This article discusses each of the gruesome things in the Bible it mentions fairly briefly, and much of it is speculation rather than anything approaching solid fact. Still, it may provide some interesting insights.
I can't do an adequate defence of all the gruesome passages in the Bible. I find a lot of them offensive. I especially can't stand passages like the bits in the Book of Joshua that describe how the Hebrews who invaded and settled the land now known as Israel set cities - albeit very small cities by today's standards - on fire, and killed every last one of the people. I can't read many passages like that in one go. I find them sickening. Nevertheless, I will suggest some reasons for the existence of the Bible's gruesome passages.
There are some warlike passages that the Bible doesn't explain the existence of and which are thus difficult to understand. For example, I don't understand how David could, before he became king of ancient Israel, have lived in Philistine territory and led his men on raids against other places, killing every last one of the people there, and then after he became king, have gone to war against other countries - and yet still have been described as a man after God's own heart!
However, I don't feel I can really make a judgment, because I don't know all the facts of the circumstances he was in. It may be that the inhabitants of some of those places were warlike people who habitually raided others, which was apparently the way some semi-nomadic people survived in those days. And the Bible does indicate that David was not wholly approved of by God. For instance, it says:
(1 Chronicles chapter 22, TEV)
6 [King David] sent for his son Solomon and commanded him to build a temple for the Lord, the God of Israel. 7 David said to him, "Son, I wanted to build a temple to honor the Lord my God. 8 But the Lord told me that I had killed too many people and fought too many wars. And so, because of all the bloodshed I have caused, he would not let me build a temple for him. 9 He did, however, make me a promise. He said, "You will have a son who will rule in peace, because I will give him peace from all his enemies. His name will be Solomon, because during his reign I will give Israel peace and security. 10 He will build a temple for me."
Later in this article I will address the question of whether the Bible really was written under God's authority, as it claims to have been. If it was, it means that commands to drive people out of their land or kill them, which were claimed as originating from God, really must have done. However, for the time being, I will assume that the gruesome scriptures really were written under the authority of God, for the sake of argument.
Another difficult thing to understand is how God could - as the Bible says he did - command hundreds of years after an Amalekite army launched an unprovoked attack against the ancient Hebrews while they were journeying through the desert under the leadership of Moses, that an Israelite king should pay the Amalekites back, launching an attack against them, killing men, women, children and babies - people who were obviously not the ones responsible for the attack hundreds of years earlier against the Israelites in the desert!
However, some illumination can be gained by reading an article on the matter which mentions the record of such peoples as the Amalekites of predatory violence that would have done serious damage to communities, and the Amalekites' continued violence against the Israelites, and argues that war would have been a necessity to eliminate the threat of it. It even argues that killing everybody including the women and children was in fact the most humane option, bearing in mind that the Amalekites were apparently desert peoples who had little means of subsistence, who used raiding as a means of alleviating the harshness of the conditions they lived in; and without the men to carry it out, the women and children who would otherwise have fled the battle scene might well have died of starvation; and they would also have been vulnerable to being taken captive as slaves and ill-treated for years by marauders. But who is to say that if they hadn't been killed by the Israelites and had found a way to survive independently, the children wouldn't have grown up to wreak a terrible revenge on Israel? To read further, visit: Shouldn't the butchering of the Amalekite children be considered war crimes? It's a lengthy article and meanders off at a tangent or two for some time, but it's worth browsing. It makes several arguments as to why sparing the Amalekites might not have been the best option. It's not an especially good article overall and I might not agree with everything it says, but it makes some good points.
Many people express horror or anger at the nasty bits in the Bible and condemn the Bible because of them. And while I can certainly sympathise with that reaction, one thing that needs to be taken into account first is whether something such as a punishment from God was justified Under the circumstances, or whether there were likely to have been superior alternative courses of action that would have achieved an equally beneficial result while being more humane. Only if there were obvious more humane alternatives is it logical to unhesitatingly condemn the God of the Bible.
This argument is elaborated on in an article called On "Argument by Outrage" as a fallacy of criticism of the Bible. It argues that the complexities of conflicting ethical demands have to be taken into account before something can be confidently pronounced unjust. In other words, a particular course of action might seem cruel, but would the alternatives have worked out any better? We could illustrate the concept by using the earthly example of America dropping the nuclear bomb on Hiroshima: It could be argued that no civilian should have been allowed to die. But how many troops might have been killed while complex arrangements were being made to evacuate and rehouse all the civilians in the city long-term first, and time was taken to persuade people who didn't want to leave to evacuate? Is it not possible that the arrangements would have taken so long to make that more people would have ended up dying than actually did, because the fighting would have gone on longer? Or is it not possible that with no people in the city, the bombing of it wouldn't have had nearly so much impact on the Japanese leadership as it did so they wouldn't have surrendered, and America would have to have invaded Japan to finish the war, and again, many more lives would have been lost than were lost in the bombing? Such conflicting ethical issues would have to have been weighed up by those making the decision to bomb or not to bomb.
The article also makes the point that things that seem terrible at first glance might not seem so terrible when more is known about the circumstances in which they took place. It gives the example of how on hearing that the Nazis killed six million Jews, justified outrage might be felt. Exactly the same outrage might be felt on hearing that six million people of another race were killed by people of another nation. But what if it turned out that that other nation killed them in self-defence because they were merciless aggressors, and actually, in killing six million, they were showing great restraint and only killing a tiny minority - just enough to win the war, because the population of the aggressor nation ran into billions? That puts a whole new perspective on things. So the article argues that outrage in the absence of knowledge about the competing ethical demands of the situation is not a reasoned response. Issues of what the circumstances were in which cruelty took place, and what alternatives were available, need to be weighed up.
It has been argued that for God to have allowed even one child to have been killed it would make him unjust. So, for instance, if Amalekite children were ordered to be killed by God, that would make God cruel - no question about it. But even God might face competing ethical demands.
Some people reject this argument, saying there were bound to be more humane alternatives to violence when we're talking about an all-powerful and all-knowing God, even if they can't think of any possibilities themselves. Apart from the fact that the Bible is actually unclear as to just how much power and knowledge God has, although ascribing him far more than humans, and so different theological opinions have grown up around the subject, see Wikipedia on different definitions of omnipotence and omniscience, a God with far more power and knowledge than humans would still have limits on what he could do. Here's an example of the ethical dilemmas that would have to be faced in dealing with the Amalekite women and children:
The argument by outrage is that their children should never have been killed. Here are a few of the things that should be taken into account before making such a statement. Bear in mind that the Amalekite men were said to be habitual raiders of other nations, causing the trauma and hardship that would inevitably entail. From the article called Shouldn't the butchering of the Amalekite children be considered war crimes?
So, what options might Israel have had concerning the fatherless Amalekite family, once the warriors had been eliminated in battle?
There are *ONLY* four options to consider:
1. Take them back as slaves (or to be sold as slaves)
2. Take them back and turn them over to social relief programs/processes in Israel.
3. Leave them there in the desert to their fate
4. Kill them there in the desert
*Option 1: Take them back as slaves (or to be sold as slaves).*
This was, of course, what some other nations would have done. In fact, this is what many nations would have *initiated the conflict for* (see my discussion on OT Slavery for more documentation and discussion of this, and especially the horrors of being a foreign/POW female slave). The Amalekites alone would be an example of raids to produce slaves for re-sale in the slave trade: ...
This was (1) against God's strong anti-slavery theme for Israel, who forbade them to make slaves, engage in slave-trade, or turn over runaways, etc. But *more importantly*, (2) it was practically impossible at the time--the country/people did not have resources to assimilate this many new people, ALL of whom would have needed to be fed and clothed at a difficult period of Israel's history (still at the height of Philistine warfare and Transjordanian aggression). At a practical level--as actual ancient "slave societies" have taught us-- adult slaves generated by foreign wars often harbor revenge, and wait for that night in which they can kill you in your sleep. The effects on societies of these types of internal hostile elements are well-known. ...
*Option 2: Take them back and turn them over to social relief programs/processes in Israel (or anywhere else, for that matter):*
Similar problem here: there were no social relief programs/processes adequate to take care of this many dependent people. [Remember, most of these people would have been nomadic dependents (without agricultural or industrial skills) or minor children (consumers without the ability to contribute to their upkeep), at a time before the agricultural surpluses of Israel could support such a large group of resident aliens. ...
There were no social relief, welfare, or benevolent resources ANYWHERE in the ANE, even in the "wealthiest" of nations. Even elderly care was a major issue, but not addressed by the public sector. There simply was not enough resource surplus or infrastructure available to do this:
"In spite of the government's propaganda concern for widows and orphans, there was no systematic welfare system. The institution that dealt with the problem of young families bereft of a father and husband is called the a-r u-a, meaning 'dedicated.' Women and children were 'dedicated' by relatives who could no longer support them or by themselves, and they were employed especially in weaving and processing wool. Because we have several detailed records of such persons, we know that they usually did not live long after they had been dedicated, probably owing to the wretched conditions in which they lived and worked. ...Women weavers were exploited extensively at Lagas; their children no doubt died at a high rate: one group of 679 women had only 103 children, though other groups had more.
"Ancient society has fewer elderly, it is true, but they existed nonetheless, and had to be supported along with many children, most of whom would not survive to adulthood.
"While it is true, as Van Driel points out, that life in the ancient Near East was in general much shorter and death much quicker, even the few that survived into old age, or lingered on in a slow decline of physical and mental powers, would have placed a huge burden on an economy that knew more scarcity than surplus." …
So you see why competing ethical issues have to be weighed up before a judgment can be made about the situation. Those who would argue that killing children can never be justified need to suggest plausible options that could have been resorted to instead.
Here are a few ethical dilemmas that even an omnipotent God might be limited by in seeking to eliminate violence from the world. It might well of necessity involve taking control of humanity to an extent that would make people more robot-like. Here are some issues to think over:
Where would you like God to draw the line? Bear in mind that if he softened people's hearts so they would no longer be violent, he'd also have to take temptation out of everyone's way so no one was provoked to violence or committed it under the influence of chemical stimuli. Thus, there would have to be a prohibition on alcohol, since it releases people from their inhibitions and thus makes them more likely to commit violent actions; or the chemical properties of alcohol would have to be changed so it was much weaker, and it would have to become impossible for scientists, no matter how skilled, to make stronger versions. Would you appreciate that?
Then, people would have to be prevented from seriously annoying one another. This ties in with the issue of where God would draw the line when it comes to preventing people from sinning. Should he only stop people wanting to be violent to each other, or should he, as he would actually have to do in order to prevent people whose hearts may be softened under normal circumstances but who might nevertheless be tempted to violence under provocation, stop people from burgling houses, stop people from evicting others unfairly, prevent people from committing adultery no matter how unsatisfied they were in their marriages, prevent people from seriously verbally harassing others, etc. etc.? Basically, almost everyone has the potential to resort to violence under provocation. The difference is in the amount people have to be pushed before they do.
You might argue that if God simply stopped people provoking others in big ways, such as having affairs, then no one would ever want to commit violence under provocation. But since provocation can often be cumulative, consisting of lots of little things over time rather than one big one, again, where would you draw the line? Should God soften people's hearts so much that they would never do anyone any harm in any way?
How about this for an example: perhaps God should prevent all mean-spirited debate on Internet forums, lest it leads to people who've been immersed in it for a while becoming so angry they bully co-workers, snap at their wives, kick the dog, haven't got so much time to spend with their children because they're so busy furiously typing out responses, and so on? Would you like God to intervene in people's lives to stop that kind of thing? Would you be happy if your own life came more under such control? Again we have the issue of where the line should be drawn, and the complexities of the technicalities involved in doing so.
So should God prevent people doing things that might not be too bad in themselves but might lead to them doing such things as those? That might be nice, but what you basically have in the end is a society where people don't have free will. If it was announced that from tomorrow, everyone would be brought under God's control and he would change our reactions so no one ever wanted to harm anyone again, would you welcome it? Of course, it would be wonderful that it would eliminate the worst excesses of cruelty, but would you be happy knowing you'd be giving up anything you might decide to do that might harm another?
If you would be, well and good. But there are a lot of people who complain, even as it is, that God doesn't allow his people to take personal responsibility for their choices in life, simply because there are instructions on how Christians should live in the Bible – instructions, incidentally, that would eliminate all the above problems if followed! For instance, people just wouldn’t provoke each other to violence, or be violent themselves, if they were all living the way the Bible says Christians should live. Much, if not most of the suffering in the world would be eliminated if everyone followed such commands, because a lot of the suffering in the world is caused by humans harming other humans.
Those are just a few of the issues that would make it more complex for an omnipotent being to act than you might imagine.
Incidentally, an alternative theory is that rather than modifying the human mind to stop human violence, God could simply cull the most violent of humanity, perhaps the psychopaths, and leave the rest as they are.
Anyone arguing this position would have to explain why it would be preferable that they somehow be killed off by God than that they be left to humans to deal with. It can be argued that God is cruel for allowing a world to develop with so much suffering in it; but it should be borne in mind that besides the fact that a lot of the suffering is caused by man's inhumanity to man, God also allowed the development of many, many humans who could get together to relieve a lot of that suffering. Part of the divine plan? Whose fault is it that a lot of them don't do it?
For instance, if there had been such strong outrage at Hitler when he first came to power that most people refused to participate in his schemes, even though some might have suffered for it, Hitler wouldn't have been able to achieve what he did. If instead of being cheered by thousands at rallies in the early 1930s, he'd been booed off the stage, and people had organised to oppose him, how far could his plans have gone?
If God was in the habit of striking down violent men before they became violent, some people, not realising those men would become violent, would protest at what they saw as the injustice. If Hitler had been killed as a baby, some would be protesting that God had allowed a baby to die. So God would look bad either way.
Perhaps God could have made it so Hitler's parents couldn't have children. But there were lots of extremists around at the time Hitler was growing up. Who's to say any number of them wouldn't have risen to power instead of him and done what he did. And is it not feasible that if a band of good people had got together, they couldn't have formed an alternative political movement and motivated the people to follow them instead? People who already had the skills and values to lead Germany in a totally different direction? Were there no people in the whole country who could have done that? There's an old saying: all that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.
Likewise, when hearing about cases of terrible abuse against individuals, it's tempting to be angry with any God who would allow that, and ask why he didn't zap the individuals responsible into oblivion. However, often, human actions could have prevented the tragedies. There will often have been warning signs that they were likely to happen, or beginning to happen. Here's an example, a summary of a report into the state of a council's child protection services that was made after the tragic death of a baby boy who'd been tortured for months before he died, who they'd had on their casebooks all along, who died years after the council were supposed to have learned lessons after another child died under their care who shouldn't have done if proper procedures had been carried out: Fatal errors of town hall that failed to learn from Climbié
The "damning verdict" on the way Haringey council protects vulnerable children landed on Ed Balls' desk at nine o'clock yesterday morning.
In 14 pages, the Ofsted Chief Inspector, Christine Gilbert, revealed to the secretary of state for children "significant weakness" in the north London borough's methods of protecting children from abuse. She concluded, in restrained language, that management was "inadequate".
After reading its 57 critical paragraphs, Balls felt compelled to go further. He described the review as "devastating". Five years ago, national child protection policy was overhauled in the wake of the death of eight-year-old Victoria Climbié while she was in Haringey's care. Yesterday the borough's leadership was found to have ignored key recommendations following her death and was confronted with a list of systemic mistakes, oversights and examples of inadequate management.
Ofsted's report, produced with the Healthcare Commission and HM Inspectorate of Constabulary, found Haringey to have the worst child protection systems of any borough scrutinised by a review in the last 12 months. "This was not an investigation into the tragic death of 'Baby P', but it has shown that the serious concerns raised by his case, and the death of Victoria Climbié, remain," said Gilbert. "Haringey is clearly still not doing enough to ensure that children are properly protected."
The review took 13 days. Inspectors observed working life in a social care duty room, reviewed case files, including those of Baby P, held interviews, spoke to children and community representatives and considered performance data and the borough's policy on child protection.
The list of errors and malpractice discovered within the council and across local health agencies and the police, begins with the way officials handle the first sign that a child might be in danger.
The borough's handling of referrals, which might come from a police officer or teacher, is "generally poor". Information about cases is not gathered properly and the person who makes the referral is often not told what action has been taken within 48 hours, a recommendation after the Climbié case to make different agencies to talk to each other about cases.
Even when case files are opened, they are "inadequate", the review said. Entries are sometimes inaccurate and the distribution to partner agencies of minutes of important meetings where child protection measures are decided are frequently subject to "extreme delays".
The result is that vital action which could safeguard a vulnerable child may not be taken. Child protection plans are "generally poor" and often social workers have no idea of who is doing what when they are drawn up.
The quality of health assessment is "poor". Dr Saba Al Zayyat, who examined Baby P, missed his broken back. There is insufficient guidance for GPs who carry out most assessments. Some accident and emergency staff at the North Middlesex and Whittington hospitals, both locations where Baby P was treated, don't know how to check if a child is on the child protection register, the review found.
In further evidence that different agencies are not sharing information properly, police reports of children being caught up in incidents of domestic violence often arrive with social workers late.
Balls yesterday expressed concern that children are rarely interviewed by social workers about what is happening to them, and if they are, it is unclear from records whether they are on their own and therefore able to tell the truth about abuse they are suffering, or with their abusers.
There was serious criticism of the management of child protection in Haringey. Sharon Shoesmith, who was yesterday "removed" from her post at Balls' insistence, was accused of "insufficient management oversight" over the assistant director of children's services. There was also insufficient supervision of front-line social workers by senior management.
The review concluded there was little evidence that the local safeguarding children board made life any safer for young people in the area and it failed to challenge the work of its members and frontline staff. A total of 51 of the 121 established social worker posts are filled by agency staff which "results in a lack of continuity for children and their families".
It's clear that a mixture of human incompetence, negligence, ignorance, arrogance, tolerance of bad practice, and several other things often contribute to allowing human evil. It's human duty to work towards eliminating anything that would stand in the way of the very best response to abuse or suspected abuse. Anyone throwing up their hands and blaming God for such tragedies is failing to see the bigger picture and the possibilities humans have in their power to tackle such evil.
One way of trying to prevent at least some people from doing harm is to try to change their patterns of behaviour while they're still growing up, by, for example, having bullying prevention programs in schools that help children develop a sense of responsibility for their actions and empathy for others. Here's a long article that goes into detail about a method that can work, for example: How Schools Can Reduce Bullying.
Sometimes, also, people have changed their ways when they've heard the gospel and developed the desire to become Christians and obey Christian teaching. It can be argued that God provided the blueprint in the New Testament for the way good people should live their lives, and that if more people followed it, suffering in the world would be greatly reduced. It can be found in Bible passages like the ones here:
It may be that in some places, evil people have got such a hold on society that it would be well-nigh impossible for good people to change things on a large scale. Some countries of the world are still quite lawless. Violence is rife. What about in countries where thousands or even tens of thousands of men are involved in committing atrocities, often mutilating, maiming or raping children, frequently before killing them? Should God have all those men killed? It could be argued that he should. But with so many men who will be fathers themselves killed, what happens to their wives and families who will lose any financial support they may have given them, and will likely often become destitute, in the absence of a welfare state and good employment opportunities, especially if the country's infrastructure has been severely damaged by the war? If God were to kill the men before they did all the damage, skeptics would say God was cruel for allowing thousands of good men to die. So should he wait until all the damage has been done to the country and all those porr children and women harmed?
And then what? In ideal circumstances, relief efforts should be organised by other countries to support the displaced or destitute civilians. In the modern world, with food much more plentiful and facilities to transport copious relief supplies to a beleaguered area, such a thing would probably be much easier than it would have been in the ancient world, although it can still be difficult to organise.
Thus, if tens of thousands of men in an ancient lawless society were somehow killed by God, leaving all the women and children, what would happen to them? Can anyone be truly sure it wouldn't have been more humane for them to have died with the menfolk?
And would it have been truly just for the violent men to have been painlessly and suddenly killed by God, rather than suffering retribution for their horrible crimes by, for instance, being terrorised by human enemies who killed them? And if they were killed gradually by God, each of them painlessly and suddenly, one at a time, rather than all at once in one night, would it really have been less terrifying and thus more merciful for those who wondered if they'd be next to die than being confronted with enemy invaders? And how much violence would it have been fair to have allowed them to commit before putting an end to it by whatever means was chosen?
