September 04, 2016
Jesus and the God of the Old Testament
Hello Dr. Craig,
I would first like to say thank you so much for being such an amazing resource for answers and perspectives on difficult questions. I have listened to you for years and have learned so much from your work.
I would like to explain, that I am a Christian. I believe in Jesus and that he died for my sins on the Cross. However, I must admit that I have not delved into scripture wholeheartedly.
I was so deeply affected by the Gospels that they struck a note with me. I believe in Jesus because I can completely relate to the message. It makes total sense for me. Man is depraved, we need a saviour, that saviour is God, God came to live as one of us to show us the only way to live and consequently died, all so that we may turn from our own self righteousness and follow him.
Jesus set the standard as has never been matched or could not be matched by man or gods.
My problem lies further back in the timeline.
I recently decided to read the Bible in a 1 year plan on an app. It took me to the books of Moses and Joshua.
I quickly found that this God was not the same as Jesus. I am truly struggling with this God.
There are many passages that don't seem to make sense regardless of how we may argue the case for God having morally sufficient reasons for not only allowing things to be done, but to actually demand them. There are a couple of passages that stand out;
Now while the sons of Israel were in the wilderness, they found a man gathering wood on the Sabbath day. Those who found him gathering wood brought him to Moses and Aaron and to all the congregation; and they put him in custody because it had not been declared what should be done to him. Then the Lord said to Moses, "The man shall surely be put to death; all the congregation shall stone him with stones outside the camp." So all the congregation brought him outside the camp and stoned him to death with stones, just as the Lord had commanded Moses. - Numbers 15: 32-36 (NASB)
The reason this stands out is because Jesus teaches us something completely in opposition in the New Testament than what we are told he demanded in the Old;
And it happened that He was passing through the grain fields on the Sabbath, and His disciples began to make their way along while picking the heads of grain. The Pharisees were saying to Him, "Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the Sabbath?"
Jesus said to them, "The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath. - Mark 2:23-27
Why the stark difference for his disciples and that man? I can't help but feel so sorry for that man for picking up wood in the forest. Where was His mercy, where did God show His forgiveness and kindness and love as an eternally higher moral being? He just makes himself look the same as any number of gods in antiquity that act in the same way humans do.. This God is the same as I see in the Quran. I honestly believed that Jesus was above all other gods. He stood out from Allah. And that is why I love him. But reading this, I can't reconcile the two. I'm led to believe that they cannot be the same.
If indeed Jesus is the same God I can't help but feel like he is making one very harsh rule at one point in time for a group of people, and then not only disregarding his own rule at a later date but actually using it to work against the very people who are actually following it. This doesn't make sense for me. I find it very hard to relate to this God and if Jesus is in league with this plan then it shows he is calculated and deceitful. He sets the Jews up in such a manner that he demands death if they do not do his will, and then turns the tables on them at a later date in time and makes them to look foolish for following the same rules He put into place with an iron hand in the first place.
I'm seriously torn. I don't think I can make sense of Jesus if he is indeed the same God of the Old Testament.
If you would please bear in mind, that given the evidence of the gospels I am compelled beyond a doubt that Jesus is God, my issue lies in that if he is the Old Testament God also, then I do not love him as much. I hope you understand, I am truly looking for answers here. I am not an atheist, and therefore the moral argument does not work here, what I am saying is that I do believe in God regardless, I am just not convinced that the Old Testament is the word of God.
The second example is;
Joshua and Achan.
Achan admitted to stealing and he and his whole family, livestock and possessions were destroyed and burned.
God in this passage seems to covet gold and treasure, saying that he wants things devoted to him, this seems very human to me. Even though the things of man are deplorable before him. And why would he want everyone dead and burned? Even the livestock and Achans relatives??? This doesn't seem like an all loving God. This doesn't sound like the turn the other cheek Jesus. I am so troubled by the petty nature and wrath that this God is depicted as having. He seems so angry, why didn't he show mercy and just send them away? It's strange. I cannot reconcile the two.
If God wanted to save as many souls as possible, why would he want to spoil the odds by making himself out to be on the same level as Allah or any other angry, wrathful, merciless, hateful, human like god?
I am seriously struggling Dr. Craig. I hope this question is not too long for you to answer. But the moral argument does not comfort me. As I am already a believer in God, so therefore I believe in ultimate morals etc. I am just struggling to see how the Old Testament God could be the same God as Jesus and it is actually driving me away from Jesus. I am beginning to resent the character of this God. If we are saved by believing in Jesus and by his Grace then are we still saved if we feel so much resentment towards his earlier depiction??
I am seriously lost on this matter!!
God Bless and thank you in advance either way...
Sam, I had written a response to your letter, answering the philosophical difficulties raised therein; but when I came to the end, I thought, this doesn’t address his real problem. My answers didn’t go deep enough and would probably have left you cold. So I’ve put my first response aside for the moment and am starting anew. You see, I don’t think your problem is really intellectual; I think it’s emotional.
