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Is a Jealous God a good God?


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#1 Ken Gilmore

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Posted 03 December 2011 - 06:51 AM

One of the more common criticisms of the Judaeo-Christian faith is that its God is a petty, jealous tyrant whose behaviour towards straying followers is likened to that of an abusive spouse. Christopher Hitchens in God Is Not Great speaks for many non-believers when he cites this as proof that the OT is not divine:

It would be hard to find an easier proof that religion is manmade. There is, first, the monarchical growling about respect and fear, accompanied by a stern reminder of omnipotence and limitless revenge, of the sort with which a Babylonian or Assyrian emperor might have ordered the scribes to begin a proclamation.

James McGrath is hardly in the same camp as Hitchens, but he's raised this aspect of God's character, as the OT appears to depict it, as one that is problematic:

Doesn’t it suggest that at times religious believers, including some of the Biblical authors, have depicted God as reflecting some of our worst human characteristics?

If a human husband said that to his wife, we would classify it as domestic violence. And rightly so. It reflects a view of the wife as property, and the husband as her lord and owner with sovereign rights to inflict punishment on one who has “stolen” from him his exclusive right to “sow his seed” in a “field” that is his property. And despite the fact that some still claim to want “Biblical marriage,” the truth is that even most conservative Christians practice something very different than what constituted marriage in Biblical times. And to the extent that God is depicted in the Bible as divine husband of Israel, as marriage is rethought, so too must this Biblical metaphor be.

Fidelity is something that we can all still appreciate today, I presume: No one disputes that it is painful to be cheated on. But jealousy that is obsessive, possessive, controlling and selfish is something that we are trying desperately to recognize as a serious problem, and get people to move away from.

Presumably an image of God who would himself commit assault and battery against his wife is one that it is crucial to examine critically and rethink.

The apparent problem of 'disturbing Divine behaviour' has led evangelical scholars such as Kenton Sparks to muse that "the Bible does not speak with one divine voice but offers instead a range of human voices with different judgements and opinions on the same subjects." (God's Word in Human Words). For a conservative community such as ours, such views would be, and are regarded, with some unease as they appear to run counter to commonly held ideas on Biblical inspiration.

So, how does one resolve this problem?

* Accept the idea of a Jealous God as a brute fact, and dismiss human objections with the "My ways are not your ways" line.
* Look for a different meaning for 'jealousy' which carries a less opprobrious tone.
* Argue that inspiration can include human elements such as a culturally-dependent view of God which needs to be recontextualised for today.
“I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use.” - Galileo Galilei

#2 luke

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Posted 03 December 2011 - 11:12 AM

Another possibility is that perhaps jealousy is sometimes good and someone can be jealous for another without seeing them as their "property".

#3 Hudders

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Posted 03 December 2011 - 04:13 PM

Another possibility is that perhaps jealousy is sometimes good and someone can be jealous for another without seeing them as their "property".

The problem is though that God is presented as someone who demands obedience and who only offers eternal life to those who worship him and in many places in the OT he commanded wars against people who did not serve him. This doesn't fit in with the 'soft jealousy' view. You could argue for a 'soft jealousy' elsewhere, but it is not the overall picture of who God is.

#4 luke

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Posted 03 December 2011 - 04:43 PM

Sorry for the slowness: mind explaining that again, Hudders? I still see that jealousy is good in some instances, and therefore possibly good for God's instances.

#5 Fortigurn

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Posted 03 December 2011 - 07:29 PM

James McGrath is hardly in the same camp as Hitchens, but he's raised this aspect of God's character, as the OT appears to depict it, as one that is problematic:

Doesn’t it suggest that at times religious believers, including some of the Biblical authors, have depicted God as reflecting some of our worst human characteristics?

If a human husband said that to his wife, we would classify it as domestic violence.


I went to the link expecting a Biblical quotation. Instead I found a sentence which did not come from the Bible. Where's the Biblical equivalent?

