Updated: Feb 24
If you set yourself the challenge of reading the entire Bible this year, from Genesis to Revelation, I can pretty much guarantee that by now, you've hit a story you don't like. There are a lot of hard stories in the Bible. We read about the things God's people did and we're shocked. We read the laws of Moses and we're left confused or angry. Why did God make laws like that? Why did He allow, or even command, His chosen people to act like that?
I recently dug into this a little on my post Slavery and Early Christianity, but I felt I wanted to go deeper here.
Modern believers struggle with accusations that the God they follow is harsh, homophobic, or oppressive. Some believe that the scriptures contrary to our worldview should be removed, citing that those parts can't be true. “Did God really say that?” is a question that echoes from the garden of Eden until today.
I want to encourage you: Don't give up on the journey when you get to the hard parts! The world is full of critics trying to make us ashamed of the Bible. The only way we can decide what to believe about the Bible is to read it for ourselves.
Don't bring those snarky critics along on your first read of the Bible
Think back to the last time you confronted someone you knew was wrong. Instead of sitting down to listen to what happened and why, you probably began by shutting down the conversation with your attitude, body language, or words. When we are on the offensive or defensive, we're not listening. If we're not listening, we can't understand. Hear the Bible out first, and be open to the answers.
The evolution of moral standards in the Bible
I want to encourage you to understand that you're looking at a different time in our spiritual history.
If you've studied the Bible before, you've probably been told to read the Bible within context. I've said the same thing. You should attempt to learn when a book was written, who wrote it, and a little something about the intended audience. Knowing these things can help us understand what's going on in scripture, and to find the heart of a message that might feel outdated to us.
I believe we also need to consider the worldview of that historical time and geographical place. What they valued, how they saw their place in the world, their perspective on life and the afterlife—all of this and more were combined to create a worldview that affected every aspect of their culture, including their moral compass. The Bible spans thousands of years of history. It is not far-fetched to say that their worldview went through some dramatic changes.
We have our own worldview, our philosophy on life. Who knows what the future moral battles will be? Will they be breaking new ground or turning over old ethical issues yet again?
The point is not that our modern-day moral standards and battles are unnecessary, nor am I saying that we have outgrown the Bible's teachings. Any moral dilemmas Christians encounter today should be navigated by the teachings of Jesus.
What I am saying is that we can't hold up our current moral achievements as the standard the Bible's teachings on morality should match. I don't even think we want to. We compare ourselves to civilizations in the past, and we see ourselves as superior in some ways, perhaps many ways, yet we are deficient in others. Society has not been on a steady upward climb to moral utopia, and it doesn't take a walk around the world or through the library to know it.
So before we start trumpeting that God should have done things differently in the Old Testament, that God should have acted in a way that lines up with our modern perspective, we need to consider how pure, how true, are our not only our actions, but our views. Are we really so bold as to hold up our worldview as the measuring stick to the one who not only created us, but who created the whole concept of morality?
Did God's expectations change throughout Bible history?
We remember the verse that God does not change. (Hebrews 13:8, James 1:17) Does that mean that His expectations of our moral culture should not change either? What is wrong for us today should have been wrong for the men and women in the Bible, shouldn't it? There should be one standard for all people across all time, right?
But what is that standard? Anything less than perfection is not worth aiming for. If you think that's too demanding, at what point in human history should we lock-in human conduct as ideal? Searching the past, where do find a truly moral society? Even the early church, led by the apostles, faced all kinds of problems.
Just because we see ourselves currently winning in one moral arena, we can't deny our pitiful failures in the others. We have recently made huge strides in human rights, but we are killing our planet, ourselves, and enslaving countless innocents with rampant consumerism in a way never witnessed in all of human history. Are we really ready to hold our moral code up as a standard? "Indeed there is not a righteous man on earth who continuously does good and never sins." - Ecclesiastes 7:20.
When we use our worldview to interrogate and judge the morality of the Old Testament, we need to consider that we might be parachuting in issues that the biblical society had never considered. We assume they value the same ideals we do, but that isn't always the case. Our current moral fixations might seem confusing or even wrong to them, like theirs do to us. They had their own world, their own problems, and their own issues to handle.
God knew them. He knew their heart. He knew what they could handle. We must not allow our disdainful view of ancient practices to make us feel better about our own feeble attempts at morality.
Why didn't God just start with better laws?
This is a tough question and one I'm still sitting with. Some claim that if God had just hammered out a decent social code, we could have saved a millennium of suffering by those who have twisted the Bible's teachings to serve their oppressive agendas.
