Christians have attempted a range of explanations for God’s immoral acts* in the Old Testament. One that seems to come up quite often is that God needed to adapt his modus operandi to fit the prevailing cultural mindset of his people. Along these lines, I’ve heard recently that God was essentially conducting a developmental program: slowly bringing his barbaric people to a new and enlightened moral state.
Such arguments sound reasonable on the surface, but become less believable the closer one looks.
For instance, we know that in terms of basic genetics, people who lived a few thousand years ago were essentially no different from people living today. In other words, if you could transport a baby from biblical times to the present, and raise her in our modern culture, she would do just fine. She would also have the same view of morality as we have today, because that is what she would be taught. In short, there is no biological reason for God to have waited so long to develop his people’s moral sensibilities.
The second difficulty with the moral development theory is that God didn’t just put up with a bit of religious warfare here and there, or with the odd draconian law. He gave the people their draconian laws. He commanded that they slaughter everything alive in their enemies’ cities. Quite clearly, then, God was not trying to pull his people slowly out of their barbaric mindset. He was the source of, and justification for, that mindset.
Imagine being in a cocaine addiction recovery program, and discovering that your sponsor was a drug dealer for many years. No big deal, right? But what if he told you that he had maintained the same attitude to drugs his whole life, namely that they’re bad for you and ought to be avoided. What if he told you that his aim all along had been to help people realize that drugs were bad? Would this make any sense? It makes at least as much sense as those who claim that God has been consistently trying to bring his people around to a Christ-like moral worldview.
*Acts like the murder of children, which seems to be somewhat of a biblical theme: consider Jephthah’s daughter, David’s son, the forty-two children who teased Elisha, the children of Daniel’s accusers, the first-born of Egypt, and every child that existed on earth just prior to the Great Flood.