Fidelity is something that we can all still appreciate today, I presume: No one disputes that it is painful to be cheated on. But jealousy that is obsessive, possessive, controlling and selfish is something that we are trying desperately to recognize as a serious problem, and get people to move away from.


Examples would have helped.

#6 twoofseven

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Posted 03 December 2011 - 11:17 PM

I think that a better way to characterize the relationship, instead of a jealous controlling husband, is that of a father to his children. We do know, as parents, that we need to teach our children to obey us, and the results of disobedience are often natural consequences. Rather than a controlling, abusive husband, the idea of firm parental discipline is easier to understand.

I do know that Israel is characterized as an unfaithful wife etc, but just for the sake of answering the objections, the parental example is more helpful.

#7 Fortigurn

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Posted 03 December 2011 - 11:27 PM

Good points.

#8 Hudders

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Posted 04 December 2011 - 04:22 AM

Sorry for the slowness: mind explaining that again, Hudders? I still see that jealousy is good in some instances, and therefore possibly good for God's instances.

What I meant was that some jealousy is good and is the sort you would expect in a marriage relationship. But other jealousy does go beyond mere protectiveness. The classic examples often quoted are the chap who collected sticks on the Sabbath and the chap who tried to catch the ark when it fell and who was consequently killed, not to mention the many divinely sanctioned wars in the Old Testament. It's situations like that that inspire people to make comments such as the following from chapter 2 of The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins:

[God is] 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.


While many of the 'reasons to believe' that Dawkins 'refutes' in The God Delusion are pretty limp, I confess that I wouldn't know how to word a response to the above.

Edited by Hudders, 04 December 2011 - 04:27 AM.


#9 Evangelion

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Posted 04 December 2011 - 05:35 AM

The word 'jealous' here is being given a negative connotation it does not appear to possess in the original context. And if God is such a control freak, why does He allow humans free will?

While many of the 'reasons to believe' that Dawkins 'refutes' in The God Delusion are pretty limp, I confess that I wouldn't know how to word a response to the above.


I'd begin by pointing out that it's a selective, subjective, distorted mischaracterisation.
'Abba Antony said, "A time is coming when men will go mad, and when they see someone who is not mad, they will attack him saying, 'You are mad, you are not like us.'"'

Ward, Benedicta. The Sayings of the Desert Fathers (2006), Antony 25, p. 5.

Credo.

#10 Chris

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Posted 04 December 2011 - 05:49 AM

I agree with Ev. McGrath did a sophomoric job... shame on him.

Anyway,

I found the quote below in an article awhile back on Dawkins and his unwillingness to debate William Lane Craig. The quote is Craig's and he's responding to Dawkins' well-known objection to the atrocities committed in the OT by God's decree:

"These stories offend our moral sensibilities. Ironically, however, our moral sensibilities in the West have been largely, and for many people unconsciously, shaped by our Judaeo-Christian heritage, which has taught us the intrinsic value of human beings, the importance of dealing justly rather than capriciously, and the necessity of the punishment’s fitting the crime. The Bible itself inculcates the values which these stories seem to violate.”


Isn't it intriguing that objections to OT violence are based on the Western Society worldview? And that this worldview is, as Craig says, "shaped by our Judaeo-Christian heritage"? Even Dawkins and the New Atheists fall into this camp, whether they like to admit it or not.

The article's author summarizes Craig's statement:

Ergo, Craig’s purpose in writing this piece is to unravel the paradox of a moral Bible that also includes lashings of apparently random violence. Craig stresses that these passages of the Bible are difficult for us to read because we are not of the age in which they are written – they are just as alien to us as Beowulf or the Iliad. That’s because Christian society has been shaped by the rules of life outlined in the New Testament, not in the section of The Bible in which this massacre occurs. Far from using this passage to celebrate the slaughter of heathen, Craig is making the point that the revelation of God’s justice has changed over time.



Man's ideas of society and justice have "evolved" since the neolithic period in the ANE, which was the period in which Adam and Eve lived. The concept of civilization then was in its infancy, and to be honest was brutal, at least by our standards today. But, that was the reality of the human experience at that time. Our worldview would have been as foreign to them as theirs sometimes seems to us. Probably more so for them since we have the privilege of hindsight and history that they did not.