These are just some of the issues that ought to be considered by anyone making a case against God based on the cruelty in the Old Testament.
Thus, critics need to come up with arguments that are more complex than simple appeals to emotion like, "How could you approve of a soldier killing a child? Imagine how a poor Amalekite little child must have felt as it had a sword smashing its skull!" They need to use logic and reason to present plausible alternatives that would have been more humane than what the Bible says happened according to God's orders, rather than just using argument by outrage.
To give an example of how it's possible some people could try to use the Bible to justify violence, Jews living today could possibly use the biblical account of God's judgment against the Amalekites as a justification for attacking nations that attacked their people in the past. However, one problem with that would be that in order to be credible, they would have to argue convincingly that that command was meant as a precedent, rather than being just meant for the particular occasion and nation it spoke of, - probably a difficult thing to do, since the Bible gives no indication whatsoever that it was anything but a one-off command. Also, in another part of the Old Testament, the Bible says that God said:
(Deuteronomy chapter 32, NLT)
35 I will take vengeance; I will repay those who deserve it.
In the New Testament, this verse is quoted and interpreted to mean that people shouldn't take revenge themselves, but they should leave it to God. This means that no one can claim God's authority to do a thing unless God specifically decrees that it should be done. However, this meaning isn't apparent from the actual Old Testament verse. There is another passage, however, which says, in the context of Moses giving the people of Israel commands that it says he had received for them from God:
(Leviticus chapter 19, TEV)
17 "Do not bear a grudge against others, but settle your differences with them, so that you will not commit a sin because of them. 18 Do not take revenge on others or continue to hate them, but love your neighbors as you love yourself. I am the Lord."
It is possible that Bible passage could have been interpreted to refer to those within a person's community though.
There are verses in the Book of Proverbs in the Old Testament that advise people not to take revenge against others; but since by definition proverbs are wise sayings rather than being meant as absolute truth, anyone wanting to use God's command to attack the Amalekites as a precedent for attacking other nations wouldn't necessarily take them as instructions and be put off doing so by them.
But Jews who only accept the authority of the Old Testament could still be cautioned about using the Bible as a justification for attacking past enemies. Hundreds of years after the time of Moses, Old Testament prophets proclaimed that God was about to punish other peoples for taking revenge on the Jews, that was motivated by their bitter feelings borne out of previous conflicts. According to the Bible, the Jews were certainly not exempt from God's discipline, but suffered themselves at the hands of Babylonian invaders, - a fate described by Old Testament prophets as God's punishment for their evil ways. Since the Jews were not considered exempt from God's discipline, it would be only logical for them to consider that the same type of punishment decreed against other nations for taking revenge on the Jews because of past conflicts could also befall the Jews for doing it to others.
There are Jewish extremists who oppose peace with the Palestinians on the grounds that the Bible says God gave them land including the land now occupied by the Palestinians. See an article about one man's opinion: West Bank land belongs to Jews, says Israeli army judge.
Here are a couple of disturbing articles about violence against Palestinians committed by Israel and Jewish religious extremists:
Jewish religious extremists can quote Old Testament Bible verses to support their claims that the parts of old Israel now inhabited by the Palestinians belong to the Jews by the order of God. What they can't do with integrity is to use the Bible to justify violence against Palestinians in an attempt to intimidate them away from the land, or for any other reason. Old Testament prophets said the people of Israel would return to their homeland after an exile. But there aren't instructions in the Bible for taking it by force. Nor does it give any hint of the time when the full restoration is supposed to take place. So extremists who claim to follow Bible commands and to sincerely believe the rest of what the Old Testament says must seriously consider that by committing violence, they could be displeasing God, even to the point where they themselves may become targets of his wrath.
In the Book of the prophet Amos, the prophet warned of severe retribution he said was soon to befall some of the nations that surrounded Israel, for their cruelty to the people of other nations. For example, the Bible says he prophesied:
Amos chapter 1 (TEV)
3 The Lord says, "The people of Damascus have sinned again and again, and for this I will certainly punish them. They treated the people of Gilead with savage cruelty. 4 So I will send fire upon the palace built by King Hazael and I will burn down the fortresses of King Benhadad. 5 I will smash the city gates of Damascus and remove the inhabitants of Aven Valley and the ruler of Betheden. The people of Syria will be taken away as prisoners to the land of Kir."
6 The Lord says, "The people of Gaza have sinned again and again, and for this I will certainly punish them. They carried off a whole nation and sold them as slaves to the people of Edom. 7 So I will send fire upon the city walls of Gaza and burn down its fortresses. 8 I will remove the rulers of the cities of Ashdod and Ashkelon. I will punish the city of Ekron, and all the Philistines who are left will die."
13 The Lord says, "The people of Ammon have sinned again and again, and for this I will certainly punish them. In their wars for more territory they even ripped open pregnant women in Gilead. 14 So I will send fire upon the city walls of Rabbah and burn down its fortresses. Then there will be shouts on the day of battle, and the fighting will rage like a storm. 15 Their king and his officers will go into exile."
The prophet Amos went on to criticize the people of Israel, for other things. The prophets said God was so angry with the people of Israel they themselves would be conquered by invaders. So could any extremist who feels sure the territories now inhabited by the Palestinians are really Israel's and that it's a good thing to use violence to get them back or in resentment against the Palestinians really be sure they wouldn't be inviting God's wrath on Israel for their cruelty or violence?
This is why it's important to be familiar with the whole Bible rather than just bits of it. The Bible could be, and in fact sometimes is, it seems, a dangerous book, if parts of it were/are read out of the context of the rest of it.
I suppose Hitler could have claimed to be a Christian and tried to justify the atrocities committed at his command by quoting Old Testament passages about how disasters like wars befell the Jews as a punishment from God for their sins. He could have compared the Germans to the Babylonian invaders Old Testament prophets said were used to punish the Jews.
However, in order to justify his own actions, he would have to have claimed that he had God's authority to bring disaster on the Jews - a claim he obviously couldn't have used the Bible to support. The Bible doesn't say that every atrocity committed against the Jews would be because of their sins. Hitler's quoting of the Bible to justify himself would have been disingenuous.
Furthermore, using the same logic that he would have to have used, if he'd read the many prophecies about the punishments that were to be inflicted by God on the enemies of the Jews because they'd harmed them, he might have realised that he would be well-advised to leave them alone, or Germany might suffer!
Hitler may also have convinced people that he was justified in his actions by using the example of the passages in the Old Testament from the Law of Moses about how the ancient Israelites were commanded to kill or drive out everyone in the land they were about to enter, conquer and settle - the land now known as Israel, partly to preserve their spiritual purity - in other words, their adherence to the commands of their own God who forbade some of the unsavoury practices common in other cultures such as child sacrifice. Hitler could have twisted it so people thought it meant that racial purity should be preserved, and argued that ethnic cleansing was thus necessary to purify the German race. However, if he had, apart from his position being the height of illogicality, since it was the Jews who's purity needed to be maintained in the Bible, he would probably have been deliberately twisting the Bible's meaning. He would have to have quoted Bible verses carefully editing out bits, or not quoted it at all, because it makes it clear that the passages that commanded the Israelites to kill and drive out all the people in the land spoke of spiritual purity - allegiance and obedience to only one God, in order that his commands would be carried out, such as the one against adopting the inhumane and violent customs of the people in the land such as child sacrifice. Hitler would obviously have got it wrong! Besides, there is no indication in the Bible that this was anything but a one-off command.
The Bible has often been used to justify cruelty and bigotry in the past, but it has always been either deliberately or accidentally mangled a bit first.
The destruction of the Pagan civilisations of South and Central America by the Spanish conquistadors a few hundred years ago could have been easily justified by their leaders as God's command, to those who didn't have enough knowledge to know how false the arguments would have been, because of some of the things the Old Testament says. In the books of Kings and Chronicles, it gives example after example of how when Israelite kings allowed their people to worship Pagan gods, disasters befell their countries as a punishment from God, but when they got rid of the Pagan places of worship, their countries were at peace and prospered - although the Old Testament prophets said the punishments also had a lot to do with other things the Israelites were doing, like oppressing and robbing the poor, and being violent, as well as committing the acts that the Pagans of the day committed for their gods, such as child sacrifice.
And in the Law of Moses, it does, horrifyingly to the modern mind, say:
(Deuteronomy chapter 13, TEV)
12 "When you are living in the towns that the Lord your God gives you, you may hear 13 that some worthless people of your nation have misled the people of their town to worship gods that you have never worshiped before. 14 If you hear such a rumor, investigate it thoroughly; and if it is true that this evil thing did happen, 15 then kill all the people in that town and all their livestock too. Destroy that town completely. 16 Bring together all the possessions of the people who live there and pile them up in the town square. Then burn the town and everything in it as an offering to the Lord your God. It must be left in ruins forever and never again be rebuilt."
The command was given specifically to the people of ancient Israel, however, which was intended to be a theocracy, a chosen nation governed by the laws of God. One thing that can help to explain the severity of this passage is that turning away from God to worship other gods wasn't just an abstract matter of thought. Turning away from God to worship other gods might also signify a forsaking of God's commands on many aspects of community welfare. The Bible does in fact indicate that when the Israelites later did turn away from God, they were turning to cruel practices that hurt their fellow countrymen, such as those the prophets spoke out against like their callous disregard for the needs of the poor and oppressed, and their active exploitation of and cruelty against them, in contravention of God's laws. The Bible says the people of Israel were warned in shocking terms by Moses that if they behaved in the ways in which the nations that would be driven out of the land to make room for Israel behaved, they too would be driven out. Prophets later predicted this fate for Israel because the people were behaving so brutally. If the people hadn't forsaken the worship of God and his commands, they would never have caused the suffering of many of their fellow countrymen by the cruel and violent behaviour they are described as indulging in by the prophets.
Even more strikingly, in worshiping other gods, they would have been performing practices like child sacrifice that the people of their time committed in the worship of their gods. Thus, in ordering that they should be killed, Moses was essentially saying that God was ordering that the death penalty should be exacted upon them for murder.
It seems harsh that an entire population of a city could be given the death penalty when it's very unlikely that everyone in it would have been involved in human sacrifice. But apparently in ancient times, as in much of the world today, a group would be considered responsible for the actions of an individual in it, and the punishment of the group for the sins of an individual in it was considered justified. The argument would have been that the group would have been tolerating, ignoring, or harbouring the criminal element, even if they weren't actively collaborating with it. Various punishments in the Old Testament were given in accordance with the doctrine that the group could be held responsible for the activities of the criminals and oppressors in it, such as when the Israelites were all forced to work as slaves in Egypt and the whole of Egypt was punished when Pharaoh wouldn't let them go, or when the whole family of a man who'd disobeyed Joshua's instructions for behaviour on the battle field, Achan, was killed. It was what the people would have expected and would have been familiar with, whether it was a good thing or a bad thing. Without the security given by a patrolling police force who could increase the detection rate of crimes and apprehend offenders, there was more of a chance of severe lawlessness breaking out, and thus severe punishment of the criminal behaviour that was detected would have been considered necessary to resort to as a deterrent to others, a loud and clear warning against even tolerating crime, for the protection of society in general.
As recently as a couple of hundred years ago in the West, a similar principle was in operation - the first police force in the world was only created in 1829, and before then, the detection of crime by the authorities that did exist was low, and public hangings were apparently meant as a warning against committing crime, designed to scare people into behaving, in the absence of a system that could effectively impose discipline across the board. That's not to say they were a good thing. It's simply that they were considered expedient by the authorities, rightly or wrongly.
(In the West today, the principle of a group being responsible for the actions of a few individuals in it is still adhered to in some situations, such as when a company is fined for pollution or poor safety standards or something like that, rather than the specific individuals in it who were responsible for making the decisions that led to the problems being punished by the law. For instance, after a train crash, the company responsible for maintaining the railways in the area might be charged with corporate manslaughter, rather than the specific individuals in the company who made negligent decisions that led up to it being prosecuted and jailed. So the concept of collective guilt/responsibility is not entirely foreign to the modern Western world.)
Anyway, the passage in which the command that the people of Israel should kill the inhabitants of any of their own cities who turned to other gods can be found actually does state that killing people for trying to lead others away from God was meant as a deterrent, against the people who were supposed to be following God turning away from him to the behaviours common among the worshipers of other gods (such as human sacrifice):
(Deuteronomy chapter 13, GWT)
11 All Israel will hear about it and be afraid. Then no one among you will ever do such a wicked thing again.
But back to the topic of the Spanish conquistadors who destroyed Pagan cultures in Central and South America several hundred years ago: If they had known the Bible at all well, they wouldn't have been under the impression that they could use its authority to forcefully rid the lands they conquered of Paganism themselves, at least not just because it was Paganism. Apart from the fact that all such Old Testament commands and examples concerned the theocracy of ancient Israel, in the New Testament, it becomes clear that the strategy towards Pagans had been meant for the ancient Jews and was not meant for Christians. To give an example of a Bible passage that indicates this: In one of the apostle Paul's letters, he said to a group of people who were newly converted to Christianity from Paganism because of his preaching to them:
(1 Thessalonians chapter 1, NLT)
4 We know that God loves you, dear brothers and sisters, and that he chose you to be his own people. ... 8 And now the word of the Lord is ringing out from you to people everywhere, even beyond Greece, for wherever we go we find people telling us about your faith in God. We don't need to tell them about it, 9 for they themselves keep talking about the wonderful welcome you gave us and how you turned away from idols to serve the true and living God.
That implies that Christians were expected not to be violent, but to tell Pagans about God in the hope that they'd turn to follow him.
An earlier book in the New Testament, the Acts of the Apostles, describes how Paul travelled around preaching about Christianity. It says that he explained the gospel message to Pagans, in an attempt to persuade them to become Christians. Nowhere does it say that he instructed Christians to be violent towards them. In a couple of his letters, he instructed people to imitate his behaviour patterns.
The reason for the two very different attitudes to Pagans can partly be explained by what the New Testament says about the Law of Moses, which was the part of the Bible that commanded that those who might entice the Israelites to worship Pagan gods should be killed.
Firstly, there is a New Testament passage about how the old covenant/Old Testament Law was fading away, to be replaced with a new system, which was the new covenant/New Testament. The passage can only be understood in the context of the Old Testament verses that say:
(Exodus chapter 34, TEV)
29 When Moses went down from Mount Sinai carrying the Ten Commandments, his face was shining because he had been speaking with the Lord; but he did not know it. 30 Aaron and all the people looked at Moses and saw that his face was shining, and they were afraid to go near him. 31 But Moses called them, and Aaron and all the leaders of the community went to him, and Moses spoke with them. 32 After that, all the people of Israel gathered around him, and Moses gave them all the laws that the Lord had given him on Mount Sinai.
The New Testament passage that mentions that says:
(2 Corinthians chapter 3, TEV)
6 ... the new covenant ... consists not of a written law but of the Spirit. The written law brings death, but the Spirit gives life. 7 The Law was carved in letters on stone tablets, and God's glory appeared when it was given. Even though the brightness on Moses' face was fading, it was so strong that the people of Israel could not keep their eyes fixed on him. If the Law, which brings death when it is in force, came with such glory, 8 how much greater is the glory that belongs to the activity of the Spirit! 9 The system which brings condemnation was glorious; how much more glorious is the activity which brings salvation! 10 We may say that because of the far brighter glory now the glory that was so bright in the past is gone. 11 For if there was glory in that which lasted for a while, how much more glory is there in that which lasts forever!
The Holy Spirit, which the passage refers to, is said by the Bible to be a part of God, who can also live within Christians to help make them less sinful. To read more about it, visit: What The Bible Says About The Life-Changing Power Of The Holy Spirit.
So instead of deserving death for having broken the Law of Moses, the Bible indicates that from New Testament times onward, the ideal would be that Pagans, no matter what they'd done in the past, should become Christians, receive the Holy Spirit, and live rejuvenated lives.
This wasn't an entire departure from the Old Testament, because Old Testament prophets urged the people, many of whom had apparently turned to the worship of other gods and were engaging in things like child sacrifice sometimes, as well as other harmful behaviours, to reform their ways, stopping doing evil things, whereupon the prophets said God would forgive their sins and not punish them.
Quoting some of the things Paul, who himself was Jewish, wrote in other letters to Christians, about the Law that Moses gave to the ancient Israelites, which actually had a multitude of little commands concerning behaviour, festivals and ceremonial rules, besides the commands about major issues of behaviour, some of which would have been irksome to carry out, he said:
(1 Corinthians chapter 9, NLT)
20 When I am with the Jews, I become one of them so that I can bring them to Christ. When I am with those who follow the Jewish laws, I do the same, even though I am not subject to the law, so that I can bring them to Christ. 21 When I am with the Gentiles who do not have the Jewish law, I fit in with them as much as I can. In this way, I gain their confidence and bring them to Christ. But I do not discard the law of God; I obey the law of Christ.
(Galatians chapter 3, NLT)
19 Well then, why was the law [of Moses] given? It was given to show people how guilty they are.
21 If the law [of Moses] could have given us new life, we could have been made right with God by obeying it. 22 But the Scriptures have declared that we are all prisoners of sin. ... 23 Until faith in Christ was shown to us as the way of becoming right with God, we were guarded by the law. We were kept in protective custody, so to speak, until we could put our faith in the coming Savior. 24 Let me put it another way. The law was our guardian and teacher to lead us until Christ came. ... 25 But now that faith in Christ has come, we no longer need the law as our guardian.
(Galatians chapter 4, NLT)
4 When the right time came, God sent his Son, born of a woman, subject to the law. 5 God sent him to buy freedom for us who were slaves to the law, so that he could adopt us as his very own children. 6 And because you Gentiles have become his children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into your hearts, and now you can call God your dear Father. 7 ... And since you are his child, everything he has belongs to you.
(Romans chapter 7, NLT)
5 When we were controlled by our old nature, sinful desires were at work within us, and the law aroused these evil desires that produced sinful deeds, resulting in death. 6 But now we have been released from the law, for we died with Christ, and we are no longer captive to its power. Now we can really serve God, not in the old way by obeying the letter of the law, but in the new way, by the Spirit.
(Romans chapter 13, TEV)
8 Be under obligation to no one-the only obligation you have is to love one another. Whoever does this has obeyed the Law. 9 The commandments,
"Do not commit adultery;
do not commit murder;
do not steal;
do not desire what belongs to someone else"
all these, and any others besides, are summed up in the one command, "Love your neighbor as you love yourself." 10 If you love others, you will never do them wrong; to love, then, is to obey the whole Law.
To read more about what the New Testament says about the Old Testament Law, see a brief article on this website called The Severity of Some of the Old Testament Laws and Their Relevance For Christians.
Besides the specific information Paul gives about how the Old Testament relates to the New, he and other apostles give many instructions to Christians to be peaceful, loving, gentle and considerate. You can read such Bible passages by visiting: What The Bible Says About Violence, Anger, Jealousy, Arguments, And Living In Peace With Each Other.
In fact, the whole ethos of the New Testament is one of urging people to live in peace and harmony as much as it's possible with more consideration for others. It's unfortunate that individual verses have sometimes been taken out of context and put together to make it seem as if the Bible's saying something very different. Atrocities have sadly been committed by people who have done such things, such as where little snippets of Bible passages were once strung together to justify burning heretics, by people who must surely have known that what they were doing was unbiblical, because they would have to have read through many of the New Testament verses about living in harmony and gentleness and treating those who dispute the gospel fairly, in order to get to the snippets of verses they were able to creatively edit together to make a case for doing what they did!
Regarding the topic of violence being carried out by Christian leaders, Christianity was nowhere near becoming a state religion in Bible times, and so there are no specific instructions for Christian leaders on the way a Christian country should treat Pagans or other non-believers; but they can infer how one ought to behave by following the instructions of people like Paul for Christians in general.
