26 June 2023 |
Dear Aunt Sevvy,
As a lifelong Adventist I thought I knew most of the Old Testament passages and stories. But recently I began reading through the Old Testament from the beginning, and it didn’t take me long to see that it contains a different picture from the selection of stories they told us in children’s Sabbath School.
Over and over again I encountered passages that make God sound like an absolutely horrible monster! Numbers 5, where a wife accused of adultery has to drink filth from the floor to see if she’s guilty. Or Numbers 31, where God says they should kill all the Midianite little boys—but go ahead and keep the little girls for your own use! Or this one, in 1 Samuel 15 where God says, “Go and attack the Amalekites! … Don’t have any pity. Kill their men, women, children, and even their babies.”
I see no morality in these things at all.
In short, reading the Bible for myself has shaken my faith in God, if God really said this stuff.
Signed, Bible Discouraged
You’re not alone. Aunty has had similar doubts. With hard questions like this, Aunty sometimes turns to friends who can explain it better than she can—in this case, Dr. Laurence Turner, an Old Testament teacher retired from Newbold College. Dr. Turner replied,
The way the Bible describes God’s actions can raise problems for readers. But these troublesome passages would be reduced if we were true to our Adventist heritage: we Adventists don’t claim, as many fundamentalists do, that God dictated the Bible, but rather that its human authors also had input. The Bible combines the human and divine.
Yet we often read the Bible as if God did dictate it and that he is presented consistently throughout. That is not so. For example, the Old Testament begins in Genesis with God center stage: he speaks, acts, judges, saves, calls, and reacts in visible and audible ways. But if we follow the historical timeline through to its end, to the books of Ezra and Nehemiah, the picture of God is different. There, people speak about God and what he does, but God himself never speaks, acts, judges, saves, calls, or reacts. This movement from the Genesis picture of an active omnipresent God to the understated deity in Ezra and Nehemiah develops gradually as the Old Testament proceeds.
This is simply one example of a general trend in the Bible: neither God nor human understanding of God remains static. And along the way, we encounter depictions of God that the Bible, and we, have left behind. God and how humans understand him are dynamic. If that were not so, we wouldn’t have the New Testament.
Of course, the New Testament also has problem passages—for the same reason the Old Testament does: because it was written by human beings. For example, if we adopt an inflexible divine dictation model for the New Testament, we could easily consider slavery to be God’s will.
Jesus said, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9). Therefore, for Christians, Christ is the living Word, the lens through whom we read the written Word, and the ultimate revelation of what God is truly like.
Thank you, Dr. Turner!
You can write to Aunt Sevvy at DearAuntSevvy@gmail.com. Please keep questions or comments short. What you send us at this address won’t necessarily be, but could be, published—without identifying the writer. Aunt Sevvy writes her own column, and her opinions are not necessarily those of Adventist Today’s editors.