It was into this worldview God established his covenant community, and it was accomplished in a way that the people of that period could comprehend. God's laws and commands reflected that worldview in order for those people to be able to grasp it, and to them it wasn't unduly harsh or brutal. Read Fort's work on the Mosaic Law and see how revolutionary God's commands were within that worldview. Again, they seem harsh to us sometimes, but they established concepts of justice and mercy that were unparalleled at that time.

We as a race have "evolved" in our worldview to become more like God in terms of justice and society, and that "evolution" has been guided by Judaeo-Christian concepts - beginning with the OT laws and commands that New Atheists view as so brutal.

Edited by Chris, 04 December 2011 - 05:51 AM.


#11 luke

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Posted 04 December 2011 - 02:07 PM


Sorry for the slowness: mind explaining that again, Hudders? I still see that jealousy is good in some instances, and therefore possibly good for God's instances.

What I meant was that some jealousy is good and is the sort you would expect in a marriage relationship. But other jealousy does go beyond mere protectiveness. The classic examples often quoted are the chap who collected sticks on the Sabbath and the chap who tried to catch the ark when it fell and who was consequently killed, not to mention the many divinely sanctioned wars in the Old Testament.

I'd go with Ev's 'The word 'jealous' here is being given a negative connotation it does not appear to possess in the original context'.

I struggle with something in the OT as much as some others, but I was specifically talking about jealousy and (I reckon) none of the examples above are of times when God is jealous. Jealousy can be a healthy or an unhealthy response: it's presented as both in the Bible and, I dare say, it's the healthy type that's applied to God.

(As a general aside, it might be that God is jealous when people are unfaithful partly because it's detrimental for people to be unfaithful to him. In a way that cannot be true of anybody else, in his presence there's fullness of joy. To be separated from him means missing this joy, so it makes sense to desire people to be back in that relationship.)

#12 Pseudo-Onkelos

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Posted 12 December 2011 - 11:06 AM

I don't have much to add, but I thought I'd present my input. Words change, and this is no different for the word "jealous". It is often associated with, or used synonymously for, "envy". This is true even in the Tanakh/Old Testament. The Hebrew word קַנָּא (qana') is used for God, while קָנָא (qana') is used for both God and man. (The difference is that the latter uses qamats twice. :D ) Yes, it can mean more than just jealous. It is also translated envy and zealous. It should be noted, unless I missed it somewhere, that when God is jealous, He is never jealous of, but jealous for. I will quote from the ESV.

"Therefore thus says the Lord GOD: Now I will restore the fortunes of Jacob and have mercy on the whole house of Israel, and I will be jealous for my holy name." (Ezek. 39:25)

"Then the LORD became jealous for his land and had pity on his people." (Joel 2:18)

"So the angel who talked with me said to me, 'Cry out, Thus says the LORD of hosts: I am exceedingly jealous for Jerusalem and for Zion." (Zechariah 1:14)

"Thus says the LORD of hosts: I am jealous for Zion with great jealousy, and I am jealous for her with great wrath." (Zechariah 8:2)

#13 The Budster

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Posted 20 December 2011 - 01:30 PM

The case is inferential, but it's not complete nonsense. Relevant passages are collected here. Notably:

Deuteronomy 4:
23 Take heed unto yourselves, lest ye forget the covenant of the LORD your God, which he made with you, and make you a graven image, or the likeness of any thing, which the LORD thy God hath forbidden thee.
24 For the LORD thy God is a consuming fire, even a jealous God.
25 When thou shalt beget children, and children's children, and ye shall have remained long in the land, and shall corrupt yourselves, and make a graven image, or the likeness of any thing, and shall do evil in the sight of the LORD thy God, to provoke him to anger:
26 I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day, that ye shall soon utterly perish from off the land whereunto ye go over Jordan to possess it; ye shall not prolong your days upon it, but shall utterly be destroyed.
27 And the LORD shall scatter you among the nations, and ye shall be left few in number among the heathen, whither the LORD shall lead you.
28 And there ye shall serve gods, the work of men's hands, wood and stone, which neither see, nor hear, nor eat, nor smell.


