is no one holy like Yahweh,
there is no one besides you;
there is no Rock like our God. (1 Sam. 2:2)
Your eyes are too pure to look on evil;
you cannot tolerate wrong.
Why then do you tolerate the treacherous?
Why are you silent while the wicked
swallow up those more righteous than themselves? (Hab. 1:13)
Because God is righteous and holy, he is a just God. Genesis 18:25 records Abraham's words:
Far be it from you to do such a thing -- to kill the righteous with the wicked, treating the righteous and the wicked alike. Far be it from you! Will not the Judge of all the Earth do right?
However, Abraham's words - and such passages as Psalm 92:15 and Ezekiel 18:25 - become problematical when passages such as Romans 9:11-13, Ecclesiastes 7:15, Genesis 9:22-25, Exodus 20:5, Joshua 7:24-26, Ezekiel 18:2 (contrast Deut. 24:16), Ezekiel 18:4, 20, Romans 2:5-6, and Romans 5:12 and 18 are compared with them.
For while each person will die for his or her own sins, other passage seem to indicate that individuals will suffer for the sins of their fathers. Canaan is cursed for what his father Ham did. Why was he singled out from among all the sons Ham had? Solomon observed that righteousness seems to have no effect on how pleasant life may or may not be. And because of Adam's sin, the whole human race is condemned to death.
Must we regard this apparent contradiction as real? Obviously, in some instances at least, it seems that the failure of one individual determines the fate of others who follow him. Therefore, it must be recognized that Deuteronomy 24:16, and similar passages that insist children must not suffer for their parents, are describing governmental responsibilities - not general effects or natural consequences - or God's sovereign decrees.
A second, and less common understanding of holiness must also be noted: separateness. In the Ancient Near East prostitutes dedicated to the temple were called "holy"; this designation obviously had nothing to do with their moral qualities. Rather the term "holy" simply indicated that the prostitutes had been "separated" for use in the service of the deity. This idea of being "separated" is actually the basic, original meaning of the term; the concept of moral purity only came about as a later development. The Bible often uses the term in this original meaning, and perhaps the concept of God's holiness, though obviously including moral purity, also refers in some way to his "separateness" from the world or humanity. As we've already intimated, God is outside of spacetime, so this basic understanding of the word "holy" seems especially appropriate in reference to Him.
However, it is clear that the most common meaning for "holy" in the Bible is the concept of "separation" from sin - that is, moral purity.
Almost everyone agrees that God is good, yet theologians from Marcion to the present have written that "ethical problems abound in the Old Testament." Marcion solved the difficulties by simply excising the Old Testament from his version of the Bible - and a lot of modern evangelicals follow suit, perhaps not explicitly, but at least in practice. Readers of the Old Testament have been known to recoil at activities, that, by modern standards, appear to be barbaric and morally reprehensible.
What are some of these ethical dilemmas they face? Consider the following:
1. God condones or encourages lying on the part of some Old Testament characters.
2. God commands the Israelites to commit genocide against the Canaanites.
3. God seems to lightly make bets with the devil. Consider the charge as it was dramatized in a recent best-seller, Job: A Comedy of Justice by Robert A. Heinlein:
"Well, when I asked if I was Job, You said, 'Yes and no.' What did You mean?"
"You are indeed another Job. With the original Job I was, I confess, one of the villains. This time I'm not.
"I'm not proud of the fashion in which I bedeviled Job. I'm not proud of the fashion in which I have so often let My Brother Yahweh maneuver Me into doing His dirty work - starting clear back with Mother Eve - and before that, in ways I cannot explain. And I've always been a sucker for a bet, any sort of bet...and I'm not proud of that weakness, either....
"...Yahweh came to Me and offered the same wager We had made over Job, asserting that He had a follower who was even more stubborn than Job. I turned him down. That bet over Job had not been much fun; long before it was concluded I grew tired of clobbering the poor schmo...."
4. Why is there sin at all? Isn't God responsible for the evil he permitted to spring up in the world, since he had the power to prevent it?
Despite the objections occasionally raised, the "ethical problems" of the Old Testament are not the result of some real, basic difference between the standards of the Old and New Testaments. Our operating guideline must remain that of the law of noncontradiction: no paradox is real. We will approach each of these four difficulties one at a time.
God and Lying
A young woman wanted to skip her next class; she had a lot of pressing work that needed catching up on, not the least of which was an upcoming exam for which she remained unprepared. She didn't feel comfortable with the idea of simply not showing up, so she told her professor she had a sick friend she needed to check up on. However, she didn't "check up on" her friend until that evening, long after the class was done, having spent the preceding hours catching up on her work.
Did that college student lie? Obviously. Although she did have a sick friend, and did check up on her, the friend's illness was hardly the reason she'd skipped class.
But in the Bible, when God tells Moses to inform Pharaoh that "Yahweh wants his people to take a three day journey to the desert so they can worship and sacrifice" - even though God is really planning to take the people out of Egypt forever - we wouldn't say God told Moses to lie, would we?
Or when God instructs Samuel to tell Saul that the reason for his trip to Bethlehem is so he can sacrifice - though his real purpose is to anoint David king - we wouldn't say God told Samuel to lie, would we?
However, what is the substantive difference between Yahweh's actions in these two instances, and those of that female college student?
In this, the latter quarter of the twentieth century, we define a lie simply as "an untruth". Webster's reports that lying is "to make a false or misleading impression" or "to make an untrue statement with intent to deceive". A lie is "an assertion of something known or believed by the speaker to be untrue with intent to deceive."
God says that he does not lie (Numbers 23:19), yet by the just given definitions, he has. How do we extricate ourselves from this violation of the law of noncontradiction? It may not be so hard. Perhaps it is simply that the modern definition of a "lie" and the biblical definition of a "lie" are not identical. The whole difficulty may be semantic.
Lies and the Exodus
In Exodus 3:7-8 God's intentions regarding the Israelites are stated clearly:
Yahweh said, "I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering. So I have come down to rescue them from the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land into a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey - the home of the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites."
God clearly told Moses that he planned to rescue the people from the Egyptians; He is going to bring them out to the Promised Land. But, this is not quite the message Moses is supposed to bring to the Pharaoh. Look at Exodus 3:16-18:
Go, assemble the elders of Israel and say to them, "Yahweh, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, appeared to me and said: 'I have watched over you and have seen what has been done to you in Egypt. And I have promised to bring you up out of your misery in Egypt into the land of the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites - a land flowing with milk and honey.'"
The elders of Israel will listen to you. Then you and the elders are to go to the king of Egypt and say to him, "Yahweh, the God of the Hebrews, has met with us. Let us take a three-day journey into the desert to offer sacrifices to Yahweh our God."
Quite clearly God instructed Moses to deceive Pharaoh regarding their intentions of leaving Egypt for good. By modern definitions, God instructed Moses to lie. Moses obeys, and is very consistent in his story from his first meeting with Pharaoh to the very last. Notice the following passages:
Afterward Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh and said, "This is what Yahweh, the God of Israel says: 'Let my people go, so that they may hold a festival to me in the desert.'"
Pharaoh said, "Who is Yahweh, that I should obey him and let Israel go? I do not know Yahweh and I will not let Israel go."
Then they said, "The God of the Hebrews has met with us. Now let us take a three-day journey into the desert to offer sacrifices to Yahweh our God, or he may strike us with plagues or with the sword." (Ex. 5:1ff)
Then say to him, "Yahweh, the God of the Hebrews, has sent me to say to you: 'Let my people go, so that they may worship me in the desert. But until now you have not listened.'" (Ex. 7:16)
Then Yahweh said to Moses, "Go to Pharaoh and say to him, 'This is what Yahweh says: "Let my people go, so that they may worship me. If you refuse to let them go, I will plague your whole country with frogs."'"...
Pharaoh summoned Moses and Aaron and said, "Pray to Yahweh to take away the frogs from me and my people, and I will let your people go to offer sacrifices to Yahweh." (Ex. 8:1-2, 8)
Then Yahweh said to Moses, "Get up early in the morning and confront Pharaoh as he goes to the water and say to him, 'This is what Yahweh says: "Let my people go, so that they may worship me. If you do not let my people go, I will send swarms of flies on you and your officials, on your people and into your houses. The houses of the Egyptians will be full of flies, and even the ground where they are."'"...
Then Pharaoh summoned Moses and Aaron and said, "Go, sacrifice to your God here in the land."
But Moses said, "That would not be right. The sacrifices we offer Yahweh our God would be detestable to the Egyptians. And if we offer sacrifices that are detestable in their eyes, will they not stone us? We must take a three-day journey into the desert to offer sacrifices to Yahweh our God, as he commands us." Pharaoh said, "I will let you go to offer sacrifices to Yahweh your God in the desert, but you must not go very far. Now pray for me." (Ex. 8:20-21, 25-28)
Then Yahweh said to Moses, "Go to Pharaoh and say to him, 'This is what Yahweh, the God of the Hebrews, says: "Let my people go, so that they may worship me."'" (Ex. 9:1)
Then Yahweh said to Moses, "Get up early in the morning, confront Pharaoh and say to him, 'This is what Yahweh, the God of the Hebrews says: Let my people go, so that they may worship me,...'"
Then Pharaoh summoned Moses and Aaron. "This time I have sinned," he said to them. "Yahweh is in the right, and I and my people are in the wrong. Pray to Yahweh, for we have had enough thunder and hail. I will let you go; you don't have to stay any longer." (Ex. 9:13, 27-28)
So Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh and said to him, "This is what Yahweh, the God of the Hebrews, says: 'How long will you refuse to humble yourself before me? Let my people go, so that they may worship me.'"...
Then Moses and Aaron were brought back to Pharaoh.
"Go, worship Yahweh your God," he said. "But just who will be going?" Moses answered, "We will go with our young and old, with our sons and daughters, with our flocks and herds, because we are to celebrate a festival to Yahweh."
Pharaoh said, "Yahweh be with you - if I let you go, along with your women and children! Clearly you are bent on evil. No! Have only the men go; and worship Yahweh, since that's what you have been asking for." Then Moses and Aaron were driven out of Pharaoh's presence. (Ex. 10:3, 8-11)
Then Pharaoh summoned Moses and said, "Go, worship Yahweh. Even your women and children may go with you; only leave your flocks and herds behind."
But Moses said, "You must allow us to have sacrifice and burnt offerings to present to Yahweh our God. Our livestock too must go with us; not a hoof is to be left behind. We have to use some of them in worshiping Yahweh our God, and until we get there we will not know what we are to use to worship Yahweh."
But Yahweh hardened Pharaoh's heart, and he was not wiling to let them go. Pharaoh said to Moses, "Get out of my sight! Make sure you do not appear before me again! The day you see my face you will die." (Ex. 10:24-28)
During the night Pharaoh summoned Moses and Aaron and said, "Up! Leave my people, you and the Israelites! Go, worship Yahweh as you have requested. Take your flocks and herds, as you have said, and go. And also bless me." (Ex. 12:31-32)
When the king of Egypt was told that the people had fled, Pharaoh and his officials changed their minds about them and said, "What have we done? We have let the Israelites go and have lost their services!" (Ex. 14:5)
God told Moses to tell the Pharaoh that they were only going out to worship God. Apparently, this is what Pharaoh believed. It was not until the people were gone, and it was clear that they were making tracks, that he realized he had been tricked. Since Numbers 23:19 states explicitly that "God is not a man, that he should lie", the biblical idea of "lie" must be defined in such a way as to permit the behavior observed here in Exodus.
