In Disturbing Divine Behavior: Troubling Old Testament Images of God, Eric Seibert allows a misguided commitment to pacifism to control his approach to this perplexing subject. Seibert also entertains a false distinction between Jesus Christ in the New Testament and the God portrayed in the Old Testament. But I am especially concerned that His handling of difficult OT passages betrays less than desirable views on the truthfulness, historical integrity and, shall I say, “godliness” of portions of the OT. When God is portrayed in ways he considers different from a God of love revealed in Jesus, he appears ready to question the reliability of the text.
Admittedly some portrayals of God in the OT are hard for us to understand. Consider Deuteronomy 20:10-18
“When you march up to attack a city, make its people an offer of peace. If they accept and open their gates, all the people in it shall be subject to forced labor and shall work for you. If they refuse to make peace and they engage you in battle, lay siege to that city. When the LORD your God delivers it into your hand, put to the sword all the men in it. As for the women, the children, the livestock and everything else in the city, you may take these as plunder for yourselves. And you may use the plunder the LORD your God gives you from your enemies. This is how you are to treat all the cities that are at a distance from you and do not belong to the nations nearby. However, in the cities of the nations the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance, do not leave alive anything that breathes. Completely destroy them—the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites—as the LORD your God has commanded you. Otherwise, they will teach you to follow all the detestable things they do in worshiping their gods, and you will sin against the LORD your God.”
Our tendency to reject divine judgments of this kind probably reflects a cultural bias that exalts humanity and takes a low view of God. Are there factors related to such accounts that we simply do not understand? Has corruption so filled these places that judgment is “long overdue”? I am not suggesting that this “solves” the dilemma we feel at such scenes. I realize that the world we live in is not the place it was supposed to be. It’s not the “very good” creation originally provided by God. How can a perfectly holy God even tolerate such a sinful place much less work with rebellious creatures?
On another level, what if God’s grace is magnified beyond imagination by simply allowing one sinner to live? We’ve all sinned and we all fall short of the glory of God. The punishment due to sin is death. Are living sinners participating in undeserved extensions of life? (Romans 3:10,23; 6:23).
On a personal level, I must admit that when I look at the apparently harsh actions and commands of God in the OT, I feel the depth of the Psalmist’s question: “Lord, if you kept a record of our sins, who, O Lord, could ever survive?” (Psalm 130:3, NLT). Perhaps when we read these things the words of Jesus should ring more clearly in our ears: “I tell you again that unless you repent, you will perish, too.” (Luke 13:5, NLT)