I remember discussing God’s method of salvation in a Sunday school class a few years ago. One of those in my discussion group said she had recently decided to read the whole Bible and began in the Old Testament. She was shocked with all the blood and death, and commented that she was glad to have been born this side of the cross. I understood her response to it all, because I could remember similar feelings while reading Judges 19-21 where eleven tribes or Israel rose up against the Benjaminites and almost wiped out the entire twelfth tribe. I could hardly believe what I read, but it was there, and I couldn’t deny how it unsettled me. I get similar feelings watching programs on TV like Criminal Minds. While I appreciate the acting and like the fact that evil is always put down, I simply cannot take a steady diet of the horrific details of its theme.
Our prisons are full of people who have demonstrated in one way or another that they have problems living in a ‘civilized’ society. Many of these people are dangerous and serve as a real threat to peaceful living, which is why they live behind walls and are under constant armed supervision. I find myself wondering, as I reread Paul Copan’s book, Is God a Moral Monster, what if all Israel behaved like the people we incarcerate today? What if the whole world behaved like criminals do today? As I read parts of the Old Testament, I have to wonder if this is such a strange idea. After all, when I read of Joshua, the leader of the Israelites, made war upon and defeated five Canaanite kings, and afterwards hung their dead bodies on trees for the entire day, I have to ask, ‘what civilized person would do such a thing today?’
If even the heroes of the Bible behaved so, where would one begin to address such violent behavior? At least on the face, in some instances there doesn’t seem to be much difference between those the Bible calls evil and those it holds up as righteous, and perhaps there isn’t—maybe that’s not such a foreign idea after all! Perhaps for the very first time in my life, as I reread the Old Testament from the perspective of Is God a Moral Monster, I am beginning to understand the plight of a loving God who begins to address the evil in the world, while calling out a people for his own. The problem is, they are no more righteous than the nations God intends to judge. Where would God even begin in his effort to moralize people like this? How effective are we in our efforts to reform evil men who present a danger to our society? Who among them could we trust? Who could God trust in Moses’ or Joshua’s day? These are they who broke treaties on a whim. Simply killing their enemies doesn’t seem to be enough. They hang their dead bodies on trees! How could God get such people to cooperate with one another, trust one another, or invest ‘good will’ in the welfare of those among them who act so violently?
Love, in the sense of 1Corinthians 13 is hardly commonplace in such a society. In fact, that kind of love might be considered a sign of weakness among such people. Finding such love as Paul describes in 1Corinthians 13 in ancient Israel (or anywhere else) might be like trying to imagine a new color that isn’t based upon red, yellow or blue or a combination of any two or all of them. It is just that foreign to the context of what we read there. What would such love that put others before self look like? We do find hints of it there, but it is rare. Whenever anyone in the Old Testament is recorded to have put the interests of others above his own, the act is set in contrast to what is completely foreign to it. It stands out like a bright light in the midst of horrific darkness.
So, how does God address such unrighteousness that is so great that it contaminates even the people he calls out of it to be righteous? We must conclude that God met his people in the crude shape they were in, knowing they would never accept or even understand the kind of righteous behavior we are called upon to accept in the New Testament. If these men were to retain their free will, God must work with them, even in their undeveloped and uncivilized condition, encouraging them incrementally to improve their state as they were willing and able to accept better behavior. The Mosaic Law was a temporary fix to point God’s people in the right direction, but it was by far incomplete and insufficient for the whole task.
We are given the sense that God overlooked many poor characteristics in his people, because of their hard hearts. They simply couldn’t understand the ideal God pointed to (Acts 17:30; Romans 3:25; cf. Matthew 19:8). God even used the customs and traditions of men in that day, changing what needed to be changed and introduced new meaning into the religious ceremonies. To judge God’s behavior in the Old Testament according to our modern worldview would be to miss the point of the context in which we find God working.
 As I said HERE, this current theme about “making sense of the Old Testament God” is based upon the book: Is God a Moral Monster by Paul Copan. These are my thoughts about his book. He may or may not agree with the impression his book has made upon me, but I thoroughly enjoyed reading what Paul wrote and recommend his book to anyone who is looking for a good read concerning defending our faith.