Lies and Abraham
Abraham is recorded telling less than the truth about Sarah his wife, not once, but twice. Just look at Genesis 12 and 20. The most puzzling thing about both incidents is that Abraham is not condemned by God for what he does (and he does it twice), nor does he get into trouble from God for telling Abimelech or Pharaoh that Sarah is his sister, without revealing the more relevant news that she is his wife.
Notice, in Genesis 20, Abimelech is threatened with death, his wives and concubines become barren, and he is told by God that Abraham "...is a prophet, and he will pray for you and you will live." (Gen. 20:7) Yet poor Abimelech is the one that had been deceived! And then, rather than being cursed, Abraham is greatly blessed by Abimelech:
Then Abimelech brought sheep and cattle and male and female slaves and gave them to Abraham, and he returned Sarah his wife to him. And Abimelech said, "My land is before you; live wherever you like." (Gen. 20:14-15)
Then, in verse 17, Abraham prays to God and Abimelech and his wife and concubines are healed.
Abraham is fully vindicated for what he had done, and in fact, is marvelously blessed for it. In neither the Old Testament nor the New is there ever any mention of Abraham being a liar. Therefore, it seems to me, that our definition of a lie must not include the behavior displayed by Abraham.
Lies and Rahab
Joshua 2:1-7 records the following incident:
Then Joshua son of Nun secretly sent two spies from ShitTimothy
"Go, look over the land," he said, "especially Jericho."
So they went and entered the house of a prostitute named Rahab and stayed there.
The king of Jericho was told, "Look! Some of the Israelites have come here tonight to spy out the land."
So the king of Jericho sent this message to Rahab, "Bring out the men who came to you and entered your house, because they have come to spy out the whole land."
But the woman had taken the two men and hidden them. She said, "Yes, the men came to me, but I did not know where they had come from. At dusk, when it was time to close the city gate, the men left. I don't know which way they went. Go after them quickly. You may catch up with them." (But she had taken them up to the roof and hidden them under the stalks of flax she had laid out on the roof.) So the men set out in pursuit of the spies on the road that leads to the fords of the Jordan, and as soon as the pursuers had gone out, the gate was shut.
Commenting on this event, the writer of Hebrews 11:31 records:
By faith the prostitute Rahab, because she welcomed the spies, was not killed with those who were disobedient.
Somehow the definition of a lie must be such as to allow Rahab's behavior. There are a lot of apparent problems in this passage. Rahab is "lying" - stating things contrary to fact - and she is doing this to the representatives of her government. So not only is she "lying", she also seems to be violating the spirit of Romans 13:1-7, where Paul tells the Christians in Rome to "submit to the authorities" and not only that, but states that "the authorities are God's servants" and that "there is no authority except that which God has established." How could Rahab legitimately fail to turn in the spies? She not only lied, but she rebelled against her government, and became a traitor. This is good?
Lying and Samuel
Similar problems confront us when we look at Samuel's life. Notice the narrative in 1 Samuel 16:1-3:
Yahweh said to Samuel, "How long will you mourn for Saul, since I have rejected him as king over Israel? Fill your horn with oil and be on your way; I am sending you to Jesse of Bethlehem. I have chosen one of his sons to be king."
But Samuel said, "How can I go? Saul will hear about it and kill me."
Yahweh said, "Take a heifer with you and say, "I have come to sacrifice to Yahweh." Invite Jesse to the sacrifice, and I will show you what to do. You are to anoint for me the one I indicate."
What happens in 1 Samuel is very similar to the pattern described in Exodus. Again, such activity must be allowed under the biblical definition of "lie".
O Yahweh, you deceived me, and I was deceived;
you overpowered me and prevailed.I am ridiculed all day long;
everyone mocks me.
'If a prophet is deceived into making a prophecy, it is I, the Lord, who have deceived him; I shall stretch out my hand to destroy him and rid my people Israel of him.' [REB]
2 Thessalonians 2:9-12
The coming of the lawless one will be in accordance with the work of Satan displayed in all kinds of counterfeit miracles, signs and wonders, and in every sort of evil that deceives those who are perishing.
They perish because they refused to love the truth and so be saved. For this reason God sends them a powerful delusion so that they will believe the lie and so that all will be condemned who have not believed the truth but have delighted in wickedness.
1 Kings 22:19-23:
Micaiah continued, "Therefore hear the word of Yahweh: I saw Yahweh sitting on his throne with all the host of heaven standing around him on his right and on his left. And Yahweh said, 'Who will lure Ahab into attacking Ramoth Gilead and going to his death there?'
"One suggested this, and another that. Finally a spirit came forward, stood before Yahweh and said, 'I will lure him.'
"'By what means?' Yahweh asked.
"'I will go out and be a lying spirit in the mouths of all his prophets,' he said.
"'You will succeed in luring him,' said Yahweh. 'Go and do it.'
"So now Yahweh has put a lying spirit in the mouths of all these prophets of yours. Yahweh has decreed disaster for you."
God used a demon to confuse the false prophets, encouraging the demon to lie for him. Of course, the text doesn't tell us this is a demon, simply that it is a spirit in the throne room of God who volunteered to help God.
So maybe it wasn't a demon...
