Is the Old Testament God a Bully? Quote to Ponder: Richard Dawkins

Is the Old Testament God a Bully? Quote to Ponder: Richard Dawkins March 8, 2010

As we read the Old Testament, it is easy to get frustrated on several points.  The greatest of these is the violence of God.  Below is a quote from renowned atheist Richard Dawkins…

The God of the Old Testament is arguable 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]

At a superficial level, the statement above (however sacrilegious) has some merit.  When we look at the OT genocide, judgment, war, and violence emerge from the storyline.  How we reconcile this picture with Jesus is one of the greatest mysteries of the Christian faith.  How would you respond to someone who made similar comments or asked questions regarding the Old Testament?  Is Dawkins at all justified in his observations?  Your thoughts…

[1] Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, 31.


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  • Tucker

    Hey Kurt- another provocative post. 🙂

    Generally I try to be respectful and gracious towards people with whom I disagree, but if I am being honest Dawkins and Hitchens and the other so-called new atheists really rub me the wrong way. Their dogma (and it is that) seems to be characterized by the failings it so vehemently criticizes in world religions: a willful ignorance of the other party’s belief system, a complete lack of capacity to understand nuance and subtlety, and a stated goal of cognitive tyranny in which the only correct belief system is their own. It is, in brief, militant fundamentalism.

    With regards to the specific comments here, the first issue I would raise is that it falls prey to an exegetical fallacy common both inside and outside the church. It presumes that the Old Testament is a monolith which stands over and against the New Testament. That the portraits of God in these two books are fundamentally diametrically opposed. In truth, both the Old Testament and New Testament are diverse collections of books from a range of times and places presenting a dizzying diversity of images for God. There is no single Old Testament portrayal of God. Yes there are places which depict God as violent, jealous, petty, vengeful. And yet the Old Testament also portrays a God who liberates slaves, invites the nations to feast for free at God’s banquet table, mandates care for the foreigner widow and orphan, decrees the year of Jubilee, and promises a time when the people will beat swords into plowshares and never learn war again.

    As for the question of the violence and other harsh images of God present in the Old Testament (and the New Testament, for the record) I have been very much influenced by Walter Brueggemann and the notion of these “competing voices” or “core testimony vs. counter testimony”. Basically, he argues that the biblical witness is never meant to be a uniform, exhaustive revelation of the character of God. Rather, it is a dialogue spanning generations and continents among a people who have encountered God and struggle to find the faithful way to live into that experience of the divine. Part of the journey for all people of faith (including atheists as Dawkins demonstrates)is the temptation toward absolutism, militarism and exclusivism. And of course they project those values onto God in the narrative. And yet, there remains the image of a God of grace, love, justice, and dynamic working in history. It is the task of today’s Church to lift up that prophetic voice in the face of those who would exploit the dissonance of our text of faith.

    • Kurt Willems

      Tucker, I am limited on time but wanted to say that your assessment of the OT is great. We need to look at the OT, not only in light of the New, but also as a multi-faceted record of the work of God in ancient Israel who was understood through many witness or “competing voices…”

  • Daniel

    Tucker makes a good point about the Old and New Testaments not being in opposition of one another, even though this is an assumption that seems to be almost universally held. In the NT, we see an example of the seriousness of God’s wrath in the case of Ananias and Saphira, who were both killed by God for lying. But as for the issue of being “genocidal”, that’s an easy one for people to take out of context of the whole of scripture (whether done intentionally or not). While there’s no way to read the Bible and conclude that God is opposed to killing people in a variety of ways, what is usually missed by people is that this is considered outside of the reality of the Fall. When sin entered the world, death entered with it, and so the death and earthly suffering of every human being is already the result of God’s decree. Death is the bottom line of the Curse, whether it comes quietly in old age, or at the end of a spear. So as the story of Israel plays out in the OT, we see lots of instances where God reveals through earthly kinds of retribution, the same end that waits us all, if we remain lost in our sin…

    When considering God’s command to Israel to enter the Promised Land and rid the area of the Canaanite pagans, it’s easy to think that God is a heartless, genocidal tyrant. But when we step back and look at what happens to Israel down the road, we see them attacked, conquered and enslaved by other kingdoms as well, and this at the direction of God too. So from a “big picture” standpoint, we can see that war and violence actually turn out to be an ineffective and self-destructive way of trying to further God’s Kingdom. The whole history of earthly Israel works out to show how God’s Kingdom cannot be spread like other worldly kingdoms, even though at first it seems to be just another nation. God gives them the Law, which is also pretty violent in it’s consequences. (stoning, for example) But in Jesus, we finally see the true intent of Israel. We see that God was never really trying to redeem the world by slaying thousands of Philistines or flattening Jericho, but rather all those instances stand as evidence as to why the world needs to be redeemed in the first place. It’s very similiar to God giving the Law to Israel. He gave it, knowing they could never keep it, but instead would be shown to be guilty. Likewise, God allows the Israelites to endure centuries of war, bloodshed, and pain (in both directions…), both to show how wicked the world is, and how that world cannot be changed outwardly through the sword, but that real change can only happen inwardly, as God changes a human heart…

    • Kurt Willems

      Daniel… you make many good statements here. I like what you say about seeing the “big picture.” Also, great statement: “But in Jesus, we finally see the true intent of Israel… but all those instances stand as evidence as to why the world needs to be redeemed in the first place” Great comments.

