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Book(let) Review – The Morality of God in the Old Testament (G. K. Beale)

Morality of God in OTOne of most pervasive and difficult questions posed in relation to the Christian faith by non-Christians and Christians alike pertains to how God can be good in light of some of the things He did and commanded people to do in the Old Testament. Noteworthy examples that appear again and again include God’s command to Israel to kill the Canaanites, every man, woman, and child, and God’s striking Uzzah dead for touching the Ark of the Covenant. Christians throughout the ages have wrestled with this issue, and the second century heresy of Marcionism (rejected the Hebrew Bible and the God of Israel; believed that the wrathful God of the Old Testament and the loving Christ of the New Testament were different, separate gods) shows the worst that can result from an incorrect reconciliation of the apparent differences between how God operated in the Old Testament versus the New.

The “Christian Answers to Hard Questions” series of booklets from Westminster Seminary Press and P&R Publishing was “written to equip and strengthen laypeople in their defense of the faith” and “challenges contemporary opposition to Christianity with concise, practical answers” (publisher description). Noted New Testament scholar and biblical theologian G. K. Beale contributed this 48 page booklet to tackle the important issue of how God can be morally good if He commanded apparently evil acts. Although there are several different kinds of problems pertaining to God’s morality in the Old Testament, in this booklet Beale deals primarily with the killing of the Canaanites and secondarily with the imprecations (cursings) in the Psalms since these post the greatest challenges to the morality of God. Because some of the principles behind these two major issues also underlie an approach to some of the other problems related to the morality of God in the Old Testament, these two issues can serve as examples of how to approach other problems of this type.

Beale begins by summarizing two popular solutions proposed by those who want to uphold the moral goodness of God despite His command to annihilate the Canaanites, and concludes that they are unsatisfactory. The first is that wartime ethic is legitimately different from peacetime ethic; the second proposed solution states that the divine command to kill all women and children is figurative and refers only to wiping out the Canaanite armies

Then Beale suggests a fivefold approach, which he spends most of the rest of the booklet developing:

First, how does the killing of the Canaanites demonstrate God’s justice and righteousness? Second, how could Israel’s unique commission as a “kingdom of priests” (Exodus 19:16) shed light on the extermination of the Canaanites? Third, how does God’s sovereignty over all things help us to better understand that he can be considered blameless in all that he does, despite the problems just mentioned above? Fourth, how does the idea of God’s judgement of unbelieving humanity at the end of time shed light on this problem? Finally, how does the law of loving one’s neighbor now and at the end of time help us to better apprehend the issue about the Canaanites and the psalmist’s cursing of his enemies? (p. 8, emphasis original).

Regarding the first point, Beale shows that the Canaanites had been entrenched in wickedness and idolatry for so long that God was finally going to judge their sin. He would use Israel as his instrument in punishing the Canaanites for their sin, and the former would replace the latter in the land in preparation for the ultimate coming of the Messiah. The annihilation of the Canaanites was part of a unique redemptive-historical circumstance and not to be repeated. This view makes sense theologically but leaves some questions unanswered, most notably, why God commanded the children, women, and elderly to be killed.

In the second point, Beale expounds upon the sanctuary motif – the garden of Eden was a sanctuary, and Adam was commissioned to keep out uncleanliness and expand the garden-sanctuary until it filled the ends of the earth. Adam failed, as did Noah. Israel was then given the command to enter the Promised land and make it into a garden temple by completely cleansing it from the uncleanliness of the Canaanites. They were to wipe out every aspect of impurity; again, this was a unique and unrepeatable commission for a specific part of redemptive history.

Pertaining to the third point, Beale highlights the self-sufficiency of God, which necessitates His absolute sovereignty over His creation. Then he touches upon on God’s glorifying of Himself and His desire for all to glorify Him and answers the objection of God being selfish and egomaniacal. Finally, Beale ties these concepts together and states that there is no judge above God to declare that He has done something wrong. Whatever He does is right and just.

Concerning the fourth point, Beale writes that “the command to destroy the Canaanites was an anticipation of this latter-day judgment. When such anticipations of the last judgment occur, ordinary ethical rules of the preconsummation world are suspended and the ethical principles of the last judgment penetrate back into history (p. 17). Beale demonstrates that this same principle applies to the imprecatory Psalms. Subsequently, Beale highlights several Old Testament passages and shows how their use in the New Testament demonstrates that those OT passages foreshadow eschatological judgment. Finally, Beale mentions that although the Canaanite episode is a negative foreshadowing of end-time realities, there were often positive foreshadowings as well. This section concludes with several of the most prominent examples.

The final point is comparable to and a further elaboration of the penultimate one. At the end of time, God will no longer bestow common grace blessings upon the unbelieving, but will judge them. Likewise, believers will no longer be obliged to love their unbelieving neighbor, but will identify with God’s attitude of judgment.

It is in light of the final judgment, when neighbor love ceases, that the psalmist’s cursings and expressions of hate toward his enemy are to be understood. Such an attitude is a suspension of the law to love one’s enemy in this world because it is the end-time inbreaking into the present of the abrogation of loving even one’s enemy. In such expressions, the psalmist’s relationship to his own enemies becomes an anticipation of Christ and his people’s attitude toward all of God’s enemies at the time of the final judgment (pp. 29-30).

The next section responds to a potential objection to the idea that ethical laws were suspended during typological episodes in the Old Testament. The booklet concludes an excursus addressing a popular solution mentioned at the beginning – that the divine command to kill all the Canaanite women and children was not meant to be taken literally.

This little booklet is a great introduction to the issue of how God can be morally good when He commanded apparent evils. Of course there are questions unanswered and difficulties unaddressed (I do wish this were a full-fledged book rather than just a booklet!); however, this booklet provides satisfactory introductory answers and a good springboard for further reflection and inquiry. The last two points and the idea of temporary suspension of ethics in eschatological foreshadowing was new to me, and I found it very helpful in relation to issues related to the morality of God in the Old Testament. This booklet is written at a popular/lay level, and I highly recommend it to all Christians seeking to reconcile the goodness of God with difficult Old Testament actions and commands.

This booklet retails at $4.99 and is currently on sale at Westminster Books for $4.00. They are offering the full set of six booklets for $12, which is a phenomenal deal! Amazon currently has it for $4.49.

*I received a free review copy from P&R Publishing. I was not obligated to provide a positive review, and the views expressed here are solely my own.

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