In other words, "I am a jealous God. Worshiping other gods will provoke me into a jealous rage, and I will cause you to perish." It's perfectly true that the same words applied to a spouse would be considered horrific:

23 Take heed unto yourselves, lest ye forget the covenant [your husband], which he made with you, and [look at pictures of other men, which your husband has forbidden].
24 For [your husband] is a consuming fire, even a jealous [husband].
25 When thou shalt beget children, and children's children, and ye shall have remained long in [your husband's house], and shall corrupt yoursel[f], and [look at pictures of men], or the likeness of any [other men], and shall do evil in the sight of [your husband], to provoke him to anger:
26 I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day, that ye shall soon utterly perish from [your husband's house] whereunto ye go over [to live]; ye shall not prolong your days [in] it, but shall utterly be destroyed.
27 And [your husband] shall [send you out into the streets], and ye shall be... among the [homeless], whither [your husband] shall lead you.
28 And there ye shall [date other men]...


If my wife wants to see other men, it's a terrible thing, and I would indeed consider leaving her (or kicking her out) as described in (my paraphrased) verse 27. However, if I laid a finger on her, let alone caused her to "utterly perish," it would be considered a horrific crime in the eyes of men. The law of Moses ambiguously would give me the option of either having her stoned, or simply divorcing her, although Matthew does praise Joseph for choosing the latter instead of the former.

We could argue that the whole "utterly perish" thing is mitigated by the fact that the general thrust of the passage is about exile, rather than destruction. Alongside that, though, we would need to consider God's praise of Phinehas for killing the man of Israel and the Midianitish woman, "that I consumed not the children of Israel in my jealousy." We would also have to consider the provision of capital punishment for idolatry, which in effect says, "Worship only me, or these people of mine will stone you to death." Again, if I stoned my wife for adultery, it would be considered a horrible crime today--probably even by Christadelphians.

I don't have a perfect answer for this objection, although I have one that satisfies me (and not, I think, folks like Evangelion, who have heard it before). Namely, God is to humans as humans are to cattle. Just as we can slaughter cattle for no better reason than we're feeling peckish and want a hamburger, so God can slaughter human cattle for any reason that suits Him. There be those who object that slaughtering cattle to make snack foods is wrong; without any attempt at moral justification whatsoever, I reply that it is in fact oh, so right.

Viewed from my perspective, then, it IS a horrible crime for humans to kill each other over jealousy. It ISN'T a horrible crime for gods (of which there happens to be only one). Humans may object to this--sorry Ken!--but so what? If cattle could talk, they would no doubt object to cheeseburgers.

Edited by The Budster, 20 December 2011 - 01:31 PM.


#14 Ken Gilmore

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Posted 20 December 2011 - 08:03 PM

I don't have a perfect answer for this objection, although I have one that satisfies me (and not, I think, folks like Evangelion, who have heard it before). Namely, God is to humans as humans are to cattle. Just as we can slaughter cattle for no better reason than we're feeling peckish and want a hamburger, so God can slaughter human cattle for any reason that suits Him. There be those who object that slaughtering cattle to make snack foods is wrong; without any attempt at moral justification whatsoever, I reply that it is in fact oh, so right.

Viewed from my perspective, then, it IS a horrible crime for humans to kill each other over jealousy. It ISN'T a horrible crime for gods (of which there happens to be only one). Humans may object to this--sorry Ken!--but so what? If cattle could talk, they would no doubt object to cheeseburgers.

