“He that loveth not knoweth not God; for God is love.” —1 John 4:8 (KJV)
“The Lord is gracious, and full of compassion; slow to anger, and of great mercy. The Lord is good to all, and his tender mercies are over all his works.” —Psalms 145:8-9 (KJV)
“…the Lord is very pitiful, and of tender mercy.” —James 5:11 (KJV)
“…turn unto the Lord your God: for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness.” —Joel 2:13 (KJV)
“Now the God of peace be with you all. Amen.” —Romans 15:33 (KJV)
The above verses typify the view of God commonly taught in Sunday school and held by most Judeo-Christian believers: the concept of deity as a loving, benevolent father figure, patient and kind, perfected in the attributes of compassion, peace, and mercy.
However, such an interpretation can only derive from a highly selective reading of the Bible. In reality, God as depicted in scripture is a very different being. The verses extolling his love and mercy are far outnumbered by those that depict him as a cruel, wrathful, warlike tyrant, swift to exact terrible revenge for even minor acts of disobedience. The few verses in the Bible such as the ones cited above are islands in an sea of blood, death, and destruction – both commanded by God and committed by him directly.
This news may come as a shock to those believers who have never read the Bible themselves, but it is true, nonetheless. Even those “famous” episodes which most everyone knows – Abraham and Isaac, Noah’s flood, the ten plagues and the exodus from Egypt – hint at the God of the Bible’s true character, though the implications of these stories are usually glossed over.
This article will highlight and discuss some of the atrocities of the Bible. (All quotes are from the King James Version unless otherwise noted.) While by no means comprehensive, it will hopefully shock believers out of complacency and show that, if God exists, he is either not as the Bible describes him or else morally unworthy of worship.
The first atrocity this article will discuss, though it pales in comparison compared to what lies ahead, will serve to set the tone for much of the Old Testament and illustrate the character of Jehovah.
“And Abel was a keeper of sheep, but Cain was a tiller of the ground. And in process of time it came to pass, that Cain brought of the fruit of the ground an offering unto the Lord. And Abel, he also brought of the firstlings of his flock and of the fat thereof. And the Lord had respect unto Abel and to his offering: but unto Cain and to his offering he had not respect.”
As reading a few verses ahead will reveal, the enmity between the brothers inspired by this event is what led to Cain’s killing Abel. But why did God accept Abel’s offering but not Cain’s? The plants of the field were part of God’s “very good” creation just as the animals were, and both brothers made offerings befitting their chosen occupations. We are not told of any pre-existing sin which would cause God to look down on Cain. The only remaining explanation is that God preferred Abel’s offering because it involved pain and bloodshed – the butchering of innocent animals – whereas Cain’s peaceful offering of fruit did not.
The message of the story of Abel and Cain is that faithfulness and obedience are not enough – God also demands willingness to spill blood in his name, and prefers to be worshipped in ways which cause death and suffering. As the rest of this article will show, this theme will recur again and again throughout the Bible.
Angered by the sinfulness of man, God sends a massive flood that wipes out every living thing, other than Noah, his family, and the animals they take on the ark.
“And the flood was forty days upon the earth; and the waters increased, and bare up the ark, and it was lift up above the earth. And the waters prevailed, and were increased greatly upon the earth; and the ark went upon the face of the waters. And the waters prevailed exceedingly upon the earth; and all the high hills, that were under the whole heaven, were covered…. And all flesh died that moved upon the earth, both of fowl, and of cattle, and of beast, and of every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth, and every man: All in whose nostrils was the breath of life, of all that was in the dry land, died. And every living substance was destroyed which was upon the face of the ground, both man, and cattle, and the creeping things, and the fowl of the heaven; and they were destroyed from the earth.”
This was not a quick or clean death. The human beings and animals left behind probably would have felt the first stirrings of anxiety as they saw the rain begin to fall and the water level begin to rise. As rivers overflowed their banks, they would have had to abandon their homes and move to higher ground, to watch mudslides and flash floods sweep away the villages and any who were left behind in them. As the many separate floods began to merge and the raging waters rose higher, they would have been forced to keep climbing, pursued by lightning, howling winds and lapping waves. Upon reaching the highest ground possible and discovering that the flood waters were still rising, there would have been nothing left to do but cower in the last extremity of terror and wait to be overtaken. Their end would not have been pleasant: battered and crushed by rocks and currents, suffocated in mud and silt, and finally pulled under and drowned. The flood waters must have been choked with bodies.
Was such total destruction necessary? Are we to believe that every human being on the planet, other than Noah and his family – including children and newborn babies, husbands and wives, grandfathers and grandmothers, pregnant women and young lovers – was so irredeemably evil that there was absolutely no choice other than to violently kill them all?
This is implausible on its face. Humanity is not so monolithic and never has been; there has never been a nation, a race, or a society in history where literally everyone thought and acted exactly the same way. The Biblical picture that depicts Noah and his family as the only good people in the entire world is unrealistic and unbelievable.
Apologists often try to justify this atrocity by citing the supposed utter depravity of the pre-flood period, but no Bible verse supports such an inference; in fact, Genesis explicitly says that man after the flood was no more evil than man before (8:21), an admission which nullifies the very purpose of the flood. Indeed, according to the Bible’s dictum that all sin deserves death (Romans 6:23), there is no reason to believe the pre-flood people were significantly different or more evil than people today. And even if the antediluvian society was beyond redemption, why did God also kill the children? Why did he also kill the animals? What did they do to deserve this catastrophic end? Rather than unleashing such indiscriminate destruction, why didn’t God just snap his fingers and make the evil people disappear, or something else similarly selective?
One of the most famous episodes in the Old Testament is the patriarch Abraham’s near-sacrifice of his son Isaac, and God’s blessing him with a great covenant in return for his obedience. However, the true message of this story is not inspiring, but appalling.
