Monday, March 23, 2009

Difficulties in Understanding God's Judgment on Heathen Nations (and other "Problem Passages" in the OT)

By Dave Armstrong (3-23-09)

The following came about as a result of probing questions from a member of the Coming Home Network. The "problem" broadly stated, is to interpret biblical passages that appear at first glance to sanction cruelty or immoral behavior sanctioned by God Himself. I have argued that this is not the case, and that each can be explained in a way that maintains both biblical inspiration in toto, and the character of God as entirely loving and just.


Exodus 21:20-21 When a man strikes his slave, male or female, with a rod and the slave dies under his hand, he shall be punished. But if the slave survives a day or two, he is not to be punished; for the slave is his money.

Leviticus 25:44-46 As for your male and female slaves whom you may have: you may buy male and female slaves from among the nations that are round about you. You may also buy from among the strangers who sojourn with you and their families that are with you, who have been born in your land; and they may be your property. You may bequeath them to your sons after you, to inherit as a possession for ever; you may make slaves of them, but over your brethren the people of Israel you shall not rule, one over another, with harshness.

Titus 2:9-10 Bid slaves to be submissive to their masters and to give satisfaction in every respect; they are not to be refractory, nor to pilfer, but to show entire and true fidelity, so that in everything they may adorn the doctrine of God our Savior.
Slavery in the Bible is a very complex matter. I'd refer readers to these articles:

A Response to John Noonan, Jr. Concerning the Development of Catholic Moral Doctrine (Usury, Marriage, Slavery, Religious freedom) (Patrick M. O'Neil; the section on slavery is near the end)

Catholic Encyclopedia: "Slavery and Christianity"

Catholic Encyclopedia: "Ethical Aspect of Slavery"

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia: "Slave; Slavery"

Golden Calf and Other Instances of Idolatry

Exodus 32:25-27 And when Moses saw that the people had broken loose (for Aaron had let them break loose, to their shame among their enemies), then Moses stood in the gate of the camp, and said, "Who is on the LORD's side? Come to me." And all the sons of Levi gathered themselves together to him. And he said to them, "Thus says the LORD God of Israel, `Put every man his sword on his side, and go to and fro from gate to gate throughout the camp, and slay every man his brother, and every man his companion, and every man his neighbor.'"
Here the Hebrews had committed a grave sin of idolatry: worshiping a Golden Calf. Thus, they had to be judged because they had been expressly forbidden to do this, and it showed an extreme ungratefulness for what God had done for them. For anyone who agrees that God has the prerogative to judge people (being their Creator), then I don't see why this would pose any difficulty.
Numbers 25:3-5 So Israel yoked himself to Ba'al of Pe'or. And the anger of the LORD was kindled against Israel; and the LORD said to Moses, "Take all the chiefs of the people, and hang them in the sun before the LORD, that the fierce anger of the LORD may turn away from Israel." And Moses said to the judges of Israel, "Every one of you slay his men who have yoked themselves to Ba'al of Pe'or."
This is the same essential situation as in the previous passage: idolatry had to be punished by God in order to establish the truthfulness of monotheism.

Judgment of the Heathen Nations

Numbers 31:13-15 Moses, and Elea'zar the priest, and all the leaders of the congregation, went forth to meet them outside the camp. And Moses was angry with the officers of the army, the commanders of thousands and the commanders of hundreds, who had come from service in the war. Moses said to them, "Have you let all the women live?

Isaiah 13:11,15-16 I will punish the world for its evil, and the wicked for their iniquity; I will put an end to the pride of the arrogant, and lay low the haughtiness of the ruthless. . . . Whoever is found will be thrust through, and whoever is caught will fall by the sword. Their infants will be dashed in pieces before their eyes; their houses will be plundered and their wives ravished.
Hosea 13:16 Sama'ria shall bear her guilt, because she has rebelled against her God; they shall fall by the sword, their little ones shall be dashed in pieces, and their pregnant women ripped open.
This is a variation of judgment, whereby God used the Jews (or others) to judge other nations for their wickedness. It doesn't mean that every particular of what one nation does to another is necessarily God's perfect will (because people are sinners). But God uses nations to judge.

Note that God didn't command that women be raped or pregnant women be ripped open, or children tortured and killed before their parents' eyes. Therefore, they're not "threats." They're warnings from prophets, trying to get Israel to repent. God in the OT often speaks, too, as if He is doing things, when in fact it means He is allowing things to happen in His providence (and not all of that is in His perfect will). We see that, in, for example, God saying in one place that He hardened Pharaoh's heart and in another, that Pharaoh hardened his own heart.