However, there are certain practices that have been carried out by Pagans in the past as part of their religion and/or that in some parts of the world are still happening, that ethically should not be tolerated by a Christian leader. See, for example, the descriptions of practices in these articles:
Sometimes, one must of necessity appear unloving to certain individuals when punishing or disciplining them, in order to protect others. It may well be that many witches, mediums and other Pagans in biblical times engaged in the same types of gruesome practices as some do in predominantly Pagan cultures today, (some of which you can read about by following some of those links), and it was for reasons such as those that the Law of Moses ordered harsh punishments for witches and mediums.
But anyone who has read the New Testament verses I've quoted will know that Christians aren't expected to forcefully clear the land of Pagans nowadays. The danger comes when people take bits of the Bible out of the context of the entirety of it, and don't look for the reasons it decreed what it did but simply take passages at face value.
On an individual level, one way the Bible has been misinterpreted and suffering has been caused because of it is that some people in churches use the Bible to convince women suffering domestic violence that they should stay in abusive relationships, since Jesus said people should only divorce if their wife's been unfaithful.
To interpret what Jesus said in such a strictly legalistic manner as to presume he would disapprove of battered wives leaving their husbands would be to ignore the ethos of the encouragement of caring and compassion that pervades most of the New Testament. Think of the way you imagine what Jesus was like. Can you imagine a battered wife telling him about her suffering and him telling her to stay in the relationship no matter what, even if she ended up dying? It would seem out of character, and would have defeated the likely reason for his command about divorce - to keep family relations in society stable, so children would grow up with the security of being with both parents, one who would hopefully keep the family financially afloat by being the main breadwinner, and one whose main role would be to look after the children. If one spouse was constantly being injured by the other one's abuse, it would compromise the system! Jesus' command about divorce cannot be taken in isolation from all the other New Testament commands, many of which instruct followers of Christ to be kind and loving and compassionate. See these Bible quotes, for instance:
In the culture Jesus came from, it was common to exaggerate to emphasise a point the speaker wanted to make strongly. Thus, for instance, when Jesus said it was impossible to follow him without first hating mother and father, children and all other relatives, he didn't really mean that, but wanted to emphasise the commitment being a disciple of his would involve, - that it would sometimes mean putting commitment to follow him above commitment to pleasing relatives. Thus it's quite possible he was exaggerating for the purposes of emphasising just how important staying committed to each other in a relationship was when he said that anyone who divorces, except in the case of a partner's unfaithfulness, commits adultery if they marry someone else because in the eyes of God they're still married to their original partner.
And besides that, it can be argued that actually, the instructions in the old law of Moses about divorce were written for men. It was apparently well-nigh impossible for a woman to divorce her husband in those days. The divorce law was in place simply to protect wives from being just thrown out of the house by their husbands. Their husbands instead had to draw up a legal document of divorce. See: Divorce in the Old Testament (From International Standard Bible Encyclopedia).
So it wouldn't be any wonder that Jesus didn't say women can divorce their husbands if they beat them, because the Law of Moses didn't address itself to wives who might want to divorce their husbands, and the old Law was what Jesus was discussing at the time he mentioned divorce.
There are a few Bible verses that say wives should be submissive to their husbands; but the main passage about this makes it obvious that a very high standard of behaviour is expected from men! Since almost the whole New Testament is about how people should be compassionate to each other and how much God cares about people, for the passage to mean women should submit to being abused would mean Paul was contradicting himself. It wouldn't fit with the very next few verses about how men should be loving towards their wives, the end of the previous chapter about how people should be kind and tender-hearted to one another, and also most of the rest of the New Testament. I read that some church leaders pick out single verses here and there and take them out of context, possibly genuinely in error some of the time, and use them to persuade battered women who might even be in danger of serious injury that they should stay in abusive relationships. But one has to take what the whole New Testament says into account, rather than picking out little sentences here and there, which might mean different things from what some people think they mean, because some of them were written to address certain problems that had come up at the time when those things were written, that we don't know about. I don't suppose people like the apostle Paul imagined people would still be reading his letters 2000 years later! He might have made himself more clear on some things if he had.
For instance, here's an article that throws a completely different light on a passage often thought offensive, about women not being allowed to teach and being "saved through child-bearing": Paul, Timothy, the Gnostics and Women.
Here are a few more articles with thoughts on New Testament verses about women:
So it's erroneous to take little bits of verses here and there and make them sound far more important than the impression you get from reading a whole letter or the whole New Testament.
But that leaves the question of why so many of the punishments decreed by the Law of Moses were so harsh. Many offences, such as adultery, and even working on the Sabbath, were punishable by the death penalty; and some were punishable by the infliction of physical injury.
But there does tend to be a perceivable logic behind some of the punishments. For instance, there's a law that sounds horrible that says if two men are fighting and the wife of one of them tries to rescue her husband by grabbing the other man's genitals, her hand should be cut off. That sounds barbaric. But it becomes understandable when a bit of investigation is done into the social background of the people living then and the actual language used. Apparently, the Hebrew word conveys the impression of fastening onto something. In this context it would mean attempting to do more damage than would be necessary in an attempt to rescue one of the men fighting, malicious damage that could jeopardise the man's chances of reproducing. In an age where there was no state support for the elderly so they had to rely on family members to keep them alive, primarily children, this could actually lead to them going without the support they needed, and in the worst cases, not being able to survive because of that. Children were very important in a society with no welfare state. If a woman prevented a man from having children who would be the equivalent of his hands in his old age as regards the support they could provide for him, then cutting off her own hand would be in accordance with the principle of "An eye for an eye" found in Old Testament Law.
Of course, if a man damaged the genitals of another man, he would have his own genitals injured in accordance with that principle. The Old Testament doesn't specifically say so, but the Laws laid down in the Old Testament weren't designed to be the first and final words on the matter; they were written as guidelines for courts on the types of punishments to impose.
Social commentators who've researched the matter say there would also have been some leeway for the prescribed punishments to be inflicted or not at the discretion of the courts.
Regarding other Old Testament punishments that sound harsh, some of the things generally thought of as minor offences today, or things people don't see as offences at all, could, in some cases, have had serious consequences in Old Testament times, or could have led to injustice if not legislated against, and in fact can today. For instance, it maybe that the harsh punishment for working on the Sabbath was partly designed to be a deterrent to anyone thinking of exploiting their workers by making them work seven days a week. Some unscrupulous employers in some parts of the world make people do that even today, especially people they've trapped into working for them. Here are a few examples, which can illustrate the hardships suffered by those forced to work seven days a week, to give some idea at least of the kind of thing that might have gone on in the time of Moses:
Those articles give an idea of what it might have been like being exploited thousands of years ago. The details are, of course, different. But the articles give an idea of the kinds of depths some people will stoop to, given the opportunity, and what it's like to be exploited.
There were also other laws in the Old Testament against exploitation, although naturally the system of protection wasn't as sophisticated as the one we have in law in the West today.
Still, in the New Testament, it says that the Law of Moses is a guide to what should be considered wrongdoing; and the punishments prescribed by it indicate that the offences were considered serious.
However, the New Testament, by its statements about the old Law being invalidated by the coming of Christ, does indicate that it is up to governments and courts nowadays to fix punishments they consider appropriate for things that are generally considered to be crimes, and to decide what kinds of behaviour should be criminalized and what kinds of behaviour should not be. After all, for one thing, the prison system wasn't very sophisticated and widespread in the time of Moses, or it may have been used more often instead of the death penalty, which is possibly one reason why the death penalties prescribed by the Law of Moses weren't set in stone for all time. In fact, it was only in the past 150 years or so that prisons became widely used as a form of punishment in the West. Before then, the death penalty was used for more offences.
But to give the example of adultery - one of the things it's up to governments nowadays to deal with or not to deal with as they see fit, Old Testament law taught:
(Leviticus chapter 20, CEV)
10 If any of you men have sex with another man's wife, both you and the woman will be put to death.
A New Testament passage, however, indicates that leaders should use their own judgment in dealing with adulterers. To give the background to it: At the time when Jesus Christ lived, the Romans were occupying Israel and had forbidden the Jews to carry out the death penalties which their law had commanded them to do. Some enemies of Jesus among the Jewish leadership wanted to trap him into saying that a particular woman caught in adultery should be killed, in order that they could accuse him of speaking out against Roman rules. If, on the other hand, he'd said that she shouldn't be killed because of the Roman regulation forbidding them to use the death penalty, the Jewish leaders could have accused him of being a collaborator with the Romans or a heretic who was implying that Roman law superseded God's law. The Bible says:
(John chapter 8, CEV)
1 Jesus walked out to the Mount of Olives. 2 Then early the next morning he went to the temple. The people came to him, and he sat down and started teaching them. 3 The Pharisees and the teachers of the Law of Moses brought in a woman who had been caught in bed with a man who wasn't her
husband. They made her stand in the middle of the crowd. 4 Then they said, "Teacher, this woman was caught sleeping with a man who isn't her husband. 5 The
Law of Moses teaches that a woman like this should be stoned to death! What do you say?"
6 They asked Jesus this question, because they wanted to test him and bring some charge against him. But Jesus simply bent over and started writing on the ground with his finger.
7 They kept on asking Jesus about the woman. Finally, he stood up and said, "If any of you have never sinned, then go ahead and throw the first stone at her!" 8 Once again he bent over and began writing on the ground.
9 The people left one by one, beginning with the oldest. Finally, Jesus and the woman were there alone.
10 Jesus stood up and asked her, "Where is everyone? Isn't there anyone left to accuse you?"
11 "No sir," the woman answered.
Then Jesus told her, "I am not going to accuse you either. You may go now, but don't sin anymore."
Of course it is possible that Jesus simply replied to the Jewish leaders as he did to evade their question. But he wasn't afraid of saying things that could bring down the wrath of the Jewish leaders against him!
Therefore, his response suggests that the Old Testament punishments ought to be tempered with mercy where appropriate.
I personally believe that ideally, adultery should be illegal, because of the suffering it causes the wronged party. One example is the psychological pain it causes the betrayed spouse. The marriage counsellor and famous author of books about ways of improving marriages, Michele Weiner-Davis, says in her book The Divorce Remedy that once a person has discovered or has been told about an affair, they might feel a number of strong negative emotions, like shock, intense sadness, rage, disbelief, disillusionment and hurt. The betrayal of trust and loss of security in the marriage caused by the unfaithfulness can be distressing. People might even feel as if they're going insane. But she says it's only normal to have strong feelings at a time like that. Also, she says people can feel one way one minute and another way five minutes later. people might cry a lot and find it difficult to eat or sleep. People can become totally obsessed with thoughts about the affair and have a hard time concentrating on anything else. It can be as if people's emotions are controlling them. People can worry that they'll be unhappy for the rest of their lives. But they won't be. She says it can be difficult for people to believe they'll ever get over it, given their strong feelings, but they can.
Of course, affairs can also cause other problems, such as where women having affairs get pregnant by the man they're having the affair with, and if they keep the child, and the husband finds out it's not his, the discovery can be heartbreaking if he's become attached to the child, and he can have a real dilemma over whether to use a lot of his resources financing the upbringing of a child that's not his, or whether to desert the family. Paternity tests have found that quite a high percentage of men who believed they were the father of their partner's child actually aren't.
Before there was a welfare state, if a man deserted a family because its children were discovered to have been fathered by others illicitly, they might end up destitute. A man who made a woman pregnant during an affair with her would be risking such a fate befalling her and her children. She herself would be irresponsibly risking the fate of her offspring. This might have even led to them starving, if their mother couldn't find work to do and her family weren't supportive. And even as recently as a couple of hundred years ago, it was common in the West for babies born to unmarried mothers to be just abandoned. Hence, the death penalty for adultery would have been in accordance with the legal principle of "A life for a life" found in the Old Testament.
I think that people who can be proved to be habitual adulterers today ought to incur some kind of legal penalty, because of the pain they have the potential to cause others and the family disruption affairs can cause. But I think that people caught for the first time should be offered marriage counselling, since affairs can often be started because of one person's unhappiness with the marriage and attraction to someone who seems to promise happiness. If they're inspired with ideas to improve their marriage that they and their spouse can work on, it can often solve the problem.
Hopefully the deterrent factor of a legal penalty would dissuade many people from having affairs. Maybe many people who sought affairs as a compensation for unhappiness in their marriage would then seek alternative solutions to their dissatisfaction, perhaps sometimes marriage counselling or self-help advice on improving marriage.
It has been argued that a legal penalty for adultery wouldn't be a deterrent, since, for instance, bank robbery is punished with imprisonment and yet banks still get robbed. But how many more banks might be robbed if bank robbery was no longer considered a crime!
The deterrent principle has been seen to work in some cases. I heard a journalist say that up until recent times, Saudi Arabia was generally one of the safest places in the world to live. I'm not sure how true what he said was, but he said one of the reasons for this was because of the harsh punishments decreed for crimes - for instance, theft was punishable by the amputation of a hand. I'm certainly not suggesting that punishments like that ought to be introduced in the Western world - and in fact that was a harsher punishment than the one decreed by the Law of Moses, which commanded that thieves should pay for what they stole as many as four or five times over, depending on the circumstances, or if they couldn't pay, they had to be forced to work as slaves until the equivalent worth of the amount they stole and the amount due as a penalty was paid, the modern equivalent perhaps being to make them work on some kind of community project or in prison. A comparison might be if they were made to work in prison till they'd earned the equivalent value of what they'd stolen, and it could be repaid to the people they'd stolen it from, and they'd worked enough to pay a penalty on top of that, which could go towards their keep.
The Bible does specifically say in The Law of Moses that the reason for some of the harsh punishments it decreed was that they would be a deterrent. To give an example of the punishment decreed for one type of wrongdoing, it says:
(Deuteronomy chapter 19, TEV)
16 If any of you try to harm another by false accusations, 17 both of you are to go to the one place of worship and be judged by the priests and judges who are then in office. 18 The judges will investigate the case thoroughly; and if you have made a false accusation, 19 you are to receive the punishment the accused would have received. In this way your nation will get rid of this evil. 20 Then everyone else will hear what happened; they will be afraid, and no one will ever again do such an evil thing. 21 In such cases show no mercy; the punishment is to be a life for a life, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a hand for a hand, and a foot for a foot.
In a similar way, some Old Testament punishments the Bible says were inflicted on the people by God may, in part, have been meant as examples for future generations of the importance of paying attention to God's commands to obey him.
There is a New Testament passage written by Paul that claims this, referring to things the Bible says happened when the Israelites were travelling through the desert under the leadership of Moses, when despite the miraculous things they'd witnessed or heard about, they were still disobedient, indulging in things that brought immediate gratification but which could wreck their marriages and damage their communities, such as engaging in sexual relationships with women from a foreign country (who'd been sent to entice them into doing that as a means of cunningly manipulating them into giving up the worship of their God and following the ones of that culture, the thinking of some ancient peoples being that if a country's god was displeased with them and so no longer on their side, their enemies would find it easier to defeat them in war). Paul said:
(1 Corinthians chapter 10, NLT)
1 I don't want you to forget, dear brothers and sisters, what happened to our ancestors in the wilderness long ago. God guided all of them by sending a cloud that moved along ahead of them, and he brought them all safely through the waters of the sea on dry ground. 5 Yet after all this, God was not pleased with most of them, and he destroyed [many of] them in the wilderness.
6 These events happened as a warning to us, so that we would not crave evil things as they did 7 or worship idols as some of them did. For the Scriptures say, "The people celebrated with feasting and drinking, and they indulged themselves in pagan revelry." 8 And we must not engage in sexual immorality as some of them did, causing 23,000 of them to die in one day. 9 Nor should we put Christ to the test, as some of them did and then died from snakebites. 10 And don't grumble as some of them did, for that is why God sent his angel of death to destroy them. 11 All these events happened to them as examples for us. They were written down to warn us, who live at the time when this age is drawing to a close. 12 If you think you are standing strong, be careful, for you, too, may fall into the same sin.
Here's an example of the way accounts of Old Testament punishments just might scare some people into changing their ways. The thing is that though many people might respond better to the loving side of the Bible message, or may be motivated to change by another religion or something totally unrelated to religion altogether, for some, the spector of eternal punishment by a fearsome God might move them to change their ways far better. And the pragmatic thing to do is to use what works, or to try what might work in the hope that it does.
Warning: Some might find the following quotation disturbing.
There's a television series called Unreported World which reports on terrible things that are happening in the world which aren't making the news. One programme was called Liberia: Stolen Childhood. It was about how since the recent civil war in Liberia, a lot of children are being traumatised and injured by being raped. Hospitals have seen children as young as two. Children are often brought to hospital with internal injuries because of it, and some have even died. The write-up about the programme said:
Unreported World reveals how Liberia is facing a child rape crisis.
Six years after the end of a brutal civil war in which rape was routinely used as a weapon, children still face the daily fear of being attacked, and the West African country's hospitals are overwhelmed with child victims, a quarter of them under four years old.
In the Liberian capital, Monrovia, reporter Jenny Kleeman and director Matt Haan meet Mercy, a six-year-old girl who was abducted and raped by a stranger two weeks previously. Mercy is taking a course of drugs to try to stop her from contracting HIV. She lives in a safe house run by a Liberian charity, which is filled with other child rape victims. ...
The team visits a children's hospital run by the charity Médecins Sans Frontières. Elias Abi-Aad tells Kleeman that his unit saw 771 child rape victims in 2008 and in the first six months of 2009 had already seen 422 victims, but he estimates this is only a small fraction of the total number of cases in Liberia. Victims suffer serious medical problems as a result of their ordeal and the hospital saw three recent cases where children died as a direct consequence of rape.
Tikka, a nurse, tells Kleeman she thinks the crisis may be caused by Liberia's years of civil war, when both government forces and rebel factions terrorised communities by raping at will. Liberians had become used to living in a lawless and violent world, she says. ...
Liberia's civil war has left the country with a culture of impunity, and a culture where men want to have sex with very young girls. Until that changes, Liberia can't escape its tragic past.
Now, these men clearly don't have the attitudes we might have to violence against children - that goes without saying. They probably don't find war repulsive but actually committed a lot of the atrocities during the civil war. What might stop them?
Bear in mind that these people come from a continent where the supernatural is feared and taken much more seriously than it often is in the West.
What If one thing that could stop them was fear of divine punishment? And what if that fear could best be instilled in them by listening to impassioned renditions of Bible passages about the kinds of things people with comfortable lives in the West tend to find repulsive - things where Old Testament prophets warned of a greater power invading and conquering the land and carrying off prisoners and killing many people because of the cruelty of many of them, such as attacks on the people most vulnerable in society? What if such men need to be scared before they'll stop attacking them? And what if the thing most likely to scare them is fear that a God with the power to bring invaders to crush their country might sit in judgment on them one day?
What if the disasters the Old Testament says were brought about by God happened partly to warn many people of future generations to turn from their cruel ways, and enough people have done so to mean they worked out for the greater good in the end?
I once read a book by a bishop in Uganda at the time when president Idi Amin was committing all his many atrocities. He said that one day, a few men met him outside his church and threatened to shoot him. He told them that in reality, they were in far more danger than he was, because when he died, he'd go to heaven, whereas when they died, they'd go to hell if they didn't change their ways.
He said it actually stopped them. In fact he said that later, they even came to him and asked about Christianity.
Now, being an anecdote, that naturally doesn't prove that such tactics will always work, by any means. But what if such threats resonate sufficiently with enough violent men in that part of the world to actually make a difference? Accounts of biblical atrocities disgust us; but what if for some men who've actually participated in war as aggressors, an approach that emphasises the love of God wouldn't make a difference to their behaviour, but the horror of divine wrath in the shape of a more powerful enemy as a punishment for their horrific actions, and possible punishment after death as well, is what will influence them best to change their ways and stop hurting children and others?
It could be considered laughable that such hardened criminals would respond to threats that might seem to be only in the realm of the superstitious. Perhaps it would be for some. But the supernatural is taken very seriously by many in some places, and many strange things are believed. Here's an example.
From an article called Sex attacks blamed on bat demon (BBC News, Feb 2007)
Some believe a bat turns into a man at night
Men in parts of Tanzania's main city, Dar es Salaam, are living in fear of a night-time sex attacker.
A BBC correspondent says the attacks are being blamed by some on a demon called "Popo Bawa" meaning winged bat.
Some men are staying awake or sleeping in groups outside their homes. Others are smearing themselves with pig's oil, believing this repels attacks. ...
