Principles for Interpreting the Old Testament

Now go and smite Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have, and spare them not; but slay both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass. (1 Samuel 15:3)

While watching a Christian video on YouTube, I saw a comment from an atheist who basically referred to the verse above and asked the question, “Is this the God that you believe in?” as an abbreviated refutation of Christianity.  I wanted to share how I interpret this verse and answer this simple refutation of Christianity.

When I interpret Old Testament verses of this kind, I do it in the light of three basic principles:

  1. God loves all humanity and passes judgments such as those above with the greatest possible reluctance and patience.
  2. God does not want us to be the kind of people who are willing to kill those made in His image.
  3. Human beings do not deserve the enormous amount of work that God does on our behalf and therefore God can withdraw that work at any time.

Let us examine the basis of these three principles and then apply them to the interpretation of this verse.

The Patience of God

The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.  (2 Peter 3:9)

In the above verse and many others, the Bible makes it clear that God only reluctantly pronounces judgment on human beings.  He is “slow to anger” and “quick to forgive”.  He sent His Son to die in our place in order to reverse our deserved sentence of death.  I think anyone who has read the Bible fairly would recognize the presence and centrality of this principle in Christian teaching.

The Behavior of Believers

The second principle is that God does not want us to be the kind of people who destroy other human beings.  Now to be honest, it is difficult for me to defend this principle because I became a Christian because Jesus Christ offered to help me become the man that I wanted to be.  If I had believed that God wanted me to hack people into tiny little pieces, I would not have become a Christian.  Because this principle is so important to me, I cannot seriously question or defend it.  Having said that, I do believe the principle is present and important in the Bible:

But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you (Matthew 5:44)

“Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us” (Matthew 6:12)

Human Beings Do Not Deserve to Live

This final principle I have discussed at length in a previous essay.  Suffice it to say that we human beings have it fundamentally backwards.  We take our lives for granted and ask “what have I done to deserve death?”  Because God does an enormous amount of work to sustain our existence, God’s perspective is more accurately reflected by the question, “What have you done to deserve the enormous amount of work that God does for you every day?”  This principle is clearly taught in the Lord’s prayer when we are commanded to thank God for our daily bread.

The Necessity of God’s Judgment

Now this final principle is extremely unpopular among human beings.  Human beings want to believe that no matter what we do we cannot deserve to die.  This is the attitude that this atheist has when he references 1 Samuel 15:3 as a one line refutation of Christianity.  But is this a reasonable attitude?  I don’t believe that it is.

To defend the idea that God has not only the right but the moral obligation to end the lives of those who are guilty of egregious sins, I am going to summon the shade of my favorite atheist.  In a debate with A.C. Grayling, the late journalist and author Christopher Hitchens defended the targeting of German cities during World War II for strategic bombing against the charge that they were the equivalent of Islamic terrorism.  In the defence of his position, Mr. Hitchens gets down right “Old Testament” in his discussion of German atrocities committed during the Holocaust and how these atrocities warranted and perhaps even required the total destruction of German society.

The point that Mr. Hitchens makes concerning the Nazis and German society, I would generalize to the people of Sodom and Gomorrah and the people of Amalek and the other nations that are judged by God in the Old Testament.  Many people breeze through the description of what these people were doing and just read the judgment and say, “How could God be so horrible to those people?”  If we are going to look at this issue critically, however, we need to examine what the Bible says about the people who are judged in the Old Testament:

They have built the high places of Baal to burn their children in the fire as offerings to Baal–something I did not command or mention, nor did it enter my mind.  (Jeremiah 19:5)

And they called unto Lot, and said unto him, Where are the men which came in to thee this night? bring them out unto us, that we may know them.  (Genesis 19:5)

And they smote the men that were at the door of the house with blindness, both small and great: so that they wearied themselves to find the door.  (Genesis 19:11)

So what kinds of things does God judge nations for?  From the above verses, we can see that God judges people when they burn their own children in the fire as a sacrifice and want to rape and murder strangers visiting their city.  The question is, could God allow such things to continue indefinitely without judging this evil and still be good?

God is the final authority, the last word on what is acceptable.  If God does not judge the actions of those who are evil without bound, then those things will have no end.  May I suggest to you that the only person who thinks that the Nazis should have been allowed to continue to torture and exterminate people without end forever is a Nazi?  Decent atheists argue the opposite way as the atheist who makes the simple argument above.  Decent atheists will argue that God could not allow evil at all, not that God should allow evil to continue indefinitely.  (I have attempted to address the question of evil in other essays including, “Explaining the Ocean of Suffering“.)

Now some might be surprised to read this essay.  After all, in previous essays like, “Throwing Moses Under the Bus” and “Quantum Mechanics in Kindergarten“, I have argued that God wanted the people of Israel to intercede on behalf of the condemned nations judged in the Old Testament.  That is what I wrote and that is what I believe, but I never argued (and I would never argue) that the people that God pronounced judgment on did not deserve to die.  I honestly believe that these were people so wicked that God had no choice but to destroy them and that any human being with a shred of decency and compassion who knew the full extent of what those people were doing would have agreed fully with God’s judgment.

About Robert V

Former atheist currently living in Toronto.
This entry was posted in Atheist Arguments, Understanding the Old Testament and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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