The Character of God in the Bible

That’s nonsense to the extreme. God’s character is made clear all throughout the Bible in God’s own revelation to us. We don’t need to wonder if God is arbitrary or capricious. He isn’t.

Yikes. I have some thoughts here. Might be a tangent from a scientific or historical discussion of the flood to a moral one, so moderators please spin this off if appropriate.

The moral framework many Christians seem to hold and their understanding of Yahweh’s actions in the Hebrew Bible were an obstacle to my faith that I couldn’t overcome, and I think the Biblical flood narrative provides a pretty good opportunity for a thought experiment that might help us discuss this.

Suppose you are a free moral agent with the conscience you have now, an angel perhaps. You are in heaven with Yahweh and he has just announced that every human on Earth, except Noah and his family, are sinners worthy of a morally justified death. Yahweh turns to you and asks your opinion on his next move. He gives you two options.

  1. Being an all-powerful omni-god, Yahweh could simply “poof” all of the guilty sinners out of existence.
  2. He could send a powerful flood to cover the Earth and drown humanity.

Which option would you suggest? Which action results in less human suffering? Which action does the Bible claim Yahweh chose?

It seems to me that the Divine Command Theory of morality that many Christians seem to hold contributes to a kind of moral confusion that elevates obedience to and defense of authorities (even unjustified authorities) over and above observable harm to humans and the instinct of our consciences. I see this theme all through scripture, from Adam & Eve to the Binding of Isaac to Paul’s hall of faith in Hebrews 11. Humans are expected to trust and obey God, no matter what. In practice, this kind of belief structure seems to minimize or even vilify independent moral judgments made by humans. Obedience to the authority is what matters.

When I look around, this view seems to be at the root of a lot of the harm that certain types of Christians are causing in the world right now. When we believe morality reduces to obedience to authority it becomes possible to harm others and believe ourselves to be justified. I hope the thought exercise above might help folks understand how this belief system can pit the instinct of our conscience (which seems to be closely connected to human well-being) against the actions or commands of this claimed all-good entity.

I think it’s important to deal honestly with Yahweh’s actions in the Old Testament. I have been astounded as I’ve studied the Bible without the blinders and programming of my childhood. Yahweh looks to me like a sort of divine feudal lord, who entered into a transactional covenant with Israel to prosper them when they obey and worship him, and punish them when they do not. Often, these punishments seem extremely unjust and immoral according to my own moral metric of human well-being and equity.

Do you recall the story of David’s rape/adultery of Bathsheba and then murder of Uriah? I’m sure you do. Do you remember who Yahweh ultimately killed as punishment for David’s sin? Not David, he was a man after God’s own heart, after all. No, Yahweh, in his all-good wisdom, evidently thought letting David’s infant son suffer and die would be a good idea. Maybe we can get the pro-lifers to make some signs about that.

Or, since we’re discussing David, perhaps you remember the time when David decided to take a census of his fighting men. Yahweh didn’t appreciate it, and most theologians seem to suggest that the reason was a failure of trust and obedience on David’s part. His fighting force wasn’t responsible for his military victories, Yahweh was, and dang it if Yahweh wasn’t going to remind David of his place. Again, David gets off the hook here (man after God’s own heart indeed!) and to teach him a lesson Yahweh instead lets him choose his punishment from a big wheel 'O mass death. David picks plague and… poof, Yahweh kills 70,000 Israelites in a day!

Do you think that it is just to kill an infant with a painful death as punishment for his father’s sins? Do you think it is just to arbitrarily kill 70,000 people because their king disobeyed and took a census? I sure wouldn’t normally think so, but when it came to these stories, I thought those actions were moral and good! I believed God was perfectly and unquestionably good, so I rationalized those harmful acts. I thought the Amalekites were a “cancer” that needed to be purged from the land. I thought they would have tempted Israel away from God, what other option was there but ethnic cleansing? Though it bothered me, I convinced myself that the women and children Yahweh killed in my bedtime stories must have been killed for some kind of perfectly good purpose.

A number of years ago, I visited the Rwanda Genocide Memorial in Kigali. One of my most powerful memories was learning the way that radio DJs systematically dehumanized Tutsis by calling them “cockroaches” in need of extermination. Suddenly, I recognized that same dehumanizing tactic in my own mind, and I had used it exclusively to defend the goodness of the “morally perfect” God I worshipped. That… bothered me.