The BBC's John Ngahyoma in Dar es Salaam says not many people actually believe that the demon exists and there have been no sightings.
But Mbaruku Ibrahim, who hails from Zanzibar, says the story of the demon is common there and people in his village on Pemba island sleep beside a huge fire outside their houses whenever it is said to appear. ...
Belief in witchcraft and superstitions is widespread in Tanzania, especially in rural areas.
To read more about how seriously some superstitions are taken in some countries, look at the articles linked to in the section of this article further up the page on the biblical attitude to Pagan culture.
Therefore, it is possible that threats of divine punishment might have more of an impact than might be imagined.
I'm not suggesting I think fear of divine retribution would work on everyone. It can be argued that it wouldn't work, since after all, it didn't stop people committing atrocities in the name of Christianity for centuries.
But I wonder how much the church leaders in power hundreds of years ago really believed in the God they claimed to be serving, since they clearly weren't intimidated by the thought of hell into behaving in the compassionate way the New Testament says Christians should. Likewise, large bands of warriors have done terrible things over the centuries in the name of Christianity. It's questionable as to how much they actually knew about Christianity though, especially since it was illegal until only a few hundred years ago to possess a Bible in one's own language, by decree of the then Catholic Church who had a monopoly on Christianity for centuries!
It may also be that a group of people led by someone spurring them on to commit violence and cruelty who were getting into the spirit of their leader's commands wouldn't take any notice of anyone else who was trying to preach fear of judgment to them.
But perhaps a group of people who were given time to reflect as individuals might be more easily swayed by a passionate sermon about the horrors of God's judgment on wrongdoers. I've heard of people who were convinced their hell-fire sermons were what was most effective in motivating people to change. It's been argued that even Karl Marx thought the equivalent of hell-fire-type sermons were what was really needed to get people moving for change. And William Booth, the founder of the Salvation Army, said something similar, apparently. See an article called Capital Ideas Neet Fire and Brimstone:
Ann Woodall's study of William Booth and Karl Marx is prompted by a striking coincidence: the founder of the Salvation Army and the father of Marxism both moved to London in 1849. Furthermore, she argues, what goaded each of them into action was horror at the intractable poverty of the London residuum - what Booth called the "submerged tenth" of the population and Marx dubbed the lumpen-proletariat.
Both men were domineering, impatient characters with a taste for fire-and-brimstone sermons. "Nothing moves people like the terrific," Booth wrote. "They must have hell-fire flashed before their eyes, or they will not move." Marx thought so too, portraying capital as "dead labour which, vampire-like, lives only by sucking living labour". ...
They may well have been judging the effectiveness of their hell-fire-type sermons on observable results - i.e. "It's only when I preach like this that I get a large number of volunteers coming up to me afterwards offering to help with my poverty relief projects". We can certainly be fairly sure that Marx's inflammatory rhetoric worked for him, based on the huge influence of Marxism in the world to this day. Inflammatory rhetoric is well-known to have the potential to have a huge impact on people in the mood to hear. Hitler is an example of someone who used it to great, (yet evil) effect.
It could be asked whether, in that case, hell-fire sermons would be any more effective in changing the behaviour of child rapists and the like than non-religious inflammatory rhetoric, which perhaps appealed to the emotions in an attempt to bring to awareness the suffering of children being harmed by the actions of the men listening. I would suspect that hell-fire sermons might well be much more effective, since appeals to the empathy of these people are very unlikely to work, because their empathy won't be highly developed at all, if they even have any. They must be well aware of the suffering of those children. They see it right in front of their faces, although rapists will typically lie to themselves and others in an attempt to fool themselves and others into believing their victims don't suffer.
Impassioned appeals to empathy would be very unlikely to work in those types of situations. What might, is appeals to self-interest. I.e. when they feel their own well-being is being threatened, that's when they might well start taking notice.
In fact, veteran researcher into psychopathy Robert Hare developed a program for Canadian prisons that would attempt to rehabilitate psychopaths based on appeals to there self-interest. Aggravatingly for him, it was scrapped, at least for a long long time, because people who hadn't researched the matter were convinced that appealing to people's goodness was the key to every offender's rehabilitation.
An article called Psychopaths Among Us relates the information:
... So many of these awkward questions would vanish if only there were a functioning treatment program for psychopathy. But there isn't. In fact, several studies have shown that existing treatment makes criminal psychopaths worse. In one, psychopaths who underwent social-skills and anger-management training before release had an 82 percent reconviction rate. Psychopaths who didn't take the program had a 59 percent reconviction rate. Conventional psychotherapy starts with the assumption that a patient wants to change, but psychopaths are usually perfectly happy as they are. They enrol in such programs to improve their chances of parole. "These guys learn the words but not the music," Hare says. "They can repeat all the psychiatric jargon -- 'I feel remorse,' they talk about the offence cycle -- but these are words, hollow words."
Hare has co-developed a new treatment program specifically for violent psychopaths, using what he knows about the psychopathic personality. The idea is to encourage them to be better by appealing not to their (non-existent) altruism but to their (abundant) self-interest.
"It's not designed to change personality, but to modify behaviour by, among other things, convincing them that there are ways they can get what they want without harming others," Hare explains. The program will try to make them understand that violence is bad, not for society, but for the psychopath himself. (Look where it got you: jail.) A similar program will soon be put in place for psychopathic offenders in the UK.
"The irony is that Canada could have had this all set up and they could have been leaders in the world. But they dropped the ball completely," Hare says, referring to his decade-old treatment proposal, sitting on a shelf somewhere within Corrections Canada. ...
It could be argued, "In that case, wouldn't stern talks to those child rapists about how they could be imprisoned for life if they keep up their behaviour be just as effective?"
I would suspect not. When they see that so few of their fellow rapists have been imprisoned, such a threat is likely to be laughed off. In relation to the example of frequent child rape in Liberia I provided, the government of Liberia seemed near-absolutely ineffective in dealing with the problem at the time the television programme was made. A punishment beyond the grave, however, would be a lot more difficult for many people to assess as an empty threat. And in a culture like Africa's where belief in the supernatural is taken very seriously, that might be much more of a concern than it would be here.
There are in fact records of whole warlike tribes laying down their arms when they became Christians. Here's just one example. From a web page containing many clips from news reports about the death of a missionary in the late 1960s:
... The society is one of several mission groups working in the interior of West Irian among tribes just emerging from a stone-age culture. A phenomenal response to the message of the Gospel has been witnessed among some of those warring cannibal tribes. Notably, in the Swart Valley alone, since 1960, some 8,000 of the Dani tribe have become Christians, weapons and fetishes have been discarded and literacy has become widespread.
Now, without studying the matter further, who can tell how much of the New Testament and how much of the Old Testament was preached to them. It could have been a combination of both, tailored to try to make the message be what was likely to appeal to them most - a mixture of God's love and the threat of judgment on those who continued treating other people brutally, perhaps.
Naturally, there might have been more to the tribes' turning away from violence than just attraction to the Christian message. Perhaps some of it was non-religious. But the biblical message does seem to have been a major influence.
There are similar records of other warlike tribes and communities turning from violence when they became Christians.
Anyway, the very same God who was said to have caused wars as judgments on societies for wrongdoing, is described by the New Testament as being a God of love. Perhaps in light of the possibility that people can be turned from violence by warnings of judgments - although judging by what Old Testament prophets said, they didn't always work that well on the societies the prophets warned about it - the two sides of God's nature the Bible portrays might not be as distinct as they first appear. The Bible, in fact, specifically says God can act in two very different ways. Paul wrote, talking about salvation:
(Romans chapter 11, TEV)
... 22 Here we see how kind and how severe God is. He is severe toward those who have fallen, but kind to you-if you continue in his kindness. But if you do not, you too will be broken off.
The Bible says that the Spirit of the same God who caused wars to break out can produce good qualities in his followers. It says:
(Galatians chapter 5, NLT)
14 The whole law can be summed up in this one command: "Love your neighbor as yourself." 15 But if instead of showing love among yourselves you are always biting and devouring one another, watch out! Beware of destroying one another. 16 So I advise you to live according to your new life in the Holy Spirit. Then you won't be doing what your sinful nature craves. 17 The old sinful nature loves to do evil, which is just opposite from what the Holy Spirit wants. And the Spirit gives us desires that are opposite from what the sinful nature desires. These two forces are constantly fighting each other, and your choices are never free from this conflict.
22 When the Holy Spirit controls our lives, he will produce this kind of fruit in us: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, and self-control. Here there is no conflict with the law.
I can give some modern-day examples of the way God's Holy Spirit may have worked. For instance, here are some testimonies of how people say their attitudes and behaviour were completely changed when they became Christians, not just because they willed them to change:
In my own life, a few years ago, someone said something that annoyed me one day, but I didn't want to be annoyed with them, and I asked God to give me his love for them instead. When they came into the room, my attitude to them was totally different. Naturally some critics would just say that was the power of the mind. Perhaps they'd be right, but the idea that the Holy Spirit can help can't be dismissed.
I heard a talk by someone who mentioned that her husband was very critical of her at one time. She said that one day, she made him a cup of coffee, and he criticised it as usual, and she went back to the kitchen to make a new one, and while there, she asked God to give her his love for her husband. That would have relieved the tension his criticism had been causing and helped them to get along better. She said that when she asked, she felt as if God's love was "filling" her.
In the New Testament, the Bible says that Jesus Christ said:
(Matthew chapter 5, TEV)
43 "You have heard that it was said, "Love your friends, hate your enemies.' 44 But now I tell you: love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may become the children of your Father in heaven."
Of course, that wouldn't mean refusing to fight them if they were a threat. Love is described in the New Testament (Romans chapter 13) as meaning not doing people wrong. It also apparently has the connotation of wanting the best for the greatest number or loyalty to your community. That would mean that if your community was being attacked, love would compel you to defend it, even if it meant fighting the attackers. But it would also mean that if you captured some of the enemy and put them in prison, you wouldn't wrong them by mistreating them.
This kind of attitude can actually have practical benefits. I read a book about life in a German prison camp for allied officers during World War II, and one of the things I recall it saying was that one of the guards who was particularly humane was himself a prisoner in a British prisoner of war camp during the first world war, and had memories of being treated well.
I read a book called The Hiding Place by a Christian woman called Corrie Ten Boom, who was imprisoned by the Nazis in World War II for hiding Jews in her home. She writes that after the war, she set up a big house where people recovering from life in concentration camps could go. She says she went on speaking tours, partly to finance it. She says that on one of them in Germany, she met one of her old jailers after a meeting. She must have mentioned in her speech that the Bible says that the death of Jesus Christ had been planned by God so Jesus could take the punishment that people deserve for sins, so that his followers won't be sent to hell for them, but can be with him forever. (More on the controversies about hell later.) She writes, referring to the ex-jailer:
He came up to me as the church was emptying, beaming and bowing.
"How grateful I am for your message, Fraulein," he said. "To think that, as you say, he has washed my sins away!"
His hand was thrust out to shake mine. And I, who had preached so often to the people in Bloemendaal the need to forgive, kept my hand at my side.
Even while the angry, vengeful thoughts boiled through me, I saw the sin of them. Jesus Christ had died for this man; was I going to ask for more?
Lord Jesus, I prayed, forgive me, and help me to forgive him.
I tried to smile; I struggled to raise my hand. I could not. I felt nothing; not the slightest spark of warmth or charity. And so again I breathed a silent prayer: Jesus, I cannot forgive him. Give me your forgiveness.
As I took his hand, the most incredible thing happened. Through my shoulder, along my arm and through my hand, a current seemed to pass from me to him, while into my heart sprang a love for this stranger that almost overwhelmed me.
And so I discovered that it is not on our forgiveness, any more than on our goodness, that the world's healing hinges, but on his. When he tells us to love our enemies, he gives, along with the command, the love itself.
Some people may dismiss such phenomena as having been caused by the power of the people's minds. But it would be just as unscientific to do so as it would be to accept everything anyone says without question.
The apostle Paul wrote in various letters in the New Testament to different groups of Christians he knew:
(2 Corinthians chapter 1, TEV)
21 It is God himself who makes us, together with you, sure of our life in union with Christ; it is God himself who has set us apart, 22 who has placed his mark of ownership upon us, and who has given us the Holy Spirit in our hearts as the guarantee of all that he has in store for us.
Ephesians chapter 1 (TEV)
4 Even before the world was made, God had already chosen us to be his through our union with Christ, so that we would be holy and without fault before him.
Because of his love 5 God had already decided that through Jesus Christ he would make us his children-this was his pleasure and purpose. 6 Let us praise God for his glorious grace, for the free gift he gave us in his dear Son! 7 For by the blood of Christ we are set free, that is, our sins are forgiven. How great is the grace of God, 8 which he gave to us in such large measure!
13 And you also became God's people when you heard the true message, the Good News that brought you salvation. You believed in Christ, and God put his stamp of ownership on you by giving you the Holy Spirit he had promised. 14 The Spirit is the guarantee that we shall receive what God has promised his people.
(Philippians chapter 3, NLT)
17 Dear brothers and sisters, pattern your lives after mine, and learn from those who follow our example. 18 For I have told you often before, and I say it again with tears in my eyes, that there are many whose conduct shows they are really enemies of the cross of Christ. 19 Their future is eternal destruction. Their god is their appetite, they brag about shameful things, and all they think about is this life here on earth. 20 But we are citizens of heaven, where the Lord Jesus Christ lives. And we are eagerly waiting for him to return as our Savior. 21 He will take these weak mortal bodies of ours and change them into glorious bodies like his own, using the same mighty power that he will use to conquer everything, everywhere.
One thing about the Bible that some people find offensive is its teaching on hell. It has been argued that God is unfair to send so many people there.
Some people have portrayed hell as a place of eternal torture. There are passages in the Bible that suggest it is such a place. Some people protest that it's barbaric that a supposedly loving God could eternally torture anyone, especially those who haven't done all that much wrong, and especially if the main reason they're being tortured is simply because they don't happen to believe in the right God, or any at all. Of course, it would be barbaric if that's what the Bible really taught; but its teaching is actually more complex and less barbaric than that.
On the other hand, the Bible isn't clear enough for us to be definite about what it says, so quite a bit of speculation has ensued.
It's believed by some that the Bible doesn't teach that hell will be eternal at all. They argue that the word translated eternal should really be translated age-long; that the Bible teaches that everyone will eventually be saved from hell, because everyone will eventually be purified from their sins and have no interest in being sinful any more; and that other passages have been misunderstood by Bible translators over the years and so have been translated more harshly than they were originally meant. To read an exposition of that point of view, look at this article: Is It All Greek to You?
Jewish rabbis of Jesus' time were apparently divided in their opinions on hell, having different points of view on whether average people would be annihilated, or would have to spend a while in hell after which they could then go to heaven. Some rabbis thought people would be in hell for differing lengths of time, and that there would be different places for people who'd committed differing degrees of wickedness, and that only the very evil would be in a place of pain for generations without number.
Jesus himself taught that people will be judged with differing degrees of severity, depending on what they've done. One day, for instance, he exclaimed that some people he saw who tended to make a show of saying long prayers after they'd robbed widows and orphans of their homes would be punished "all the worse!"
To read more on these issues, visit: What The Bible Says About Sin, Judgment Day And Hell.
Having said that, there still do seem to be parts of the Bible that seem on the face of it to be mindlessly cruel and harsh.
Besides some of the Laws of Moses, another part of Moses' teaching that seems harsh is his command to the Israelites to kill and drive out the inhabitants of the land they were entering to possess after their forty year journey in the desert. The Bible says he said:
(Deuteronomy chapter 9, NLT)
1 "Hear, O Israel! Today you are about to cross the Jordan River to occupy the land belonging to nations much greater and more powerful than you. They live in cities with walls that reach to the sky! 2 They are strong and tall - descendants of the famous Anakite giants. You've heard the saying, 'Who can stand up to the Anakites?' 3 But the LORD your God will cross over ahead of you like a devouring fire to destroy them. He will subdue them so that you will quickly conquer them and drive them out, just as the LORD has promised.
4 "After the LORD your God has done this for you, don't say to yourselves, 'The LORD has given us this land because we are so righteous!' No, it is because of the wickedness of the other nations that he is doing it. 5 It is not at all because you are such righteous, upright people that you are about to occupy their land. The LORD your God will drive these nations out ahead of you only because of their wickedness, and to fulfill the oath he had sworn to your ancestors Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. 6 I will say it again: The LORD your God is not giving you this good land because you are righteous, for you are not - you are a stubborn people."
Here is a link to an article on this and other such commands which concludes that they weren't as bad as they sound, because the majority of them commanded the Israelites to "drive out" the Canaanites rather than to kill them. The article claims the Canaanites were likely semi-nomadic anyway, so leaving wouldn't have been as bad as it would have been otherwise. It says many Canaanites would have been able to migrate away from their land in dribs and drabs in the years before the Israelites arrived, since they would have been given many years' warning that they were on the way. The article claims that there is evidence that the Canaanites had a history of aggression against other nations and a degenerate culture, and that it was the effects of these that God would have wanted the Israelites to destroy rather than the people themselves, partly to protect surrounding nations, and partly so the Canaanites wouldn't influence the Israelites to start committing such things as human sacrifice and ritual prostitution, as the Canaanites did in the worship of their gods, and which they would perhaps stop doing if they had to leave their worship centres and were assimilated into other cultures. The article maybe puts a rosy gloss on things, and some of the arguments it makes are questionable; but some of the points it makes are good. It's very long. But to read it, visit:
How could a God of Love order the massacre/annihilation of the Canaanites?
We're not told very much in the Bible about the Canaanites. The Bible claims that they engaged in child sacrifice, black magic and all kinds of sexual deviencies, such as several varieties of incest, but it doesn't say much more. Here's an example of what the Bible does say:
Leviticus chapter 18 (GWT)
1 The LORD spoke to Moses, 2 "Tell the Israelites: I am the LORD your God. 3 You used to live in Egypt. Don't live the way the Egyptians do. I am bringing you to Canaan. Don't live the way the Canaanites do. Never live by their standards. 4 Follow my rules, and live by my standards. I am the LORD your God. 7 "Never have sexual intercourse with your mother. She is your own mother. Never have sexual intercourse with her. 24 "Do not become unclean in any of these ways. By these practices all the nations which I am forcing out of your way have become unclean. 25 The land has become unclean. I will punish it for its sins. The land will vomit out those who live in it."
10 "Never have sexual intercourse with your granddaughter, whether she is your son's daughter or your daughter's daughter, because she is related to you.
15 "Never have sexual intercourse with your daughter-in-law. She is your son's wife. Never have sexual intercourse with her.
17 "Never have sexual intercourse with a woman and her daughter or a woman and her granddaughter. They are related. Doing this is perverted.
1 The LORD spoke to Moses, 2 "Tell the Israelites: I am the LORD your God. 3 You used to live in Egypt. Don't live the way the Egyptians do. I am bringing you to Canaan. Don't live the way the Canaanites do. Never live by their standards. 4 Follow my rules, and live by my standards. I am the LORD your God.
7 "Never have sexual intercourse with your mother. She is your own mother. Never have sexual intercourse with her.
24 "Do not become unclean in any of these ways. By these practices all the nations which I am forcing out of your way have become unclean. 25 The land has become unclean. I will punish it for its sins. The land will vomit out those who live in it."
As explained earlier, an action can be judged very differently according to what's known about the bacckground to it. If the Canaanites were a peaceful, relatively civilised people, then the violence against them would have been barbaric and without excuse. But if they were cruel and brutal, it might have worked for the greater good in the end, because of the greater likelihood of long-term peace in the region being attained, even though innocent people would have suffered along with the guilty at the time. If there was constant war between Canaanite factions, who's to say those innocent people would have suffered more from the Israelite conquest than they would have done from their own people? This kind of question needs to be brought into play by anyone condemning the Bible; emotional condemnations of the savage descriptions of violence, though perfectly understandable and a sign of more civilised standards, are only intellectually superficial, in that they don't weigh up factors such as the reasons for the violence.
Again, without knowing more about the circumstances of the attack on Canaan, it's very easy to condemn it outright in disgust, but also highly possible we'd be misguided.
