The God I don’t Understand 5: OT violence?

We come to part two of Christopher Wright’s, The God I Don’t Understand(IVP, 2008). In the last section he muses about the problem of the existence of evil but in this section he considers the struggle to understand the violence and wrath of God found in the Old Testament. Wright says that atheists like Richard Dawkins have no trouble understanding (in their way of thinking) the God of the OT. He’s just a “petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak…vindictive, bloodthirsty…malevolent bully.” (as quoted on p. 73). Wright says their struggle is only to understand Christians who say they believe in this kind of God. It is Christians who struggle to understand the character of God and how punishments on whole families fits with the God of love we imagine. For the next two chapters he wants to consider the following question:

How are we to understand the language of God’s anger, jealousy, or vengeance alongside of what we have been taught about God’s love, mercy, and compassion? (p. 74)

And he wants to apply this to the treatment of the Canaanites.

We’ll look here at his chapter 4 which outlines three popular (but in his mind wrong) attempts to get around the interpretation of a capricious genocidal God.

1. OT God vs. NT God. That is, some try to ignore the problems of the OT by claiming that the NT sets to rights the OT. Wright says that behind this assumption is that the OT God is all “fire and brimstone, war and vengeance, blood and punishment. The so-called God of the New Testament is much nicer altogether.” (77).

Wright disagrees with this assumption because the OT has much to say about God’s compassion and love, the NT, “has much to say (and more in fact) about the anger and judgment of God…[and] because Jesus and writers of the New Testament never seem embarrassed by Old Testament stories, nor do they reject or even correct them (though they do move beyond them).” (ibid.)

To bolster his argument, Wright examines a number of OT passages (e.g., Ex. 34:6-7 [which he says is the “most pervasive definitions of the character of God in the Bible…Love is for thousands; punishment is for thre and four.”], Ps. 103:8-14, Jer. 31:3, 20, Eze 33:11, Deut 7, 10). Then he examines Jesus as the most frequent discussant of hell, the day of judgment, and then cites John Wenham’s observation that while the OT focuses on temporal punishment, the NT focuses on eternal punishments.

Finally, he addresses the ways the NT writers refer to the OT. They refer to the punishment of Sodom and of Korah. They refer to other horrors and do not re-interpret (though they do include Samson in the lessons of faith). And so, he concludes that you cannot and should not put the NT against the OT to resolve the problem of violence.

2. The Israelites thought they were doing God’s will to wipe out the Canaanites but were wrong. This is the 2nd way some try to get around the violence of the OT. God couldn’t have been behind it. It must have been the Israelites mistaken view that God was telling them to destroy the inhabitants of the land. Wright believes this argument fails because (a) when people speak falsely or act falsely for God, it is corrected [hmm., is that always true?] as in Nathan’s advice to David or in Jehu’s bloodbath murder of Baal priests. Since nowhere does the conquest of Canaan get rebuked…therefore it cannot be a misinterpretation of God’s will, and (b) in fact, the unwillingness to conquer the land (after the spies came back) led to the the wilderness wanderings and is seen as disobedience of God in both testaments. Wright concludes,

you simply can’t surgically remove the conquest alone from the great sweep of Bible history…while leaving all the rest of the story intact within the sovereign will of God. At least, you can’t if you treat the Bible seriously as a whole. (p. 83)

3. The conquest passages are allegory for the purpose of getting a “spiritual lesson” from them. Wright doesn’t deny the value of spiritualizing texts. But, he concludes that the “spiritual use of the Old Testament narratives is secondary and derivative. Their primary form is simply historical narrative.” (p. 84).

No one (and I imagine native Palestinians would be included) believes that the stories of the OT are intended as fictional accounts, even if numbers of people killed are somewhat symbolic or estimates.

So, if these ways of thinking about the conquest are not helpful, what is? That will be the content of chapter five.


Filed under Biblical Reflection, book reviews, Christian Apologetics, Christianity, Doctrine/Theology, sin

3 responses to “The God I don’t Understand 5: OT violence?

  1. Lightbearer

    I agree with Wright’s assessments. But if I’m reading the opening paragraph above correctly, he is strawmaning Richard Dawkins’s argument from the God Delusion.

    Having read the God Delusion, his other books, his website, and having seen his debates on YouTube, I’m very familiar with his arguments.

    The points that Wright makes above are the same points that Dawkins makes to Christians that use the above arguments. Dawkins’s view is that moderate Christians pretend that the bad parts of the Bible either don’t exist or are allegorical.

    In fact, if the above quote-mine is accurate, then Wright is engaging in the same tactic, by replacing parts of the quote he doesn’t like with ” … ”

    But judge for yourself; here is the full quote from the opening of Chapter 2 of the God Delusion: “The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.”

    This is the God of Pastor Fred Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church, for example. It is the God of millions of Christians, Muslims, Jews, and Mormons. It is not the God of the majority of the followers of Abraham, even though they will say that it is. And this contradiction is what both Wright and Dawkins point out.

    So for Wright to imply that Dawkins doesn’t get it, or doesn’t understand, or as many apologists like to put it, “struggles to understand,” is simply not true.

    Or to put it another way: failing to find your argument convincing or logical, is not the same thing as failing to understand your argument.

    • Wright is not implying that Dawkins doesn’t get it. I put the ellipses in because I was conserving space. He was only saying that Dawkins doesn’t have a problem understanding God as he sees him, he has trouble understanding why Christians ignore these parts of the bible. And when he says he has trouble understanding christians, its a figure of speech. It means he’s troubled by these types of people, not troubled by the picture of God in the OT since he has decided that that God is capricious…

      Maybe I’m not doinig a good job summarizing Wright, but you may also want to consider if you are reading for evidence of dismissing others. In no way do I see Wright dismissing others. He is genuinely trying to struggle through these matters and gently instructing Christian–in this chapter–to avoid easy but wrong interpretations just to avoid a perceived problem. Now, you may not like his answer in the next chapter but we’ll look at that after the New Year.

  2. Lightbearer


    Thanks for the clarification, especially about the ellipses.

    Perhaps I am reading into Wright’s meaning (definitely need to pick up his book 🙂 ). But I know for a fact that Dawkins does not have trouble understanding why Christians ignore parts of the Bible: certain parts are simply untenable in today’s moral zeigeist (his coined phrase, btw), so are dismissed with logically fallacious reasoning like Wright outlines above, and simply not taught to the next generation of Christians. The reason Christians protested against suffrage and civil rights in the past, but not today, is due to the selective interpretation of Scripture over time.

    Most apologists bring up Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens, etc., only to mis-characterize their arguments as lacking theological sophistication and understanding. They ignore the arguments as if Dawkins, et al, never made them, or if they do address them, as Wright seems to do above, adopt them as their own, without giving their opponent credit. So if I’m misunderstanding Wright’s approach to Dawkins, then it’s only because I’ve seen so many apologists bungle Dawkin’s point of view.

    I do appreciate Wright’s honest and frank approach to Scripture as outlined above, and am also looking forward to the next chapter, and the new year.

    Merry Christmas!

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