Before I explain why, let me put one issue to rest. There is no opposition between Jesus and the God of the Old Testament. For Jesus knew about these passages you cite. The God he called his Heavenly Father, whose Kingdom he proclaimed, was precisely this same God of the Old Testament. Jesus saw no conflict between the God of the Old Testament and the God he loved and served.
Here’s the sentence in your letter that really worries me: “I am beginning to resent the character of this God. If we are saved by believing in Jesus and by his Grace then are we still saved if we feel so much resentment towards his earlier depiction??” Of course, you’re still saved, Sam, despite the resentment you feel. But that resentment will destroy you spiritually if it goes unchecked and continues to grow.
You seem to have a tender heart, Sam, but I can’t help but wonder whether you have an impoverished conception of God. You appreciate God’s loving-kindness; but I don’t sense any appreciation of God’s awesome holiness. Do you grasp God’s unalloyed moral purity and the loathsomeness of sin? God’s moral purity is like a light so intense you cannot look at it. When Moses asked to see a vision of God, God told him, “Man shall not see me and live” (Exodus 33.20). God then granted to Moses a diminished vision of His glory that Moses could bear.
When Isaiah saw a vision of the Lord in the Temple, with the angels singing, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory,” what was his reaction? “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” (Isaiah 6.5). God’s holiness served to expose Isaiah’s own impurity and sinfulness by comparison. So it is with every person, regardless of how good he is by human standards. Even Job, a righteous man, says to the Lord, “I had heard of thee by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees thee; therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42.5-6). Compared to God’s perfect righteousness, Isaiah says, “We are all as an unclean thing, and all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags” (Isaiah 64.6).
That implies that we deserve nothing from God but His righteous condemnation. Read the opening chapters of Paul’s letter to the Romans. In chapter 3.9-12, summarizing, he writes, “All men, both Jews and Greeks, are under the power of sin, as it is written:
‘None is righteous, no, not one;
no one understands, no one seeks for God.
All have turned aside, together they have gone wrong;
no one does good, not even one’.” (Ecclesiastes 7.20; Psalm 14.2-3).
We all therefore find ourselves under God’s condemnation and wrath.
The passages in the Old Testament that you find so troubling need to be read in that light. The question is, How can a God of absolute moral purity live in the midst of an unclean and sinful people? Just as darkness is expelled by light, so evil is expelled from God’s presence. So how could God select the people of Israel and dwell in their midst and lead them? In my study of the doctrine of the atonement, I found that the temporary solution to that problem was the system of animal sacrifices instituted by God. The worshipper identified with the sacrifice he brought, and the killing of the animal therefore symbolized his own death. Its blood symbolically cleansed the worshipper of impurity and guilt so that God might abide with the people and not destroy them.
You ask, “Where was His mercy, where did God show His forgiveness and kindness and love as an eternally higher moral being?” The answer is that in even allowing the people to exist at all, including the man gathering wood on the Sabbath and Achan and his family, God was showing His forgiveness and kindness and love. Those people had no more claim than we do to even another breath of life in the presence of a holy God. They deserved nothing but His wrath, but He graciously called them out to be His people.
These passages that you cite are from the early days of nation-building in which God called Israel out of Egypt to bring them into the land which He had promised to them. The sacrificial system had not even been constituted yet. It was a theocratic state with God as the sole Ruler. In order to constitute Israel as His people, in preparation, we believe, for the eventual coming of Christ and the salvation of the world, God set up certain boundary markers, lest the people assimilate to the pagan peoples that surrounded them. Achieving this could call for severe measures. That’s what you see in the passages you cite.
So now we do come to some philosophy! What is the problem posed by these passages supposed to be? Insofar as we’re talking about an intellectual problem, rather than just an emotional problem on our part, it seems to me that the objection must be that God is portrayed as doing things we think immoral. Since God is morally perfect, we thus have an apparent contradiction.
Now at this point, Sam, I want you to read my answer to Question of the Week #16, where I offer a Divine Command Theory of ethics which I believe resolves the apparent contradiction. In a nutshell, the theory holds that moral values are grounded in God Himself as a perfectly virtuous being and that His commandments to us constitute our moral duties. I cannot think of any other theory of objective moral values and duties as plausible as this account.
But this theory has very unsettling consequences. Since God does not issue commandments to Himself, He has no moral duties to fulfill, that is to say, no moral obligations or prohibitions. He can do whatever He wants so long as it is consistent with His own perfectly good nature. God can command us to do things which in the absence of a divine command would have been sin. In the case of the Canaanite slaughter—or, better, expulsion (see QoW #225)—, I’ve suggested what I think are plausible reasons for God’s issuing His commands.