  • i have a problem with the title, first off… stating ‘the Old Testament God” means he changed later. But itsn’t God the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow? =)

    • God may be the same, but the theologies about God have sure changed a lot within the many years that the Bible was written.

      • yeah, Man’s idea of God… not God himself. And it is written that the Bible will be perserved so that no man can screw it up (of course i’m paraphrasing! haha!) Others have created new versions and interpreted wrong, but the scripture is the same. we have to interpret scripture with scripture.

  • Eric Helgesen

    Perfection would fall under the adjectives described above in a “tolerant” world. Tolerance was never really preached in the Bible. Forgiveness was always the main theme. To try to put God into such a box of those descriptions would be to fail to come to terms with your own imperfections.

    Remember that the message of the Lord is foolishness to the world who is perishing because they fail to understand what this life is all about. The one thing that they can’t fail to acknowledge is a changed person. Our witness is to show that change that Christ brought about in our lives.

    Jesus said that its harder for a rich man to get to heaven than for a camel to go through an eye of a needle. I’m thinking that the term “rich” also relates to the intellectuals out there who don’t understand that you need to take on the faith of a child to receive the kingdom of heaven.

    When you look at the Bible as a whole, there is no changing with God. He constantly forgave Israel throughout the generations for their sin. Yes, for destroying people who were distorting their created purpose, God in His perfection used the Israelites and his own devices to destroy sin in the world. Just because He isn’t taking such a direct role in today’s sinfulness doesn’t mean that He hasn’t changed His mind about sin. He said Himself that this time would come and evil would prevail. Forgiveness is there for those who are willing to turn their lives over to Him, but I also see that He is coming quickly.

    I get perturbed by the fact that many churches out there are swinging too far to one side or the other. Either they preach that God is limited to loving everyone and whatever you do doesn’t matter, or the others who preach solely hellfire and brimstone. God is more than our idea of Him. In fact, we are probably in error of keeping an image of Him in our minds because that would be a limitation of His everlasting. Yes, God is love, but He is also perfect. Our finite minds are limited to what He has done in our lives and to what He has revealed to us in His Word. No matter how much knowledge we obtain, we will continue to be limited in our understanding of Him until we get to meet Him face to face. Until that time, we must maintain faith in Him. No amount of knowledge, discussion, or debate will ever erase the fact that we are imperfect beings who are guilty as sin and owe the ultimate debt. Without the perfect payment of Christ, we have 0 chance of making it. We must be there for the “intellectual” atheists out there who are struggling through this thought process. In the end, I say that the best we can really offer is evidence of Christ in our lives.

    • Kurt Willems

      Eric… Your final paragraph is profound! I think what you are getting at is that the church needs to find a third way beyond compromise and damnation. Also, your comments about our limited understanding of God is excellent! We are not able to know all things about God, but through the bible we get glimpses of who he is which will be made perfect at resurrection or as you say… “face to face.” And you are right to end by saying “…the best we can really offer is evidence of Christ in our lives…”

  • Definitely looking forward following your blog. I so appreciate it when people are comfortable with asking the hard questions and truly letting it penetrate, instead of brushing it aside.

  • FYI, in my google reader your feed shows up as (title unknown). Might want to trouble shoot your RSS feed.

    • Kurt Willems

      David, thanks for your kind words and also for the heads up on the RSS feed. I think it should be fixed now 🙂

  • Scott Canion

    I’m not so sure that the God of the OT is incompatible with the Jesus of the NT. How many times over and over do we see the OT God in a role of longsuffering & mercy. (Plenty of times.) And when you look at the eschatalogical aspects of the gospel, it’s also rather obvious that Jesus will return as Judge and King. Our Western ideals of democracy have skewed how we think about living under a king & as a part of a kingdom, a culturally bound way of thinking which has, through syncretism, adjusted how Christians in the west think about & live out their faith. I suggest we need to return to a biblical understanding of what it means to be a part of God’s family to fulfill His mission (the great commission), as His Spirit organized it based on Luke’s prescription in the book of Acts, and then on through Paul’s epistles.

    In reference to the embittered arguments of those promoting what I would call ‘pop-atheism’. I would recommend Atheist Delusions by David Bentley Hart. Solid answers to the fashionable (yet weak) arguments being made in contemporary atheism.

  • Locke Smith

    Both the NT and the OT are evil