But it lied!
And God sanctioned it!
Conclusion and Definition of Lying
What are some possible biblical definitions of the word "lie"? Since the sense of the word must be formed within its context, perhaps we could say that a lie is "failing to be truthful for selfish ends or for the purpose of causing suffering to another." It seems that deception is acceptable in certain situations. The common thread running through all the examples of deception that I gave above, is that life and death issues were at stake; if there had been no deception, someone would have died. Biblically, what is called a "lie" usually occurs in the context of "bearing false witness" in legal proceedings. Obviously, the modern definition of lie is considerably broader and more comprehensive than the biblical meaning.
In any case, I believe that it is best to conclude that ethics are contextually realized. This is not to say ethics are arbitrary, but rather that they can be fully understood only within societal relationships. Like a word, which is virtually meaningless outside a sentence, so ethics are virtually meaningless without life.
Ethics do not exist in a vacuum.
God and Genocide
God has been condemned by some modern expositors for genocide. They have argued that there is an inconsistency - a hypocrisy - on the part of the Jews when they condemn the Nazi attempt to exterminate them during the Second World War, or the Russian Pogroms at the turn of the twentieth century, or the excesses of the Crusades, or the horrors of the Spanish Inquisition. Why? Because in the Bible God ordered the Jews to exterminate the Canaanites: men, women, and children - even animals. Professor H. H. Rowley claimed that the divine command to destroy the Canaanites in general, or Jericho in particular, and similar episodes in the Old Testament, are contrary to the New Testament revelation of God in Christ, and involve erroneous thoughts of the writers and/or characters in question, which can no longer be accepted as valid. In fact, Rowley argues, such genocide is "spiritually unsatisfying" and involves "dishonoring God."
Is Rowley's criticism valid? How can God's fairness and mercy - his love - be seen in such blanket and wholesale condemnation of entire nations? All attempts at mitigating God's commands, or at pretending that the orders were not genocidal in character, or that the people were acting alone, contrary to God's true will, are ruined by the clear instructions recorded in such passages as Exodus 23:31-33:
I will establish your borders from the Sea of Reeds to the Sea of the Philistines, and from the desert to the River. I will hand over to you the people who live in the land and you will drive them out before you. Do not make a covenant with them or with their gods. Do not let them live in your land, or they will cause you to sin against me, because the worship of their gods will certainly be a snare to you.
Critics have looked at such passages and asked: "what is the difference between this and what the United States did to the Native Americans when it pushed them out of their land, put them on reservations, and killed them? How can such a command by God be just?"
Look at Exodus 34:12-16:
Be careful not to make a treaty with those who live in the land where you are going, or they will be a snare among you. Break down their altars, smash their sacred stones and cut down their Asherah poles. Do not worship any other god, for Yahweh, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God.
Be careful not to make a treaty with those who live in the land; for when they prostitute themselves to their gods and sacrifice to them, they will invite you and you will eat their sacrifice. And when you choose some of their daughters as wives for your sons and those daughters prostitute themselves to their gods, they will lead your sons to do the same.
Such bigotry and intolerance! Sounds like a job for Amnesty International. The Israelites today would be condemned for human rights abuses if they behaved this way. How can we accept such behavior? Look at Deuteronomy 20:13-17a:
When Yahweh your God delivers it into your hand, put to the sword all the men in it. As for the women, the children, the livestock, and everything else in the city, you may take these as plunder for yourselves. And you may use the plunder Yahweh your God gives you from your enemies. This is how you are to treat all the cities that are at a distance from you and do not belong to the nations nearby.
However, in the cities of the nations Yahweh your God is giving you as an inheritance, do not leave alive anything that breathes. Completely destroy them...
Or look at Joshua 6:20-21:
When the trumpets sounded, the people shouted, and at the sound of the trumpet, when the people gave a loud shout, the wall collapsed; so every man charged straight in, and they took the city. They devoted the city to Yahweh and destroyed with the sword every living thing in it - men and women, young and old, cattle, sheep and donkeys.
Genocide is clearly in view. The Hebrew word herem is used throughout in reference to what should be done with the Canaanites. It is a word meaning "forced dedication" to God. They were marked for extermination. Not a Canaanite was to be left breathing in the land.
We condemn genocide today. How can we say God was right in ordering it thousands of years ago?
"Will not the judge of all the Earth do right?" (Gen. 18:25).
"Does God pervert justice? Does the Almighty pervert what is right?" (Job 8:3).
Clearly the Bible upholds the justice and righteousness of God. Therefore, even in this command to exterminate the Canaanites, Yahweh is obviously just. To place the problem in perspective, it might be helpful to cite the principle of Deut. 9:5:
It is not because of your righteousness or your integrity that you are going in to take possession of their land; but on account of the wickedness of these nations, Yahweh your God will drive them out before you, to accomplish what he swore to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
It is good to remember that God makes no attempt to establish Israel's moral superiority. This is clear not only from this passage in Deuteronomy, but in the whole history of the nation, where time after time the sin of the chosen people is described. The call of God, the choosing of the nation Israel, cannot be traced to Israel's superiority in righteousness or numbers, "but it was because Yahweh loved you and kept the oath which he swore to your forefathers." (see Deut. 7:6-8).
Ronald Goetz wonders, therefore, why it is that "...Israel is helped in spite of her sins, while the Canaanites are destroyed because of theirs?" The answer lies not in the righteousness of Israel, but in the increasing degrees of guilt that Canaan accrued. Even Jesus appealed to this principle in dealing with a comparison of cities in his day as judged over against Sodom and Gomorrah (Matthew 10:15). There had, with the Canaanites, been a patient waiting from Abraham's time to that of Joshua, "for the sin of the Amorite...[to reach] its full measure." (Genesis 15:16).
