“Does the OT God Care About Social Justice?”

Sistine God
Photo of a depiction of God painted on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Public Domain.

Nobody likes a bully. We all know what bullying is from our past experiences. Someone who is small or weak is abused physically and mentally by someone more powerful or popular. Bullies often take what they want when they want it.  An example of institutionalized bullying is observed in the movie “The Help” (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1454029/synopsis) where white women in a certain neighborhood mistreat their African-American maids. As you watch the movie, you are waiting for justice to be dispensed. To your delight, justice is eventually delivered to the cruel high society women depicted in the movie in an unexpected fashion. There are some today who accuse “the god of the Old Testament” as being the worst kind of bully. In the opinion of some prominent skeptics today, this god is portrayed as a villainous despot who dispenses his wrath wantonly on humanity. Richard Dawkins, an Oxford scholar known for his rants against religion, explains his view:

The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.[1]

Another skeptical scholar, John Loftus, agrees with Dawkins regarding his opinion of the God of the Old Testament:

What we actually find in the Bible is an extremely not-so-good, very bad God! Yahweh, the part of the Godhead in the Old Testament is very bad…He’s a God of war, a condemning bloodthirsty God of wrath.[2]

But does Dawkins’ vociferous indictment come anywhere close to an accurate portrayal of God as observed in the Old Testament? How about the opinion of Loftus? Does it match up with what is described in the OT about God?   If God is in fact one who relishes doling out pain and suffering for the fun of it, then maybe Dawkins and Loftus are right. Most people today do not approve of “heavy handedness” when they see it displayed.  After looking at passages not normally cited by skeptics, you may agree with me that God, as observed in the writings of the Old Testament prophets, is really interested in social justice; in providing for and protecting those who cannot protect themselves.

Recently, when reading through the OT prophets, I was looking for this bully God that Dawkins and Loftus were describing. Would I observe a tyrannical oppressor? In an earlier blog (http://shieldyourfaith.org/blog/?p=435), it seemed to me that God had a deep concern for those who had sold themselves into slavery. God was so concerned about the abuse of Israeli slaves at the hands of their fellow citizens that the prophet Jeremiah proclaimed the destruction of Jerusalem as punishment for their cruel treatment of these slaves.  As observed in Jeremiah 34:8-17, the activity of Yahweh on behalf of these oppressed ones gives us a hint at the disposition of God towards those who are deemed to be weak in society. He loves and defends those who cannot defend themselves. Jeremiah is not the only prophet who pens this divine concern for the downtrodden.

Widow with children
Fernand Pelez – Illustrirter Katalog der internationalen Kunstausstellung im Königl. Glaspalaste in München 1883, 4. Auflage, München, September 1883

As I made my way through the prophets, I noted others as well. In his era, Ezekiel also lists misdeeds committed by Israelis/Jews:

  • Citizens shed blood; the rulers shed blood
  • Unjust gain by the rulers
  • Orphans/widows mistreated
  • Many lie and look for reasons to commit violent acts
  • Having sex while practicing a false religion in public areas
  • After sacrificing their children to a false god, they come to the temple and desecrate it (23:39)
  • Many men having sexual relations with their mother
  • Adultery
  • Assassinations
  • Defrauding of the poor
  • Racketeering (threatening others for money)
  • Burglary and theft
  • Religious officials involved in corruption
  • Oppressing the poor and the needy
  • Abusing foreigners

After listing this long indictment against Israel/Judah, God pronounces judgment against them. God will allow them to be conquered and carried away by a more powerful nation. However, this is not the last word from Ezekiel (ch. 34) who then proclaims the mercy of God in the future. Furthermore, he states that after Israel/Judah are punished, corporate life will be restored again (ch. 37).

In the writings of the prophet Joel, he also speaks of judgment on Israel/Judah but then also proclaims that in the future they will be restored and blessed with abundance. In his OT book another prophet, Amos, discusses social justice at length. He shares with us not only how God is disgusted with the immorality of Israel’s leaders but they have also earned God’s ire because they won’t stop abusing Israelis who are vulnerable. Amos’s list of charges includes the use of dishonest measures, sexual depravity, the sacrifice of children, and selling fellow Israelites into forced slavery. Even as these abuses continue, the social elite live comfortably. As a result of this maltreatment, Amos proclaims God’s judgment against Israel will be served up by a swarm of locusts (ch. 7).