“And it came to pass after these things, that God did tempt Abraham, and said unto him, Abraham: and he said, Behold, here I am. And he said, Take now thy son, thine only son Isaac, whom thou lovest, and get thee into the land of Moriah; and offer him there for a burnt offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell thee of…. And they came to the place which God had told him of; and Abraham built an altar there, and laid the wood in order, and bound Isaac his son, and laid him on the altar upon the wood. And Abraham stretched forth his hand, and took the knife to slay his son.”
That the sacrifice was not actually carried out does not change the moral revulsion we should feel at this episode. What kind of god would demand a man prove his obedience by murdering his only son? And more so, what kind of man would obey such a command? Abraham has been held up as an archetype by Judaism, Christianity and Islam alike, but is this really the sort of behavior we should strive to emulate – the willingness to kill in God’s name? Had I been in Abraham’s place, I would have thrown away that knife and let Jehovah know, in no uncertain terms, that I would never serve any deity who demanded such a price. And had I been in God’s place, that is exactly the response I would have rewarded.
But no. The God of the Bible rewarded – blessed, actually – a man who would have slit the throat of his son on command. Evidently, this is the quality Jehovah values – not humanistic morality, not an unshakable respect for human life, but a willingness to lay one’s conscience aside and blindly obey. Regrettably, Abraham’s spiritual heirs have carried on his legacy of killing in obedience to what they believe to be a divine decree, and the tragic results are the bloodshed and terrorism that still rages in places like the Middle East today.
After appointing Moses his spokesman, God sends his new-minted prophet back to speak with Pharaoh, to demand that the enslaved Israelites be released. However, even before Moses returns to Egypt, God tells him that his message will fall on deaf ears, because:
“When thou goest to return into Egypt, see that thou do all those wonders before Pharaoh, which I have put in thine hand: but I will harden his heart, that he shall not let the people go.”
And when Moses returns, this indeed happens. As soon as he performs his first miracle (turning his staff into a snake), we are told that God “hardened Pharaoh’s heart, that he hearkened not unto them” (7:13). Nor is this the only time this happens. In fact, God hardens Pharaoh’s heart on seven more occasions, according to the Bible: 9:12, 10:1, 10:20, 10:27, 11:10, 14:4, and 14:8. On each occasion, God sends a plague on the people of Egypt to persuade Pharaoh to change his mind, and then hardens Pharaoh’s heart so that he will not change his mind!
Such behavior cannot be called good. How is it fair for God to demand someone do what he says, then remove that person’s free will so they cannot do what he says, and then punish them severely for failing to obey him? How is it fair of God to punish someone for doing what he forced them to do? Is that anyone’s idea of justice? What purpose does this inconsistent behavior serve? In fact, the text tells us: “And I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and multiply my signs and my wonders in the land of Egypt. But Pharaoh shall not hearken unto you, that I may lay my hand upon Egypt, and bring forth mine armies, and my people the children of Israel, out of the land of Egypt by great judgments” (7:3-4).
In other words, a peaceful exodus would not have satisfied God. It was not enough for him that his people were freed – they had to be freed through destruction and bloodshed. He forced Pharaoh to keep his people captive so that he could prove how powerful he was by sending plagues that devastated the land and killed thousands of innocent people! For more on this, see the next item.
After nine previous plagues fail to persuade the hard-hearted Pharaoh (who was hard-hearted because God forced him to be that way, as detailed above) to free the Israelites from their slavery in Egypt, God unleashes his final and most terrible plague: the death of the firstborn.
“And it came to pass, that at midnight the Lord smote all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, from the firstborn of Pharaoh that sat on his throne unto the firstborn of the captive that was in the dungeon; and all the firstborn of cattle. And Pharaoh rose up in the night, he, and all his servants, and all the Egyptians; and there was a great cry in Egypt; for there was not a house where there was not one dead.”
The next morning in Egypt must have been a black dawn indeed. How many mothers and fathers were there, stumbling dead-eyed out of their homes? How many wails of grief and funeral songs could be heard? How many graves had to be dug? One can only imagine the horror, grief and despair that would ensue if anything comparable happened in a modern nation.
But why did God do this? After all, ancient Egypt was not a democracy. It was entirely Pharaoh’s stubborn heart that was to blame – the ordinary Egyptian people had no part in this decision! What purpose did it serve to punish them? More, what purpose did it serve to punish their children? Among the people dead, many must have been young children, toddlers, infants, newborn babies. What responsibility did they bear for the Israelites’ centuries-long captivity?
The text tells us plainly that in all of Egypt, “there was not a house where there was not one dead”. But was there not a house where anyone had any sympathy for the Israelites? Out of the entire nation of Egypt, there must have been at least a few people who felt sorry for their plight. Did these people deserve to be punished as well? The text even tells us that God slaughtered the firstborn children of prisoners in the dungeon, who certainly had no power to release the Israelites – indeed, given the harshness of Pharaoh, the people who felt sympathy for them might well have been the ones who were imprisoned. God even killed the firstborn of the cattle! (This despite the fact that God had already killed all the Egyptian cattle in the fifth plague, in 9:6.)
There cannot have been any purpose to this massacre. If God truly wanted the Israelites to be freed, he would have focused his efforts on the one person in all of Egypt who had the power to make that decision (and, again, would not have taken away his free will to prevent him from doing so). It was nothing but pointless cruelty to torment the innocent Egyptian populace with plague after plague, culminating in an atrocity that must have shattered every family in the nation. Do the followers of this god claim to be “pro-family”, when he himself is obviously not?
“He that sacrificeth unto any god, save unto the Lord only, he shall be utterly destroyed.”
Whether this verse is read as a directive for the people to exact this punishment against an apostate, or as a promise that God himself will do this, the intent is clear: a decree that anyone who worships any deity other than the God of the Bible must die. How can such a commandment be described as anything other than evil? What Jew or Christian would defend this rule as morally praiseworthy?
In all civilized nations in the world today, as well as according to Article 18 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, freedom of religion and freedom of belief are held as fundamental human rights. But this right is not respected by the God of the Bible – just the opposite. The only system of government he approves of is a dictatorial theocracy where no one is allowed to practice any belief system other than the state-approved one, under pain of death.
