Is the Bible a celebration of cruelty?
by Kon Michailidis
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The Bible is bursting with celebrations of cruelty; it is therefore disqualified as a book of morality
This is such a wide-sweeping objection. If it is a Jewish objection, perhaps it comes from a Jewish atheist who refuses to have anything to do with a God whom he sees as cruel and unjust. It may be like the objection I have heard from the anti-theist Professor Dawkins, railing against the cruelty of God in the Old Testament. Perhaps it comes from a vegan, for whom even the wilful breaking of an egg for breakfast, let alone the threats of a God to destroy the earth, counts as a ‘celebration of cruelty’. Perhaps it was a New Ager who sees God as a peace-loving, gentle, all-tolerating master guru sitting crossed-legged at the end of a rainbow, dispensing some experiential flash of enlightenment that is of higher validity than what the Bible or any book can teach; or perhaps it comes form a hard headed anti-supernaturalist humanist, who believes only in a natural morality that is innate in everyone, subject to reason, and not requiring an external set of moral rules to dictate to them; certainly not from a book he considers to be compromised by the constant shedding of blood, especially by imperialist Zionists. I could have a lot of fun guessing further. The objection could be rephrased, “If love is the highest law, then the Bible is not where we will find how to live by that law; and if God is a God of love, then the Bible is not His book”. It is a variant on the general problem of evil. It is a very broad objection.
I concede that the Bible is apparently bursting with accounts of cruelty or violence. But let us not make cruelty or violence into an absolute evil. We must see things in context. Cruelty, or what is seen as cruelty, may at times be a necessary part of punishment, or justice, and even righteousness.
It is now possible to execute mass murderers quickly and painlessly, but it was not always so. But I think most agree that it is just to punish them.
But I disagree that cruelty in itself is ever celebrated or condoned in the Bible: either by God, or by those that are seen as righteous. In fact, unjust cruelty is consistently condemned by God in the Bible. It would be wrong to see a note of exaltation of ‘cruelty’, in the song of exaltation by Miriam after crossing the Red Sea for example, where she sings:
Exo 15:21 "Sing to the LORD, for he has triumphed gloriously; the horse and his rider he has thrown into the sea."
It is not cruelty itself but the victory of the righteousness and faithfulness of God that is exalted.
I would like to divide the ‘cruelty’ or violence in the Bible in five categories.
1. There is the evil that sinful man commits, in rebellion against God. For example, the sacrifice of children to idols, like Moloch, or the cruelty of brother to brother, such as Cain to Abel.
2. There is also the evil that is inspired by Satan. Man is still responsible, and it may at times be difficult to distinguish this from the first category. But both those categories are never condoned in the Bible. In fact God condemns and judges those acts righteously and harshly.
3. The third category is more difficult: This is the cruelty of man, especially a righteous man, to others, in the Name of God, by either the command or with the approval or blessing of God. For example: the wars of conquest by Israel in Canaan; the numerous acts of Judges, some so gruesome that a modern computer gamester might blush. Or Levites slaying their brothers with swords for their idolatry. These all were done with the approval of God. But were these excessively cruel? We must not take these acts in isolation from their context. Many of these are done in war, or in self-preservation against persecution and in self-defence, against cruel enemies. Some, such as the incident of the Levites after the golden calf incident were done within the family of God in answer to specific sin or sins to maintain holiness and God’s discipline within the camp..
4. Then there are the acts of God Himself. There is the flood to judge the earth. There are the judgments of the plagues against Egypt. These were very harsh. A few mosquitoes at a barbecue get to me, let alone living with lice in every part and moment of my life, for days or months.
Then there are the judgments of God in Revelation, when God will cast many into the lake of fire. Not only Satan and the false prophet and the beast, but also all those whose name is not written in the book of life. There they will be tormented day and night forever! (Rev 20:14-15)
But many of these ‘cruel’ judgments were done after many warnings and patience by God. For example, in the case of Pharaoh, the first plague came after an explicit warning. We can say that each cruel plague served as a warning to him of the next one to come, and it also came with verbal warnings through Moses. But scripture says Pharaoh still hardened his heart against God, even though he knew what God would do.
God is right to judge when man acts against his own conscience or God’s word and chooses evil. Man must face the consequences. Can we have a morality that ignores man’s free will and responsibility? It would be weak and sub-human. If there are no consequences for actions, even ‘cruel’ ones, then responsibility is an empty concept.
The God of the Bible is holy, and righteous and just, as well as loving and merciful. And as Sovereign Lord, He has the right to judge.
5. But my last category, the fifth, is the most important and the strangest. It is where we might say that the divine love of God and His ‘cruelty’ are strangely mixed. I believe it is the only place where God’s ‘cruelty’ was not just; and it was one of the cruellest deeds. If we are to talk of celebration, it was celebrated, but not by God. It was by evil men and devils that were the instruments of its perpetration. Yet it was performed by God Himself. And it was performed on His own Son; who was righteous and completely without sin. In a real sense, it was totally unjust.
Isa 53:4-5 Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. (5) But he was wounded for our transgressions (by God); he was crushed for our iniquities (by God); upon him was the chastisement (by God) that brought us peace (by and with God), and with his stripes we are healed. ESV My additions in brackets.
And here we find a great paradox; for here we find not a celebration of cruelty, but of the greatest revelation of the divine love of God to man and creation. Its purpose and result was not cruelty or retribution, but the means, and the only possible means, by which a Just God chose to save the world from ultimate cruelty and judgment that awaited it because of its sins. By this ‘act of cruelty’ God showed that He is holy and righteous and just, does not tolerate sin, but also altogether merciful and loving, even to those who deserve it least. That self-sacrificial, exemplary, substitutionary act becomes the standard in the Bible of a morality that is far beyond what the world, or natural man, or other religions, or their books can furnish.
There are many forms of cruelty in the Bible. But where it is by God, or his righteous agents, it ultimately has a redemptive quality, except in the final judgment.
The Bible is not primarily a book of morality, although it contains a code of conduct for all to live by. The Bible is also a book of History, Prophecy, Wisdom and Revelation, revealing the Salvation History of a Sovereign, Just, Righteous, Loving and Merciful God. It is a Drama of Redemption played out in a world that is created, fallen and in rebellion against God. Man’s sin has created a cruel world, a fact we can all attest to; but the story of the Bible, far from being a celebration of that cruelty, describes how that world is saved and brought to final redemption through the incredible mercy of God who reveals Himself in His Son Messiah Jesus.
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