The Character of God in the Bible

Sadly, no Christians are engaging on that subject here.

There is indeed.

It’s not good scholarship to pretend that no questions should be asked.

Sorry, I should have probably laid this out a little more carefully at the top, but it was kind of a… reactionary post to our friend PD. DCT is Divine Command Theory. Link below for anyone who wants to dig in, but put most briefly it’s a moral view that defines goodness as either what God is or what God commands. It seems to be the view that PD holds, and it’s what I have been criticizing. Not all Christians hold this moral view, but many do.

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Yep. And this is why these depraved pseudo-moral views (I do not think they can properly be called “moral views” as they depend on nothing relevant to actual morality) are so prevalent among creationists of every stripe.


One question that comes up is trying to figure out what actually is being said in these stories. What is notable to me about the story of the 10th Egyptian plague is:

  1. The background story is that Pharaoh’s father (I think it was) had ordered the death of all male Jewish children.

  2. The background story is Moses taking an Egyptian’s life, and having to run because of this. His murder of the Egyptian is not presented positively.

  3. Several decades later, the death of the first born is the last plague, after Pharaoh has broken his word 9 times. It does communicate that this is the last resort, the last thing that God would do, and Pharaoh was given many opportunities to turn back before it happened.

  4. There was a path created such that anyone, even an Egyptian, could avoid the death of their firstborn. Given the back story, this could easily be understood as community-level justice (which we have a harder time accepting from our individualistic culture).

  5. They did not take anything of value except for the people. This was not the sort of war that was common in ancient times.

That background and information is all important. What I see is a complex situation in a fallen world, where Jews were being persecuted (unto death) by Egyptians and enslaved. The natural response was to rise up against it immediately, but that does not work so well for Moses.

Rather, we see that God cares enough about the Jews to rescue them, without implicating them. he cares enough for the Egyptians to give them may opportunities to do what was right, and he gives individual families a way out so the God-Fearers among them are not punished for Pharaoh’s sin. So vengeance was the Lord’s, but he was slow to exact vengeance, not acting rashly on the time table of Moses and the rest of Israel, who often complained about how slow he was to act.

A comparable sort of ethical dilemma might be visible in the Civil War. Slavery was a great evil, but it took the disaster of war to bring to an end. Mose’s exodus was far more surgical and targeted than anything in the Civil War.

Ultimately, the big questions this raises for us is, “when should murderous wrongdoing be met with force that could take life? When and how should murders pay for these crimes? Are state crimes any better or worse than the crimes of individuals?” These are difficult questions, and being a Christian doesn’t making them easier.

This particular story seems to indicate that God is just as concerned about justice as are we, but he is far slower at it than us, and justice may extend across generations. God has the whole view in mind, something we do not have access too. It is notable to me that this story does not include Israel taking up arms against Egypt. This seems to function, at least in part, to preserve their innocence and to break them out of a cycle of violence. It does seem that God is redeeming them, not only from slavery, but from a cycle of vengeance.


Maybe reading better could make sense of it. As always, context matters.

That might be true, to be clear. But the issue is that if God is perfectly virtuous, what He commands would be good. While what he commands would be a guide, especially in the context of limited information, that might not be the right way ontologically to define goodness.


This is all I needed from you. It pretty much settles everything. Yahweh did something evil.


Jesus wept. I’m allowed to too. Death is the result of justice for sin because God is the author of life, and Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life. I’m not OK with death. That’s why I’d like to spread life.

I must say, I find this a little disappointing. It seems like you are not so far from PD’s views as I had thought. I certainly agree that in the context of justice in a complex human world, violence may be appropriate. But this is a story about the God Christians worship punishing not Pharaoh himself or anyone who, from a virtue ethic point of view, might be considered morally culpable. Instead, he killed a whole bunch of babies. I realize that is a bit strong, but it’s in the text.


I’m sorry, but that’s all special pleading and contradicted by the bible at that. Note that it isn’t that Pharaoh goes back on his word, it’s that God hardens his heart. And this is done specifically for the purpose of giving God an opportunity to display his power. It could all have been prevented if God hadn’t acted on Pharaoh. Further, the lamb’s blood was not available to Egyptians, because nobody told them about it.

You forget that God is omnipotent and could at any time have personally commanded Pharaoh to release the Hebrews. Instead he punishes the innocent. One important feature of justice is the the punishment should be commensurate with the crime, and this is seldom reflected in God’s reported actions. Another principle is that collective punishment is wrong, yet that’s almost all God does.

But to summarize your position: God’s killing of the Egyptian children was right because it resulted in a worthy goal, the freeing of the Hebrews. So there’s another principle of divine justice: the end justifies the means.

Implicit in your defense is yet another principle: morality for God is quite different from morality for people. He can do vengeance, but we can’t. But that leaves us unable to judge whether God’s actions are moral, since we lack any standard other than what God does. We’re back to “whatever God does is by definition right”.


With some caveats, it certainly is a tension.

What may be different about how I’m approach it is that I am am willing to acknowledge the complexity and the tension, and even say I don’t know how it all works. What I can be sure of is that even Scripture does not give us the whole story, and in a fallen world virtuous things are harder to discern (see the Civil War parallel).


Let’s not stop there. God could have instantly transported the Hebrew people to anywhere on the globe. God could have created a fertile landscape in the Sahara desert and instantly move all of his Chosen people there. Why would an omnipotent deity need to ask any human to release people God wants somewhere else? Was the Pharaoh more powerful than God?

When omnipotence and omniscience are part of the story it creates a lot of moral quandries.


It’s scarier than that. He accepts that whatever some human said was God’s will was moral.


What path for the Egyptians?

If God really cared about the Jews, he would not have allowed them fall into slavery in the first place. And to think they were in captivity for over 400 years, that’s brutal.

What opportunities did he give the Egyptians?

I really do appreciate that willingness to admit to uncertainty and talk this out. It’s why I’m here.

Exactly. If our moral grounding is pinned to human well-being, then we have a standard external to God by which to judge his actions. In this view God could be seen as a good parent, who guides us and advises us. To me that’s perfectly ontologically coherent. What we can’t do is define goodness itself as whatever God is or does and still claim to have any grounding for a belief in his goodness. In that view God’s goodness has to be assumed as an axiom or a necessary fact.

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Of such tensions fractures are made. And it is a good thing that they are, because otherwise we’d be yoked permanently to this sort of barbarism.


Gregory of Nyssa on the killing of the firstborn of Egypt:

From which he concludes that the account is not to be taken as historical but allegorical.


If you want to argue against objective morality, please make your case for subjective morality.

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