“I believe in God.” These are the first words of the Apostles’ Creed. God also appears at the beginning of the Bible, “In the beginning God” (Genesis 1:1) and at the beginning of the Gospel of John. In fact, God is the main character of both Old and New Testaments. The question that seldom is asked by those who believe in God is: what kind of God do we believe in?
This question becomes very important when people begin to study the Old Testament and are confronted with some of the things God said and did. Many people who read the Old Testament, even those who are Christians and believe in God, are surprised and horrified at some aspects of God’s behavior and how he commanded the people of Israel to slaughter the Canaanites and kill all the people who lived in their cities.
The problem of divine behavior in the Old Testament is one of those issues that has caused believers and nonbelievers to question whether God is a good or an evil God. The Bible presents many of the actions of God that have raised moral and theological issues in the mind of readers. Some of these troubling images of God bewilder readers of the Bible. They struggle with these disturbing images of God and some even question whether the God who revealed himself to Israel and the God who was manifested in the person of Jesus Christ are the same God or whether this God is a God of love and mercy.
In his book, Disturbing Divine Behavior: Troubling Old Testament Images of God (Fortress Press, 2009), Eric A. Seibert seeks to address some of the passages where God’s behavior seemingly contradicts other passages in the Bible where God is presented as a loving and forgiving God. Seibert believes that it is impossible to reconcile (what he believes to be) these irreconcilable views of God and that these disturbing actions of God cannot be defended.
There is no doubt that some of the things God asked his people to do appear to be evil and unfair. How could God ask Abraham to kill his beloved son Isaac when God gave that son to Abraham in his old age and then promised Abraham that through Isaac and his descendants a great nation would emerge to bless all the families of the earth?
How could God order Joshua and the Israelites to conquer the land of Canaan and in the process destroy many cities and exterminate entire populations, including men, women, and children, young and old? How could God order Saul to attack the Amalekites and then order him to “utterly destroy all that they have; do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey” (1 Samuel 15:3)?
If the God of the Old Testament waged war, the God who revealed himself in Christ told his followers to love our enemy. If the God of the Old Testament commanded entire nations to be destroyed, the God who revealed himself in Christ told his followers to turn the other cheek, to forgive, and not to kill. The issue Seibert raises in his book is whether the God of the Old Testament is different from the God of the New Testament.
These are questions with which most readers of the Bible struggle. And in response to this disturbing divine behavior, some people lose faith in God and become atheists and critics of the God of the Bible. Others, become like Marcion, who rejected the God of the Old Testament in favor of the God of Jesus. Marcion believed that the Old Testament was the gospel of an alien God. These neo-Marcionites reject the God of the Old Testament to become followers of the God of the New Testament.
Those who believe that the God of the Old Testament and the God of the New Testament are the one and same God, seek ways of understanding God’s actions and make an attempt at demonstrating that this so-called disturbing divine behavior is not inconsistent with what the Old Testament says about God as a gracious and merciful God. Can Christians accept the God of the Old Testament and his actions and still believe that he is a merciful and gracious God?
Fortress Press graciously sent me a copy of Siebert’s book for review. After reading Disturbing Divine Behavior, I came to the conclusion that Seibert’s solution to the problem of disturbing divine behavior is not acceptable. To say that some of the things God commanded the people of Israel to do never happened, destroys the historical underpinnings of the Bible. To say that the God of the text and the real God are different is to minimize the fact that all that we know about God is found in the text. In the same vein, most of the solutions proposed by Seibert are unacceptable.
During the Summer I will write a series of posts reviewing Seibert’s arguments and his proposed solutions. In these forthcoming posts, I will make an attempt at answering Seibert’s views and propose a different approach to Seibert’s argument, one which says that these divine actions indeed happened and that the God of the Bible is still a good and loving God.
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary