Why was the ancient God so “cruel”?

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Is God cruel?

The following conversation is fictitious as presented here, but it is based on many actual conversations and exchanges in which I have participated over the years. “Arnie's” responses would represent my own under similar circumstances.

Arnie: How's it going, Joe? Where do things stand in your spiritual search since we last talked?

Joe: Well, some things seem to be coming together for me, Arnie. But others… gee, I don't know. there are other issues that I just can't seem to resolve.

Arnie: You know, Joe, I respect your insistence on maintaining intellectual integrity in your search for truth. God doesn't want you to close down your mind in order to accept Christ. But on the other hand, you don't have to have every answer to every question in place before you acknowledge Christianity as being true, or before you commit yourself to follow Christ.

Joe: Well maybe not, Arnie, but before I pray to the God of the Bible, I'd at least like to know to which god I'm praying.

Arnie: What do you mean by that?

Joe: I mean that the God of the Old Testament very often seems mean and cruel and angry, while the God of the New Testament is full of love. So which is it, Arnie? You can't have it both ways. How do you explain the harshness of God in the Old Testament?

Arnie: A better question may be: How do we explain the mercy of God in the Old and New Testament?

Joe: Now it's my turn to ask, “What do you mean?”

Arnie: Well, God is 100% holy. Why should He ever be expected to put up with any sin or nonsense whatsoever from His creation? Instead of being amazed that He periodically calls for judgment in the Old Testament, we should be amazed that he ever shows mercy and patience. I mean, think of it, if God was not merciful, even you and I would be zapped the very instant that we'd rebel or sin in any way today.

Joe: Interesting. But it still boggles my mind that a loving God would condone the wholesale slaughter of innocent babies such as He did in Deuteronomy 2.

Arnie: In a fallen world, isn't it possible that God may have to periodically authorize some less-than-ideal measures in order to deter further evil? Like a police officer who, in order to deal with disorder, has to use force. If you think about it, whenever God tolerated or “ordered” violent action in the Old Testament, it was to restrain evil or to deter some greater atrocity.

Joe: I never thought of it that way. But why did innocent babies have to pay with their lives for what their evil fathers did?

Arnie: Innocents often necessarily pay for the sins of others. In this world our lives are inextricably intertwined. What one man does will, more often than not, in some way effect his neighbor. I may pollute the air, but you'll then breathe the pollution. If a mother smokes crack, her baby will likely be born addicted.

Exodus 34:6-7 cites this very principle at work. By the way, notice God's attributes here in this Old Testament passage:

Then the Lord passed by in front of him and proclaimed, “The Lord, the Lord God, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness and truth; who keeps lovingkindness for thousands, who forgives iniquity, transgression and sin; yet He will by no means leave the guilty unpunished, visiting the iniquity of fathers on the children and on the grandchildren to the third and fourth generations.”

It seems to me that the only alternative would be for God to perpetually purge the world by sending Noah type floods over the entire Earth about every ten minutes. That wouldn't be very realistic, would it?

Did God promote infancticide?

Joe: “Thus says the Lord of hosts, ‘…go and strike Amalek and utterly destroy all that he has, and do not spare him; but put to death both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.’” —I Samuel 15:2-3 NASB

So what's up with this, man? It sounds to me like your God is a regular butcher here—slaughtering kids, women, and pets—total disregard for even the basic standards of the Geneva Conventions!

Arnie: What initially may sound rather atrocious becomes a lot more understandable when you hear the other side of the story.

Joe: Which is…

Arnie: Which is—in a fallen, evil world (unlike the one that God created), there are seldom any really happy alternatives. What God eventually condoned here, as necessary, is certainly not what he originally envisioned as ideal.

But let me ask you a few questions. Would you ever think it justifiable to put two teenage boys in the scope of a rifle and pull the trigger? Does that sound unthinkable, atrocious, and absolutely unjustifiable? Well, what if those teenage boys’ names were Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris? Few folks would condemn the SWAT officers who did that very thing at Columbine High School on April 20, 1999.

Joe: So you're comparing lots of innocent Amalekite babies to two brutal Columbine murderers?

Arnie: Well, what is clear from history is that these so-called innocent Amalekite babies were part of a self-perpetuating system of evil that often defied description. There are many reasons to believe that these babies represented a rising generation of Mohammed Attas, Osama bin Ladens, and Adolf Hitlers.

Ancient sects and nations like the Amalekites would often heat up an idol like Molech with fire until it was glowing. Then they would take their newborn babies, place them on the arms of the idol, and watch them burn to death. (Source: New Bible Dictionary, Tyndale) At other times they would kill disabled, weak, and elderly people without so much as a second thought (Deuteronomy 25:17-18).

In The Case for Faith, author Lee Strobel poses a question similar to the one you've asked. He says:

[1 Samuel 15:3] sounds more like a violent and brutal God than a loving one. How can people be expected to worship him if he orders innocent children to be slaughtered?

Apologist Norman Geisler responds,

[The Amalekites] were not nice people. In fact, there were utterly and totally depraved. Their mission was to destroy Israel. In other words, to commit genocide… The destruction of their nation was necessitated by the gravity of their sin. Had some hardcore remnant survived, they might have resumed their aggression against the Israelites and God's plan.

Joe: Are you saying that the end justifies the means—that their killing some babies justifies God killing more babies?

Arnie: In many cases, innocent people do inevitably suffer when justice is being wrought. But aside from that, when the Righteous Judge of the universe is sitting on the bench, any means that He may choose to use is self-justified. After all, He is the very creator and sustainer of human life.

Still, there's more to the story here than mere punishment for wickedness. In a scenario not unlike America's 2001-2002 role in Afghanistan, God was using Israel at this time to “clean house” in a world gone awry.

R.C. Sproul says this in Now That's a Good Question (Tyndale, 1996):

God said to Israel, “I am using you here in this war as an instrument of my judgment upon this nation, and I'm bringing my violence upon this unbelievably wicked people… I'm going to have them destroyed” (Deuteronomy 13:12-17).

He said, “I am calling you out of my grace to be a holy nation. I'm tearing down in order to build something new, and out of what I build new, a holy nation, I'm going to bless all of the peoples in the world. Therefore, I want you to be separated, and I don't want any of the influences of this pagan heritage to be mixed into my new nation that I'm establishing.” That is the reason (God) gives. People still choke on it, but if God is, indeed, holy—as I think he is—and we are as disobedient as I know we are, I think we ought to be able to handle that.

Joe: Wasn't God harsher in ancient times, and more loving today?

Arnie: Josh McDowell and Don Stewart in Answers to Tough Questions:

…when the two testaments are read as they were intended, they reveal the same holy God who is rich in mercy, but who will not let sin go unpunished.

Author: Daryl E. Witmer of AIIA Institute .

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Article Version: September 15, 2017

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