This is not to say that Israel was permitted or even ordered to treat all other nations the same way. Deuteronomy 20:10-15 orders the Israelites to offer conditions of peace to other nations. However, the verses that follow on their heals, namely 16-18, disallow the same offer for the Canaanites. So why, then, were the Canaanites singled out for genocide?
They were to be destroyed for the following reasons:
1) They were cut off to prevent Israel and the rest of the world from being corrupted by the wickedness of the Canaanites.
However, in the cities of the nations Yahweh your God is giving you as an inheritance, do not leave alive anything that breathes. Completely destroy them - the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites - as Yahweh your God has commanded you. Otherwise, they will teach you to follow all the detestable things they do in worshiping their gods, and you will sin against Yahweh your God. (Deut. 20:16-18)
2) The Canaanites were being judged by God for their sins.
When a people starts to burn their children in honor of their gods ( Lev. 18:21), practice homosexuality, bestiality, and other disgusting practices (Lev. 18:23-24; 20:3), the land itself begins to "vomit" them out (Lev. 18:25-30). Therefore, to object to the fate of the Canaanites, to object to the manifestation of God's grace and love for Israel and the rest of the human race, to try to compare the Canaanites and their fate with the injustices perpetrated by modern nations, is to seriously confuse the issue.
Perhaps some "innocent" people were slaughtered. We don't know. Some commentators have written that God's actions here could be compared to the work of a surgeon in amputating a gangrenous leg: he cannot help but cut off some healthy flesh. However, that strikes me as a less than useful analogy.
It should be noted instead that nothing is more certain than that providence is administered on the principle that individuals share in the life of the family and nation to which they belong, and so it is therefore right that they should participate in BOTH the rewards AND the punishments of that nation. Though "innocent" people could not help but suffer in the wholesale slaughter of the Canaanites (though this cannot be clearly demonstrated), it would be right because of the relationship the "innocent" had with the guilty. A modern example of this principle might be seen in Nazi Germany. Both the Nazis and those Germans not actively involved in the atrocities suffered for the sins of Hitler when their cities were bombed by the Allied air forces. However, the principle demonstrated by the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah and Jericho should be kept in mind. Abraham was concerned that when God destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah, innocent lives might be taken. Surely, he argued, God would not destroy the righteous with the wicked. And God agreed with his argument. In fact, God said that if there were ten righteous people in the cities, they would not be destroyed. However, only four righteous could be found. But, and this is important, though the city would perish, those four were rescued and didn't suffer God's judgment. Likewise with Jericho: though the city was destroyed, Rahab and her family were rescued because they had demonstrated a fear of God. Other similar examples might be found, ranging from God's protection of the Israelites during the plagues of Egypt, to Noah and his family, to Christians at the end of the world.
To question God's justice in destroying the Canaanites is to question God's right to judge sin. And it should be remembered that the Canaanites were not left without the possibility of repentance. Every forecast or prophesy of doom, like any prophetic word about the future, had a suppressed "unless" attached to it. At the moment a nation, or an individual, turns from his or her evil way and repents, Yahweh will relent and cease to bring the threatened harm.
If at any time I announce that a nation or kingdom is to be uprooted, torn down and destroyed, and if that nation I warned repents of its evil, then I will relent and not inflict on it the disaster I had planned. And if at another time I announce that a nation or kingdom is to be built up and planted, and if it does evil in my sight and does not obey me, then I will reconsider the good I had intended to do for it. (Jer. 18:7-10)
A practical example of this principle is the story preserved in the book of Jonah, where Nineveh's threatened destruction was postponed by the city's acceptance of Jonah's words and their repentance. Thus, in the same way, Canaan had, as it were, a final forty year countdown as they heard of what God had done in Egypt, of the crossing of the Reed Sea, and as they got news of what happened to the kings who had opposed Israel along the way. Rahab told the spies that the city of Jericho was terrified of the Israelites (Josh. 2:10-14). Yet, aside from Rahab, they did not repent. Thus God waited for the "cup of iniquity" to fill up - and fill up it did without any signs of change in spite of the marvelous signs given so that the nations, along with Pharaoh and the Egyptians, "might know that He was Yahweh."
The destruction of the Canaanites is on the same principle as the destruction of the whole world during the time of Noah, the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, or the destruction of Pharaoh's army in the sea. Usually those who would object to these events are those who deny any compatibility of the doctrine of Hell for the unrepentant wicked with the mercy and love of God.
God's character is fully consistent with everything that both Old and New Testaments describe. As a perfect being, the law of noncontradiction must be fully operative in his character. The problems people have with events described in the Bible usually center on a deficiency in their own understanding, and in their inability to properly define terms or grasp the whole of a subject. Often it is also associated with a false view of who God really is.
Implicit in the righteous judgment was the divine intention to protect and benefit the world. When Joshua and the Israelites entered Palestine in the fourteenth century (or thirteenth century, depending on the dating one accepts), Canaanite civilization was so decadent that it was small loss to the world (a net gain actually) that in parts of Palestine it was virtually exterminated. A value judgment, true, but a value judgment based on comparing that civilization with the basic standards of righteousness contained in the rest of the Bible. The failure of the Israelites to fully execute God's command against the Canaanites, was one of the greatest blunders they ever committed. It was a sin that would bring lasting injury to the nation (see Judges 1:28; 2:1-3).
