Old Testament

The Problem of Genocide in the Old Testament

Reprinted with permission from Baptist Bulletin Mar/Apr 2013. All rights reserved.

Troubling headlines

Recent incidents of genocide (the systematic killing of ethnic or religious groups) and ethnic cleansing (the forced deportation of ethnic or religious groups):

  • 1991 450,000 Palestinians expelled by Kuwait in retaliation for the PLO’s support of Saddam Hussein
  • 1993 170,000 Croatians and non-Serbs murdered or deported by Serbian rebels led by Slobodan Miloševic
  • 1999 800,000 Albanians flee their homes during the Kosovo War
  • 1994 As many as 1,000,000 Tutsi killed by Hutus in the Rwandan genocide
  • 2000 200,000 East Timorese killed or expelled from Indonesia after voting for independence in a 1999 referendum
  • 2003 450,000 from various black ethnic groups killed and another 2 million expelled from the Darfur region of Sudan
  • 2008 200,000 Karen and 120,000 other refugees displaced from their Burma (Myanmar) homes, fleeing to Thailand
  • 2012 400,000 people displaced in dispute between Bodos and Bengali-speaking Muslims of Assam, India

Problem: How should a believer respond to accusations about genocide in the Old Testament? Does the Bible encourage genocide for religious purposes?

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Balaam, The Improbable Prophet (Part 1)

Anyone who has traveled with small children will remember the question that inevitably arises from at least one of them during a trip, “Are we almost there?” Sometimes the query is, “How much longer before we get there?” These and similar inquiries often are voiced by eager young ones only fifteen minutes into an extended trip!

Can you imagine how many times these questions were heard from little children during the Israelites’ forty-year journey to the Promised Land? Not only the children who came out of Egypt, but also their children must have asked those questions hundreds of times. The answer they most often probably received was, “We don’t know when but we do know that God will lead us to our land someday.”

When the Israelites finally reached the plains of Moab, however, that answer must have changed to “Soon we will be there, children.” The plains of Moab were “beyond the Jordan at Jericho” (Num. 22:1). The people could look across the narrow river in its gorge and see the Promised Land. It had been a long and tedious journey, and they now were almost home. They had endured dozens of trials and conflicts during their wilderness experience, but as they were camped on those plains, they would experience the most severe attack of all. The ironic thing about this trial, however, is that none of the Israelites—not even Moses—knew anything about it when it was taking place!

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Were the Jews the Only Ancient Monotheists?


The typical party line about religion is that religion began as animism, the worship of spirits and perhaps ancestors, and was polytheistic (many gods) or pantheistic (everything is God). Eventually mankind became enlightened and some people began to realize there is only one God.

Some would argue that now mankind is becoming even more enlightened by recognizing that belief in any god is a myth, while others are returning to pagan beliefs and embracing the idea of many gods. Still others prefer to view God as a force, or the sum-total of all creation.

The biblical perspective is that mankind originally understood that there was one God. From early on, men began to call upon the name of Yahweh, as noted in Genesis 4:26 (Exodus 6:3 is best understood as a rhetorical question, “and by my Name ‘Yahweh’ did they not know me?”).

Fast forward to the Flood. All mankind, except for Noah’s family, had been annihilated. In Genesis 9:1-17, God makes a covenant (of which the rainbow is a sign) that He will not destroy the entire world with a flood again. He institutes government and capital punishment. Noah worships the one God without an image and recognizes Him as ruler of heaven and earth.

This original monotheistic belief is the original faith of the Flood survivors. Their descendants, however, resented God’s constraints. Instead of spreading out and filling the earth, they huddled together and created a plan to defy the God of Heaven who could destroy with a flood. They began construction on the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11). The tower was to reach to the sky and was sealed with pitch (tar). In my opinion, the purpose of the tower was a watertight container to which the people could flee in the event that God sent another flood.

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I Carried You

“you saw how the LORD your God carried you, as a man carries his son, in all the way that you went until you came to this place.” (Deut. 1:31)

Richard Dawkins, the most prominent apologist of atheism in the world today has said,

The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.

Dawkins isn’t the first to say such things about God, just the most adamant. He is above all a propagandist, with a deep-seated antipathy to the Christian faith. For a Christian—even the most brilliant one—to reason with Dawkins on these points would be like two generals trying to parley before a battle, when one of them has dedicated his life to destroying the other.

As a former atheist recently said to me, “I read Dawkins’s God Delusion, and concluded that if arguments so weak, so circular, given by a man who obviously has a serious problem with God—if this is the best atheism has to offer, then God must really exist.” She later became a Christian. She admits though, that she still has her problems with the Old Testament. So do many Christians. At times they can be nearly as critical of God as Dawkins is.

After all, isn’t the God of the Old Testament the same one Who:

  • Destroyed the earth with a flood?
  • Called for the death of the first born of Egypt?
  • Called for the extermination of some of His own people?
  • Called for the extermination of all the Canaanites?
  • Let David off scot-free after he planned the death of a man then took the man’s wife into his harem?
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Shavout: The Feast of Pentecost (or Weeks)

A Jewish man was confronting a Christian man: “You know, you people borrowed the Ten Commandments from us.”

“Well,” responded the Christian, “we may have borrowed them from you, but you cannot say we kept them!”

Much of Christianity is borrowed from Judaism because Christianity is a form of Judaism. I am among a small minority who would define our faith as “Trans-cultural Messianic Judaism.” That perspective leads me to look differently at Pentecost.

Some churches observe Pentecost Sunday as a celebration of the Holy Spirit’s “coming” in a mighty rushing wind. We are certainly right to appreciate the Spirit’s power and work in our lives, but I am not sure an annual recognition is the best way to go about it. Walking in the Spirit (Gal. 5:25)—in contrast to grieving Him (Eph. 4:3)—is one of the best ways to honor His presence. Still, we cannot help associating the Spirit with Pentecost. Since Pentecost predates Acts 2, we can better understand Acts 2 by first looking back further.

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Shall We Cast Lots? Identifying "Biblical Patterns"

(First published at SI, June 6, 2006)

Pitfalls in the Pursuit of Biblical Patterns

In Scripture, casting lots is routine. Some might even say it’s the normal way to decide a difficult question. The OT 1 contains 24 references to “cast lots,” “casting lots,” and “the lot fell.” Two of these are in Proverbs where lot-casting is highly recommended.

The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the Lord (Prov. 16:33).

Casting lots causes contentions to cease, and keeps the mighty apart (Prov. 18:18).

In addition, the Urim and Thummim (probably a form of lot-casting) have a prominent place in Mosaic Law. All in all, the OT is very pro-lot.

The NT seems to be in favor of the practice as well. Casting lots is mentioned there eight times, and one of them refers to the selection of an apostle to replace Judas (Acts 1:26). So if we have frequent favorable references to lot-casting across both Old and New Testaments, do we have a “biblical pattern”? Should we be casting lots in our churches rather than voting? After all, the Bible contains no direct command to vote on anything (some might argue that voting is the brainchild of humanistic philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau and his ilk).

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