Of course, literally any atrocity can be rationalized with appeals to an unknowable good in some vague future. In Hebrews 11, Paul even tells us that Abraham believed that Yahweh could raise Isaac back to life after he killed him. Under such a view, it seems like at bottom humans have no ability whatsoever to make independent moral judgments based on our conscience or senses. Killing my child might be right or wrong depending on what God tells me, and no matter what the consequences are, God can still make it right in the end.

It seems to me that many Christians become used to the taste of this kind of “morality” (obedience to authority) because it’s all we were taught. We’ve never had the real thing! We never learned to make independent moral judgments, or even that such a thing was wise. At least, that was the case for me. Once I realized that I could simply adjust my moral framework to be centered on harm rather than obedience to authority, everything began to fall into place. Suddenly, I no longer had to feel trapped between apparently harmful commands I didn’t really understand and the instincts of my own conscience. I could look at religiously motivated lies and call them lies, I could look at stories about child sacrifice and call them horrific, I could look at actions recommended by Christians and clearly call them wrong, I could look at genocide and call it genocide!

Eventually the emotional and psychological strain was just too much for me to sustain. And then, once I honestly opened up my eyes I began to see how these same moral mistakes are at the root of so much Christian harm in the world right now… I wish more people considered these issues. I think they play an important role in shaping how many Christian Americans approach justice and morality.

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Yikes indeed. Apparently you weren’t interested in actually answering the questions I posed?

Correct, I’m not a believer in a local Biblical flood. As I mentioned it’s a tangent, but I think an important one. :slight_smile:

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It seems to me that this is the kernel of “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself,” which despite being obviously fundamental, does not appear to be fundamental to those who describe themselves as fundamentalists.

Or it could be put more simply as more Jesus, less Genesis. One would think that those who tout themselves as Christians would be receptive to that.

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That’s a rallying cry I can get behind. :slight_smile:

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I find it very strange when I talk to people about the OT genocides and get nothing but confirmation that they’re pretty sure that that’s all morally just fine. When I get that type of response, I always find my thoughts drifting to the image of Christopher Lee and the other inhabitants of Summerisle, swaying, smiling and singing as the police detective burns to death in their wicker effigy. It seems to me that anyone who would affirm the morality of the OT genocides would be happy to repeat them – and that he would sway, and sing, and smile as human beings burned and suffered. Since I’m among those they’d happily watch burning, it’s disquieting.

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Neither in my opinion. God should have made us robots if he wanted full compliance with his will. As long as there is “free will”, he should expect not everyone would follow him.

Reflecting on the actions of radicalist Muslims pushed me to question the needlessly violent actions of Yahweh in the Old Testament. It made no sense to condemn these people when the God I worship used the Jews to do similar things in the past.

For example, I find it hard to reconcile the image of a loving God with his pointless slaughter of the people of Jericho. It made sense that the people of Jericho refused to allow the Jews pass through their city: that region was pretty hostile, so opening your gates to total strangers was almost certainly a bad idea. God should have known this and respected that sensible decision. If he could divide the Red Sea to allow the Jews cross over to the Middle East, then there was nothing stopping him from devising an alternative route to the destination of the Jews. Even if the Jews needed to pass through the Jericho, God could have snapped his fingers and all it’s inhabitants would be put in a deep sleep, then send his angels to open the gate, avoiding unnecessary bloodshed. Instead, thanks to the actions of a traitor and several spies, plus a wall-shattering miracle, he ended a city for no good reason. It’s difficult remaining a Christian when this hits you.

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Discussed also a few months ago on this thread if you’re interested in reading through all the posts.

You also have to decide on what basis you judge God’s actions to be needlessly violent or not.

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The keyword is “needlessly”. Violence is a sad part of reality, but it can be avoided if there are other means to an end. God is claimed to be a way maker even in seemingly hopeless situations, so he could have found out multiple, nonviolent ways to get the Jews through the city of Jericho (like the one I suggested), but he chose to kill those innocent people for no good reason.

You also fail to put yourself in the shoes of the people of Jericho. Would you open your door to a stranger, at an odd hour in a hostile neighborhood, pleading to go over to the next street through your backyard, when he could just walk to the next street?
Would it be right if that stranger knocked down your door, murdered your kids and looted some of your stuff? These are the things Yahweh used the Jews to do to the people of Jericho. If Allah, Zeus, and Kali did these things you would call them evil, so don’t drop your reasoning because you want to defend the ruthless actions of Yahweh.