“If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them.”
Like the previous verse, this law prescribes an outrageous, barbaric penalty for something that is not even a crime at all. Why should the private sexual activity of consenting adults be any business of the state? The only crimes are those activities that cause tangible harm to others. Speech and activity that others merely find distasteful do not qualify.
Again, what Jew or Christian would defend this verse? What believer would agree with a law saying that sexually active homosexuals – only male homosexuals, apparently – are to be killed? Not denied the right to marry, not even imprisoned, but executed. Should homosexuality be a capital crime deserving lethal injection, the electric chair, or the gas chamber? (or worse methods – see below). Anyone who does not think so is placing themself in opposition to the rules laid down in the Bible.
“And while the children of Israel were in the wilderness, they found a man that gathered sticks upon the sabbath day. And they that found him gathering sticks brought him unto Moses and Aaron, and unto all the congregation…. And the Lord said unto Moses, The man shall be surely put to death: all the congregation shall stone him with stones without the camp. And all the congregation brought him without the camp, and stoned him with stones, and he died; as the Lord commanded Moses.”
Almost as if the Bible was trying to outdo itself, this passage reaches a new height in outrageously disproportionate punishments for trifling offenses. For the terrible crime of picking up sticks on a day when people were not supposed to pick up sticks, God commanded that a man be put to death. Will anyone claim this punishment was either justified or commensurate?
Not only the incredible severity of the sentence, but the sheer cruelty of the method deserves comment. God ordered the man be executed by stoning, a sentence which involves burying the condemned in a pit, then gathering a crowd to throw stones at his head until he dies. As might be expected, the victim suffers a great deal before this happens. Simply put, stoning is a form of death by torture. Despite official condemnation by the European Union, American lawmakers, and human rights groups such as Amnesty International, this barbaric practice is still carried out today as an official form of punishment in some countries that practice Islamic sharia law such as Iran. (The human rights group Iran-e-Azad provides more information on this practice.) Ironically, these nations, which have been universally condemned as barbaric, retrogressive and inhumane, are following Biblical law more closely than the predominantly Jewish and Christian nations today. Would a morally good deity ever impose this punishment for any crime?
While abiding in the land of the Midianites en route to the promised land, some Israelite men begin to marry Midianitish women, and worship their gods. This infuriates Jehovah, who gives his followers a dire command:
“And the Lord said unto Moses, Take all the heads of the people, and hang them up before the Lord against the sun, that the fierce anger of the Lord may be turned away from Israel. And Moses said unto the judges of Israel, Slay ye every one his men that were joined unto Baalpeor.”
And the judges go on to do this. The most fervent of them, a priest named Phinehas, impales an Israelite man and a Midianite women together on the same spear (25:7-8) and is praised for it by God! This sickening act of bloodshed finally turns the tide of God’s wrath, but only after 24,000 Israelites have already died in a divinely sent plague.
Again, notable is God’s reaction – he did not forgive the wayward Israelites, nor offer them a chance to repent, nor did he allow them to go their own way while his faithful followers went theirs. Instead, he ordered them to be killed. How many Jews or Christians would be willing to murder a friend or relative who married a person of another religion and then converted to that religion? That is exactly what the God of the Bible commands.
The modern nation of Israel drew widespread condemnation recently for a law passed by its parliament that effectively bans mixed marriages between Israeli citizens and Palestinians. Human rights groups such as B’Tselem correctly condemned the law as racist and contrary to basic human freedoms. But what would have been the response if, instead of merely denying mixed-marriage spouses the right to live together, the law instead decreed that both partners of such a union – both husband and wife – were to be put to death? Would any defend such a law as just?
Deuteronomy 7:1-2, 20:16-17
Perhaps the single greatest crime, the greatest act of evil, known to humanity is genocide – the deliberate extermination of a racial, political or religious group. The best-known example, of course, is Nazi Germany’s systematic campaign of genocide against the Jewish people, but more recent examples include the African nation of Rwanda, where the majority Hutus killed as many as 800,000 Tutsis over a few months in 1994, and Kosovo, the former Yugoslavia, where as recently as 1999 the Serbian regime of Slobodan Milosevic expelled, raped, and murdered hundreds of thousands of ethnic Albanians before intervention by NATO.
These atrocities are rightfully counted among humanity’s darkest moments, and we as a people and a world should be deeply thankful that the international community has finally begun to act with one resolve against such acts of inhumanity. We have no right to call our world civilized or enlightened until the day when peace reigns and these crimes are only a distant memory of a past dark age.
In light of this, how can we evaluate God’s instructions to the Israelites upon entering the promised land?
“When the Lord thy God shall bring thee into the land whither thou goest to possess it, and hath cast out many nations before thee, the Hittites, and the Girgashites, and the Amorites, and the Canaanites, and the Perizzites, and the Hivites, and the Jebusites, seven nations greater and mightier than thou; and when the Lord thy God shall deliver them before thee; thou shalt smite them, and utterly destroy them; thou shalt make no covenant with them, nor shew mercy unto them.”
“But of the cities of these people, which the Lord thy God doth give thee for an inheritance, thou shalt save alive nothing that breatheth: But thou shalt utterly destroy them; namely, the Hittites, and the Amorites, the Canaanites, and the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites; as the Lord thy God hath commanded thee.”
God specifically identifies groups of people by nationality and orders the Israelites to kill all of them, men, women and children, leaving no one alive. This is the definition of genocide – the deliberate eradication of a people. Note that no one is allowed to surrender or repent; in fact, God’s instructions say specifically to show them no mercy, to let no one remain alive. This was indefensible when the Nazis did it, indefensible when the Hutus did it, indefensible when the Serbians did it, and it is indefensible when the Bible commands it. No crime merits mass murder as a punishment, nor can any command justify or excuse the systematic extermination of a people.
In this chapter, the Israelite army continues its decimation of Canaan. Under the leadership of Moses, they attack another tribe, the Midianites. What happened after the battle is notable.