I suspect that the cases of the man violating the Sabbath and of Achan are quite similar. In those early years, it was absolutely crucial to impress upon Israel the importance of keeping themselves distinct from pagan religion, and, hence, you get all these laws about clean and unclean, Sabbath regulations, sacred objects, things devoted to the Lord, and so on. The rigid enforcement of these rules was for the sake of the preservation of Israel and of true religion in a pagan sea.
Now as you rightly observe, these rules were restricted to a particular time and place. As Paul Copan emphasizes in his book Is God a Moral Monster?, these laws were temporary and provisional. They were not timeless, ethical truths. Jesus undid some of them. Christians are not bound by them. They were unique to Israel at that appointed time in history.
I don’t understand why you think the temporariness and provisionality of the Old Testament laws makes God “calculating and deceitful.” You say, “He sets the Jews up in such a manner that he demands death if they do not do his will, and then turns the tables on them at a later date in time and makes them to look foolish for following the same rules He put into place with an iron hand in the first place.” Not at all, Sam! Paul says that the Old Testament law was our schoolteacher to help bring us to Christ. People in the Old Testament were bound to obey the commands given to them, as we are bound to obey the commands given to us. Faithful Jews don’t look foolish for obeying faithfully God’s commands, for these were their moral duties. Now that Messiah has come, we don’t have those same duties (thank God!).
You ask of the man violating the Sabbath, “Why the stark difference for [Jesus’] disciples and that man?” Because Christ came to deliver us from the curse of the law, taking the curse upon himself. “I can't help but feel so sorry for that man for picking up wood in the forest.” Well, OK, but realize that he may have been deliberately profaning the Sabbath by selfishly gathering fuel in the desert (wilderness ≠ forest!) when he thought no one was looking. God’s severely dealing with the man was an object lesson to the rest of the people.
You’ve misunderstood the situation with Achan. God cares nothing for gold and treasures. All things are His. Rather this idea of things’ being devoted to destruction is of a piece with what I said about the setting of Israel apart from the nations. Just as burnt offerings were to be wholly burned up and thus devoted to the Lord, so were these items of conquest. Achan was guilty of a capital crime, stealing from God. “This doesn't seem like an all loving God. This doesn't sound like the turn the other cheek Jesus.” This is the God who turned His cheek repeatedly in even allowing Israel to exist at all and dwelling in their midst. But now severe measures were called for. “I am so troubled by the petty nature and wrath that this God is depicted as having. He seems so angry, why didn't he show mercy and just send them away?” There’s no basis here for calling His wrath petty. Achan’s sin was serious, and to simply show mercy and send them away might have fatally compromised what God was doing in building the nation of Israel. God has the right to give and take life as He sees fit, and the severe judgement that fell on Achan and his family was an object lesson to all of Israel not to trifle with God. It helped to set and keep Israel on the straight and narrow.
Now I realize, Sam, that you may find all this emotionally repugnant. You may prefer Father Christmas to the Greatest Conceivable Being, Who is absolute in His moral purity and justice. But think for a moment: it is only against the backdrop of the wrath of God that we move beyond sentimentality to a profound appreciation of the love of God. Paul says that we Christians “were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved) (Eph 2.3-5). Only once we grasp how foul and filthy we are in comparison to God do we begin to get some understanding of His loving embrace of us, only when we come to confess that we deserve nothing from Him but wrath and condemnation do we begin to truly grasp the greatness of His grace and loving-kindness. Ironically, then, your conception of God may be enriched even in your grasp of His love by first understanding His holiness.
I want to close by sharing with you a remarkable passage encountered in my study of the atonement in Francis Turretin’s Institutes of Elenctic Theology (16.2). Here this normally starchy, cool, intellectual theologian writes from his heart about the righteousness of Christ imputed to us:
This appears more clearly when we come to the thing itself and the controversy is not carried on coldly and unfeelingly in scholastic cloud and dust (as if from a distance), but in wrestling and agony--when the conscience is placed before God and terrified by a sense of sin and of the divine justice, it seeks a way to stand in the judgment and to flee from the wrath to come. It is indeed easy in the shades of the schools to prattle much concerning the worth of inherent righteousness and of works to the justification of men; but when we come into the sight of God, it is necessary to leave such trifles because there the matter is conducted seriously and no ludicrous disputes about words are indulged. . . . Truly while among men the comparison holds good; each one supposes he has what is of some worth and value. But when we rise to the heavenly tribunal and place before our eyes that supreme Judge (not such as our intellects of their own accord imagine, but as he is described to us in Scripture [namely, by whose brightness the stars are darkened; at whose strength the mountains melt; by whose anger the earth is shaken; whose justice not even the angels are equal to bear; who does not make the guilty innocent; whose vengeance when once kindled penetrates even to the lowest depths of hell]), then in an instant the vain confidence of men perishes and falls and conscience is compelled (whatever it may have proudly boasted before men concerning its own righteousness) to deprecate the judgment and to confess that it has nothing upon which it can rely before God.