That would solve the problem if the analogy held, but for me, the fact we're sentient, self-aware creatures makes it hard for me to regard myself as little more than a two-legged Holstein. More importantly, I find it hard to square with statements such as:

John 3:16 "For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life."
Ps 103:8 "The LORD is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in lovingkindness. "
Joel 2:13 "Now return to the LORD your God, for He is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger, abounding in lovingkindness and relenting of evil."
Jon 4:2 "He prayed to the LORD and said, “Please LORD, was not this what I said while I was still in my own country? Therefore in order to forestall this I fled to Tarshish, for I knew that You are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness, and one who relents concerning calamity."

The last verse is particularly apposite as Jonah's glee at the thought of Ninevah's destruction contrasts markedly with God's compassion.Then there's the fact that God's plan with us is distinctly more involved than our plan with Herefords and Holsteins, making any view of God as someone who arbitrarily exterminates people because He can difficult to reconcile with it. This doesn't preclude God from punishing people who break His rules any way He deems fit - this clay pot is very well aware that questioning the potter isn't advisable if that pot isn't aware of what the hands controlling the clay have in mind - but I'd like to think that the reason God commands us to follow the high ethical principles enshrined in the Sermon on the Mount is because they are good in their own right.

I dare say the way I've resolved the Euthyphro dilemma hints that I'm not a fan of Divine Command Theory at all. God commands us to do good because things are good independent of God himself, and He can no more command otherwise than to arbitrarily decree that 2+2 = 5 and make it true. I accept that some people are less than happy with an objective standard of morality existing independently of God, but the fact that religions completely outside the Judaeo-Christian tradition have converged on ethical principles remarkably similar to ours suggests that such ethical standards exist independently of God and are accessible by rational thought and contemplation. (This is of course no guarantee that we will keep to them, and I would suggest that our battle to keep them is one we'll never win without a Divine example to follow.)

This of course ignores the origin problem of whether a jealous God is a good God. Here, I'd argue that the fact these punishments are part of the penalties in the covenant made between Israel and God makes the analogy between the relationship between God and Israel and an abusive marriage unsound. Israel made the covenant, fully well knowing the penalties for breach of contract. I don't pretend that it solves the problem, as there is still a tension between a God whose punishment of a nation that breaches its contract with him has as collateral damage the death and abuse of women and children by the invading armies of Israel's punishers and the high ethical principles found elsewhere in the Bible.

Interestingly, when the relationship between God and Israel is cast in terms of a marriage in Ezekiel 16, God's response is anything other than the usual abuse for the slightest suspected infidelity, but more in terms of someone slow to anger despite significant provocation. This theme of God being the wronged partner is of course taken even further in Hosea. Again, none of this resolves the residual tensions, but - to me at least - makes more sense.
“I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use.” - Galileo Galilei

#15 The Budster

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Posted 20 December 2011 - 10:15 PM

Sentience is relative. Although I'm sure our ability to reason and dialogue is important to our relationship to God, nevertheless I suspect that the pleasure we offer God is very like the pleasure my cat gives me. We are much too grotesquely stupid to discourse on anything like equal terms with God. So what He gets from us can't possibly be intellectual stimulation. I'm doubtful that an intelligence that superior would find us recognizably sentient. The difference between us and a Holstein (which clearly also doesn't want to die) must seem slight indeed.

#16 Evangelion

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Posted 21 December 2011 - 01:49 AM

I don't have much to add, but I thought I'd present my input. Words change, and this is no different for the word "jealous". It is often associated with, or used synonymously for, "envy". This is true even in the Tanakh/Old Testament. The Hebrew word קַנָּא (qana') is used for God, while קָנָא (qana') is used for both God and man. (The difference is that the latter uses qamats twice. :D ) Yes, it can mean more than just jealous. It is also translated envy and zealous. It should be noted, unless I missed it somewhere, that when God is jealous, He is never jealous of, but jealous for. I will quote from the ESV.

"Therefore thus says the Lord GOD: Now I will restore the fortunes of Jacob and have mercy on the whole house of Israel, and I will be jealous for my holy name." (Ezek. 39:25)

"Then the LORD became jealous for his land and had pity on his people." (Joel 2:18)

"So the angel who talked with me said to me, 'Cry out, Thus says the LORD of hosts: I am exceedingly jealous for Jerusalem and for Zion." (Zechariah 1:14)

"Thus says the LORD of hosts: I am jealous for Zion with great jealousy, and I am jealous for her with great wrath." (Zechariah 8:2)


Great post, I like this.