But maybe the ancient world wasn't ready for a better code. Maybe they had to grow a bit first. They were new to this way of living. We ourselves are often not ready for a moral transformation. We all have our daily struggles, and we know what it is to backslide into sin. We wag a finger at the ancient Hebrews and say, “They should have been more like us.” Meanwhile, Jesus is surely shaking his head at us and saying, “You should be more like me!”
The Bible's evolving moral journey from Old Testament to New Testament is displayed dramatically in Jesus. If you want better laws, look at him. Though he might ask more of you than you're prepared to offer.
Jesus clearly states that he didn't come to abolish the law or the prophets, but to fulfill them. He raised the bar. He made it harder. He took the laws "you have heard that it was said . . ." and took them to another, more challenging level "but I say to you. . ." (Matthew 5:17 and following.) Surface obedience isn't good enough, according to Jesus. He requires a transformation from the inside out.
While we struggle through pages and pages of rules around sacrifices, we need to remember that they might seem archaic to us, but God instituted them for a reason. The ancient sacrificial system was a shadow of good things to come. It was set up to be fulfilled in the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. (Hebrews 10:1-14)
If God had let humanity skip the hard chapters and go straight to Jesus, would we have even understood what Jesus did on the cross? Would we have disdained the priceless gift, not knowing how much it was worth, sending humanity on a collision course with oblivion?
Did humanity need to muck about in the moral mud to truly understand the value of kindness and justice? Do modern Christians need those stories of pain, suffering, sin, judgment, and hope to stand on a firm foundation today? I say yes.
Have we been on a journey that does not end in our moral superiority, but in the acknowledgment that no matter how hard we try, we can't do it all? I would say a resounding yes! This is the point. We can't be perfectly good people, even with all the rules and all the effort. The Bible shows that it is often at this point, that point of failure and tears, that we are finally willing to let God do it for us. That is the point where we are willing to step into salvation.
But what about the stories where God seems too harsh?
Within the first chapters of Genesis, God has had enough of humanity's corruption and wipes them out with a flood. When God is leading the children of Israel through the wilderness, God pronounces judgment on His rebellious people in terrifying and deadly ways. When Joshua begins to take the promised land by conquest, he is ordered to kill everything: men, women, infants, and animals. If we make it through the other passages unscathed, we naturally recoil from passages that speak of God's people slaughtering babies.
There are lots of valid reasons offered for why God would act like that. Perhaps the ancient Canaanite society was a cancer on the world. The narrative shows clearly that they were warned and given plenty of time to repent. They could have changed and saved themselves and their children, but they refused.
But one of the simplest and the hardest explanation for these passages is that what we consider a crime among men, might not be a crime for the one who made mankind. We can't tether a being so far above us in intellect and holiness with our own standards—standards we can't even keep.
As you read my explanation above, you might still feel unsatisfied. Uncomfortable. That's okay. We don't need to have it all figured out right now.
Why is this detail about the death of children included in the Bible? A PR agent would have edited that out. But it is there, so what do we do with it? Learning that the wages of sin is suffering and death is an important warning. Understanding that God will not let evil nations rule forever can be a source of hope to the oppressed who suffer under an oppressive power. There is more to this lesson than bloodshed, but that is where we get stuck.
So what do we do when we get can't seem to move past a hard part of the Bible?
Remember to read without a modern critic standing over your shoulder. What is the story saying? What is the lesson it's trying to teach—even if you don't like it or agree?
Is this story about something God did, or commanded someone to do, or is this a story of something terrible a person did without God's blessing? (This clarification really helps with some stories.)
Pray for help. The Holy Spirit is there to guide us. The answers might not come easily, but you might be surprised what you learn.
Think big picture. The coming of Jesus, his teachings, his life, his death, and resurrection have fulfilled the Old Testament and changed the trajectory of humanity forever.
Ask for help. You can consult trusted commentaries or ask a Christian mentor or friend.
Be okay with not the uncomfortable position of not knowing the answer. It might come later, in another book of the Bible, or years down the road as you discover more about God.
One truth you have to come back to at the end is that God is a loving God. Jesus showed us God's heart through his actions, (John 14:9) and Jesus is not scary to those who seek him.
Even when God's actions seem severe in the Old Testament, there is a plan. We can't take a big enough step back to see God's whole plan right now, we've just been given tantalizing hints at the future. We can't even imagine how great and how good God's plan for our future is, and I'm so excited to share it with all who believe!