In the second chapter of his book “The God Delusion”, Richard Dawkins has this to say about the God of the Old Testament:
“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.”
We may not like the way in which Mr. Dawkins presented his opinion on God, but before getting angry with his presented point we need to understand that he is not alone in this view, at least in so as far thinking that the God of the Old Testament is a morally questionable Bully. There are many good Christian men and women, in much nicer words, wonder why the God of the Old Testament seems so angry.
Our culture and the people in our pews have questions for God, and we need to be prepared to answer them. That is what I will endeavor to do in today’s post.
For many the global flood of Noah’s day is an event that is seemingly incompatible with a loving God. When one looks carefully at the text of Genesis, I believe we are given answers that steer us away from ideas that the “God of the Old Testament is a bully” and bring us closer to understanding His true nature.
Consider the People on the Earth
Genesis chapter 6 opens giving us background information on what is going on in the world at this time:
“When man began to multiply on the face of the land and daughters were born to them, the sons of God saw that the daughters of man were attractive. And they took as their wives any they chose…The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.”
(Gen. 6:1-2, 5)
There has been a lot of debate over who the “sons of God” and the “daughters of man” are. Some say this is a mixing of human women and male angels who left their proper place, while others suggest that this is a poetic way of saying righteous individuals and sinful individuals intermingled. Regardless of your belief on the matter, the Lord saw this, was grieved (6:6) and set a time frame for the punishment of mankind (6:3, 7).
The opening verses of Genesis 6 make it clear to us that the people God destroys with the flood are not innocent by any means (6:5, 11-13). Some may be tempted to ask “were they really that bad?”. To answer this question, we turn to our next point examining the progression of evil from creation to the flood.
Consider the Progression of Evil
Part of understanding the progression of evil in Genesis requires understanding the genre of writing Genesis is. Genesis, like much of the Old Testament, is written with a focus on events and not chronology. Compare Genesis to the book of Acts and you’ll understand exactly what I’m talking about. Acts follows of progression of:
Time – Luke picks up his writing right where the Gospel ends off. We even get a quick recap from Luke about his gospel (Acts 1:1-5) before getting into what will happen in Acts.
People – Luke shows us the progression of the gospel message to the Jews (Acts 2-7), then Samaritans (Acts 8), then the Gentiles (Acts 10-28).
Location – Luke lays out the outline for the book in Acts 1:8. The apostles receive power in Acts 2, Jerusalem and Judea are the focus of Acts 2-7, Samaria enters in Acts 8, and the ends of the earth are chronicled in Paul’s missionary journeys from Acts 9 to 28.
The book of Genesis is not written in such a way. We jump from creation in Genesis 1, pausing in Genesis 2 and 3 to look at the creation of man and woman and their fall in depth, to Cain and Abel in Genesis 4 and then fast forward through a large chunk of time in Genesis 5 to get to the flood in Genesis 6. Most of the rest of the Old Testament is written in this manner. Sometimes chapters are very far ahead in the future, and sometimes a chapter goes back to cover something that we read about a few chapters before in more depth.
This event-oriented style of writing made sense for the Hebrews it was written to because they were/are event-oriented people (much of the world is still this way as my time in Africa taught me). In the West, and this was true of the Roman world of the New Testament, we are what is called “time-oriented” (think schedules and hard deadlines).
What’s the point? The point is this, reading the Old Testament through our Western eyes will cause us to both miss and misunderstand messages the Bible is trying to convey. For example, our Western eyes may read about the flood in the days of Noah and think that it happened only a short while after Cain murdered his brother Abel when in reality Genesis 4 and Genesis 6 are separated by a span of around 1600 years. This means that following Cain’s murder of his brother Abel, evil is allowed to fester and progress for another 1600 plus years!
This helps us to better understand Genesis 6:5, 11-13. Were they really that bad? After 1600 years of the rampant progression of sin there is no doubt that the world was truly, as the Lord says, “corrupt”.
1600 years is not the only amount of time dealt with in these opening chapters of Genesis. Genesis 6:3 tells us:
“Then the Lord said, “My Spirit shall not abide in man forever, for he is flesh: his days shall be 120 years.”
It is the time in this verse, combined with the amount of time that passes in Genesis 5, that we are shown a characteristic of God that will become regularly mentioned by those closest to Him throughout the Old and New Testament.
Consider the Patience of God
It takes over 1600 plus years for the Lord’s patience to run out and even then He gives a buffer of 120 more years before His judgment will come to pass. The New Testament sheds a little more light on this time of God’s patience in the days of Noah telling us that was “a herald of righteousness” (2 Peter 2:5). Based on this passage it is reasonable to conclude that either through his example, or preaching, or both, the message of God’s impending judgment was given to those around Noah. Even to those whose thoughts and intentions were on evil continually, God extended time to repent.
We began this article with a quote from Richard Dawkins brashly criticizing the God of the Old Testament. Mr. Dawkins is not alone in his questioning of God’s morality, though I pray that he is alone in his brazen attitude towards criticizing God, in fact there are many good, faithful Christians who struggle with the violent actions conducted by God throughout the Old Testament text. Though we are not incapable of reading and forming our own opinions, I do think it worthwhile, and fair, to end our article with quotes from those who interacted with the God of the Old Testament and get their opinion of Him:
“The Lord passed before him and proclaimed, “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness…”
(Exodus 34:6; see also Num. 14:18)
“…But you are a God ready to forgive, gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and did not forsake them.”
“But you, O Lord, are a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.”
(Psalm 86:15; see also Psalm 103:8, 145:8)
“Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love; and he relents over disaster.”
(Joel 2:13; see also Jonah 4:2, Nahum 1:3)
God is still patient and loving today wanting all to come to know Him and avoid the eternal consequences of sin (2 Peter 3:9; 1 Tim. 2:3-4).
The flood of Noah’s day is not a case-study in the fickle nature of an angry Bully, but an example of the consequences of sin, and God’s patience and justice in dealing with it.
I won't pretend that I have answered every objection the Genesis flood account raises. I hope though that this article provides enough answers to encourage further personal study.
The flood of Noah’s day is not the only event that causes people to question the morality of God. What about the slaughter of the Canaanites? What about the Philistines? What about the stoning laws of Israel? Email me at StrongChurchMinistries@gmail.com and I’d be happy to discuss these issues with you, and maybe even address them in another article!