Can God be Good and Promote “Bad” Things?
By: Jonathan Harris
Have you ever heard this before? “The God of the Old Testament was a tyrant!” or, “God didn’t demonstrate love until the coming of Christ.” Such phrases are common to hear especially among atheists and agnostics who use such statements as justifications for their own beliefs. If God is good, why did he require the death penalty for blasphemy, sexual deviance (homosexuality is the first mentioned usually), and cursing parents (Lev. 20 and 24)? In the same token, God seemed to put his stamp of approval on slavery (Lev. 27). After stating these facts, the skeptic is quick to argue that such a God should be resisted instead of served. In essence, they start evangelizing for their cause, encouraging Christians to join their moralistic ranks. While briefly looking at such passages it can be rather disturbing, especially when they are isolated from their historical and grammatical contexts. So how should a Christian deal with these passages, especially when evangelizing?
About a year ago I had verses from Leviticus thrown at me twice in the course of evangelizing, as if the person I was witnessing to would come to Christ if only it weren’t for such “blatant” contradictions in God’s character. My reaction was to try to answer as best I could in a brief manner the arguments being espoused, but to quickly get back to the main points of the Gospel so as to avoid a complete rabbit trail. One individual I talked to went online to the “Skeptic’s Bible” and showed me Leviticus 20:9 which states in KJV:
“And whosoever lieth carnally with a woman, that is a bondmaid, betrothed to an husband, and not at all redeemed, nor freedom given her; she shall be scourged; they shall not be put to death, because she was not free.”
Seeming completely unjustifiable that God would first of all condone slavery, and secondly punish a slave girl because she was “raped” (as he put it) by an Israelite, I found myself in one of those “gotcha” moments. Fortunately, he showed me the verse, and when he did I was able to immediately look it up in other translations, none of which stated that the slave-girl was punished. For instance, the ESV states:
“If a man lies sexually with a woman who is a slave, assigned to another man and not yet ransomed or given her freedom, a distinction shall be made. They shall not be put to death, because she was not free.”
The passage goes on to state how the man is to make recompense. So where did the “They” come from in the second version? Well, plain and simply, the KJV in some places (rarely) will call upon mistranslated Gk. texts, and add additions made since the time of the original writing. This doesn’t mean the Bible has contradictions, it just means that the Bible is in Greek and it takes some work sometimes to go back to the original manuscripts to establish authorial intent. Since every single translation other than the KJV, agreed with the ESV’s approach, I simply explained that he wasn’t using the best translation. After this the young man was kind enough to allow me the privilege of sharing the Gospel with him. Below I have compiled an issue by issue answer key to those who will attempt to sidetrack a witnessing encounter because of an issue in Leviticus. Be aware that some of this material will have to be quickly condensed when you’re put on the spot, but it is necessary to as briefly as I can, explain as much as I can, in order for their to be complete understanding so that we can fulfill the mandate of 1st Pet. 3:15.
This one’s a skeptic’s favorite topic to throw out there, especially in my experience, however there are so many misconceptions regarding the concept of slavery it can be hard to know where to begin. The atheist will say, “Christ lived among a nation of slaves, and never spoke against the practice,” or, “Paul commands Philemon to go back to his master.” Both statements are true, and it would be highly unwise for us as believers to try to somehow state that slavery is sinful or unbiblical. Instead, we should focus on what God’s intentions regarding slavery were, and how they weren’t remotely met in what we think of as American slavery. Let’s examine the misconceptions skeptics have when it comes to the practice of slavery. Firstly, there’s the mis-characterization in the skeptics mind of what American slavery was like. Being a grandson of the Southland it can be tempting for me to start giving a history lecture when someone starts talking about how great Lincoln was, and how evil the South was for wanting to own slaves because they believed in the Bible. If you’re at all like me, I would simply suggest ignoring this point altogether, especially on a witnessing encounter. It’s not immediately important and doesn’t pertain to the Gospel, at least directly. The second misconception a skeptic holds usually is regarding slavery in the ancient world and its historical context. I would highly suggest making this misconception the one on which to make your stand. You can do so by:
- Explaining that racism and slavery are two entirely different concepts. Most people immediately think about a Southern white male incessantly beating a poor helpless African American to near death whenever the word slavery is mentioned. Biblical slavery however, is not based on race, it is based on economic standing (see Ex. 21:2-6; Deut. 15:12-18). Hebrews would sell themselves into slavery for the purpose of obtaining livelihood (our equivalent of declaring bankruptcy). Also, criminals would become slaves as a way to pay for their crimes (our equivalent of community service). Therefore, it was voluntary.
- Stressing that “kidnaping” was not an option. Contrary to what New England’s “middle passage”slave ship captains did (or for that matter the tribes in Africa who were the actual ones to capture opposing tribes and sell them for rum on the coast), the Israelites were never to go out and capture slaves. In fact in Exodus 21:16, the death penalty was instituted for those who engaged in such practices.