Here's an example of how just a single bit of information can completely change the way something is viewed. How applicable it is to the entire invasion of Canaan can't be judged. But it cautions against an overly-hasty outrage at it. From the first chapter of the Book of Judges:
(Judges chapter 1, NIV)
4 When Judah attacked, the LORD gave the Canaanites and Perizzites into their hands and they struck down ten thousand men at Bezek. 5 It was there that they found Adoni-Bezek and fought against him, putting to rout the Canaanites and Perizzites. 6 Adoni-Bezek fled, but they chased him and caught him, and cut off his thumbs and big toes.
Apart from anything else, cutting off that leader's thumbs and big toes sounds barbaric. And it probably was. However, outrage can turn immediately to indifference to his plight if the following verse is also read, which shows us it wasn't merely an act of mindless savagery against a harmless ruler, as might be automatically assumed when first reading the verse about the Israelite violence against him. The verse says:
7 Then Adoni-Bezek said, "Seventy kings with their thumbs and big toes cut off have picked up scraps under my table. Now God has paid me back for what I did to them."
That puts a different perspective on it. Seventy? And not only does it seem he cut their fingers and toes off or ordered someone else to, but afterwards he made them beg for food under his table like dogs? This seems to have been an extremely cruel chief/king.
The following verses in the chapter make extremely unpleasant reading, since they're about other places the Bible says the Israelites captured. And it's certainly tempting to condemn the Bible outright. But a few questions ought perhaps to be asked that might cause us to reserve judgment a little when we ponder what the answers might be:
We're not really told the answer to that one so we'll never be sure. But a clan chief/king who was able to capture and cut off the thumbs and big toes of seventy others suggests that the region was already in the grip of extreme violence. After all, the king could hardly have achieved such a thing without having many men involved in a serious campaign of aggression.
When pondering this question, we might ask ourselves questions such as whether it's at all feasible that the men could have had an ingrained warrior culture while the women and older children around them were a peaceful people who would rather all their menfolk's aggression against others ceased. If not, what kind of attitudes might those women and older children have had to the aggression of their warrior menfolk? It's of course impossible to know. But there's no reason to automatically assume they would have been opposed to it. It's of course unlikely that they were all of one mind on the matter. It's highly likely that some were extremely distressed by it. However, it's feasible that a large percentage were fairly favourably disposed towards it on the whole.
How representative this is of the ambivalent attitude of women of the day towards the violence their menfolk perpetrated in campaigns of aggression against other tribes or nations, it's impossible to tell; but There is a Bible passage later in the Book of Judges where part of a victory song pictures the mother of the leader of the enemy aggressor warriors who'd been killed:
(Judges chapter 5, NIV)
28 Through the window peered Sisera's mother;
behind the lattice she cried out,
'Why is his chariot so long in coming?
Why is the clatter of his chariots delayed?'
29 The wisest of her ladies answer her;
indeed, she keeps saying to herself,
30 'Are they not finding and dividing the spoils:
a girl or two for each man,
colorful garments as plunder for Sisera,
colorful garments embroidered,
highly embroidered garments for my neck
all this as plunder?'
It's also pertinent to ponder on how the Canaanite women might have fared in a new society that was hostile to them after their menfolk had been killed.
The answers probably aren't clear-cut to any of those questions. A more certain judgment could be made one way or the other about the morality of the war if we knew more about the conditions of the day and the kind of people the Canaanites were and the extent to which they were harming those around them. However, it does seem that this was more than just a campaign of aggression against the innocent, as it can often be portrayed by Bible critics.
There are hints from archaeology that the Canaanites were not a peaceful people. From an article about the history of Canaan:
When the Egyptians were able to expel the Hyksos in the sixteenth century, the Egyptians were able to extend their power over Canaan. Again, however, Egyptian power weakened. By 1400, a number of small, established nations in the area struggled with each other. From the fourteenth century the Amarna Letters are derived. These are approximately 350 letters written in cuneiform Akkadian. They represent correspondence between the Egyptian court at Tell el-Amarna and numerous Canaanite cities, including Jerusalem, Megiddo, and Shechem. These letters indicate the unrest characteristic of these Canaanite principalities socially and politically. This unrest set the stage for the settlement of the Israelites into Canaan beginning in the thirteenth century as the Israelites benefited from the absence of political cohesion within Canaan.
That suggests that there may well have been a lot of violence in the society.
In fact, here's more information about the subjects of the letters which quotes translations of many of them, that suggests there was indeed a fair amount of violence going on, since many are about problems caused by war between the Canaanite kingdoms and others.
A couple of quotes from the letters later.
Here's a parallel situation from many hundreds of years after the Bible says the invasion of Canaan took place, an example from the Roman period of how the same action can seem very different according to the background information we have about it:
The gospels say Jesus predicted the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem by the Romans. We have Bible verses like this:
Luke chapter 19 (TEV)
41 He [Jesus] came closer to the city, [Jerusalem] and when he saw it, he wept over it, 42 saying, "If you only knew today what is needed for peace! But now you cannot see it! 43 The time will come when your enemies will surround you with barricades, blockade you, and close in on you from every side. 44 They will completely destroy you and the people within your walls; not a single stone will they leave in its place, because you did not recognize the time when God came to save you!"
Luke chapter 21 (CEV)
5 Some people were talking about the beautiful stones used to build the temple and about the gifts that had been placed in it. Jesus said,
6 "Do you see these stones? The time is coming when not one of them will be left in place. They will all be knocked down.
20 When you see Jerusalem surrounded by soldiers, you will know that it will soon be destroyed. 21 If you are living in Judea at that time, run to the mountains. If you are in the city, leave it. And if you are out in the country, don't go back into the city. 22 This time of punishment is what is written about in the Scriptures. 23 It will be an awful time for women who are expecting babies or nursing young children! Everywhere in the land people will suffer horribly and be punished. 24 Some of them will be killed by swords. Others will be carried off to foreign countries. Jerusalem will be overrun by foreign nations until their time comes to an end."
Luke chapter 13 (TEV)
34 "Jerusalem, Jerusalem! You kill the prophets, you stone the messengers God has sent you! How many times I wanted to put my arms around all your people, just as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you would not let me! 35 And so your Temple will be abandoned. I assure you that you will not see me until the time comes when you say, 'God bless him who comes in the name of the Lord.'"
There's a harrowing account of the actual destruction of the temple in Jerusalem by the Jewish historian Josephus: The Romans Destroy the Temple at Jerusalem, 70 AD. It may leave the reader wondering what kind of savage God could punish any nation in a manner like that. Part of it says:
Most of the slain were peaceful citizens, weak and unarmed, and they were butchered where they were caught. The heap of corpses mounted higher and higher about the altar; a stream of blood flowed down the Temple's steps, and the bodies of those slain at the top slipped to the bottom. ...
While the Temple was ablaze, the attackers plundered it, and countless people who were caught by them were slaughtered. There was no pity for age and no regard was accorded rank; children and old men, laymen and priests, alike were butchered; every class was pursued and crushed in the grip of war, whether they cried out for mercy or offered resistance.
Through the roar of the flames streaming far and wide, the groans of the falling victims were heard; such was the height of the hill and the magnitude of the blazing pile that the entire city seemed to be ablaze; and the noise - nothing more deafening and frightening could be imagined.
It's disgusting and upsetting no matter which way you look at it. However, it ceases to come across as a mere act of merciless savagery ordered by a ruthless God when Josephus's account of the things that led up to the destruction of the temple are taken into account. Here's part of what he says, from his account of The Wars Of The Jews. ... From the Siege of Gamala to the Coming of Titus to Besiege Jerusalem.
... 1. NOW no place of Galilee remained to be taken but the small city of Gischala, whose multitude yet were desirous of peace; for they were generally husbandmen, and always applied themselves to cultivate the fruits of the earth. However, there were a great number that belonged to a band of robbers, that were already corrupted, and had crept in among them, and some of the governing part of the citizens were sick of the same distemper. It was John, the son of a certain man whose name was Levi, that drew them into this rebellion, and encouraged them in it. He was a cunning knave, and of a temper that could put on various shapes; very rash in expecting great things, and very sagacious in bringing about what he hoped for. It was known to every body that he was fond of war, in order to thrust himself into authority; and the seditious part of the people of Gischala were under his management, by whose means the populace, who seemed ready to send ambassadors in order to a surrender, waited for the coming of the Romans in battle-array. ...
4. Now, in the night time, when John saw that there was no Roman guard about the city, he seized the opportunity directly, and, taking with him not only the armed men that where about him, but a considerable number of those that had little to do, together with their families, he fled to Jerusalem. ...
But for John, he was very little concerned for those whom he had left behind him, but went aboutamong all the people, and persuaded them to go to war, by the hopes he gave them. He affirmed that the affairs of the Romans were in a weak condition, and extolled his own power. He also jested upon the ignorance of the unskillful, as if those Romans, although they should take to themselves wings, could never fly over the wall of Jerusalem, who found such great difficulties in taking the villages of Galilee, and had broken their engines of war against their walls.
2. These harangues of John's corrupted a great part of the young men, and puffed them up for the war; but as to the more prudent part, and those in years, there was not a man of them but foresaw what was coming, and made lamentation on that account, as if the city was already undone; and in this confusion were the people. But then it must be observed, that the multitude that came out of the country were at discord before the Jerusalem sedition began; ... There were besides disorders and civil wars in every city; and all those that were at quiet from the Romans turned their hands one against another. There was also a bitter contest between those that were fond of war, and those that were desirous for peace. At the first this quarrelsome temper caught hold of private families, who could not agree among themselves; after which those people that were the dearest to one another brake through all restraints with regard to each other, and every one associated with those of his own opinion, and began already to stand in opposition one to another; so that seditions arose every where, while those that were for innovations, and were desirous of war, by their youth and boldness, were too hard for the aged and prudent men. And, in the first place, all the people of every place betook themselves to rapine; after which they got together in bodies, in order to rob the people of the country, insomuch that for barbarity and iniquity those of the same nation did no way differ from the Romans; nay, it seemed to be a much lighter thing to be ruined by the Romans than by themselves. 3. Now the Roman garrisons, which guarded the cities, partly out of their uneasiness to take such trouble upon them, and partly out of the hatred they bare to the Jewish nation, did little or nothing towards relieving the miserable, till the captains of these troops of robbers, being satiated with rapines in the country, got all together from all parts, and became a band of wickedness, and all together crept into Jerusalem, which was now become a city without a governor, and, as the ancient custom was, received without distinction all that belonged to their nation; and these they then received, because all men supposed that those who came so fast into the city came out of kindness, and for their assistance, although these very men, besides the seditions they raised, were otherwise the direct cause of the city's destruction also; for as they were an unprofitable and a useless multitude, they spent those provisions beforehand which might otherwise have been sufficient for the fighting men. Moreover, besides the bringing on of the war, they were the occasions of sedition and famine therein.
4. There were besides these other robbers that came out of the country, and came into the city, and joining to them those that were worse than themselves, omitted no kind of barbarity; for they did not measure their courage by their rapines and plunderings only, but preceded as far as murdering men; and this not in the night time or privately, or with regard to ordinary men, but did it openly in the day time, and began with the most eminent persons in the city; for the first man they meddled with was Antipas, one of the royal lineage, and the most potent man in the whole city, insomuch that the public treasures were committed to his care; him they took and confined; as they did in the next place to Levias, a person of great note, with Sophas, the son of Raguel, both which were of royal lineage also. And besides these, they did the same to the principal men of the country. This caused a terrible consternation among the people, and everyone contented himself with taking care of his own safety, as they would do if the city had been taken in war.
5. But these were not satisfied with the bonds into which they had put the men forementioned; nor did they think it safe for them to keep them thus in custody long, since they were men very powerful, and had numerous families of their own that were able to avenge them. Nay, they thought the very people would perhaps be so moved at these unjust proceedings, as to rise in a body against them; it was therefore resolved to have them slain accordingly, they sent one John, who was the most bloody-minded of them all, to do that execution: this man was also called "the son of Dorcas," in the language of our country. Ten more men went along with him into the prison, with their swords drawn, and so they cut the throats of those that were in custody there. The grand lying pretence these men made for so flagrant an enormity was this, that these men had had conferences with the Romans for a surrender of Jerusalem to them; and so they said they had slain only such as were traitors to their common liberty. Upon the whole, they grew the more insolent upon this bold prank of theirs, as though they had been the benefactors and saviors of the city.
6. Now the people were come to that degree of meanness and fear, and these robbers to that degree of madness, that these last took upon them to appoint high priests. So when they had disannulled the succession, according to those families out of which the high priests used to be made, they ordained certain unknown and ignoble persons for that office, that they might have their assistance in their wicked undertakings; for such as obtained this highest of all honors, without any desert, were forced to comply with those that bestowed it on them. They also set the principal men at variance one with another, by several sorts of contrivances and tricks, and gained the opportunity of doing what they pleased, by the mutual quarrels of those who might have obstructed their measures; till at length, when they were satiated with the unjust actions they had done towards men, they transferred their contumelious behavior to God himself, and came into the sanctuary with polluted feet.
7. And now the multitude were going to rise against them already; for Ananus, the ancientest of the high priests, persuaded them to it. He was a very prudent man, and had perhaps saved the city if he could but have escaped the hands of those that plotted against him. These men made the temple of God a strong hold for them, and a place whither they might resort, in order to avoid the troubles they feared from the people; the sanctuary was now become a refuge, and a shop of tyranny. They also mixed jesting among the miseries they introduced, which was more intolerable than what they did; for in order to try what surprise the people would be under, and how far their own power extended, they undertook to dispose of the high priesthood by casting lots for it, whereas, as we have said already, it was to descend by succession in a family. ...
10. And now, when the multitude were gotten together to an assembly, and every one was in indignation at these men's seizing upon the sanctuary, at their rapine and murders, but had not yet begun their attacks upon them, (the reason of which was this, that they imagined it to be a difficult thing to suppress these zealots, as indeed the case was,) Ananus stood in the midst of them, and casting his eyes frequently at the temple, and having a flood of tears in his eyes, he said, "Certainly it had been good for me to die before I had seen the house of God full of so many abominations, or these sacred places, that ought not to be trodden upon at random, filled with the feet of these blood-shedding villains; ... and when the people are murdered, nobody dare so much as send out a groan openly! O bitter tyranny that we are under! But why do I complain of the tyrants? Was it not you, and your sufferance of them, that have nourished them? Was it not you that overlooked those that first of all got together, for they were then but a few, and by your silence made them grow to be many; and by conniving at them when they took arms, in effect armed them against yourselves? You ought to have then prevented their first attempts, when they fell a reproaching your relations; but by neglecting that care in time, you have encouraged these wretches to plunder men. When houses were pillaged, nobody said a word, which was the occasion why they carried off the owners of those houses; and when they were drawn through the midst of the city, nobody came to their assistance. They then proceeded to put those whom you have betrayed into their hands into bonds. I do not say how many and of what characters those men were whom they thus served; but certainly they were such as were accused by none, and condemned by none; and since nobody succored them when they were put into bonds, the consequence was, that you saw the same persons slain. We have seen this also; so that still the best of the herd of brute animals, as it were, have been still led to be sacrificed, when yet nobody said one word, or moved his right hand for their preservation. Will you bear, therefore, will you bear to see your sanctuary trampled on? and will you lay steps for these profane wretches, upon which they may mount to higher degrees of insolence? Will not you pluck them down from their exaltation? for even by this time they had proceeded to higher enormities, if they had been able to overthrow any thing greater than the sanctuary. They have seized upon the strongest place of the whole city; you may call it the temple, if you please, though it be like a citadel or fortress. Now, while you have tyranny in so great a degree walled in, and see your enemies over your heads, to what purpose is it to take counsel? and what have you to support your minds withal? Perhaps you wait for the Romans, that they may protect our holy places: are our matters then brought to that pass? and are we come to that degree of misery, that our enemies themselves are expected to pity us? O wretched creatures! will not you rise up and turn upon those that strike you? which you may observe in wild beasts themselves, that they will avenge themselves on those that strike them.
The account gets worse. Those who would have negotiated with the Romans for peace were killed by those Jews with an appetite for war.
So this wasn't a straightforward case of mindless Roman brutality, or of a strong power trampling on a helpless one. Maybe when Jesus predicted the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple, he was saying not that God was going to be cruelly avenged on them because they refused to recognise the time when he came to save them, but that because they refused, many of them would not turn from fanaticism and evil inclinations, and this would lead to them provoking violence, which would lead to tragedy being brought down on their heads, which would in effect be an inevitable punishment/consequence. Interestingly enough, Josephus himself said he believed the punishment to have been ultimately brought about by God because of all the evil that was being committed. Of course, that doesn't give the idea more weight, and it's possible he could have said it to exhonerate the Romans to some extent; but given that the Old Testament he must have been raised on is full of examples of how it says God punished his people with war because of their cruel and immoral behaviour, it would have been easy for Josephus to think that must have been what was happening in his day, when he witnessed the cruel behaviour of some of them.
It would be interesting if there was a historical account from a non-biblical source about just what was going on in Canaan before the Israelites arrived. There may very well be significant parallels. It does seem that the situation was far more complex than just a matter of a band of savage Israelites picking on other people.
So again, anyone who wants to condemn the Bible needs to do more than just respond to the disgusting Bible verses about killing Canaanites with emotional outrage; their feelings are understandable; but mere emotional outrage does not make a valid argument, because we don't know what violence and other evil was going on before and at the time of the invasion, although we can now get a fair idea by reading translations of quotes from the Amarna Letters sent by the kings of Canaan to the court of the Egyptians. Here's a quote from one of them, for example. From the Amarna tablets: Letters from Rib Addi of Byblos:
... Aduna, the king of Irqata, mercenaries have killed, and there is no one who has said anything to Abdi-Ashirta, although you knew about it. Miya, the ruler of Arashni, has taken Ardata; and behold now the people of Ammiya have killed their lord; so I am frightened.
Let the king, my lord, know that the king of Hatti has overcome all the lands that belonged to the king of Mittani or the king of Nahma the land of the great kings. Abdi-Ashirta, the slave, the dog, has gone with him. Send archers. The hostility toward me is great.
Here's a quote from another one, Amarna tablets: Letters from Biridiya of Megiddo:
May the king know that since the archers have gone back, Labayu carries out acts of hostility against me, and that we cannot shear the wool, and that we cannot pass through the gate in the presence of Labayu, since he knows that you have not given (me) archers; and now he intends to take Meggido, but the king will protect his city so that Labayu does not seize her. In truth, the city is destroyed by death as a result of pestilence and disease. Grant the king one hundred garrison troops to guard the city, lest Labayu take it. Certainly, Labayu has no another intentions. He tries to destroy Meggido.
Thus, it seems the Isrealites were marching into a land already steeped in violence.
It may very well be far less significant, but one of the several possible reasons why the Israelites were given laws with such harsh punishments for the people of their own community, and why they were commanded to kill or drive out everyone who remained in the land they were entering to settle so the Canaanite inhabitants wouldn't entice them to follow their ways, may have been because the Israelites were described as being "hard to teach" - that is, they would not readily follow all the commands about ways of behaving that would reduce long-term harm to their community that the Bible says were given by God. So if they were surrounded by a new culture where the people engaged in practices they found attractive even though they were harmful, such as child sacrifice to gain divine favour, they might theoretically have easily adopted them instead of obeying the moral commands that were meant to reduce the harm done in their society, to its long-term detriment. Jesus said the Israelites were "hard to teach", in the following Bible passage.
(Matthew chapter 19, TEV)
3 Some Pharisees came to [Jesus] and tried to trap him by asking, "Does our Law allow a man to divorce his wife for whatever reason he wishes?"
4 Jesus answered, "Haven't you read the scripture that says that in the beginning the Creator made people male and female? 5 And God said, "For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and unite with his wife, and the two will become one.' 6 So they are no longer two, but one. No human being must separate, then, what God has joined together."
7 The Pharisees asked him, "Why, then, did Moses give the law for a man to hand his wife a divorce notice and send her away?"