“And they warred against the Midianites, as the Lord commanded Moses; and they slew all the males…. And Moses was wroth with the officers of the host, with the captains over thousands, and captains over hundreds, which came from the battle. And Moses said unto them, Have ye saved all the women alive? …. Now therefore kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman that hath known man by lying with him. But all the women children, that have not known a man by lying with him, keep alive for yourselves.”
This order means exactly what it looks like it means: the female virgins among the Midianites were to be sentenced to a life of sexual slavery. Deuteronomy 21:11 and following verses make this explicit, laying out the rules for Israelite warriors to take female captives as wives. Granted, the captive was given a month to mourn her family and could not be sold as property – but on the other hand, she was not given an opportunity to refuse this marriage offer, and the idea that she would willingly marry one of the men who had just been responsible for killing all her relatives and loved ones seems slightly far-fetched. Note also that many of these virgin females were certain to be children, and no law in the Bible says that the Israelites had to wait for their captives to reach a certain age before marrying them.
In addition, why were only the virgin females spared? Was every single non-virgin female guilty of tempting the Israelites into idolatry? And what about the male children – what did they do to deserve death?
In the first few verses of this chapter, God describes the many blessings and treasures he will grant the Israelites if they obey him and keep his commandments. So far, so good. But then the emphasis moves to what will happen if they do not obey:
“Cursed shalt thou be in the city, and cursed shalt thou be in the field. Cursed shall be thy basket and thy store. Cursed shall be the fruit of thy body, and the fruit of thy land, the increase of thy kine, and the flocks of thy sheep. Cursed shalt thou be when thou comest in, and cursed shalt thou be when thou goest out. The Lord shall send upon thee cursing, vexation, and rebuke, in all that thou settest thine hand unto for to do, until thou be destroyed, and until thou perish quickly; because of the wickedness of thy doings, whereby thou hast forsaken me. The Lord shall make the pestilence cleave unto thee, until he have consumed thee from off the land, whither thou goest to possess it. The Lord shall smite thee with a consumption, and with a fever, and with an inflammation, and with an extreme burning, and with the sword, and with blasting, and with mildew; and they shall pursue thee until thou perish….
Thy sons and thy daughters shall be given unto another people, and thine eyes shall look, and fail with longing for them all the day long; and there shall be no might in thine hand. The fruit of thy land, and all thy labours, shall a nation which thou knowest not eat up; and thou shalt be only oppressed and crushed alway: So that thou shalt be mad for the sight of thine eyes which thou shalt see…. Thou shalt beget sons and daughters, but thou shalt not enjoy them; for they shall go into captivity…. Therefore shalt thou serve thine enemies which the Lord shall send against thee, in hunger, and in thirst, and in nakedness, and in want of all things: and he shall put a yoke of iron upon thy neck, until he have destroyed thee…. Also every sickness, and every plague, which is not written in the book of this law, them will the Lord bring upon thee, until thou be destroyed.”
This chapter, which cannot be described as anything other than a rant, goes on and on, detailing at great length the countless horrible punishments that will ensue if the Israelites falter: cannibalism (complete with parents eating their children), plagues and pestilences, slavery, death in battle, madness, blindness, expulsion from their land, a life of constant fear, oppression and woe; in short, every sort of disaster, pain and catastrophe imaginable. And these miseries and disasters will not be doled out by God with a heavy heart, saddened by the chastisement he must inflict on the people he loves; on the contrary, he will do it gladly, and “rejoice” to destroy them (28:63). And as the coda, God says that he will do these things “because thou servedst not the Lord thy God with joyfulness, and with gladness of heart, for the abundance of all things” (28:47). Would anyone blame the Israelites for not being able to joyfully and gladly serve God after hearing in such graphic detail about the fury he will unleash upon them if they stray?
This long list of dire and terrible threats cannot possibly be reconciled with the verses that depict God as full of compassion, slow to anger, of great kindness and tender mercy. A being possessing those traits would never threaten others with the threats listed above. Can God truly be said to love people at all if he only blesses them when they obey and please him, and pours out his wrath on them as soon as they stray? True love respects the other person’s choices and allows them to go their own way; it does not demand that the other party obey all your wishes absolutely, or that they return your love on pain of torture. Such a relationship is not based on love at all, but on fear, and any human being who demanded a relationship on such terms would rightly be called abusive, violent, and mentally ill.
With the Israelites’ entry into the promised land, Joshua is appointed to be Moses’ successor, and duly takes charge of the campaign of genocide God has commanded against the current inhabitants of that land. The first stop on their invasion is the city of Jericho, whose walls come tumbling down when the Israelite priests blow ram’s horn trumpets and shout at them. Jericho is left suddenly defenseless, and Joshua’s army comes charging in. “And they utterly destroyed all that was in the city, both man and woman, young and old, and ox, and sheep, and ass, with the edge of the sword”. No prisoners of war are taken, no surrenders are heeded, no civilians are allowed to live except the family of the prostitute Rahab, who aided in the conquest. Man, woman and child, the unsuspecting residents of Jericho are massacred. Even the livestock are killed, for good measure. With the destruction and slaughter complete, Joshua loots the city of all its treasure, burns the rest to the ground, and pronounces a curse upon the spot. The Israelite army then continues its systematic campaign of massacre and destruction, and city after city falls before them.
In addition to Jericho, the list of cities that Joshua completely destroyed, slaughtering every single inhabitant, includes: Ai (8:24-26), Makkedah (10:28), Libnah (10:30), Lachish (10:32), Gezer (10:33), Eglon (10:35), Hebron (10:37), Debir (10:39), Hazor (11:11), and Anab (11:21). (Ai alone had 12,000 inhabitants, according to the text.) With each city destroyed, the Bible repeats the mantra, “And Joshua smote it with the edge of the sword, and all the souls that were therein; he left none remain”. He left not a single person alive, but “utterly destroyed all that breathed, as the Lord God of Israel commanded” (10:40). “Peaceful coexistence” is evidently not a phrase on God’s mind. He stops the sun from going down on one occasion so Joshua has extra time to continue killing (10:12); on another occasion, he even joins in on the slaughter himself, hurling down great stones from heaven onto the Canaanites (10:11), and boasting that he killed more people than the Israelites did with their swords.