In Job it'll say that God did all the terrible things to Job, but we know that He allowed Satan to do so (from the beginning of the book). Etc., etc. It's very common.

In one of the "problem passages": Isaiah 13, the Medes are serving as the executioners of wrath against Babylon, and horrible things are listed. That doesn't make the Medes perfect angels, anymore than the Babylonians were (whom God had used to judge Israel). It doesn't follow that God approves of everything the Persian army did, because they were in effect used to judge Babylon. God says in Isaiah 13:17: "Behold, I am stirring up the Medes against them." God always speaks like that when it means that "Nation A will judge Nation B." In Hebrew idiom, God almost always speaks as if He is doing everything, when it means certain things are happening as judgment.

But it is not the case that God agrees with every jot and tittle of what the Persians did; nor were they ever His chosen people, as the Jews were. They're simply agents of judgment. God did command the killing of man, woman, and child, when He commanded the Jews to execute His judgment on wicked heathen nations. And that is because He is judge and has the power over life and death. We can hardly say that He doesn't have that prerogative and remain Christians, or even monotheists. But I'm unaware of any passage where He condones raping women, specifically "ripping up" pregnant women, or torturing children. These are the distinctions that must keep in mind. to understand these difficult, unpleasant themes in the Bible.

Thus, in Isaiah 13:16 God predicts what will occur:
Their infants will be dashed in pieces before their eyes; their houses will be plundered and their wives ravished.
We see the same thing in Hosea 13:16:
Sama'ria shall bear her guilt, because she has rebelled against her God; they shall fall by the sword, their little ones shall be dashed in pieces, and their pregnant women ripped open.
He's not commanding these things; He is simply saying (in His foreknowledge) this is what will happen. He predicted what would occur if there wasn't repentance. The agent of judgment doesn't necessarily always do every particular that God desires. God used Nebuchadnezzar to judge the Jews when they went astray, and Nebuchadnezzar was no canonized saint. He did some things in conquering Jerusalem that God wouldn't approve of. But that's what happens when a nation is judged (because it generally comes from other nations, as opposed to a supernatural destruction, as with Sodom and Gomorrah). If God's protection against enemies is removed, then we get the atrocities of war that happen when a heathen nation attacks and conquers.

Thus, we see Menahem, one of the evil kings of Israel (the northern kingdom: I think they were all evil, as I recall), described as sinning when he does the same thing:
2 Kings 15:16-18 At that time Men'ahem sacked Tappuah and all who were in it and its territory from Tirzah on; because they did not open it to him, therefore he sacked it, and he ripped up all the women in it who were with child. In the thirty-ninth year of Azari'ah king of Judah Men'ahem the son of Gadi began to reign over Israel, and he reigned ten years in Sama'ria. And he did what was evil in the sight of the LORD; he did not depart all his days from all the sins of Jerobo'am the son of Nebat, which he made Israel to sin.
God describes through the prophet Amos that these things are evil, when the Ammonites did them:
Amos 1:13-15 Thus says the LORD: "For three transgressions of the Ammonites, and for four, I will not revoke the punishment; because they have ripped up women with child in Gilead, that they might enlarge their border. So I will kindle a fire in the wall of Rabbah, and it shall devour her strongholds, with shouting in the day of battle, with a tempest in the day of the whirlwind; and their king shall go into exile, he and his princes together," says the LORD.
The Jews sometimes went against God's commands to kill man, woman, and child in the nations that were to be utterly destroyed and annihilated, by taking women as wives. A distinction was made between some nations (not utterly wicked) and others:
Deuteronomy 20:10-18

[10] "When you draw near to a city to fight against it, offer terms of peace to it.
[11] And if its answer to you is peace and it opens to you, then all the people who are found in it shall do forced labor for you and shall serve you.
[12] But if it makes no peace with you, but makes war against you, then you shall besiege it;
[13] and when the LORD your God gives it into your hand you shall put all its males to the sword,
[14] but the women and the little ones, the cattle, and everything else in the city, all its spoil, you shall take as booty for yourselves; and you shall enjoy the spoil of your enemies, which the LORD your God has given you.
[15] Thus you shall do to all the cities which are very far from you, which are not cities of the nations here.
[16] But in the cities of these peoples that the LORD your God gives you for an inheritance, you shall save alive nothing that breathes,
[17] but you shall utterly destroy them, the Hittites and the Amorites, the Canaanites and the Per'izzites, the Hivites and the Jeb'usites, as the LORD your God has commanded;
[18] that they may not teach you to do according to all their abominable practices which they have done in the service of their gods, and so to sin against the LORD your God.
Joshua did what God commanded him to do:
Joshua 8:25-27

