PART OF A SERIES EXPLORING THE THEME OF JUSTICE IN THE BIBLICAL NARRATIVE AND ITS IMPLICATIONS FOR THE CHURCH.
“The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.” 1
You’ll need a dictionary for that one. That’s classic Richard Dawkins, the leading atheism crusader of our time. Yet it’s just a taste of the venom he has for the Old Testament, which he claims encourages “a system of morals which any civilized modern person, whether religious or not, would find… obnoxious.” 2 In fact, he’s declared that most of the Bible is “just plain weird.” 3
I won’t get into the specific accusations and condemnatory labels here4, but Dawkins actually believes that the Old Testament contains dangerous ideas that, if taken seriously, will lead people to wrong conclusions, and in turn, wrong actions.
But why should any of us be concerned with yet another angry rant from a skeptic? Well, because he represents widely held sentiments and attitudes shared by ordinary people I regularly encounter. These people are suspicious of anything that stems from ‘the old book’. Sadly, some have come to view the Old Testament as an appalling record of barbarism. It’s a favorite target for ridicule. Even some Christians find it embarrassing.
Now, let me be clear. There definitely are some things in the Old Testament that I find difficult to understand. I don’t have any problems admitting that. But is the Old Testament something we should be ashamed of? Is it really “just plain weird”? Is it irrelevant to the modern world? Does it have no appeal to secularists?
Too many people have only heard a one-sided story. More often than we do we should draw attention to the beauty we find there.
In the Old Testament?
Yes. Along with the difficulties and mystery, there is beauty.
A true and responsible reading of the Old Testament would produce the kind of people that are sensitive to the hurts and needs of others; people who are actively committed to making society a better place.
It contains compelling ideals that have radically impacted Western civilization. Ironically, one of the central themes in the Old Testament is non-other than that which many secular people are crying out for––that is, justice. Yet many of the people who are conscious of the need for justice in the world are also the same people who reject the Old Testament, which happens to be the earliest and most beautiful expression of justice in all of antiquity.
Oh the irony. Someone should introduce these “activists” to the original source of their passion for justice.
As the authors of the 14 volume set Cambridge Ancient History put it: “the Old Testament embodies the oldest history writing extant.” 5 There is no literature of its age and caliber in existence. The buck stops with good ol’ Moses. And yet in these ancient documents we call the Old Testament, justice is one of the most common themes; it surfaces over 1000 times.
TWO HUGE WORDS: JUSTICE AND RIGHTEOUSNESS
Biblical justice reaches beyond simply the word justice. It’s linked to another key biblical word: righteousness. Actually, the relationship between these two words are so tight that they are often used interchangeably; they essentially mean the same thing:
“Righteousness in the Bible incorporates the idea of doing justice, and doing justice… conveys the idea of righting what has gone wrong, of restoring things to a condition of “rightness” or “righteousness.”” 6
But in modern English, we use the word “righteousness” to refer to some kind of personal purity or piety. And we use “justice” to describe equality of rights. The former is private, the latter is public.
That’s why the Old Testament notion that these two words are linked is rich and pregnant with meaning. There is no separation between public and personal responsibility. A passionate pursuit of purity and piety in the private realm is no substitute for our public responsibility to maintain ideal relationships with our fellow neighbors.
THE OLD TESTAMENT ACCORDING TO JESUS
The significance and relevance of Old Testament ethics is evident when we look at the numerous encounters Jesus had with the religious leaders of His day. These encounters shed light on the kind of influence that Old Testament ideals should have on an person’s daily life and interaction with others.
Jesus often rebuked the religious leaders because though they thought they were righteous, they really weren’t. And what were they missing?
You have neglected the more important matters of the law––justice, mercy and faithfulness. (Matthew 23:23)
They merely focused on personal purity and piety, but neglected the essence of justice and mercy in relation to others. They had missed the whole point. And the fact that Jesus was stirred up about it is significant in itself. He expected them to live otherwise.
Because they had the Old Testament scriptures (the New Testament didn’t exist yet). The essence of the Old Testament is to lead one to live out in mind, heart, and actions the noble principles of justice, mercy and faithfulness.
According to Jesus, a true and responsible reading of the Old Testament would produce the kind of people that are sensitive to the hurts and needs of others; people who are actively committed to making society a better place.
I’ve just described exactly the kind of life that an honest skeptic would want everyone to live. In fact, contrary to Dawkins, “Bible infected” people would behave unjustly only when they live inconsistently with the principles and ideals revealed in the Old Testament.
This is why we often run into the phrase “righteousness and justice” throughout the biblical prophets. It’s like a slogan of sorts, meaning “the right ordering of the universe, the way God intends reality to operate.” 7
When God’s original design for human relationships is perverted, we hear the prophets shouting through the page for righteousness and justice. These are the original activists.
That’s what the Old Testament is all about. If that’s not how you and I view it, it’s not the Old Testament’s fault. The problem lies with our own understanding, or should I say, misunderstanding.
I’d say that’s a decent portfolio: the oldest history writing in existence, the earliest and most beautiful expression of justice in all of antiquity, the embodiment of ideals that produce the living out of justice, mercy and faithfulness in both private and public spheres.
Does that sound ‘dangerous’ to you?
Maybe Dawkins just skipped through a few lines rather than reading the whole story? I don’t know.
But I do know that most people have skipped over a line or two. You know, like the thing about “love your neighbor as yourself.” That’s a principle every secularist claims to advocate, and yet, where did it come from? Don’t say the New Testament. It’s found in Leviticus 19.18. The golden rule is actually an Old Testament concept that Jesus popularized in the New Testament.
So Mr. Dawkins (and the sector in society that you represent), doesn’t the Old Testament merit a second look? Doesn’t it warrant a patient, honest, humble attempt to understand it in light of the complexities of time, culture and geography? Doesn’t it deserve a fair and just hearing?
To be continued…
- The God Delusion, p.31
- ibid, p.237
- ibid, p.237
- Maybe we’ll tackle this in a future post. But some literature in response to these false claims could be of interest. For example, Is God A Moral Monster? By Paul Copan, and his numerous articles on this subject, some of which are available through the Evangelical Philosophical Society.
- Cambridge Ancient History, Volume 1, p. 222
- The Little Book of Biblical Justice, p.12
- ibid, p.23