8 Jesus answered, "Moses gave you permission to divorce your wives because you are so hard to teach."
This bears some relation to why the God of the Old Testament is considered harsh and quick to punish, whereas the commands of Jesus seem loving. It is argued that God was addressing two different sets of people, of whom he could expect very different moral standards. Jesus' teachings were meant for people who actually wanted to follow them. But there may have been no point in preaching about turning the other cheek, for example, and using reason about how it wasn't nice to hurt others, with people who were engaged in all manner of cruel practices and had no desire whatsoever to stop, or who wouldn't have had a mature enough attitude to morality to understand the teaching. They would have to have been punished, to show them that their behaviour was bad and to make them stop it. You can read more in an article called:
Kohlberg's Stages of Moral Development.
Another example of a command of the law that may have been a compromise, as the divorce law given by Moses was, actually designed to stop people acting hastily and harming others, though not forbidding an action altogether, which might have led to outright disobedience, was the cruel-sounding:
(Deuteronomy chapter 21, NIV)
10 When you go to war against your enemies and the LORD your God delivers them into your hands and you take captives, 11 if you notice among the captives a beautiful woman and are attracted to her, you may take her as your wife. 12 Bring her into your home and have her shave her head, trim her nails 13 and put aside the clothes she was wearing when captured. After she has lived in your house and mourned her father and mother for a full month, then you may go to her and be her husband and she shall be your wife. 14 If you are not pleased with her, let her go wherever she wishes. You must not sell her or treat her as a slave, since you have dishonored her.
Giving a command allowing people to force women to marry them sounds abhorrent. But if the people interpreted it as meaning that if they wanted to have sex with a woman they'd found belonging to the enemy, they would have to take her into their home, wait a full month, during which she would have to make herself unattractive by shaving her head and wearing clothes signifying mourning, and then marry her first, it may at least have cut down on the sexual brutality common in war, which was probably the idea.
It has been claimed that the Old Testament laws were especially harsh towards women. Some sound very unpleasant. But to read a perspective that argues that they wouldn't have been quite as severe as they sound, because the punishments would only have been meted out after the person accused of a transgression would have been allowed to defend themselves in a trial, bringing forth any mitigating circumstances, and that the reason the laws were so harsh was because the well-being of other people in the community was at steak, see a discussion of some laws that seem especially oppressive: Are the laws in the Old Testament about rape and virginity unfair to women?
One law was so harsh that it decreed that any woman found not to have been a virgin when she married had to be stoned to death. The article explains that though harsher than was fair, again, this was in accordance with the legal principle of "A life for a life", because the significance of her not being a virgin was primarily that the livelihood of her first child, if a boy, was at stake when he grew up. If he inherited some land from his parents that he used to grow crops to feed himself and his family, but then some relative contested the inheritance and could prove his mother wasn't a virgin when she married so he might have been illegitimate, the relative might sometimes succeed in getting the family thrown off their land, which would then be given to Him, which of course would have been the reason he made the accusations. Again, without a welfare state, a family who'd been deprived of the means of supporting themselves could even starve.
Also, the article observes that a woman known to have lost her virginity before marriage would virtually become unmarriageable, because no family of a potential husband would want to introduce a woman into their family whose offspring might take the inheritance, when they might not even be his. Since arranging a good marriage was often the best way parents could ensure the economic well-being of their daughters, demonstrable virginity was important. Parents of women who lost theirs would find it much more difficult to make arrangements for their long-term welfare.
Those things wouldn't have been the only reasons for the law. It was probably also partly a deterrent against people indulging in behaviour that would cause unwanted babies to be born, or unwanted pregnancies that people would attempt to abort, sometimes with disastrous consequences that led to the death of the mother. There can't have been many people who would get into a relationship recklessly and only think afterwards when they had such a strict legal penalty hanging over their heads.
It's possible that the law could, instead, have ordered the parents of any young woman who got pregnant to care for her and the child for the whole of their lives unless the woman found adequate employment that would somehow allow her to care for the child while working, or the woman got married. As still happens today, in fact, children born outside a marriage-type relationship are far more likely to grow up in poverty. A reputation for sleeping around and having children out of wedlock would have made a woman fairly unmarriageable in those days, and supporting a family as a single parent without welfare benefits and possibly without easy access to employment might have been very difficult. To have placed the burden on the woman's parents would have been unfair - again, without a welfare state, they would have been needing support themselves as they grew older.
Even in London a couple of hundred years ago, abandoned babies would often be seen, usually the consequences of relationships between unmarried people, apparently.
In fact, it's still happening in some countries, sometimes with dire results, as would probably have happened in ancient Israel. For instance, from an article called Hospital to bring back abandoned baby wheel:
ALARMED by the rising number of abandoned newborn babies, Italy is to revive the medieval practice of foundling hospitals, with special depositories where mothers can leave their unwanted children anonymously.
Technicians are designing a high-tech version of the traditional "revolving crib", or "foundling wheel". Half of the wheel will be outside the hospital wall and the other half inside. Staff inside the hospital will turn the wheel to collect the infant without seeing who has left it.
Grazia Passeri, the head of the Italian Civil Rights Association, said that the first modern "foundling wheel" would be installed at a leading hospital by Christmas. "We have to face the fact that a lot of women simply cannot cope with being mothers or become pregnant by accident or through rape," she said.
Many women abandon their babies in rubbish bins. In the past week alone three dead babies have been found in waste bins. Officially only 15 to 20 children are killed each year, but Signora Passeri said that the true figure was at least ten times that number. ...
Italy’s first high-tech foundling wheel is to be installed at the Hospital of Santo Spirito, on the Tiber embankment near the Vatican. Founded in the 13th century by Pope Innocent III on the site of a hospice for Anglo-Saxon pilgrims, Santo Spirito was one of the first to install a revolving crib, and as late as the 19th century was receiving 3,000 babies a year.
It could be argued that Israel should have set up foundling hospitals instead of making a law decreeing the death penalty against women who weren't virgins when they married. But Israel wasn't a settled society at the time. They were nomadic, and so it wouldn't have been so easy, besides there being no guarantee it would be made use of by everyone, instead of some babies being just left to die, as it seems they still are in the modern day in Italy, despite a modern welfare system, contraception, and the hospital facilities.
However, the fact that we do have such protections in place today in the West suggests that it would be a gross and unjust over-reaction to introduce such a harsh penalty for sex outside a committed relationship today.
The Bible has also been protested against because it apparently condones slavery. But to read articles that contend that slavery in Bible times was often not the oppressive kind of slavery of the modern era, but sometimes actually entered into voluntarily by poor people who had no means of supporting themselves, as in fact it was right into medieval times, because, for instance, the harvest on their little plot of land had failed, so working for a family in return for board and lodging could have been a means of survival, visit:
Does God condone slavery in the Bible? (Old Testament)
And Does God condone slavery in the Bible? (New Testament)
Of course, some forms of slavery in Bible times were exploitative and cruel. But it wasn't all like that. There was quite a bit of variation in conditions. Some slaves had a lot more legal rights than we might imagine, so some could protest unfair conditions in several ways. And some slaves could even have high-powered jobs and own slaves themselves! From the article Does God condone slavery in the Bible? (New Testament):
7. Legal agent status (and operating autonomy)--huge differences here, also:
• They could own property, take out loans, lease/rent land, offer service contracts:
"In the law of GR Egypt the slave could own property and could enter into legal transactions such as loans, leases or paramone (i.e., service) contracts...A slave could also act on behalf of a master in his business dealings, e.g. loans, sales, issuance of receipts etc...."
"A parallel phenomenon was an increased number of slaves who played an important role in the management of such properties, supervising their exploitation and handling money, or even farming land that they rented from the owner. Thus, along with the traditional vilici, who were simply agents carrying out the owner's will, there appeared vilici who managed the land on their own account on payment of a fee and who might farm the land themselves or rent it out in small parcels to slaves. As a general rule, supervision of the master's holdings was entrusted to an entire hierarchy of financial agents working in both city and country, who carried out the wishes of their dominus and whom we know from inscriptions-procuratores, actores, dispensatores, cellarii, arcarii, and so forth.
• Many urban servants had tremendous amounts of operating autonomy, entering into legal contracts as representative of their owner (sometimes to their own advantage):
"For one thing, a number of urban slaves escaped all direct, permanent control when their master charged them with the management of a range of businesses--shops or crafts operations--for his benefit. The autonomy such slaves enjoyed was without parallel in country areas, except perhaps in the case of shepherds."
"A parallel phenomenon was an increased number of slaves who played an important role in the management of such properties, supervising their exploitation and handling money, or even farming land that they rented from the owner. ... As a general rule, supervision of the master's holdings was entrusted to an entire hierarchy of financial agents working in both city and country, who carried out the wishes of their dominus and whom we know from inscriptions-procuratores, actores, dispensatores, cellarii, arcarii, and so forth.
"The urban milieu underwent a similar change. There were some specifically urban varieties of slaves such as the insularii, who managed the owner's rental properties, and increasing numbers of physicians and intellectuals. More generally, however, the manufacturing mode of production was in decline in the city as well as in the country. It became customary to permit a slave craftsman an autonomous activity, and masters relied on institutores (usually slaves) to run a workshop, supervise the sale and purchase of merchandise, handle loans, arrange transportation, and so forth. As in country areas, these practices were probably not absolutely new, but when they became widespread they took on a new meaning.
"In the Roman Empire the emperor's slaves and freedmen played a role analogous to that played in French history by such illustrious royal ministers and advisers as Colbert or Fouquet. Most of those whom we would call functionaries or bureaucrats were also imperial slaves and freedmen: they handled the administrative chores of the prince, their master.
"Among the Romans, especially during the flourishing period of the Roman Empire under discussion, slaves enjoyed more and more chances to lead comfortable lives and at the same time move toward gaining their freedom. This came about because of a vast increase in these years in the size and complexity of businesses and of the government bureaucracies and with it a corresponding increase in the number of white-collar jobs. Since native Romans had no taste for trade or commerce (aside from investing in them) and took a dim view of the routine of desk work, they turned over the tasks involved to slaves, and, since they were generous in granting manumission, particularly to the slaves who worked in their offices and homes, the white-collar slave worker could be fairly sure of eventually gaining it...Throughout the Roman Empire slaves staffed the offices of towns and cities, and in Rome itself they staffed all the ranks of the emperor's bureaucracy: they were the nation's civil service. Those who demonstrated satisfactory ability could expect manumission by the age of thirty to thirty-five; after manumission they would carry on their duties as freedmen...The paths, in the imperial administration led right to the very top, to posts that today would be held by department heads, even cabinet ministers. During Claudius's reign, Pallas, a freedman, served as his secretary of the treasury, and Narcissus, another freedman, as his secretary of state. Both used their position to line their pockets and both became so incredibly rich...
• They could own slaves themselves (which could own slaves also!):
"Before their manumission, a minority of wealthy (or at least well-off) slaves built up a patrimony that faithfully reproduced prevailing structures. They might themselves own slaves--vicarii--who acted as procuratores or institutores to manage the slave's holdings, just as those slaves managed their masters'. The law specified that such slaves of slaves belonged to the latter and not to his dominus, and the relations between the slave and his vicarii were modeled on those that pertained between a free man and his slaves...But vicarii might also belong to the privileged slave minority, and their own peculium could include slaves--that is, vicarii who belonged to a vicarius. These cascading relationships within the servile world are the best testimony to the success of the policy of social integration of the slave elites."
"Although himself a slave, that is to say, Musicus Scurranus had a personal slave retinue of his own, and his inscription actually continues with the names and job-titles, save in one case, of sixteen of its members. They include a business agent, an accountant, three secretaries, a doctor, two chamberlains, two attendants, two cooks and three slaves who were respectively in charge of Scurranus' clothes, gold and silver....Ownership of slaves by slaves seems strange at first sight, but in societies like that of Rome where slaveowning was a critical mark of an individual's social standing it has been far from unusual."
Obviously, not all slaves would be so fortunate, by any means. But that illustrates that the institution of slavery was far too complex and varied to have condemned outright.
Several hundred years after the Bible says the Israelites invaded Canaan, the prophets warned that because of their cruelty against the poor (something those who condemn the Bible for condoning slavery ought to take note of), their violence, the injustice in their courts, the child sacrifice they engaged in in the worship of other gods, and many other harmful and cruel behaviours, they would be themselves driven out of the land, and taken into exile, some into Babylon. History books record that they were taken into exile there in around 586 BC. They were allowed back into their own land again nearly a century later.
There followed a period of zealotry among some of their leaders, in which any influence that might lead the Israelites to worship foreign gods again was dealt with harshly. For instance, the books Ezra and Nehemiah record how some of the Israelites had married foreign wives in Babylon and had children by them, some of whom couldn't even speak Hebrew, and the men were ordered to leave their wives. This sounds harsh. But with the trauma of exile so recent, it was highly probable that the excessive measures were partly driven by fear that it could happen again.
A tradition apparently grew up after that of fanatical legalistic intolerant Jewish leadership, hence we have some of the Pharisees of Jesus' time. It may be, however, that without this, there wouldn't have been a hope that the Israelites would have remained faithful to the commands in the Law of Moses on how they should behave, and then, apart from anything else, Jesus Christ wouldn't have been able to come and die to take the punishment for the sins of mankind so that his followers won't have to pay for them after their deaths, as the New Testament teaches he did, because there wouldn't have been a country with an appropriate culture for him to have been born into. Most cultures were polytheistic. Nobody but the Jews would have had him killed for claiming to be the Son of God, as they did, - or at least that was their outward motive - a claim which they considered to be in contravention of the Law of Moses, because they must have thought he was claiming to be another god.
This is only speculation, but I find it an interesting theory.
Incidentally, some people think it's insane to even believe there is life after death, because it's our brain chemicals that enable us to function and enable us to display the personality features we do, not some mysterious force scientists haven't been able to investigate yet like a soul. If the brain's damaged, the personality can change. For instance, some people develop a fierce temper after the part of their brain governing impulse control is damaged. So it's argued that when we die and our brain chemistry ceases to function altogether, that's bound to mean our personality can no longer exist. Thus, of course, we would be defunct and not around to enjoy an after-life.
A Christian might argue that if God's powerful and ingenious enough to bring into being the complex chemistry that can allow people to function, he'd likely be powerful and ingenious enough to be able to replicate any features of people's personalities worth keeping in some spiritual way after physical death. After all, the Bible does say people will be raised from death with spiritual bodies rather than physical ones.
Some people find the fact of Jesus' death offensive, wondering how God could be at all humane if he allowed his "son" to be killed cruelly on a cross. Indeed, it is horrific! But the Bible quotes Jesus himself as saying:
(John chapter 10, TEV)
14 I am the good shepherd. As the Father knows me and I know the Father, in the same way I know my sheep and they know me. And I am willing to die for them.
17 "The Father loves me because I am willing to give up my life, in order that I may receive it back again. 18 No one takes my life away from me. I give it up of my own free will. I have the right to give it up, and I have the right to take it back. This is what my Father has commanded me to do."
27 "My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. 28 I give them eternal life, and they shall never die. No one can snatch them away from me. 29 What my Father has given me is greater than everything, and no one can snatch them away from the Father's care. 30 The Father and I are one."
It seems regrettable that there couldn't have been some other kind of penalty that was less harsh. But the harshness of it indicates the seriousness of what it was a punishment for. A more trivial punishment might have given the impression that God sees horrific sins as trivial.
Incidentally, it has been argued that the point of the punishment of the crucifixion of Jesus wasn't the pain he would suffer, but that the main penalty lay in the fact that crucifixion was considered by the society of the time to be a very shameful death, that certainly no god would allow himself to undergo. For a god to be crucified would seem far more shameful a defeat than for a human to be crucified, which is one reason why while lots of other people got crucified, Jesus' death would still have been special, and significant among them.
1 Peter chapter 1 (NLT)
13 Think clearly and exercise self-control. Look forward to the special blessings that will come to you at the return of Jesus Christ. 14 Obey God because you are his children. Don't slip back into your old ways of doing evil; you didn't know any better then. 15 But now you must be holy in everything you do, just as God - who chose you to be his children - is holy. 16 For he himself has said, "You must be holy because I am holy." 17 And remember that the heavenly Father to whom you pray has no favorites when he judges. He will judge or reward you according to what you do. So you must live in reverent fear of him during your time as foreigners here on earth. 18 For you know that God paid a ransom to save you from the empty life you inherited from your ancestors. And the ransom he paid was not mere gold or silver. 19 He paid for you with the precious lifeblood of Christ, the sinless, spotless Lamb of God. 20 God chose him for this purpose long before the world began, but now in these final days, he was sent to the earth for all to see. And he did this for you. 21 Through Christ you have come to trust in God. And because God raised Christ from the dead and gave him great glory, your faith and hope can be placed confidently in God.
The Jews who lived in the centuries after Moses had led them, on the other hand, often did not show allegiance to God, according to the Bible. Old Testament prophets not only condemned them for having turned away from God to follow other gods and adopting the customs of the cultures around them who worshiped those gods like child sacrifice, but also for disobeying his other commands on treating other people ethically - which would often be a corollary of turning away from God. Hundreds of years after the time of Moses, Old Testament prophets, when warning the people that disaster was going to befall them at the hands of the ancient Babylonian army - an invasion they said was brought about by God because of the failure of the Jews to obey him - not only condemned them because of their worship of other gods, but also because of their disregard for his other commands. For instance, the Old Testament prophet Ezekiel said:
(Ezekiel chapter 22, NLT)
1 Now this message came to me from the LORD: 2 "Son of man, are you ready to judge Jerusalem? Are you ready to judge this city of murderers? Denounce her terrible deeds in public, 3 and give her this message from the Sovereign LORD: O city of murderers, doomed and damned - city of idols, filthy and foul - 4 you are guilty of both murder and idolatry. Your day of destruction has come! You have reached the end of your years. I will make you an object of mockery throughout the world. 5 O infamous city, filled with confusion, you will be mocked by people both far and near.
6 "Every leader in Israel who lives within your walls is bent on murder. 7 Fathers and mothers are contemptuously ignored. Resident foreigners are forced to pay for protection. Orphans and widows are wronged and oppressed. ... 9 People accuse others falsely and send them to their death. You are filled with idol worshipers and people who take part in lewd activities. .. 11 Within your walls live men who commit adultery with their neighbors' wives, who defile their daughters-in-law or who rape their own sisters. 12 There are hired murderers, loan racketeers, and extortioners everywhere! They never even think of me and my commands, says the Sovereign LORD.
13 "But now I clap my hands in indignation over your dishonest gain and bloodshed. 14 How strong and courageous will you be in my day of reckoning? I, the LORD, have spoken! I will do what I have said. 15 I will scatter you among the nations and purge you of your wickedness. 16 And when you have been dishonored among the nations, you will know that I am the LORD."
To quote more of what the prophets said regarding the sins of the people:
(Ezekiel chapter 23, NLT)
37 They have committed both adultery and murder - adultery by worshiping idols and murder by burning their children as sacrifices on their altars. 38 Then after doing these terrible things, they defiled my Temple and violated my Sabbath day! 39 On the very day that they murdered their children in front of their idols, they boldly came into my Temple to worship! They came in and defiled my house!
(Hosea chapter 4, TEV)
1 The Lord has an accusation to bring against the people who live in this land. Listen, Israel, to what he says: "There is no faithfulness or love in the land, and the people do not acknowledge me as God. 2 They make promises and break them; they lie, murder, steal, and commit adultery. Crimes increase, and there is one murder after another.
(Isaiah chapter 5, NIV)
7 The ... LORD Almighty ... looked for justice, but saw bloodshed; for righteousness, but heard cries of distress.
(Isaiah chapter 10, NIV)
1 Woe to those who make unjust laws, to those who issue oppressive decrees, 2 to deprive the poor of their rights and withhold justice from the oppressed of my people, making widows their prey and robbing the fatherless.
(Amos chapter 5 (GWT)
10 Israel, you hate anyone who speaks out against injustice. You are disgusted by anyone who speaks the truth. 11 You trample on the poor and take their wheat from them for taxes. That is why you build houses from hand-cut stones, but you will not live in them. You plant beautiful vineyards, but you will not drink their wine. 12 I know that your crimes are numerous and your sins are many. You oppress the righteous by taking bribes. You deny the needy access to the courts. 13 That is why a wise person remains silent at such times, because those times are so evil. 14 Search for good instead of evil so that you may live. Then the LORD God of Armies will be with you, as you have said [he is]. 15 Hate evil and love good. Then you will be able to have justice in your courts. Maybe the LORD God of Armies will have pity on the faithful few of Joseph.
