Richard Dawkins highlights the problematic texts of the Old Testament (e.g., the Canaanite genocide in Joshua; the smiting of Uzzah in 2 Samuel 6). Atheists like Dawkins, after they bring up one of these problematic passages, like to say, “I bet you didn’t hear about that in Sunday school?” And they are usually right. Because Christians focus on the nice parts (e.g., Psalm 23; Jeremiah 29:11–“I know the plans I have for you…plans for your welfare and not harm”).
While I understand the desire to avoid the nasty bits of the OT (they are confusing and take work to understand), those of us who teach the Bible are not serving people when we skip over the parts we don’t like. It’s a bit trite, but it’s hard not to think of that proverbial ostrich.
If the problematic bits of the OT get ignored in church, when will people encounter them? At least 3 places.
1) When they are reading through their Bibles on their own. What are they going to do when they get to the Levites concubine (Judg. 19)? Since they’ve never heard a sermon on it, or never discussed it in Sunday school or in a small group, they will be confused without anyone to help them make sense of texts like that.
2) When talking to an atheist, who, like Dawkins, knows more about the problematic bits (Psalm 137:9- divinely authorized infant head-bashing?) than they do. They will be surprised that there are passages like that in their Bible, and they will be embarrassed that the atheists know more about the Bible than they do.
3) When they go off to college and their Intro to the Bible or Intro to Religion prof, who is a big fan of the New Atheists like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, brings up the story of the angel of YHWH killing 185,000 Assyrians (2 Kings 19:35). Or perhaps, a bit more familiar, the story of the flood, where God drowns all humans except Noah’s family. (At what age is it appropriate to first expose people to the horrors of the flood narrative? College? Mid-20’s?)
As I’ve been talking to people about God Behaving Badly, people tell me story after story of being shocked by what they find in their Bibles and being angry that their church never taught on problematic texts. The word that gets used frequently is “betrayed”.
If you teach the Bible, don’t ignore problematic texts. They teach profound lessons about God and his character. And people need to know how to deal with them. Books like God Behaving Badly, or Paul Copan’s Is God a Moral Monster? can help us understand texts like these.
In what contexts have you talked to people about problematic texts? What texts do people ask you about?