[25] And all who fell that day, both men and women, were twelve thousand, all the people of Ai.
[26] For Joshua did not draw back his hand, with which he stretched out the javelin, until he had utterly destroyed all the inhabitants of Ai.
[27] Only the cattle and the spoil of that city Israel took as their booty, according to the word of the LORD which he commanded Joshua.
Sometimes the women were corrupt, too. So in Ezra we see Israel sending away "foreign wives":
Ezra 10:10-14

[10] And Ezra the priest stood up and said to them, "You have trespassed and married foreign women, and so increased the guilt of Israel.
[11] Now then make confession to the LORD the God of your fathers, and do his will; separate yourselves from the peoples of the land and from the foreign wives."
[12] Then all the assembly answered with a loud voice, "It is so; we must do as you have said.
[13] But the people are many, and it is a time of heavy rain; we cannot stand in the open. Nor is this a work for one day or for two; for we have greatly transgressed in this matter.
[14] Let our officials stand for the whole assembly; let all in our cities who have taken foreign wives come at appointed times, and with them the elders and judges of every city, till the fierce wrath of our God over this matter be averted from us."
The commands were either that everyone should be killed, or that men only should be killed. If the nation was ripe for judgment, they were all killed. They were judged.

Judgment is not a matter of pleasure (for God or for those concerned), but of justice. Very few judges are beaming from ear to ear when they sentence a man to life imprisonment or the electric chair. God doesn't do it, either, and He is infinitely more loving than any human judge. Otherwise, if we have no justice, and God lets every man and nation run wild and does nothing, does anyone really think that is a superior alternative or more loving and merciful on God's part: to never judge any wicked nation? Think of what this world would be like if there had never been any judgment: if Sodom and Gomorrah had existed to this day, and all the nations judged in the flood, and Babylon and Assyria and all the wicked nations that Israel defeated were still here. Nazi Germany was judged in our own time. God used the Allies to do that, because He is not mocked. The Soviet Union collapsed. Other nations are more than ripe for judgment (like America, which has "legally" murdered about ten times as many people as the Nazis ever did, and China), but God is withholding it for some ultimately mysterious reason. One must believe in faith that He knows what He is doing and all will be made right in His "time."

The Stoning of a Rebellious Son

Deuteronomy 21:18-21 If a man has a stubborn and rebellious son, who will not obey the voice of his father or the voice of his mother, and, though they chastise him, will not give heed to them, then his father and his mother shall take hold of him and bring him out to the elders of his city at the gate of the place where he lives, and they shall say to the elders of his city, `This our son is stubborn and rebellious, he will not obey our voice; he is a glutton and a drunkard.' Then all the men of the city shall stone him to death with stones; so you shall purge the evil from your midst; and all Israel shall hear, and fear.
This is another variation of God's judgment. In order to develop His chosen people and to show human beings the severe consequences of sin, God had to be very strict at first. 21:21 is the key: "so you shall purge the evil from your midst." Of course, in the New Covenant, mercy and forgiveness was placed front and center. Hence, when the crowd wanted to stone the adulterous woman (which was perfectly in accord with the Mosaic Law), Jesus said, "let he who is without sin cast the first stone."

Women in Church

1 Corinthians 14:33-35 For God is not a God of confusion but of peace. As in all the churches of the saints, the women should keep silence in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as even the law says. If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.
There are a variety of opinions as to how culturally conditioned these statements of Paul were. I would refer readers to my paper: "Should a Woman Teach a Man? Women in the Catholic Church"

Also, see Pope John Paul II's Apostolic Letter, Mulieris Dignitatem (On the Dignity and Vocation of Women) from 15 August 1988.

* * * * *

These passages require a bit of study, but once that is done, I see no problem with them. Why would we expect in the first place, a document inspired by God to be completely easy to understand? We would fully expect for there to be some difficult passages that stretch and challenge us, to understand them. We also have to consider all kinds of cultural variations and different times that influenced the writing of Scripture.

They're part of the Bible, that we accept in faith as God's word. Most of them are about judgment. God either has the right to judge people (including killing them) or not. If we want to argue that He has no such right, then hell goes along with that, and we have a situation where the most evil men simply go to heaven without ever being punished for their sins. Is that really preferable in any Christian's mind, or anyone's mind whatever (thinking hypothetically of alternatives)? We all need to try our best to better understand the biblical perspective and God's perspective, and accept it in faith, even if it is difficult.

I've done my best to explain these passages and ostensible "problems" the way I understand the biblical perspective, which I wholeheartedly accept myself, in faith. Perhaps my inadequate attempts will be helpful and plausible to readers, too; maybe not. In any event, I believe that what I have written is pretty much the mainstream Christian interpretation of these things: Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant.

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