In the ensuing judgment the infinite holiness of Yahweh, the God of Israel, was to be vindicated saliently against the dark background of a thoroughly immoral and degraded paganism. The completely uncompromising attitude commanded by Yahweh and followed by the leaders of Israel must be seen in its true light. Compromise between Israel's God and the degraded deities of Canaanite religion was unthinkable. Yahweh and Baal were poles apart. There could be no compromise without destruction.
It is without sound theological base to question God's justice in ordering genocide against the Canaanites. There is nothing in their destruction that involves a conflict with the New Testament revelation of God in Christ. God's holiness is just as outraged by sin in the New Testament as it was in the Old:
If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left, but only a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God. Anyone who rejected the law of Moses died without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. How much more severely do you think a man deserves to be punished who has trampled the Son of God under foot, who has treated as an unholy thing the blood of the covenant that sanctified him, and who has insulted the Spirit of grace? For we know him who said, "It is mine to avenge; I will repay," and again "The Lord will judge his people." It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God. (Heb. 10:26-31)
One problem - something of an excursus - remains to be dealt with. It is a problem a student of mine, Dennis Swanson, pointed out, and involves a question relating to Sodom and Gomorrah. In Matthew 11:23 Christ said:
And you, Capernaum, will you be lifted up to the skies? No, you will go down to the depths. If the miracles performed in you had been performed in Sodom, it would have remained to this day.
The problem with Christ's words here, and the related ones for Tyre and Sidon in Matthew 11:21, are that they seem to indicate these ancient, wicked cities were not hopelessly corrupt. If the miracles performed by Christ would have brought forth repentance, and if God doesn't desire the death of the wicked (Ezekiel 33), then why didn't he do those miracles for Sodom and Gomorrah (and Tyre and Sidon)?
Jesus was speaking hyperbolically, wishing to stress the unbelievable blindness and wickedness of the people in Capernaum. To read something into his statement beyond condemnation of Capernaum is to fall victim to the logical fallacy described as "reversing the hyperbole". A more common example of this error is found in recent attempts to take the statement "You shall love your neighbor as yourself", and then to build a pop psychology concerning the importance of "loving" or "accepting" oneself. Whether it is necessary to love oneself or not, such an idea cannot legitimately be derived from that passage, for the point of the statement is to stress the nature and depth of love we should have for others. Reversing the hyperbole is fallacious.
The judgment against Sodom and Gomorrah was already settled by Christ's day: no hope was left for them. The impossibility of Christ performing his miracles for them is made clear by remembering that Jesus came at a specific time, to fulfill specific prophesy, and so could not have come earlier for those other cities, anyway (see Galatians 4:4; Mark 1:15; Romans 5:6; 1 Timothy 2:6).
God and Wagering
Some look at the story of Job and are concerned that God has lightly made a bet with the Devil resulting in horrible hardship for a righteous man - and for no good purpose whatsoever, except God's amusement and satisfaction at winning his bet. Such a view betrays such a shocking lack of awareness that it hardly needs a serious answer. However, for the benefit of those who are concerned, it should be pointed out that there is no bet in view here. No money exchanged hands and no bookie was consulted. Rather, the purpose of the test was not just to prove the Devil wrong and to bring glory to God, but to force Job, and the rest of us, to answer a serious question: not "why do the righteous suffer" - as many erroneously believe - but rather "why does a man serve God?" The Devil believes it is simply for the goodies. God shows that it is, or at least should be, for something other than that: for the same reason a child and parent love each other, or a man and woman get married. Please notice Job 1:9-11.
"Does Job fear God for nothing?" Satan replied. "Have you not put a hedge around him and his household and everything he has? You have blessed the work of his hands, so that his flocks and herds are spread throughout the land. But stretch out your hand and strike everything he has, and he will surely curse you to your face."
God and Sin
Of all the problems facing the person who believes in God, the problem of evil is perhaps the greatest. What is the problem of evil? It can be stated simply as follows: "If God is truly omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent, and if He is truly a loving and good God, then why does evil exist?" James Corman and Keith Lehrer write as follows:
We can begin to see this problem in the following way. If you were all-good, all-knowing, and all powerful, and you were going to create a universe in which there were sentient beings - beings that are happy and sad; enjoy pleasure; feel pain; express love, anger, pity, hatred - what kind of world would you create? Being all-powerful, you would have the ability to create any world that it is logically possible for you to create, and being all-knowing you would know how to create any of these logically possible worlds. Which one would you choose? Obviously you would choose the best of all the possible worlds because you would be all-good and would want to do what is best in everything you do. You would, then, create the best of all possible worlds, that is, that world containing the least amount of evil possible. And because one of the most obvious kinds of evil is suffering, hardship, and pain, you would create a world in which the sentient beings suffered the least. Try to imagine what such a world would be like. Would it be like the one which actually does exist, this world we live in? Would you create a world such as this one if you had the power and know-how to create any logically possible world? If your answer is "no," as it seems it must be, then you should begin to understand why the evil of suffering and pain in this world is such a problem for anyone who thinks God created this world. This does not seem to be the kind of world God would create, and certainly not the kind of world he would sustain....
Voltaire, in his book Candide, tries to point out the folly of maintaining that there is a God. His poor protagonist careens from one horror to the next, stubbornly maintaining that indeed this is "the best of all possible worlds." If God is so good, then why do babies die from horrible diseases? Why do children die of starvation in Ethiopia? Why are hundreds killed in a Mexico City earthquake? Why do airplanes crash? Why did the Space Shuttle Challenger explode? Why did World War II happen? Viet Nam? Where was God when the holocaust took the lives of six million Jews? Where was God when a two year old girl was raped and tortured to death?