The only hitch in this campaign occurs when Achan, the son of Carmi, “took of the accursed thing” (7:1), keeping back some of the silver and gold from an earlier conquest for himself. This sin causes the Israelites to lose a battle. Fortunately, Joshua and the Israelites are able to avert God’s wrath by taking Achan himself, his sons, his daughters and his livestock, stoning them all to death, then burning their bodies with fire (7:24-25). This causes their fortunes to change for the better again, at which point they resume slaughtering Canaanites. Even if Achan’s sin was serious enough to merit death by torture, why did his children also have to die? The text does not tell us.
1 Samuel 6:19
Earlier in the book of 1 Samuel, a battle between the Israelites and the Philistines ends disastrously for God’s chosen people: tens of thousands of Israelites are killed, and worse, the holy Ark of the Covenant, the symbol of Yahweh’s promise, is stolen. However, the heathen Philistines cannot keep their hands on the Ark long: their idols crumble when it is brought near, and many men in the Philistine cities die, while many of the survivors are stricken with agonizing hemorrhoids. Finally, the Philistines decide to send the Ark back along with a “trespass offering” of five golden mice and five golden hemorrhoids, and place it on a cart pulled by two oxen, which miraculously take the shortest, straightest way back to Israel entirely by themselves.
The returning Ark arrives in the country of Bethshemesh, where the Jewish people rejoice to see it. However, in their excitement they make the fatal mistake of actually opening the Ark and looking inside.
“And he smote the men of Bethshemesh, because they had looked into the ark of the Lord, even he smote of the people fifty thousand and threescore and ten men: and the people lamented, because the Lord had smitten many of the people with a great slaughter.”
According to the King James version of the Bible, 50,070 people were killed for looking into the Ark of the Covenant. Over fifty thousand! (Some translations say only 70 people were killed, such as the NIV, but even that version has a footnote admitting that only a “few” manuscripts support their translation while “most” have the KJV wording. Is this change because they recognize the moral implications here?)
To put this number in perspective, consider the most devastating act of terrorism ever committed in the United States, the tragic events of September 11, 2001. On that day, according to a New York Times article honoring the fallen, slightly more than 2,600 people lost their lives. And yet, according to the Bible, on this one occasion almost twenty times as many people died as on the day of September 11! And for what? For looking into a box! And this is detailed in a book that is called the inspired word of God!
1 Samuel 15:3
Through the prophet Samuel, God sends a dire command to the Israelite king Saul: “Now go and smite Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have, and spare them not; but slay both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass”. Why does God command this? Because (15:2) the Amalekites tried to ambush Israel when the people left Egypt during the Exodus. But this had happened almost 400 years ago! (According to 1 Kings 6:1, Solomon’s reign began in the 480th year after the Exodus; both Saul and David reigned for forty years each, according to Acts 13:21 and 1 Kings 2:11, respectively.) All the Amalekites who had been involved in this attack had been dead for many generations by this point. No living Amalekite bore any responsibility. But Saul obeyed God’s command nevertheless, attacked the Amalekites and “utterly destroyed all the people with the edge of the sword” (15:8). Would you consider it fair or just to be put to death for a crime committed by your ancestor in the year 1600? Assuming an average of 30 years between generations (and in Biblical times it was almost certainly less), this would mean holding you responsible for a crime committed by your great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather!
However, the crowning atrocity is yet to come. Though Saul obediently slaughters almost all the people of Amalek, he leaves alive the best of the livestock, as well as the former king, Agag. God is infuriated that Saul spared the lives of one man and some innocent animals (even though Saul only spared them with the intent of sacrificing them to God), and through his prophet Samuel, tells Saul that he has been “rejected” (15:23) from being king. Saul tries several times to repent and apologize, but Samuel will have none of it. He flings Saul’s pleas for mercy back in his face, says he will never see Saul again, and delivers a promise from God (15:28) that Saul will be dethroned and the entire kingdom of Israel split in half as punishment for his disobedience. As a final act, Samuel orders that the captive king Agag be brought before him. Agag is brought and pleads for his life, saying, “Surely the bitterness of death is past” (15:32). Samuel, the prophet of a kind and merciful God, responds, “As the sword hath made women childless, so shall thy mother be childless among women”, and then “hewed Agag in pieces before the Lord in Gilgal” (15:33). This episode, like many others, is emblematic of the God of the Bible’s wrath and cruelty.
2 Kings 2:23-24
Not long after taking up his mentor Elijah’s mantle, the prophet Elisha has an encounter by the roadside in a story that very clearly illustrates the violent temper and short fuse of the God of the Bible:
“And [Elisha] went up from thence unto Bethel: and as he was going up by the way, there came forth little children out of the city, and mocked him, and said unto him, Go up, thou bald head; go up, thou bald head. And he turned back, and looked on them, and cursed them in the name of the Lord. And there came forth two she bears out of the wood, and tare forty and two children of them.”
Was mocking a preacher a crime that merited forty-two of these children being mauled by wild bears?
This story has become an iconic example of Biblical cruelty, and as such, many Christian apologists have attempted to soften it. The most common way to do this is to argue that these were not actually “little children” at all:
“‘Little children’ is an unfortunate translation. The Hebrew expression neurim qetannim is best rendered ‘young lads’ or ‘young men.’ From numerous examples where ages are specified in the Old Testament, we know that these were boys from twelve to thirty years old. One of these words described Isaac at his sacrifice in Genesis 22:12, when he was easily in his early twenties. It described Joseph in Genesis 37:2 when he was seventeen years old. In fact, the same word described army men in 1 Kings 20:14-15…these are young men ages between twelve and thirty.” (from Hard Sayings of the Bible, quoted on the Christian Think Tank)
However, there is a very serious problem with this interpretation, one which the above passage quickly glosses over. Note how it says “one of these words” was used to describe people who were not young children. That is correct; the Hebrew noun na’ar is used in the quoted verses, and by itself, clearly means a male between childhood and young adulthood. But what about the other word, the adjective – qatan?
