I came across this objection to the type of God atheists think God is from their reading of the Bible recently: “I think trying to define Yahweh as good is like trying to define Aphrodite as Maximally Beautiful and then discovering that all the descriptions are of a woman who is universally unattractive.”
This reminded me of something Richard Dawkins is famous for writing in The God Delusion, “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.”
According to the new atheists, the God of the Bible is some kind of moral monster.
It is jarring for believers to hear such words about Someone they love. It was for me when I heard Dawkins do it the first time. And, you know what? I think that is a good thing.
We Christians are so used to the very many passages in the Bible (yes, even the OT!) which show how good and loving God is that we often read the difficult passages in a jaded way that does not phase us. But if we are caring humans then the passages which the new atheists like to bring up SHOULD trouble us.
Which, I believe, is precisely the point of them being included in the Bible. When believers focus only on the passages which portray God in a good and tame light we are reading the Bible in a one-sided and superficial way. The hard passages, according to the Church Fathers, are there so we can engage our minds and reverently wrestle like Jacob with the Angel until sunrise (that is, until we understand). Blessed Augustine says that these difficult stories are there to force us to engage our minds and to keep us humble as if we understood everything.
Conversely, when a skeptic only reads the difficult passages while ignoring the big picture of the rest of Scripture, literary, cultural and historical contexts, the meanings of words in the original languages, etc. then he is also reading the Bible in a one-sided and superficial way. This is what the Four Horsemen of the New Atheism certainly do. Their criticisms of God and the Bible sound about as literate in those subjects as a YEC is literate in his criticisms of the scientific consensus.
Perhaps part of the purpose of these passages is to eliminate the tire kickers from the serious buyers when it comes to the spiritual life? When faced with a difficult passage that seems at odds with what the Church teaches about God, Bl. Augustine laid out a four point plan for resolving them:
1. Pray that you will be helped in your understanding.
2. Check the Translation. Make sure that your difficulty is not simply the result of a faulty translation by comparing it to other translations.
3. Check the original words. What is really being said in the original Hebrew or Greek.
4. Work to truly understand the passage. Consult the work of believing scholars, learn the ancient literary context in regards to genre, culture, history, comparison to other ANE cultures, etc.
I have seen a great many Bible difficulties brought up by skeptics and spent a bit of time on sites like EvilBible, etc. And, I can honestly say, I have yet to see a single difficulty that does not have a reasonable resolution by following this patristic method of dealing with problem passages.
There is an ecumenical agreement among theists of virtually all sacred traditions on who God or the Ultimately Real is according to Nature or Being.
But there are also many points of esoteric agreement even in the midst of exoteric differences among these sacred traditions.
Prayer is one of these broad headings and within prayer is meditation (or rumination as in chewing the cud). All the religions encourage meditation on its sacred texts and all have passages which MUST be meditated on with a pure heart if it is to be understood. I believe the difficult passages which appear to be contradictions or objectionable at first glance are there to stir us up and get us to meditate on other parts of scripture and/or tradition so that the passages can form us at a deeper level.
When dealing with the apparently harsh deeds of God and the Israelites we should follow Bl. Augustine’s advice and apply these figuratively.
He deals with this in his work On Christian Doctrine, “Any harsh or even cruel word or deed attributed to God or his saints that is found in the holy scriptures applies to the destruction of the realm of lust” (On Christian Teaching 3.11.17).
Later in that work he says, “But if [a statement in Scripture] appears to enjoin wickedness or wrongdoing or to forbid self-interest or kindness, it is figurative” (On Christian Teaching 3.16.24).
And again, “anything in the divine discourse that cannot be related either to good morals or to the true faith should be taken as figurative” (On Christian Teaching 3.10.14).
Sure, that’s not how your typical 21st century North American fundamentalist Christian or New Atheist reads the Bible but then the Bible was not written by such believers or skeptics. The only reasonable way to approach and understand a book written in ancient times is with ancient eyes and from within the faith community that understands the reason for writing it in the first place. This is where a reverent and sensible Biblical scholarship and the history of Biblical commentary and even participation in those Synagogues and Churches which still approach the Bible as it has always been understood becomes indispensable to the serious seeker.