But interestingly enough, Amos continues with a different tone after announcing God’s punishment. Characteristic of the activity of Yahweh in the Old Testament, the future for Israel is full of mercy and redemption. God says through Amos that he will restore Israel to a place of prominence and blessing after their punishment is complete.  Even after all of these transgressions, Yahweh will remain faithful to Israel and forgive them of their corporate trespasses. In the book of Jonah, the prophet gets mad at God because He spared the Assyrians when in Jonah’s estimation they are worthy of punishment (Jonah 4:1-3). What about the other prophets?

In the Book of Micah, a new offense is being committed against the innocent. In addition to the general moral malaise of the country, Micah informs us that there are Israelis who are throwing rightful owners out of their houses and off of their fields (ch. 2). Not only are they committing these crimes but they are also dispossessing their fellow countrymen of their inheritances as well. Micah also mentions the worship of false gods as another reason why God is against Israel in his era.

A pattern is emerging as our survey of each prophet continues. From the perspective of Habakkuk, this prophet simply notes that there is social injustice all around him. Because justice no longer prevails in Israel, justice is coming against the wrongdoers in Israel. Even as Habakkuk announces impending punishment against Israel, he asks God to be merciful even as he punishes them. He further proclaims that Israel will be delivered from those who will conquer and carry them away. Again, judgment rendered but then mercy following the judgment.

In the writings of Zephaniah, not only is the worship of false gods given for the reason of God’s judgment, but also because of the violence and deceit that is ongoing in these pagan temples. Furthermore, Zephaniah refers to the belief that undergirds much of the debauchery and license observed; they do not believe that God is still active in the affairs of the world. In similarity to the pattern that we have observed with the other prophets, God is going to show mercy to those who acknowledge and cease their misdeeds.

In Zechariah, the Israelites ask him (Zechariah) if they should fast in order to obtain the blessing of the Lord for themselves. Zechariah is quick to censure them for their hypocrisy. In response, Zechariah warns them that instead of earning God’s favor by performing rituals, they would be better off practicing social justice now. Stop oppressing the fatherless, widows, and those who are from other lands that reside with them. Moreover, Zechariah writes that these people ignored his counsel and because of their obstinacy, they were going to be scattered by the wind. However again, in line with the other prophets, Zechariah foretells that God will be merciful to Israel by restoring them in the future. The Prophet Malachi echoes the other prophets with a short indictment, a plea to change or face judgment, and a future where evildoers are vanquished and the righteous rewarded (4:1-3).

So, what we see in the prophets is a God who is punishing because of the continuing abuse of the poor and needy at the hands of the powerful. He isn’t just causing people to suffer for sadistic reasons. Rather, he chastises the powerful (bullies) because they refuse to discontinue their exploitation of the poor and underprivileged.

After a reading of the prophets, it is clear that God is seeking social justice for exploited victims when he brings calamity to their oppressors.  Furthermore, the very fact that God sends His prophets to different nations shows his beneficence. He would rather that cruel oppression cease voluntarily and would rather abstain from bringing destruction to a nation. It was also demonstrated in the prophets that God will not only protect the vulnerable, but he will also grant mercy to their oppressors if they would only turn from their cruel ways. God is ready and willing to show mercy to these criminals if they stop their persecution of the weak. After my reading, the words of Dawkins and Loftus don’t align with what I observe in the writings of the OT prophets. Perhaps those who rail against the “God of the Old Testament” should read the prophets and consider God’s messages of justice and mercy. They should conduct a more thorough examination before they “go off on God.” Granted, they do not believe that He exists and are pointing out what they believe as proof that the Biblical god should not be embraced by anyone.  But they should consider all of the passages of the Old Testament before they hurl verbal missiles.

In Contrast to the words of Dawkins and Loftus, this kindhearted and patient God as portrayed in the books of the Old Testament prophets sounds to me like a shepherd who continually searches for his lost sheep and rejoices when he finds it (Luke 15). He cares for his sheep.  In opposition to the claims of these prominent skeptics, God always takes up the case of the oppressed and desires that the bullies of society cease and desist from their brutish ways. The “God of the Old Testament,” as portrayed in the prophets, is not a cruel bully who tortures for the sport of it. Rather, he is a caring shepherd who cares for the needy and punishes those who ignore/abuse the downtrodden.

Shepherd
Public Domain

[1] Dawkins, R. 2008. The God delusion. New York: Mariner Books.

[2] Loftus, J. 2016. Unapologetic: Why philosophy of religion must end. Pitchstone Publishing: Durham.

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