The word translated as “little” in the KJV version of this passage is the Hebrew qatan, meaning “young” or “small”. Genesis 22:12, which is used to refer Isaac at the time of the sacrifice, does not use this word. Genesis 37:2, which describes Joseph at 17, does not use it either. Nor does 1 Kings 20:14, which describes men of fighting age. All these verses use only one of the words, na’ar, that was used to describe the children who mocked Elisha; they do not use qatan.
The apologists’ own argument convicts them: the verses which clearly do refer to young men do not use the adjective that describes the boys who taunted Elisha. If the author of this verse really had intended that these were small children and wanted to convey that fact to his readers, what word choice would he use? I suggest that he would have used exactly the words we do in fact find, and thus one must conclude that it was indeed small children, probably twelve years of age or less, that God sent the bears to tear apart.
In closing, it should be pointed out that the apologists’ attempts to reinterpret this verse to refer to young men who genuinely might have posed a threat to Elisha is a tacit admission that a god who caused the violent deaths of small children would be morally unworthy of worship. How then do they defend the many other verses – the flood in Genesis 7, the conquest in Deuteronomy 7 and 20, Joshua 6:21, 1 Samuel 15:3, and others that will be discussed further on – in which God commands or commits the violent deaths of people who were indisputably small children or infants and who indisputably had committed no crime?
2 Chronicles 25:11-12
Contradiction in terms though it may seem, many modern nations have come to agree that there should be rules for war; in particular, that there should be rules governing the treatment of enemy soldiers taken prisoner in combat. Hence the adoption, in 1949, of the Geneva Convention, which among other things mandates that prisoners of war be provided with basic needs such as food, clothing and medical care, and that they not be tortured for information, subjected to medical experiments or slave labor, or executed at their captor’s whim. Granted, the Geneva Convention had not been signed by ancient Judah, and the idea of human rights had yet to be developed by later, humanist philosophers – but even kings from the first millennium BCE should have been able to recognize that this was inhumane:
“And Amaziah strengthened himself, and led forth his people, and went to the valley of salt, and smote of the children of Seir ten thousand. And other ten thousand left alive did the children of Judah carry away captive, and brought them unto the top of the rock, and cast them down from the top of the rock, that they all were broken in pieces.”
These people were not soldiers killed in battle – they were captives murdered en masse in this terrible, savage way. Is this the will of a good God – to massacre ten thousand helpless prisoners by throwing them off a cliff? Is this the right way to treat a vanquished adversary?
The crowning insult is that this king, Amaziah, is described as a moderately righteous ruler who “did that which was right in the sight of the Lord” (25:2), though not wholeheartedly. Was this act right in the sight of God? Amaziah is never punished for it. In fact, just three verses later (25:15), God sends a prophet to rebuke him – but not for his murder of 10,000 people, but rather for worshipping foreign gods. Jehovah, it seems, couldn’t care less about the cold-blooded killing of thousands of prisoners as long as he is receiving the sycophantic flattery he craves. How can anyone possibly defend these evil verses as the inspired product of a loving and benevolent deity?
The book of Job exemplifies, perhaps better than any other, the cruelty of the God of the Bible. As the book’s story goes, God and Satan are sitting around in Heaven and chatting one day when the subject of conversation turns to Job. Job is a wealthy and God-fearing man, “perfect and upright” as the Bible describes him, so pious that he offers sacrifices on his sons’ behalf each day just in case they have committed a sin (1:5). Satan says, however, that Job only obeys God because of his prosperity and good fortune, and that if he loses these things “he will curse thee to thy face” (1:11). God denies this, and Satan offers a bet – ruin Job’s life and see if he stays faithful. And God accepts!
While this perfectly good and merciful deity stands by and does nothing, Satan causes Job’s livestock to be stolen, his servants to be murdered, and all his children to die, and Job himself to be covered with painful sores from head to toe. Grief-stricken, suffering and miserable, Job demands to know why he has been afflicted so, and God appears in a whirlwind – not to apologize, not to explain, but to intimidate Job into submission, sternly telling him that he has no right to an answer.
While apologists try to excuse many other atrocities committed in the Bible as God’s just and deserved punishment of wrongdoers, that explanation cannot be used here. In chapter 2, God admits that Job’s miseries were not deserved, but that he destroyed an innocent man for no reason at all!
“And the Lord said unto Satan, Hast thou considered my servant Job, that there is none like him in the earth, a perfect and an upright man, one that feareth God, and escheweth evil? and still he holdeth fast his integrity, although thou movedst me against him, to destroy him without cause.”
The story of Job is revealing of the character of the Biblical deity. An omniscient being would have known full well in advance that Job’s faith would not falter, so what was the point of inflicting all this suffering on him – did God feel he had something to prove? What motivated him to agree to the bet with Satan? Pride? Did he value being proven right over the suffering of an innocent human being and the deaths of others?
A truly morally good deity would not have acceded to the bet in the first place, but would have told Satan, “I don’t need to prove anything to you. Job is a good man who doesn’t deserve to suffer. I know he would remain faithful to me anyway, so I’m going to continue to bless him and I don’t care what you think about it.” Only a cruel god would have used an innocent man like a token in a game, and callously stood by and done nothing while his life was ruined – or worse yet, ruined that man’s life himself just to prove a point!
Through the prophet Isaiah, God promises a dreadful judgment on the nation of Babylon (though for what crime is never quite made clear):
“Behold, the day of the Lord cometh, cruel both with wrath and fierce anger, to lay the land desolate: and he shall destroy the sinners thereof out of it…. Every one that is found shall be thrust through; and every one that is joined unto them shall fall by the sword. Their children also shall be dashed to pieces before their eyes; their houses shall be spoiled, and their wives ravished. Behold, I will stir up the Medes against them, which shall not regard silver; and as for gold, they shall not delight in it. Their bows also shall dash the young men to pieces; and they shall have no pity on the fruit of the womb; their eyes shall not spare children.”