- Emphasizing the limits placed on slavery. Most people think that slaves were routinely beaten to death, overworked, and treated as the scum of the earth. However, this was not the case in ancient Israel. Hebrew slaves were freed after six years (Ex. 21:2), All slaves were freed on the year of Jubilee ( Free slaves were released with a handsome payment (Deut. 15:12-15), slaves were given responsibilities such as having families (Ex. 21:3-4), runaway slaves from other cultures curious about Israel’s God were not to be returned (Deuteronomy 23:15-16), excessive punishment was forbidden (Ex. 21:26-27; Lev. 24:17), foreign slaves could become proselytes (Lev. 22:10-11), slaves could share inheritances (Prov. 17:2), slaves were to rest on the Sabbath, and female slaves were to be protected (Exodus 21:4-11).
You can conclude by saying that, “Slavery was part of an economic system just like socialism, communism, or capitalism. There are bad aspects to every economic system because people are sinful and refuse to do things the way God has told them to. Have you been disobedient to God?”
Another way to wrap up a discussion on slavery is to state, “I’m a slave of Christ, the Bible says you’re a slave to sin. The question is which master do you want?”
Either way, It’s important to get back on track, and sidestep such smokescreens, because that’s all they are, excuses.
Corporal Punishment for Backtalk?
I remember when the Dutchess Christian Fellowship held its viewing of Ben Stein’s “Expelled,” a skeptic afterward brought up Leviticus 20:9 which states:
“If there is anyone who curses his father or his mother, he shall surely be put to death; he has cursed his father or his mother, his bloodguiltiness is upon him.”
He quickly pointed out that God could not be moral if He called for such harsh treatment (I suppose he had never heard of damnation in hell for all sin?). Of course, this is a ludicrous statement, because without God there is no moral transcendent standard by which to judge anything. If morality is based in man or culture, than Adolph Hitler was a pretty good guy (a point Ben Stein made in his documentary). Either way such a passage sounds harsh to the ear of any modern American. I believe there are three points by which we can dismantle such confusion however, and get back on track.
- “Curses” is an action. What’s being described here is not something said in a moment of indiscretion or, “I curse you mom,” in a nonchalant way. It’s carries more than that. The Darby and YLT translations translate the Hebrew word to be “revileth.” The connotation is acting in a manner which opposes honoring father and mother (the 5th commandment). One commentator stated that physical abuse was the issue being raised here. Either way, this is more than repeating words, it is a heartfelt action.
- Children haven’t always been this way. Looking around our nation, it would be easy to say, “Every child would be dead if we followed this rule.” However, in ancient Israel, where there was more respect and discipline, children would have been aware of such a command and well behaved. The things children do today (screaming at the top of their lungs in Stop and Shop) wouldn’t have even happened fifty years ago let alone under a Theocracy.
- God’s standards are higher than ours. If something seems unfair to us, but fair to God, guess who’s standard wins? That’s right, Gods. He hates sin so much he will send us all to hell for any one of them if we do not repent and receive His Son’s precious gift. Have you received it?
Leviticus 20:13 states: “If there is a man who lies with a male as those who lie with a woman, both of them have committed a detestable act; they shall surely be put to death. Their bloodguiltiness is upon them.”
Homosexuals love to cherry pick this verse and compare it to the Levitical prohibitions against mixed fabrics and non kosher foods. They’ll say, “Hey isn’t this in the same book that the laws against other ridiculous things are found?” This would be a great time to explain the difference between ethical, civil, and ceremonial laws. To the Christian, God’s moral (ethical) laws are to be followed, namely because they reveal God’s standard of righteousness, and we desire to please Him. They are repeated in the New Testament (yes, even prohibitions against homosexuality: see 1 Cor 6:9), and abundantly clear throughout the old. Because of the New Covenant we don’t have to obey civil and ceremonial laws since we are no longer under them. We no longer live under a Theocracy as the ancient Israelites did. Christ fulfilled the sacrificial system, and no longer reigns over Israel in the same manner that He use to in a Theocracy (though He will again someday). Today we are to remain separate from the world by the “renewing of our mind” (Rom. 12), not by wearing un-mixed fabrics. Ask the homosexual, has your mind been renewed? And get back on track with sharing the Gospel.
I hope this is useful for those who may have run into problems such as these while sharing their faith, or being attacked for being a Christian. It is my prayer that such issues will not deter you from your primary duty which is the Gospel of Jesus Christ. I realize there are a couple other issues Skeptics like to bring up from the Old Testament, namely the conquering of the Canaanites in Numbers, and Darwinian Evolution in Genesis, and I will try to deal with those as well in another post. For now, this will have to suffice as a defense of Leviticus. God Bless.