(Amos chapter 8, TEV)
4 Listen to this, you that trample on the needy and try to destroy the poor of the country. 5 You say to yourselves, "We can hardly wait for the holy days to be over so that we can sell our grain. When will the Sabbath end, so that we can start selling again? Then we can overcharge, use false measures, and fix the scales to cheat our customers. 6 We can sell worthless wheat at a high price. We'll find someone poor who can't pay his debts, not even the price of a pair of sandals, and we'll buy him as a slave."
(Isaiah chapter 5, TEV)
22 You are doomed! Heroes of the wine bottle! Brave and fearless when it comes to mixing drinks! 23 But for just a bribe you let the guilty go free, and you keep the innocent from getting justice.
Hosea chapter 6 (TEV)
8 Gilead is a city full of evil people and murderers. 9 The priests are like a gang of robbers who wait in ambush for someone. Even on the road to the holy place at Shechem they commit murder. And they do all this evil deliberately!
Jeremiah chapter 19 (NLT)
4For Israel has forsaken me and turned this valley into a place of wickedness. The people burn incense to foreign gods - idols never before worshiped by this generation, by their ancestors, or by the kings of Judah. And they have filled this place with the blood of innocent children. 5 They have built pagan shrines to Baal, and there they burn their sons as sacrifices to Baal. I have never commanded such a horrible deed; it never even crossed my mind to command such a thing!
(Hosea chapter 4, NLT)
12 They are asking a piece of wood to tell them what to do! They think a stick can tell them the future! Longing after idols has made them foolish. They have played the prostitute, serving other gods and deserting their God. 13 They offer sacrifices to idols on the tops of mountains. They go up into the hills to burn incense in the pleasant shade of oaks, poplars, and other trees. That is why your daughters turn to prostitution, and your daughters-in-law commit adultery. 14 Why should I punish them? For you men are doing the same thing, sinning with whores and shrine prostitutes. O foolish people! You will be destroyed, for you refuse to understand.
15 Their worship is mere pretense as they take oaths in the LORD's name. 18 The men of Israel finish up their drinking bouts and off they go to find some prostitutes. Their love for shame is greater than their love for honor. 19 So a mighty wind will sweep them away. They will die in shame because they offer sacrifices to idols. p>
(Jeremiah chapter 9, TEV)
1 I wish my head were a well of water, and my eyes a fountain of tears, so that I could cry day and night for my people who have been killed. 2 I wish I had a place to stay in the desert where I could get away from my people. They are all unfaithful, a mob of traitors. 3 They are always ready to tell lies; dishonesty instead of truth rules the land.
The Lord says, "My people do one evil thing after another and do not acknowledge me as their God." 4 Everyone must be on guard against their friends, and no one can trust their relatives; for all relatives are as deceitful as Jacob, and everyone slanders their friends. 5 They all mislead their friends, and no one tells the truth; they have taught their tongues to lie and will not give up their sinning. They do one violent thing after another, and one deceitful act follows another. The Lord says that his people reject him.
7 Because of this the Lord Almighty says, "I will refine my people like metal and put them to the test. My people have done evil- what else can I do with them? 8 Their tongues are like deadly arrows; they always tell lies. Everyone speaks friendly words to their neighbors, but they are really setting a trap for them. 9 Will I not punish them for these things? Will I not take revenge on a nation like this? I, the Lord, have spoken."
(Amos chapter 2, NLT)
7 They trample helpless people in the dust and deny justice to those who are oppressed. Both father and son sleep with the same woman, corrupting my holy name. 8 At their religious festivals, they lounge around in clothing stolen from their debtors. In the house of their god, they present offerings of wine purchased with stolen money.
(Hosea chapter 12, TEV)
1 Everything that the people of Israel do from morning to night is useless and destructive. Treachery and acts of violence increase among them.
(Isaiah chapter 58, NLT)
1 "Shout with the voice of a trumpet blast. Tell my people Israel of their sins! 2 Yet they act so pious! They come to the Temple every day and seem delighted to hear my laws. You would almost think this was a righteous nation that would never abandon its God. They love to make a show of coming to me and asking me to take action on their behalf.
3 'We have fasted before you!' they say. 'Why aren't you impressed? We have done much penance, and you don't even notice it!'
"I will tell you why! It's because you are living for yourselves even while you are fasting. You keep right on oppressing your workers. 4 What good is fasting when you keep on fighting and quarreling? This kind of fasting will never get you anywhere with me. 5 You humble yourselves by going through the motions of penance, bowing your heads like a blade of grass in the wind. You dress in sackcloth and cover yourselves with ashes. Is this what you call fasting? Do you really think this will please the LORD?
6 "No, the kind of fasting I want calls you to free those who are wrongly imprisoned and to stop oppressing those who work for you. Treat them fairly and give them what they earn. 7 I want you to share your food with the hungry and to welcome poor wanderers into your homes. Give clothes to those who need them, and do not hide from relatives who need your help.
8 "If you do these things, your salvation will come like the dawn. Yes, your healing will come quickly. Your godliness will lead you forward, and the glory of the LORD will protect you from behind. 9 Then when you call, the LORD will answer. 'Yes, I am here,' he will quickly reply.
"Stop oppressing the helpless and stop making false accusations and spreading vicious rumors! 10 Feed the hungry and help those in trouble. Then your light will shine out from the darkness, and the darkness around you will be as bright as day. 11 The LORD will guide you continually, watering your life when you are dry and keeping you healthy, too. You will be like a well-watered garden, like an ever-flowing spring. 12 Your children will rebuild the deserted ruins of your cities. Then you will be known as the people who rebuild their walls and cities.
13 "Keep the Sabbath day holy. Don't pursue your own interests on that day, but enjoy the Sabbath and speak of it with delight as the LORD's holy day. Honor the LORD in everything you do, and don't follow your own desires or talk idly.
"If you do this, 14 the LORD will be your delight. I will give you great honor and give you your full share of the inheritance I promised to Jacob, your ancestor. I, the LORD, have spoken!"
(Hosea chapter 14, NIV)
1 Return, O Israel, to the LORD your God. Your sins have been your downfall!
Of course, there must have been some people in Israel who were decent and not deserving of punishment! Here we have the ancient principle of corporate responsibility again, where a group is held responsible for the misdeeds of all the offenders in it. Having said that, there are a couple of Bible verses that indicate that there would be some people who would be spared the worst.
The Bible says that God's punishments weren't always an end in themselves. They were often designed to bring the people back to him. In modern times, it has been observed that disasters can increase people's desire to turn to God, probably for several reasons, including being struck by the awareness of mortality; reassessing values in the wake of the awareness of how short life can be and focusing from then on on what really matters and on helping to make the world a better place and pleasing the God they think they might meet sooner than they thought; wanting help and not being able to get an adequate amount of it from earthly sources so resorting to prayer; hoping to tap into some kind of source that'll enable them to see loved ones who've died again; and perhaps other reasons. It's very questionable as to whether disasters have been known to have a widespread impact for the better on any group of people's behaviour, and there probably has to be more influencing their change of attitude than just the disaster. But there are accounts of remarkable transformations in people's attitudes amid hardship.
See this article about how an act of heroism amid the brutality of a Japanese prisoner of war camp sparked a remarkable increase in unselfish and compassionate behaviour in some of the inmates and a turning to Christianity, for instance: The Least Likely Soil (Where God is more certain than death.)
It does seem that both the best and the worst in people can be brought out by disaster.
Whether or not there is evidence in modern times that disasters in themselves can be catalysts to bring out the best in people, biblical prophets described some of the disasters that befell the ancient Israelites as being punishments from God that had been designed to turn the people back to him, and thus to make them stop doing evil, leading to the long-term good of their communities. The punishments seem harsh in the extreme though, especially given their effectiveness was limited. However, at least the fact that the prophets said the punishments were meant to turn the people away from evil indicates that they thought that the primary concern of God was for people to stop oppressing the poor and needy, to stop their violence and injustice, and to live decent lives. That was all the prophets said the people were required to do to avert the punishments!!
But if the Bible is to be believed, they weren't prepared to do it! No, they weren't prepared to treat others with even the modicum of consideration that would have made them stop ill-treating them!
So the Bible says God resorted to punishments to try to change their ways. For instance, the Old Testament prophet Amos urged the Jews to give up their corrupt ways and told them that God was saying:
(Amos chapter 4, NLT)
6 "I brought hunger to every city and famine to every town. But still you wouldn't return to me," says the LORD.
7 "I kept the rain from falling when you needed it the most, ruining all your crops. I sent rain on one town but withheld it from another. Rain fell on one field, while another field withered away. 8 People staggered from one town to another for a drink of water, but there was never enough. But still you wouldn't return to me," says the LORD.
9 "I struck your farms and vineyards with blight and mildew. Locusts devoured all your fig and olive trees. But still you wouldn't return to me," says the LORD.
10 "I sent plagues against you like the plagues I sent against Egypt long ago. I killed your young men in war and slaughtered all your horses. The stench of death filled the air! But still you wouldn't return to me," says the LORD.
11 "I destroyed some of your cities, as I destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah. Those of you who survived were like half-burned sticks snatched from a fire. But still you wouldn't return to me," says the LORD.
12 "Therefore, I will bring upon you all these further disasters I have announced. Prepare to meet your God as he comes in judgment, you people of Israel!"
Punishments like that sound appallingly harsh! But can we be sure we'd have the same attitude if instead of sitting in a comfortable house in security, we were in a lawless country witnessing violence and cruelty frequently, and perhaps often being victims of it? Could it be possible that after a while, we might think that such things might be needed to hopefully get rid of the nastier elements in society, even if that meant getting rid of others along with them, and that if it might change the behaviour of those left alive, it might be what was needed?
Of course, it would be preferable that far more sophisticated methods were put into place to change things. Such things are far more readily available in societies where most people are law-abiding, with access to modern resources.
The fear of God may well be a powerful incentive to obey Bible commands. It's possible that thinking of him merely as a loving God may tend to make people less concerned to turn from wrongdoing, because they don't think it really matters to him.
Interestingly, twice in a period of a few weeks, I heard ex-young offenders asked for their opinions on what kind of prison sentences people who had been found guilty of particular crimes ought to get, and I expected them to say that the people ought to be treated leniently and that the causes of their criminal behaviour ought to be addressed. However, on both occasions, they said the sentences ought to be tough; in fact on one occasion, their views were compared with those of the public in general, and they were found to be the harshest in their opinions. They said they thought long sentences were necessary as a deterrent.
Of course, I'm not suggesting they might have condoned a punishment as harsh as the biblical punishments. But it's interesting that people actually involved in criminal behaviour estimated that it would take more for people to stop it than the general public imagined. I once heard the story of how someone who worked on a ship was punished severely for something they did that could have endangered others, and there was an outcry in the local newspaper about how unfairly harsh the punishment was; but someone wrote in saying he worked on ships, and he said he thought the punishment was perfectly fair, and that it needed to be severe to give the man motivation not to commit the offence again and warn others not to, because if it was done again, other people's lives could be in danger.
Then again, it's important not to take the views of such people as the final authority on the matter, since there might be people in the same circumstances who'd vehemently disagree.
The Old Testament prophets who warned of the Babylonian invasion urged the people to stop their sinful actions, saying that if they did, the invasion wouldn't happen. Apparently, however, they didn't listen, and it did.
To give some examples of passages where the people were informed that all would go well with them if they would only change their ways:
(Jeremiah chapter 7, NLT)
1 The LORD gave another message to Jeremiah. He said, 2 "Go to the entrance of the LORD's Temple, and give this message to the people: 'O Judah, listen to this message from the LORD! Listen to it, all of you who worship here! 3 The LORD Almighty, the God of Israel, says:
"Even now, if you quit your evil ways, I will let you stay in your own land. 4 But do not be fooled by those who repeatedly promise your safety because the Temple of the LORD is here. 5 I will be merciful only if you stop your wicked thoughts and deeds and are fair to others; 6 and if you stop exploiting foreigners, orphans, and widows; and if you stop your murdering; and if you stop worshiping idols as you now do to your own harm. 7 Then I will let you stay in this land that I gave to your ancestors to keep forever."
(Jeremiah chapter 25, NLT)
1 This message for all the people of Judah came to Jeremiah from the LORD during the fourth year of Jehoiakim's reign over Judah. This was the year when King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon began his reign. 2 Jeremiah the prophet said to the people in Judah and Jerusalem, 3 "For the past twenty-three years - from the thirteenth year of Josiah son of Amon, king of Judah, until now - the LORD has been giving me his messages. I have faithfully passed them on to you, but you have not listened.
4 "Again and again, the LORD has sent you his prophets, but you have not listened or even tried to hear. 5 Each time the message was this: 'Turn from the evil road you are traveling and from the evil things you are doing. Only then will I let you live in this land that the LORD gave to you and your ancestors forever. 7 "But you would not listen to me," says the LORD.
(Jeremiah chapter 26, NIV)
1 Early in the reign of Jehoiakim son of Josiah king of Judah, this word came from the LORD : 2 "This is what the LORD says: Stand in the courtyard of the LORD's house and speak to all the people of the towns of Judah who come to worship in the house of the LORD . Tell them everything I command you; do not omit a word. 3 Perhaps they will listen and each will turn from his evil way. Then I will relent and not bring on them the disaster I was planning because of the evil they have done."
Jeremiah pronounced doom on the temple and the people, and it was proposed that he be sentenced to death for it. Then the story continues:
12 Then Jeremiah said to all the officials and all the people: "The LORD sent me to prophesy against this house and this city all the things you have heard. 13 Now reform your ways and your actions and obey the LORD your God. Then the LORD will relent and not bring the disaster he has pronounced against you." ..
16 Then the officials and all the people said to the priests and the prophets, "This man should not be sentenced to death! He has spoken to us in the name of the LORD our God." 17 Some of the elders of the land stepped forward and said to the entire assembly of people, 18 "Micah of Moresheth prophesied in the days of Hezekiah king of Judah. He told all the people of Judah, 'This is what the LORD Almighty says:
" 'Zion will be plowed like a field, Jerusalem will become a heap of rubble, the temple hill a mound overgrown with thickets.'
19 "Did Hezekiah king of Judah or anyone else in Judah put him to death? Did not Hezekiah fear the LORD and seek his favor? And did not the LORD relent, so that he did not bring the disaster he pronounced against them? We are about to bring a terrible disaster on ourselves!"
Isaiah chapter 1 (TEV)
15 "When you lift your hands in prayer, I will not look at you. No matter how much you pray, I will not listen, for your hands are covered with blood.
16 Wash yourselves clean. Stop all this evil that I see you doing. Yes, stop doing evil 17 and learn to do right. See that justice is done-help those who are oppressed, give orphans their rights, and defend widows."
18 The Lord says, "Now, let's settle the matter. You are stained red with sin, but I will wash you as clean as snow. Although your stains are deep red, you will be as white as wool. 19 If you will only obey me, you will eat the good things the land produces. 20 But if you defy me, you are doomed to die. I, the Lord, have spoken."
Ezekiel chapter 18 (TEV)
30 "Now I, the Sovereign Lord, am telling you people of Israel that I will judge each of you by what you have done. Turn away from all the evil you are doing, and don't let your sin destroy you. 31 Give up all the evil you have been doing, and get yourselves new minds and hearts. Why do you people of Israel want to die? 32 I do not want anyone to die," says the Sovereign Lord. "Turn away from your sins and live."
To read more Bible Quotations about the offences Old Testament prophets said Israel was guilty of, visit Bible Quotes About the sins it Says Old Testament Societies Committed, And How it Says God Wanted Not to Punish Them If Only They'd Stop Their Cruelty.
later in the Old Testament, when describing things that it says happened after the people of Israel returned from having been taken captive in Babylon by the invaders, the Bible says:
(Zechariah chapter 1, NLT)
1 In mid Autumn of the second year of King Darius's reign, the LORD gave this message to the prophet Zechariah son of Berekiah and grandson of Iddo.
2 "I, the LORD, was very angry with your ancestors. 3 Therefore, say to the people, 'This is what the LORD Almighty says: Return to me, and I will return to you, says the LORD Almighty.' 4 Do not be like your ancestors who would not listen when the earlier prophets said to them, 'This is what the LORD Almighty says: Turn from your evil ways and stop all your evil practices.' 5 "Your ancestors and their prophets are now long dead. 6 But all the things I said through my servants the prophets happened to your ancestors, just as I said they would. As a result, they repented and said, 'We have received what we deserved from the LORD Almighty. He has done what he said he would do.'"
The earlier Book of Judges is full of horrendous accounts of atrocities, saying the people of Israel often "turned away" from God, whereupon God gave them over to be plundered by other nations who made war on them; and it says when the Israelites turned back to God, he "raised up" someone powerful enough to deliver them from their oppressors, which they tended to do by gathering them together to make war on them with good enough tactics to drive them from the land. The accounts of God allowing other nations to make war on Israel and oppress them seem repulsive; but the outrage may be diminished in part if it's considered that perhaps in "turning away" from God, they were turning from his ethical commands and committing all the offences the later prophets accused them of. It still seems that God was harsh and unimaginative in considering war and similarly unpleasant things to be the solution to the problems caused by the lawless society. The question needs to be asked of whether there were better alternatives - ones that would achieve the desired "turning back to God" and his ethical commands so the society became a safer place to be, without it first suffering the horrible violence.
The Bible says that it wasn't just the Jews whom God punished for their sins by causing invaders to rise up against them. Old Testament prophecies were given against other countries in the area as well. And in fact, One or two of them hint that such punishments weren't just confined to ancient times, although they don't specifically say they weren't.
For instance, the prophet Jeremiah said:
(Jeremiah chapter 18, TEV)
5 The Lord said to me, 7 If at any time I say that I am going to uproot, break down, or destroy any nation or kingdom, 8 but then that nation turns from its evil, I will not do what I said I would. 9 On the other hand, if I say that I am going to plant or build up any nation or kingdom, 10 but then that nation disobeys me and does evil, I will not do what I said I would.
The prophet Ezekiel said something on similar lines, though it's even less clear that he wasn't just referring to the circumstances of the nations around him in his time.
Ezekiel, who was prone to having visions that were explained as being from God and given to him to symbolise prophetic truths, also said, when having another of his visions while prophesying about the Babylonian invasion:
(Ezekiel chapter 9, NLT)
1 Then the LORD thundered, "Bring on the men appointed to punish the city [of Jerusalem]! Tell them to bring their weapons with them!" 2 Six men soon appeared from the upper gate that faces north, each carrying a battle club in his hand. One of them was dressed in linen and carried a writer's case strapped to his side. They all went into the Temple courtyard and stood beside the bronze altar. 3 Then the glory of the God of Israel rose up from between the cherubim, where it had rested, and moved to the entrance of the Temple. And the LORD called to the man dressed in linen who was carrying the writer's case. 4 He said to him, "Walk through the streets of Jerusalem and put a mark on the foreheads of all those who weep and sigh because of the sins they see around them."
5 Then I heard the LORD say to the other men, "Follow him through the city and kill everyone whose forehead is not marked. Show no mercy; have no pity! 6 Kill them all - old and young, girls and women and little children. But do not touch anyone with the mark. Begin your task right here at the Temple."
It sounds as if the vision was prophesying that the people concerned about the cruelty going on around them would be protected somehow from the suffering caused by the Babylonian invasion, but that a lot of people who may not have been really bad would still suffer, even very young ones. But then, what decent person could look on at or hear about cruelty and not be disturbed by it?
There are a few other Bible verses that suggest that very good people would be spared somehow, and a few that say that God would look with compassion on the people who were taken as prisoners to Babylon. For instance:
(Jeremiah chapter 24, NLT)
4 Then the LORD gave me this message: 6 I have sent them into captivity for their own good. I will see that they are well treated, and I will bring them back here again. I will build them up and not tear them down. I will plant them and not uproot them. 7 I will give them hearts that will recognize me as the LORD. They will be my people, and I will be their God, for they will return to me wholeheartedly.