Once again we see God punishing people with violent death, infanticide, and rape. He explicitly takes credit for causing these events to occur, saying he will “stir up” the Persians to commit these deeds.
God promises to destroy all nations and kill so many people that the land will be “soaked with blood”. Are these the words of a kind, loving, or merciful being?
“For the indignation of the Lord is upon all nations, and his fury upon all their armies: he hath utterly destroyed them, he hath delivered them to the slaughter. Their slain also shall be cast out, and their stink shall come up out of their carcases, and the mountains shall be melted with their blood. And all the host of heaven shall be dissolved, and the heavens shall be rolled together as a scroll: and all their host shall fall down, as the leaf falleth off from the vine, and as a falling fig from the fig tree. For my sword shall be bathed in heaven: behold, it shall come down upon Idumea, and upon the people of my curse, to judgment. The sword of the Lord is filled with blood, it is made fat with fatness, and with the blood of lambs and goats, with the fat of the kidneys of rams: for the Lord hath a sacrifice in Bozrah, and a great slaughter in the land of Idumea…. and their land shall be soaked with blood, and their dust made fat with fatness.”
God, who says his name is “Jealous” (Exodus 34:14), proves it decisively in this verse. He is furious that the inhabitants of the southern Israelite kingdom of Judah are worshipping other gods and not giving him the proper credit, and through his prophet Jeremiah, he makes this promise:
“And I will dash them one against another, even the fathers and the sons together, saith the Lord: I will not pity, nor spare, nor have mercy, but destroy them.”
Say what you will about God’s right to be worshipped exclusively if he so wishes or to punish people who disobey him as he sees fit. Say this punishment is perfectly fair, if you must. But do not then continue to assert that this god is also kind, merciful, and loving. (In fact, in this verse he specifically disavows being merciful.) To do so would simply be a contradiction in terms.
While God busies himself smashing fathers and sons together in Judah, the northern kingdom of Israel has not escaped his notice – or his wrath – either. Through the prophet Hosea, he pronounces this horrifying sentence on the capitol city, Samaria:
“Samaria shall become desolate; for she hath rebelled against her God: they shall fall by the sword: their infants shall be dashed in pieces, and their women with child shall be ripped up.”
Those who think the God of the Bible is anti-abortion would do well to read this verse. If he values the lives of unborn children, why would he cause their pregnant mothers to be cut open? Do unborn babies, whom pro-life groups constantly tell us can think, feel and experience pain just like born human beings, deserve to die violently for the sins of adults? What about infants who have not yet reached the “age of accountability”? Do they deserve to be smashed to pieces? Indeed, in this verse it seems as if God is specifically targeting these two groups to receive the full brunt of his wrath! No other specific groups are singled out for punishment in this entire chapter.
The story of Daniel in the lions’ den is another well-known tale of the Old Testament. Daniel, a man of God in the employ of the Chaldean king Darius, is hated by the kingdom’s princes and councillors, and so they persuade the king to pass a law forbidding prayer to Jehovah. Daniel does so anyway, and as punishment is cast into the lions’ den; but for his faith God sends an angel to “shut the lions’ mouths” (6:22). In the morning, when Daniel emerges unharmed, King Darius is so wonderstruck that he converts to Judaism on the spot. “I make a decree, that in every dominion of my kingdom men tremble and fear before the God of Daniel: for he is the living God, and steadfast for ever, and his kingdom that which shall not be destroyed, and his dominion shall be even unto the end” (6:26).
However, less well known is the fate of Daniel’s accusers. How did Darius, who had just converted to worship of the merciful and loving Old Testament God, deal with them?
“And the king commanded, and they brought those men which had accused Daniel, and they cast them into the den of lions, them, their children, and their wives; and the lions had the mastery of them, and brake all their bones in pieces or ever they came at the bottom of the den.”
Even granting that Daniel’s accusers were wicked men who deserved this fate – for what crime were those men’s wives and children thrown to the vicious claws of the lions? What had they done to merit such a horrific death? The Old Testament God sent an angel to shut the lions’ mouths and protect Daniel; evidently, he could not be bothered sending another one to protect the innocent women and children.
As the focus of this essay moves from the Old Testament to the New, something must be made clear at the outset: the NT, for the most part, does not have nearly as many cruelties and atrocities as the OT (Revelation being the notable exception). However, this is not a result of the innovative moral code taught by Jesus – as history shows, Christians are more than capable of committing their own atrocities. Rather, this is a result of the fact that Christianity began as a small, vulnerable sect in the midst of a powerful, militaristic empire that was brutally intolerant of any rebellion or dissent. It is small wonder that the early Christians urged forgiveness, compassion, and most importantly, keeping one’s head down and obeying the authorities (Luke 20:25, Romans 13:1-4). The Christians did not begin committing their own atrocities until they finally gained secular power, several centuries later, after the canon was closed.
However, this change in tone does not mean the New Testament is free of cruelty – very much the opposite, in fact. Though there are comparatively few deaths caused or commanded by God in the NT, there is something much worse.
The Old Testament’s emphasis is almost exclusively on this world and the punishments or rewards that will follow in it, in accordance with God’s will. It is safe to say that it has little or nothing to say about an afterlife. But in the New Testament, the emphasis moves to the afterlife; and though many people, including many critics of the Bible, have expressed admiration for the morals of Jesus, it is safe to say that his teachings introduced the worst religious teaching that has ever infected the minds of humankind – the doctrine of Hell.
As terrible as the cruelties of the Old Testament God were, they were finite in duration. By contrast, the Prince of Peace, the one whom many Christians taught to be the epitome and incarnation of God’s infinite love, taught that those who do not worship him as he demands will, upon death, be cast into a fiery pit of torture, to suffer in unimaginable agony for all eternity without rest or hope of escape.