:)
'Abba Antony said, "A time is coming when men will go mad, and when they see someone who is not mad, they will attack him saying, 'You are mad, you are not like us.'"'

Ward, Benedicta. The Sayings of the Desert Fathers (2006), Antony 25, p. 5.

Credo.

#17 Juliashmoolia

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Posted 21 December 2011 - 05:14 PM

How do you guys feel about the fact that it was once just to stone a woman to death for adultery? To not stone an adulterer to death would have been disobeying God. If it were your wife that had been found guilty of adultery, would you have had any objections to her being stoned? Would you have seen it as just punishment?
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#18 Evangelion

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Posted 21 December 2011 - 05:43 PM

How do you guys feel about the fact that it was once just to stone [MEN AND WOMEN] to death for adultery?


How do you think we feel? I personally find the Law of Moses utterly abhorrent in many respects, including this one.

If it were your wife that had been found guilty of adultery, would you have had any objections to her being stoned? Would you have seen it as just punishment?


I honestly don't know. It's easy to say 'No' with several thousand years of socio-cultural development and cultural conditioning on my side, but if I was a Bronze Age nomad who'd known nothing better it's more likely I would have considered this entirely fair.

Anyone who claims unequivocally that even if they'd been born and raised in pre-modern times they would still have upheld postmodern values is fooling themselves.
'Abba Antony said, "A time is coming when men will go mad, and when they see someone who is not mad, they will attack him saying, 'You are mad, you are not like us.'"'

Ward, Benedicta. The Sayings of the Desert Fathers (2006), Antony 25, p. 5.

Credo.

#19 Juliashmoolia

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Posted 21 December 2011 - 07:59 PM

How do you guys feel about the fact that it was once just to stone [MEN AND WOMEN] to death for adultery?


How do you think we feel? I personally find the Law of Moses utterly abhorrent in many respects, including this one.


I honestly don’t know, hence my question. I half expected you to say that you thought there was nothing wrong with it at all!

But I agree with you.

I can’t help but wonder why he even bothered with it, seeing as he did away with it in the end anyway.

If it were your wife that had been found guilty of adultery, would you have had any objections to her being stoned? Would you have seen it as just punishment?


I honestly don't know. It's easy to say 'No' with several thousand years of socio-cultural development and cultural conditioning on my side, but if I was a Bronze Age nomad who'd known nothing better it's more likely I would have considered this entirely fair.

Anyone who claims unequivocally that even if they'd been born and raised in pre-modern times they would still have upheld postmodern values is fooling themselves.


Ultimately though, regardless of what anyone then (or now) thought about it, it would ultimately have to be just, because it was given by God, right?

Does it trouble you that God commanded such abhorrent laws and that they were once considered just and right?
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#20 Evangelion

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Posted 21 December 2011 - 08:30 PM

I half expected you to say that you thought there was nothing wrong with it at all!


Hardly surprising, given your prejudices. A rational approach would be to keep an open mind and wait for my answer.

But I agree with you.

I can’t help but wonder why he even bothered with it, seeing as he did away with it in the end anyway.


It's crossed my mind more than once.

Ultimately though, regardless of what anyone then (or now) thought about it, it would ultimately have to be just, because it was given by God, right?


That's certainly one view. Speaking personally, I'm not satisfied by the 'if God commanded it, it's OK by definition' argument. I don't believe the moral value of a command is derived entirely from its source. It must have reference to other factors.

Does it trouble you that God commanded such abhorrent laws and that they were once considered just and right?


Of course it does.
'Abba Antony said, "A time is coming when men will go mad, and when they see someone who is not mad, they will attack him saying, 'You are mad, you are not like us.'"'

Ward, Benedicta. The Sayings of the Desert Fathers (2006), Antony 25, p. 5.

Credo.




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