The question of evil is a serious one that Christians would do well to face squarely. Too often, the Christian, when confronted by such questions, reacts flippantly to the questioner by responding "You're just being recalcitrant", or "Forget you, I'm not going to throw my pearls before swine," or some other equally unreasoning statement. Most Christians have been trained not to look at this question.
A Problem For Monotheists
It should be noted at the outset of this discussion that the problem of evil is a difficulty to be faced only by monotheists who postulate an all powerful, good God. Polytheists never have to face this question, because they recognize several, less than infinitely strong gods who may not be completely good, and who often don't get along well with each other. In fact, the multiple gods are often imagined as being at cross-purposes: the bad that happens in life is because of the arguments among the gods.
Likewise, the problem is not severe in dualistic systems such as Zoroastrianism. Ahura-Mazda, the god of light, is at war with an equally powerful Ahriman, the evil one. In the world, sometimes Ahura-Mazda wins, and sometimes Ahriman wins.
Therefore, dualism and polytheism solve the problem of evil by rejecting the concept of an omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent God. They retain the idea that there is a good and loving God or gods, but explain that He or they are no more capable of ending all the suffering than you or I.
In monotheistic circles, a movement has arisen lately which is called Process Theology. While maintaining a firm belief in the uniqueness of God, process theologians deny that He is omnipotent, omniscient, or omnipresent. They argue that God is just as unhappy with the misery in the world as you are, but he is also just as powerless to do anything about it.
God Is Not All Good?
Another option some have taken is to deny that God is all- good. A recent work that argued along this theme was Robert A. Heinlein's bestseller, Job: A Comedy of Justice, which has the Devil as Yahweh's brother:
[Lucifer is speaking]
"You are indeed another Job. With the original Job I was, I confess, one of the villains. This time I'm not.
"I'm not proud of the fashion in which I bedeviled Job. I'm not proud of the fashion in which I have so often let My Brother Yahweh maneuver Me into doing His dirty work - starting clear back with Mother Eve - and before that, in ways I cannot explain.
...."My Brother Yahweh, wearing his Jesus face, said: 'After this manner therefore pray ye:' Go ahead, say it."
"'Our Father, which art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done-'"
"Stop! Stop right there. 'Thy will be done-' No Muslim claiming to be a 'slave of God' ever gave a more sweeping consent than that. In that prayer you invite Him to do His worst. The perfect masochist. That's the test of Job, boy. Job was treated unjustly in every way day after day for years - I know, I know, I was there; I did it - and My dear Brother stood by and let Me do it. Let Me? He urged Me, He connived in it, accessory ahead of the fact...."
An interesting idea, reminiscent of certain aspects of Mormonism...
Why Do Bad Things Happen to Good People?
The one who believes in an all-good, all-powerful God is left with a problem. Why do bad things happen to good people? We have the answer God gave in Job 38:1-4, 19-21:
Then Yahweh answered Job out of the storm. He said:
"Who is this that darkens my counsel
with words without knowledge?
Brace yourself like a man;
I will question you,
and you shall answer me.
Where were you when I laid the Earth's foundation?
Tell me, if you understand....
What is the way to the abode of light?
And where does darkness reside?
Can you take them to their places?
Do you know the paths to their dwellings?
Surely you know, for you were already born!
You have lived so many years!
God's words are paralleled by the answer Paul gave in Romans 9:19-21:
One of you will say to me: "Then why does God still blame us? For who resists his will?" But who are you, O man, to talk back to God? Shall what is formed say to him who formed it "Why did you make me like this?" Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for noble purposes and some for common use?
God's answer to the question would appear to be "who are you to question me?" The import of all this is simply that God can do anything he wants. God is God. He doesn't have to answer to anybody.
Some Christians, presented with the problem of why bad things happen to good people will remark that we are not really good anyway (Psalm 14:1-2). Since we all are sinners deserving Hell, we should better ask the question, "why do good things ever happen at all." We deserve death, destruction, and suffering. That we don't always receive what we deserve, and that, for the most part, everything is pretty good for us, should fill us with wonder at the grace of God.
The problem with such a response, though, is that it doesn't really answer the question - at least not the primary one. Oh, it may help explain why evil continues to exist. However, the ultimate question remains: why is there evil at all? Why is it that we have come to deserve destruction? Why did a loving all powerful God allow Adam and Eve to sin, and thereby bring all the evil upon the world?
"Freedom of choice." I hear the answer often. "God wanted free moral agents who would freely love him."
Let's pretend I have a child. I tell the child, "don't drink the bottle of Clorox in the cabinet, or you'll die." If I see the child go for the Clorox, will I let the child drink it? So it can be a free moral agent? Because I love it? Because I want it to freely choose whether it will obey me?
If I love the child, what will I do? I'll grab the bottle away from it, that's what.
Thus again, the problem of evil leaps out at us. It hardly seems reasonable that God should have allowed sin into the world. No explanation is offered in the Bible. We are simply told "who are we to question God?" We are his creation. He can and will do with us whatever he wants. He is not answerable to us.
Of course, the child with the Clorox illustrates the Christian doctrine of salvation well. The child drinks the Clorox. The child gets real sick. The child feels real bad. What can the child do to make himself feel better?
But I can save the child's life, by taking him quickly to a hospital and having his stomach pumped. And what is interesting: the child will probably never want to drink Clorox again. Non-theists will obviously not be satisfied with this line of reasoning, and even many theists find it less than sufficient as well. God's words to Job are actually sarcastic in 38:21: Surely you know, for you were already born! You have lived for so many years!"
This is a very hard saying. Both we and Job want to know why there is evil in the world, and God's answer is "Mind your own business!"