“Infinite Punishment for Finite Sins” discusses this horrendous idea more specifically, so this essay will merely point out that it can never be fair or just, much less loving or merciful, to torment a finite human being with unending punishment. It makes a mockery of these terms to apply them to a being who would commit such an infinite atrocity.
In light of these verses and many others like them – in fact, this essay has barely scratched the surface – believers in the Bible must now ask themselves if the deity they worship, as he is depicted in the pages of this book, is morally good. Would a loving god cause or command the violent deaths of children? Would a compassionate god prescribe death by torture as the punishment for even the most minor offenses? Would a merciful god condemn human beings to infinite suffering for failing to bow down and worship him as he commands? If the answer to these questions is no, then we must conclude that either God is morally evil, or else does not exist as he is depicted in the Bible.
An obvious rejoinder to this argument is to maintain that God is good, and the above-listed verses do not reflect his true nature. Perhaps the Bible is not his inerrant, literal word, but is of necessity filtered through the minds of human beings; and while some people get the spirit of the message right, others regrettably and mistakenly misuse it to justify their own evil deeds. Perhaps the atrocities in the Bible are not an indictment of God, but only of the book’s fallible authors.
While this may be the case, it is impossible to escape the fact that these atrocities are not isolated or rare occurrences. Very much to the contrary, they are abundant throughout the entire Bible, including all the major parts of both testaments. In the Old Testament, they are everywhere to be found in the Pentateuch, the historical books of the conquest, the judges and the monarchy, and both the major and minor prophets. Likewise, the doctrine of Hell is taught throughout the New Testament, including all four gospels, Acts, many of the epistles, and Revelation. If one was to throw out from the Bible all the material that does not reflect the goodness of God, there would be very little left indeed. Accept, if you wish, that God truly is loving and merciful – but then also accept that the Bible is not an accurate description of who he is or what he wants.
For those unwilling to concede the inspiration of the Bible, there is another counterargument, one which many conservative Christians will doubtless put forward – even if these verses rightfully belong in the Bible, that does not prove that God does not exist. Perhaps these actions, though we perceive them as cruel, are necessitated by his holy nature and are the rightful punishment for sin, and that the problem is not with God, but with our own limited viewpoint and inability to judge.
However, if God created us with a limited understanding, he can hardly blame us for coming to conclusions consistent with that understanding. It was certainly within an omnipotent deity’s power to create human beings with sufficient intellect to fully appreciate the reasons for his actions, but he did not do this. It would be blatantly unfair of God to give us a moral understanding that would tend to judge his actions negatively, then demand we set aside what our understanding tells us and accept his goodness by faith alone. This is equivalent to creating imperfect human beings and then punishing them for their imperfection.
In any event, this argument is nullified by most of the theists who use it when they then assert that God is good. These two beliefs cannot be simultaneously maintained. To claim that God is morally good requires a moral judgment of God, and yet that is exactly what the above argument would deny us the right to do!
One cannot have it both ways. Either God is good, and thus within our sphere of ability to judge, or else he is beyond our ability to judge and therefore we have no way to tell whether he is moral or not. If we cannot understand why God does what he does, he could just as easily be evil as good; we would never know the difference. (He tells us he is good in the Bible, but would not an evil being lie about this?) A theist who truly believes we cannot pass judgment on God would have to agree that we have no basis for regarding him as anything other than morally ambiguous.
But I know of no Judeo-Christian believers who do say this, and therefore we must conclude that God is not beyond our ability to judge. But if we can judge God to be good, we can also judge him to be evil, and the affirmations of his goodness in the Bible must be weighed against the many atrocities either commanded by him or committed by him directly in its pages. Actions, so it is said, speak louder than words; and I argue that many of the acts committed by the God of the Bible are morally indefensible and must lead us to the conclusion that he is not good, but evil.
Granted, this does not prove that the God of the Bible does not exist. But it does demonstrate that, even if he does exist, he is morally unworthy of worship. And those who find the notion of an evil God impossible must then accept that the God of the Bible does not exist.
To those believers who say the verses cited in this article do not disprove God’s goodness, I ask: Is there anything God could do that would force you to conclude he is morally unworthy of worship? If so, what? What more could it take beyond what the Bible already depicts him as doing?
If there is literally nothing God could do that would alter believers’ moral opinion of him, then it makes no sense for those believers to call him good. If goodness is defined by God’s actions, then to say that God is good is merely to say that he does whatever he feels like doing, and if he were to command that babies be smashed to death, pregnant women be cut open, that children be killed violently for the sins of their parents or that picking up sticks on a certain day was a crime deserving of death by torture – as, indeed, he does in the Bible – then those things would be good. Is there anyone who will agree that this is the case?
The rational mind must inevitably reject this conclusion. As human beings, we know full well that some acts are wrong, and cannot be made right by fiat of any power. This is not a difficult conclusion. We are more than capable of recognizing the good – we are intelligent, reasoning beings, with a moral sense that arises from our ability to empathize with others. Moral goodness is not hard to recognize, and a book written by a truly good being would be easily identified as such. The goodness of such a book would be self-evident and indisputable. It would not be so open to charges of wickedness and wrongdoing, nor would it contain so many verses that are so morally questionable, that need so much defending and justification.
It is time to stop defending the indefensible. The Bible is morally flawed, a product of its times, and many of the acts it condones are unacceptable. Obedience to the cruel dictates of this book has kept humanity in the darkness for a long time. We do not need it anymore, and we should not be afraid to cast it down merely because we are fearful of what lies on the other side. In truth, what awaits beyond this imposing black slab is the light of humanistic morality – a future where the equality of all people is recognized and the senseless bloodshed over race, religion, and country will stop. So long as humankind continues to believe in this book of blood, we will never know peace. The way to a brighter future is not to be found in a superstitious ancient text that enshrines killing as heroism and cruelty as a virtue – rather, it is something to be found within each one of us.
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