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It should also be remembered that the hero of the Parable of the Good Samaritan is neither of Jesus’ and his disciples’ two fellow Jews in the story, but the Samaritan, the despised outsider. I cannot help but think that, were he (or his equivalent) to find himself in a similar situation in the US today, he would more likely find himself vilified, and quite possibly imprisoned and deported, by many of Jesus’ followers, rather than being held up as an example.

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Exactly. And yet @thoughtful doesn’t seem to think that this lesson applies to her at all! I’ve asked her whether they teach this story at her church, but she won’t even answer.

To me, it’s at the core of Christianity.

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Sorry, if you’ve asked me about this story. You’ve asked me about the woman at the well but won’t say how it applies to me.

On what basis are you judging that it’s for no good reason?

I love God and He loves me. Yes, I will defend the God of love because He has made it obvious Jesus rose from the dead. Other religions pale in comparison to that claim or are very obviously false.

The Samaritan in the story was Jesus disciple, not the two Jews. That was the point.

Its because the violence was needless . The people of Jericho did not attack the Jews, neither did they do anything wrong by keeping their gates shut. This isn’t hard to understand. God’s brute action towards the city of Jericho was nothing short of warmongering and bloodthirstiness.

Maybe

How do you know?

There is extremely poor, independent evidence for the resurrection of Jesus. Its not obvious in anyway.

Its obvious you have exchanged critical thinking for blind devotion to God, just as radicalist Muslims. Imagine your first child was killed by a foreign God, simply because your king refused to let his slaves go, would that be okay to you?

As long as you regard Allah, Zeus and Kali as evil when they inflict needless or unjustified punishments on people, then the atheist has every right to call Yahweh evil.

I am sure folks of other religions on PS would disagree. Your arrogance is baseless.

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On what basis do you know when violence is needful or needless?

Why would an all powerful deity need to use violence?

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Would you suggest there is never a reason? Or what reasons can you imagine?

Please answer the above.

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I think God using violence is justified in some cases. For example, God sent his angel to obliterate the Assyrian army which intended to attack the Jews. God defending his worshippers isn’t bad.

But he is guilty of senseless violence like the killing of the Egyptian firstborn kids or murdering innocent Jews because David took a census (he or Satan) ordered.

I’ve asked you whether they teach this story at your church and how YOU think it applies to you.

No, that makes absolutely no sense. The Samaritan is the woman at the well. Perhaps you should read the story before commenting again. It’s John 4:4-42.

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I’ll have to respond more later, but briefly, this seems like a central issue. Can we fallible humans have any hope at all of making our own moral judgments, or are we all better off if we simply obey one authority or another without question? If, as many Christians believe, God’s character or commands themselves define right and wrong actions, then in a real sense it becomes impossible for humans to make independent moral judgments.

In a given situation an action is considered right or wrong not based on the consequences and how they harm or help, but only on God’s command. This means that even apparent atrocities, like those the Hebrew Bible says were committed or commanded directly by Yahweh, can be thought to be morally good or even obligatory. If God is thought to be some kind of cosmic utilitarian, who by definition must be perfectly good, then we can always appeal to unknown and unknowable future goods to rationalize any instance of apparent harm. Sure, God told Israel to kill babies, but their whole society was probably already unredeemable. God knows best, so we should just trust him, even when we don’t understand and it might seem hard.

I think this kind of view is what often lurks behind the Christians who persecute racial minorities, women, LGBTQ+ folks, and anyone else who doesn’t agree with their authority. For this kind of person, right actions are not actions that help others and do not harm. In fact, harm doesn’t seem to be part of this framework at all. It literally doesn’t matter. Right actions are those that please God, no matter what the apparent consequences are to humans.

There is also a theological issue here, I think. If we define good as what God is or what he does, it seems like saying something as simple as “God is good” becomes a tautology. Under this view that statement is like saying “God is what he is” or “God will do what God will do.” Unless we have some moral standard external to God, by which to evaluate his character and actions, then we do not have any rational basis for even believing God to BE good.

To be clear, I do meet Christians who hold a different moral view. Many Christians seem to focus their faith more squarely on Jesus and his teachings of love and empathy. I’m in favor of that. :slight_smile: However, I do not understand how those teachings can be reconciled with the character and actions of Yahweh in the Hebrew Bible in a coherent way. Personally, I think that Christians need to boldly disavow many of the moral and social teachings in the Hebrew Bible before they can hope to collectively move toward a more ethical future.

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