A non-theist (and even some theists) may be tempted to respond: "I don't care to believe in a God who claims to be loving but then allows evil in the world, who allows billions to suffer miserably and die - and then sends them screaming into Hell! Who needs Him?!"
What can a theist give in answer to such a statement?
Whether we like the answer God gives to us, or whether we approve of the current world, our opinion will have no effect on reality. I know that the speed of light is a limiting factor in spacetime; nothing can go faster. Why the universe has this characteristic, I don't know. But that's reality. Any arguments or wishes to the contrary, any denial that such is the case, will have no effect at all. We must take the universe that has been given to us.
Whether we understand why things are the way they are, whether we can even understand why God has allowed certain things to occur, does not alter the reality of what we observe around us. People sin; bad things happen; there is horrible injustice and suffering; such things have confused and concerned theists for thousands of years, even the authors of the Bible. But one thing we do know: God has provided a means of escape - a stomach pump if you will - that will save people from the final result of sin. It seems, from this theist's perspective, that God has told us only what we need to know, rather than all we would like to know.
Sovereignty verses Freedom
God is sovereign, but free will is certainly not an illusion because of it. Clearly God holds no responsibility for the actions of the human race. God is not to blame for the evil in the world. He has allowed freedom, even the freedom to do the most vile evil, because slavery, even in a gilded cage, is far worse than anything that we might do or have ever done.
God has chosen those who will be his, and those who will go to Hell (by default). Those who go to Hell will do so of their own free will. He simply does not try to stop them.
Those chosen for heaven freely respond to the gift in the sense that a starving man freely chooses the offered bread, or a man dying of thirst in the desert freely takes the offered water. This is indeed irresistible grace. Though the man dying of thirst is theoretically free to pour the water on the sand without touching a drop, that freedom will not be taken. To say that free will is an illusion for the unredeemed, that the depraved, darkened mind of the natural man has no freedom of will is utterly ludicrous. To show how ludicrous, I will use a ludicrous (and vile) illustration:
Behold the rapist-pervert. In his basement he has a blonde and a brunette bound and gagged. He can and will freely choose which of the two he will rape first, and how often.
Though totally depraved, he has not been deprived of freedom of will, however disgusting.
Those who argue that a person cannot choose to do right, but will always, without fail, do the bad, ignore Paul's words in Romans 2, and also ignore the empirical evidence available from the general revelation of God around us!
God's sovereignty is not to be pictured as a brute force machine. God's omnipotence does not mean that he simply grabs and moves. His omnipotence, his sovereignty, is also a measure of his ability to persuade! God is capable, always, of reaching out his hand and grabbing a man, to deposit him where he wants; occasionally he has resorted to this. But even in those times, the human's freedom of will has not been compromised. Take Jonah. Jonah was forced to go where God wanted him to go, by having a fish swallow him. But, after Jonah was redeposited on the land, Jonah could have easily chosen to try to run away again.
However, God knew Jonah better than Jonah knew himself; God knew that after this little demonstration of God's power, Jonah would do as asked. Jonah was no fool.
God is a master of the gentle (and sometimes not so gentle) art of persuasion. And of course, an exceptionally recalcitrant person can always be killed. That doesn't negate the human's freewill - it simply limits it severely.
As we consider the human race, we come to recognize that God has limited the danger posed by the degenerate nature of our race, not by eliminating our free will, but by eliminating us at given points. No matter how vile, the wickedness of any single individual is limited by his or her mortality. No one lives forever.
So why is there evil in this universe? Because of the freedom God has granted to his creatures.
Is this answer completely satisfying?
No. But part of our problem may simply be a lack of data. God's answer to Job was essentially "Look at all the things in the world that you don't understand, that you can't make sense of. Does your lack of understanding of the complexities of the universe around you cause you to doubt my goodness? No? Then why does your failure to understand your personal suffering cause you to doubt me?"
The Story of the Dogs
"It is quite clear that there can be no such thing as the Owner," said the old dog. He had perched himself on the edge of the chair and surveyed the pups below them. "Consider the obvious fact of the existence of the Veterinarian."
The little pups shivered in fear.
"Is there anything positive that might be said about the Veterinarian?" asked the old dog.
"Perhaps it is to teach us something?" squeeked one little pup.
The old dog laughed. "What possible thing can you learn from being jabbed and prodded and tormented in that little cage? That you don't like being poked? I could have told you that without the experience."
"Perhaps free-will has something to do with it?" suggested another little pup.
Again, the old dog laughed. "We assume that the Owner is all-knowing and all-powerful and that on top of that he loves us and cares for us."
"We do receive food every day," pointed out another small pup.
"Then why is there the suffering of the Veterinarian?" demanded the old dog. "If the Owner was all-knowing and all-powerful, couldn't he keep us from having to endure such suffering?"
"Well certainly," agreed the pups.
"Then why doesn't he? If he loved us, wouldn't he keep the Veterinarian away? In fact, why is there even a Veterinarian at all? It is obvious that the existence of the Veterinarian is incompatible with the existence of the Owner. Either that, or the Owner is not powerful, or else the Owner is not good. There is no way of reconciling the existence of the Owner in the traditional sense with the obvious reality of the Veterinarian."
It is absolutely impossible for the dogs to ever understand why the Veterinarian is necessary, or that the Veterinarian is actually an element in the Owner's love for them. Certainly this is not a perfect analogy, but just as the Veterinarian is nothing but horrible for a dog, perhaps the why of the existence of evil, the reality of suffering, and all that entails is simply beyond our comprehension. That it seems so "obviously" incompatible with the nature of God or even the existence of God does not mean that it necessarily is.
Copyright © Quartz Hill School of Theology. All Rights Reserved.