Many people — seekers, believing Christians, even some Latter-day Saints — have problems with the portrayal of God in the Old Testament.
Probably even more people just have problems with the Old Testament itself, because they find it hard to follow. This is, I think, very unfortunate, both because the Old Testament is at the foundation of all Judeo-Christian faith and because, among other things, it’s a rich treasure house of history, moral lessons, inspirational stories, and literature. But that’s a topic for another day.
They’re bothered because, sometimes, the Old Testament God seems to be arrogant, petty, “jealous,” harsh, and violent. The Old Testament seems to tolerate or even endorse slavery, the oppression of women, and mass murder (effectively, ethnic cleansing).
The problem is that, for Christian believers (unless, perhaps, they follow the ancient heretic Marcion), the God of the Old Testament is also the God of the New. How can the loving Jesus be reconciled with the often vengeful and fierce Jehovah? (For Latter-day Saints, Jesus is Jehovah.)
This is a big and serious topic, much beyond the scope of a simple blog post. I will say, though, that I believe the contrast to be seriously overdrawn. There is a great deal of love and mercy in the Old Testament. And, frankly, the Jesus who carefully braids a whip to drive the moneychangers from his Father’s house isn’t quite the proto-Gandhi or flower child that some portray.
I can’t resolve all concerns here — and, probably, not anywhere. But I do want to recommend a book that might help.
Paul Copan is the Pledger Family Chair of Philosophy and Ethics at Palm Beach Atlantic University in Florida, and a prominent Evangelical apologist. (I know him slightly, having participated, with him, in a formal Mormon-Evangelical debate a number of years ago during an academic conference in Denver. He is a bright and decent man.)
Last year, he published Is God a Moral Monster? Making Sense of the Old Testament God (Grand Rapids: BakerBooks, 2011).
In twenty chapters bearing such titles as “The Bible’s Ubiquitous Weirdness? Kosher Foods, Kooky Laws?” and “Child Abuse and Bullying? God’s Ways and the Binding of Isaac,” and “Misogynistic? Women in Israel,” and “Indiscriminate Massacre and Ethnic Cleansing? The Killing of the Canaanites,” Dr. Copan forthrightly addresses the most troubling stories and passages in the Old Testament, comparing them with their ancient Near Eastern environment and subjecting them to careful analysis.
Professor Copan has plainly been driven to defend the biblical texts against attacks from such “new atheists” as Sam Harris and the late Christopher Hitchens. His first two chapters, “Who Are the New Atheists?” and “The New Atheists and the Old Testament God,” make this explicit, and a later chapter, “The Root of All Evil? Does Religion Cause Violence?” takes on one of their principal accusations.
Is God a Moral Monster? probably contains quite a bit more in-depth analysis than most readers will care to follow. But those who have been seriously bothered by elements of the Old Testament’s depiction of God will, I think, find it helpful at many points. Latter-day Saints and Evangelicals differ substantially on a number of theological issues and Latter-day Saints aren’t biblical inerrantists, but we tend to take a high view of the historicity of the Bible, including the pre-Christian part, and there is little if anything in Professor Copan’s analysis and argument that will pose any difficulties for the typical Latter-day Saint.