(Jeremiah chapter 29, TEV)
4 "The Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those people whom he allowed Nebuchadnezzar to take away as prisoners from Jerusalem to Babylonia: 5 "Build houses and settle down. Plant gardens and eat what you grow in them. 6 Marry and have children. Then let your children get married, so that they also may have children. You must increase in numbers and not decrease. 7 Work for the good of the cities where I have made you go as prisoners. Pray to me on their behalf, because if they are prosperous, you will be prosperous too. 10 "The Lord says, "When Babylonia's seventy years are over, I will show my concern for you and keep my promise to bring you back home. 11 I alone know the plans I have for you, plans to bring you prosperity and not disaster, plans to bring about the future you hope for. 12 Then you will call to me. You will come and pray to me, and I will answer you. 13 You will seek me, and you will find me because you will seek me with all your heart. 14 Yes, I say, you will find me, and I will restore you to your land. I will gather you from every country and from every place to which I have scattered you, and I will bring you back to the land from which I had sent you away into exile. I, the Lord, have spoken.'"
4 "The Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those people whom he allowed Nebuchadnezzar to take away as prisoners from Jerusalem to Babylonia:
5 "Build houses and settle down. Plant gardens and eat what you grow in them. 6 Marry and have children. Then let your children get married, so that they also may have children. You must increase in numbers and not decrease. 7 Work for the good of the cities where I have made you go as prisoners. Pray to me on their behalf, because if they are prosperous, you will be prosperous too.
10 "The Lord says, "When Babylonia's seventy years are over, I will show my concern for you and keep my promise to bring you back home. 11 I alone know the plans I have for you, plans to bring you prosperity and not disaster, plans to bring about the future you hope for. 12 Then you will call to me. You will come and pray to me, and I will answer you. 13 You will seek me, and you will find me because you will seek me with all your heart. 14 Yes, I say, you will find me, and I will restore you to your land. I will gather you from every country and from every place to which I have scattered you, and I will bring you back to the land from which I had sent you away into exile. I, the Lord, have spoken.'"
Despite all that, the punishments in the Bible do sometimes seem excessively harsh and indiscriminate. There are one or two verses that indicate that many decent people did suffer. The prophet Jeremiah, while proclaiming that God had decreed punishment against one of Israel's neighbouring countries, said to the people of his own country:
(Jeremiah chapter 49, TEV)
12 "If even those who did not deserve to be punished had to drink from the cup of punishment, do you think that you will go unpunished? No, you must drink from the cup!"
However, it could be argued that maybe when seen from an eternal perspective, death is a fleeting thing to God, and that one reason it might not seem such a big thing to him as it does to us is that he will know what's in store for godly people in the afterlife. In one place, the Bible says,
(Isaiah chapter 57, NLT)
1 The righteous pass away; the godly often die before their time. And no one seems to care or wonder why. No one seems to understand that God is protecting them from the evil to come. 2 For the godly who die will rest in peace.
And regarding children, in the New Testament, the Bible says:
(Mark chapter 10, NLT)
13 One day some parents brought their children to Jesus so he could touch them and bless them, but the disciples told them not to bother him. 14 But when Jesus saw what was happening, he was very displeased with his disciples. He said to them, "Let the children come to me. Don't stop them! For the Kingdom of God belongs to such as these."
Therefore, perhaps it's an advantage to die while a little child in a way, if Jesus meant that little children will go to heaven. The older a person is, the more likely they will be to have done things that make them deserving of being sent to hell. (More about hell later.)
However, though we think of children as innocent, they can actually be very cruel, even if they can't be held so accountable as adults. For examples of this, visit: Messages From Pupils (Anti-Bullying Network).
In the first book of the Bible, Genesis, it describes a world-wide flood that it says was brought about by God to destroy the majority of mankind because:
(Genesis chapter 6, CEV)
5 The LORD saw how bad the people on earth were and that everything they thought and planned was evil. 6 He was very sorry that he had made them, 7 and he said, "I'll destroy every living creature on earth! I'll wipe out people, animals, birds, and reptiles. I'm sorry I ever made them."
8 ... Noah was the only person who lived right and obeyed God. 11-12 God knew that everyone was terribly cruel and violent. 13 So he told Noah: Cruelty and violence have spread everywhere. Now I'm going to destroy the whole earth and all its people.
Again, the punishment seems indiscriminate. If the Bible is to be believed, many children would have been killed along with the vast majority of the rest of humanity, and there must surely have been some adults who weren't all that corrupt!
However, imagine what would happen if the children had somehow been spared and left without adults to care for them.
If the children, and even if some of the other adults had been spared - the guilty being destroyed in a way that would have left fairly decent people unharmed, many - or most - of the children would have gone on to suffer a worse fate. Many of them may have found it difficult to fend for themselves in a world so depleted of adults or relatives and a food supply, and slowly starved to death.
If the animals had been left on earth, the children may have been terrorised by the predators and eventually eaten by them. If the predators had been killed but God had left all the other animals on earth, conditions would have been so favourable to them that they would have overpopulated the place. Mankind's food supply of all but meat would have grown very scarce as it was continually raided/eaten by animals. If, at a later date, predators had been reintroduced somehow to solve the problem, they would have had such a large food supply consisting of other animals that they in turn would have overpopulated earth because it would have been so easy for them to survive. When their animal food supply began to run down, they would have been even more of a threat to humans than they'd ever been before, because there would be far more of them looking for food.
Killing the young children would also have put a stop for some time to the cycle of violence, whereby a fair number of children who've been abused in early life go on to be abusers. The violent cycle would have gradually built up again, but for a while, there may have been much less violence than there had been previously among the inhabitants of earth. For more information on the cycle of abuse, see:
Another reason why children were not spared may have been that, as research has found, children who become involved in violent gangs will often be lacking father figures, and that children without fathers are more likely to become involved in criminal behaviour, partly through lack of supervision, and partly because they like the feeling of belonging it gives them, and for other reasons, especially if the families live in poverty. Therefore, if many of the children had survived, they may have gone on to wreak suffering and lawlessness on the people of the earth as they grew older. For more on gangs, see:
It's also questionable as to whether in dying in the flood, the children really would have suffered more than they would have done otherwise, especially in the absence of modern organisations with the knowhow and resources to rehabilitate abused children and rebuild societies after disasters. They would have died anyway at some point, as everybody does, often unpleasantly; and if the world was, as the Bible says, full of violence, some of the children were likely to have been violent, and many would likely have been terrorised by other children. See examples of abuse from modern times, which can illustrate what some might have suffered:
Incidentally, some people have contended that the flood wasn't in fact worldwide, but local to where the main centre of population was at the time. See, for instance:
It's also been postulated that the flood story grew up out of a real big local flood that people just assumed must be worldwide and something to do with God; but that's beyond the scope of this article.
As for the morality of responding to the violence by destroying so many people on earth, can we be sure it would have been more moral to have done nothing? What alternative feasible options would have worked to make ancient societies less violent?
In fact, we can take a lesson on what can sometimes happen when mercy is extended to a people immersed in evil from Nineveh, if the Bible is to be believed. The Bible says Jonah preached that Nineveh would be destroyed, but the people repented, so God had mercy on them and spared the city. However, the repentance was only brief; they returned to their violent ways and engaged in cruel warfare against neighbouring countries until Nineveh was eventually destroyed (as Israel was) near the beginning of the 6th century BC, as prophesied by another man, Nahum. See:
Thus, having mercy on people so accustomed to violence as we are led to believe those of the pre-flood society were may have backfired!
It could be said that current generations could be cautioned by the lesson of the Flood and the wars the Old Testament says God caused to happen.
And indeed, the Bible suggests that God has not finished acting with violent judgments on the earth. Besides the one or two Old Testament passages mentioned earlier that hint at that, in the Book of Revelation, the last book in the New Testament, which contains accounts of the author's visions which he says were given to him as prophecies of what would happen in his own time and at some point in the future, it says:
(Revelation chapter 6, NLT)
I looked up and saw a white horse. Its rider carried a bow, and a crown was placed on his head. He rode out to win many battles and gain the victory.
4 And another horse appeared, a red one. Its rider was given a mighty sword and the authority to remove peace from the earth. And there was war and slaughter everywhere.
5 ... And I looked up and saw a black horse, and its rider was holding a pair of scales in his hand. 6 And a voice from among the four living beings said, "A loaf of wheat bread or three loaves of barley for a day's pay. And don't waste the olive oil and wine."
8 And I looked up and saw a horse whose color was pale green like a corpse. And Death was the name of its rider, who was followed around by the Grave. They were given authority over one-fourth of the earth, to kill with the sword and famine and disease and wild animals.
Whether that foretells a time in the future or a time already past is debatable. It has been argued that the majority of Revelation referred to the upheavals in the Roman world of the first century, particularly the tragic events of AD 70 when the Romans invaded Jerusalem and destroyed the Jewish Temple, rather than the whole world of the future. See an article entitled: Dating and Interpreting Revelation.
Whether the prophecy was about the whole world, or mostly just about the Roman world of the first century AD, it sounds horrendous. But again, the Bible says God's punishments aren't always an end in themselves. The Book of Revelation does suggest that the reason for the infliction of the horrors it describes would be, at least partly, to turn people from evil ways back to God. However, it also indicates that many people wouldn't turn to God. After prophesying more terrible things, it says:
(Revelation chapter 9, GWT)
20 The people who survived these plagues still did not turn [to God] and change the way they were thinking and acting. If they had, they would have stopped worshipping demons and idols made of gold, silver, bronze, stone, and wood, which cannot see, hear, or walk. 21 They did not turn away from committing murder, practising witchcraft, sinning sexually, or stealing.
If God still works today in the same way as we're led to believe he did in Old Testament times, people need to be warned about it. I find the descriptions of what Old Testament prophets said was about to happen offensive. But I think they're worth some people knowing about. Maybe if in places where there are wars today, large numbers of people turned to God and became obedient to his commands, their countries would grow much more peaceful and prosperous, to a large extent because they'd become peaceful as a result of their adherence to Christianity or at least some other ethical system and so their countries would have more of a chance to grow prosperous, because they'd be working on developing their country's infrastructure, resources and capabilities rather than fighting each other and destroying such things, and the peace would also attract foreign investors who could provide employment and thus help to make the country more wealthy - foreign investors who would have considered it too risky to bother setting up premises where they might only be destroyed by war before. Also, if parts of the Bible are to be believed, a country might also grow prosperous when many of its people turn from cruelty, because it's blessed by God in a way that would precipitate good fortune. It's been observed that virtually all the prosperous countries of the world are the ones formerly - or still - known as Christian countries, particularly the Protestant Christian countries where the Bible and its commands were held up as the Word of God more thoroughly than in some Catholic Countries, although grave injustices still happened there, and there may be much more down-to-earth reasons that can explain part or all of it, such as the climate being more conducive to good harvests which would enable people to concentrate on advancing themselves further than they would if they were forever working on trying to get the most out of their land.
But some countries where there is a lot of poverty are rich in mineral resources and oil if not in food production, and an ethical government would attempt to utilise the country's resources in ways that benefited the largest possible number of the people, by arranging for employment opportunities and paying decent wages to people who were working on exploiting the resources the country had, and selling them for food rather than spending profits primarily on things that were unlikely to benefit most people, such as hi-tech weaponry or luxuries for the elite; so they'd have a more equal society, instead of having a rich elite at the top and many people in abject poverty at the bottom. Adopting ethical values, which would in effect be adopting biblical ones, would mean a far greater number of their society could benefit.
But one question that has to be asked when thinking about Bible commands that don't, on the face of it, seem ethical, whatever their long-term purpose may have been said to have been, is: Was the Bible really written under the authority of God, as it claims to have been, or were people like Moses merely justifying their warlike commands and actions by claiming that the commands were given by God?
One thing that suggests Moses did have the authority of God is that Jesus Christ described him as a prophet of God, and said the law that he gave - the same law that commanded that worshippers of other gods were to be killed - was the law of God. Jesus claimed to be the Son of God. If he was, then he'd know with certainty whether the commands that Moses gave the people were God's commands or not. So the pertinent question is: Was Jesus the Son of God? The following argument presumes God actually exists.
Jesus claimed to be the Son of God on several occasions, and/or on others, he would say things that no human being would say if they were sane. For instance, the Bible says:
(John chapter 12, NLT)
44 Jesus shouted to the crowds, "If you trust me, you are really trusting God who sent me. 45 For when you see me, you are seeing the one who sent me. 46 I have come as a light to shine in this dark world, so that all who put their trust in me will no longer remain in the darkness. 47 If anyone hears me and doesn't obey me, I am not his judge - for I have come to save the world and not to judge it. 48 But all who reject me and my message will be judged at the day of judgment by the truth I have spoken."
(John chapter 6, TEV)
35 "I am the bread of life," Jesus told them. "Those who come to me will never be hungry; those who believe in me will never be thirsty. 36 Now, I told you that you have seen me but will not believe. 37 Everyone whom my Father gives me will come to me. 39 And it is the will of him who sent me that I should not lose any of all those he has given me, but that I should raise them all to life on the last day. 40 For what my Father wants is that all who see the Son and believe in him should have eternal life. And I will raise them to life on the last day."
(John chapter 5, NLT)
24 "I assure you, those who listen to my message and believe in God who sent me have eternal life. They will never be condemned for their sins, but they have already passed from death into life."
25 "And I assure you that the time is coming, in fact it is here, when the dead will hear my voice - the voice of the Son of God. And those who listen will live."
John's gospel says that on more than one occasion, people picked up stones to kill Jesus with for blasphemy because of his claims. Even when Jesus was on trial for his life, he didn't retract them. The Bible says:
(Mark chapter 14, TEV)
60 The High Priest stood up in front of them all and questioned Jesus, "Have you no answer to the accusation they bring against you?" 61 But Jesus kept quiet and would not say a word. Again the High Priest questioned him, "Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed God?"
62 "I am," answered Jesus, "and you will all see the Son of Man seated at the right side of the Almighty and coming with the clouds of heaven!"
63 The High Priest tore his robes and said,
"We don't need any more witnesses! 64 You heard his blasphemy. What is your decision?"
They all voted against him: he was guilty and should be put to death.
If Jesus wasn't the Son of God, he would have to have been insane to make the claims he did, and especially so since he was willing to die for them. But it seems unlikely that he could have attracted such a following if he had been insane, though it is possible that he could have done if he was nevertheless charismatic. However, in that case, he may well have said things that sounded downright incomprehensible. That isn't the way he comes across.
It's been argued that a good case can be made for the resurrection of Jesus having happened, and that if it did, that is proof of Jesus' divinity. One argument in favour of it, though not necessarily the best, is that if the resurrection had been a lie made up by the disciples, the Jewish leaders could surely have snuffed out the claim by simply producing his body, and instead of Christianity growing, it would have been laughed to scorn by everyone in its infancy. It's unlikely that the disciples could have stolen the body with the aim of pretending it had disappeared because Jesus had been resurrected, when, so the Bible says, there were guards on the tomb to prevent just such a thing from happening, who had been put there because Jesus had specifically said that he would be killed and would come back to life, and the Jewish leaders wanted to stop the disciples pretending he had and building up a following among the people. So if the body disappeared and yet it wasn't stolen, and in fact somehow the tomb was opened, how did it get like that?
In any case, the disciples themselves were persecuted for their beliefs. If they knew them to be false, it would seem strange that they would keep talking about them under the risk of being arrested and mistreated or killed themselves. What possible motive could there have been for anyone to have made up a story like that, and under persecution, to still claim it as fact, or for those who knew they might be picked up and persecuted next to carry on preaching it?
For more arguments in favour of the resurrection and the authenticity of what the apostles claimed, visit:
Incidentally, some people claim that it's foolish to believe that the resurrection of Jesus could have possibly happened, because apart from anything else, when a person dies, they'll start decomposing; their brain will turn into a mush, and God would need to do a tremendously complicated job of re-wiring it to bring someone to life again and reconstitute their personality etc. A Christian might argue that there are techniques known to mankind that can stop such decomposition from happening in the first place; and if humans are technically capable of it, how much more would a powerful God be!
If Jesus was the Son of God, as he claimed to be, we can take him as being authoritative when he described some of the words of Old Testament prophets as having been given to them by God, supposing the gospel writers recorded his words correctly.
The Bible says that Jesus said to the Jewish leaders:
(John chapter 5, NLT)
39 "You search the Scriptures because you believe they give you eternal life. But the Scriptures point to me! 40 Yet you refuse to come to me so that I can give you this eternal life.
45 "Yet it is not I who will accuse you of this before the Father. Moses will accuse you! Yes, Moses, on whom you set your hopes. 46 But if you had believed Moses, you would have believed me because he wrote about me. 47 And since you don't believe what he wrote, how will you believe what I say?"
The Bible says that after Jesus was raised from the dead, he met two people who had been his disciples walking along a road. It says:
(Luke chapter 24, NLT)
27 Then Jesus quoted passages from the writings of Moses and all the prophets, explaining what all the Scriptures said about himself.
It's unlikely that the gospel writers put words into Jesus' mouth and claimed that he said things that endorsed Moses and others as prophets of God if he hadn't said them. Three of the four gospel writers in particular were keen to highlight the caring nature of Jesus, describing miracles that they said he'd done and times when the crowds were so large that he didn't even have time to eat, and yet he kept on teaching and healing them. They describe how on one occasion, when he got into a boat with his disciples to go to a quiet place on the other side of a lake to rest and the crowds got there before him and were waiting for him, he spent more time teaching and healing them. The gospel writer Mark specifically says that he had "compassion" on them because of their problems. None of the gospels say that he showed any signs of irritation. If the gospel writers wanted to portray the caring concern of Jesus, it would have been counterproductive and seemingly out of character for them to have made up stories where he endorsed the teachings of Moses as God's teachings, and thereby implicitly endorsed what Moses said about how God had commanded the ancient Israelites to commit the slaughter of the invasion and conquest of the land now called Israel. If those bits had been put in the gospels by later writers for some reason, the Bible would have probably been too widely distributed for all the manuscripts to contain the verses, and the discrepancies would be known about today. Furthermore, there would probably be records of disputes about the matter in the early Church. I'm not aware of any.
So it seems likely that if asked, Jesus would have explained the warlike passages in the Old Testament in the way the prophets did - as a means to punish and turn the people back to a more ethical way of living, or to destroy cruel cultures.
In conclusion, the Bible says on several occasions that God's punishments on the societies it says he punished - wars, famines and other disasters - were, at least in part, designed to turn the people back to him. It can be argued that God will view things from the point of view of eternity rather than from that of the present, and so speculation can be made that the strategy may have been designed, at least partly, so people would be saved from the worse, more long-term punishment of hell, by giving up their sinful actions and turning to God, which would involve giving up behaviours that harmed others.
The Bible says some of the gruesome parts of it were also meant as examples of the severity with which God views disobedience to his commands, designed to warn people and scare or motivate them into living more ethically.
If a sadist or warmonger read the nasty Bible passages out of context, it could be dangerous, because they might view them as a precedent for evil actions they themselves wanted to carry out. In fact, this may well have been done in the past, even on a large scale. However, the Bible definitely does not give authority for anyone to use the passages to justify committing atrocities.
Don't be afraid to question the truth of what a religious authority figure tells you, or even the Bible or other holy books themselves, or certain people's interpretation of them. Nothing to do with religion or the supernatural is so well established in fact it shouldn't be questioned. To find out why caution is a good idea, visit:
Are you up to trying the challenges of the New Testament's moral guidelines, and would you like to know more of what it says about the love of Jesus? Here are some links to Bible quotes about the beautiful ideals the New Testament encourages Christians to try to live up to:
There are a lot of pages on this website with quotations from the Old Testament on them. Many of these are unfortunately rather gruesome, since the main theme of the Old Testament is warnings and stories about how it says societies were punished for mass lawless and hurtful behaviour, even to the extent of having war brought on them by God, that seem to have been designed to scare societies where crime and violence were rampant into behaving more ethically. In case there is any misunderstanding, it should be understood that this website does not endorse war as anything other than a last resort. The position of the website owner can be gleaned from the articles:
Fancy some light relief or laughter therapy? Then go to the first of our jokes pages:
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