“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.”
-Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion.
For the purposes of this discourse, let us assume the God of the Old Testament is entirely fictional. In analyzing Dawkins’ claim, it is apt to refer to the same scriptures in light of which he reaches the above conclusions. In particular, we examine his claim about the “unforgiving God”.
THE GARDEN OF EDEN
Anyone who knows anything about scripture is familiar with the story of Adam and Eve. In summary, God having created the garden and all the trees from which they could freely eat, commanded them not to eat of one, “The tree of the knowledge of good and evil”. At the instance of the serpent and in rebellion to God’s command, they eat of that tree and their eyes open. God thus sends them out of the garden. This is as much as people bother to see or know about the story. There is more to the story that shows the heart of God towards man.
First, God places flaming cherubim around the tree of life (Genesis 3:24). This at first instance seems retaliatory but it was an action taken in love because if Adam in his sinful state ate of the tree of life, it would mean he would forever live in that state of death. It would mean, he and his descendants would not be able to die and that death of Christ, the God-Man of scripture, on the cross would not have been possible. Men would be stuck in a state of being alive in sin and dead to God. This is a state God, in His love, did not want for man.
Secondly, God made coats of skin for Adam and his wife, who had just rebelled against Him, before sending them out of the garden (Genesis 3:20). Adam and Eve covered themselves around the waist with fig-leaves (Genesis 3:7) after they rebelled but God made them full coats to cover them properly. Even in their fallen state and in spite of their rebellion, the heart of God towards them is evident.
IN THE MATTER OF CAIN
Cain was guilty of the first murder in scripture. He is the first man to shed innocent blood. God of course, punishes him by cursing him and the fruit of his labour and making him a vagabond. What is striking is that God still shows him mercy by placing a mark on him to ensure that no one who finds him kills him (Genesis 4:15). The most interesting element to this story is that Cain shows no remorse whatsoever for his brother’s murder. Hear his complain to God,
“My punishment is greater than I can bear, Behold thou hast driven me out this day from the face of the earth; and from thy face shall I be hid; and I shall be a fugitive and a vagabond in the earth; and it shall come to pass that anyone that findeth me shall slay me” (Genesis 4:13–14)
The self-centered solipsism (pardon the tautology) in his plea is so poignant it is almost nauseating. Still, God cares enough about His life to spare it. And before we get appalled at the fact that God would care about a filthy murderer, let us all bear in mind that Jesus said a man who insults or is angry with his brother for no cause is a candidate for the same judgment as a murderer (Matthew 5:22–23). If you feel Cain did not deserve this mercy, then look in the mirror if you want to know who else does not deserve the mercy of God in salvation.
One of the consequences of Solomon’s turning away from God was that the kingdom would be taken from him and given to his servant. But for David, his father’s sake, God promised that one tribe (out of the twelve tribes of Israel) would remain with Solomon’s son(1 Kings 11:11–13). This was fulfilled when Rehoboam, his son during his reign, after terrible advise from the equivalent of “the millennials” of his day, answered the people of Israel and Jeroboam, his father’s servant, roughly. After that incident, Israel was divided into two. Ten tribes followed Jeroboam who became their king while Rehoboam continued to rule Judah and Benjamin.
Jeroboam subsequently became insecure that those ten tribes would return to David and in order to avert this, he institutionalized idol worship in Israel (1 Kings 12:25–33). This became a tradition in Israel among its subsequent kings and they were all recorded as doing wickedness in the sight of God. It is in this context that Ahab stands out.
“And Ahab, the son of Omri did evil in the sight of the LORD above all that were before him. And it came to pass, as if it had been a light thing for him to walk in the sins of Jeroboam…he took to wife Jezebel the daughter of Ethbaal king of the Zidonians, and went and served Baal, and worshipped him…And Ahab did more to provoke the Lord God of Israel to anger than all the kings of Israel that were before him.” (1 Kings 16:31–33).
However, in 1 Kings 20, we see God helping this same Ahab to defeat the king of Syria and his host in battle. Not once, but thrice! Ahab, by the way, disobeyed God and let the king of Syria live. That was his “thank you”. This same Ahab would go ahead to murder an innocent Naboth over his vineyard (1 Kings 21). Despite this, God still responded to his humility after his judgment was announced to him by Elijah and showed him mercy by not bringing his long overdue judgment upon him during his reign (1 Kings 21:25–29). Ahab would still end up dying after going to war contrary to God’s instructions (1 Kings 22).
The kingdom of Judah had its own equivalent of Ahab (2 Chronicles 33). A king called Manasseh. His evil was likened to the evil that the original inhabitants of the promised land practised (which was the reason God ejected them and put Israel in it). He built altars to idols in the temple of God and within the courts of the house of God, he sacrificed his children by burning them, he used witchcraft and mediums (not to be confused with this website) and consulted familiar spirits in direct contravention to the law of God (Deuteronomy 18:9–12). To add to all of this, Manasseh ignored God’s warnings. If there was anyone who should have been struck dead, it should have been this guy. But when God began to judge him, something interesting happened,
“And when he was in affliction, he besought the LORD his God, and humbled himself greatly before the God of his fathers and prayed to Him; and He was intreated of him, and heard his supplication, and brought him again to Jerusalem into his kingdom” (2 Chronicles 33:12–13)
God listened to his prayer and restored him to his throne. A story so profound that scripture refers to extra-scriptural records of this account in Jewish history (2Chronicles 33:19)
Finally, the arrogant Nebuchadnezzar. History is replete with the exploits and conquests of this great king. Scripture even refers to him as a “king of kings” (Ezekiel 26:7, Daniel 2:37)(not of course to be confused with the KING OF KINGS AND LORD OF LORDS in reference to Jesus Christ in Revelation 19:16). He was a man mightily helped of God in battle and an instrument of God’s wrath in holding Israel captive, a wrath which was an already forewarned consequence of forsaking him to serve other gods (Deuteronomy 28:13–68, 2Chronicles 36:10–21). Nonetheless, Nebuchadnezzar’s pride got the better of him, despite his being warned in a dream interpreted by Daniel (Daniel 4). He would subsequently become a beast living in the wild. After seven years, God restored Nebuchadnezzar to his throne and his previous glory…this time, with an understanding that God reigned supreme in the affairs of men.
These three wicked and terrible kings were the greatest recipients of God’s love, mercy and forgiveness.
Whenever we hear of Jonah, the next thing that comes to mind has to do with a fish. All most people know about Jonah is that he was swallowed by a fish and regurgitated. That is not as far as the story goes. The story reveals God’s heart for a wicked nation. God tells Jonah to cry against them because their wickedness has come up to Him. Jonah gets there (…eventually) and preaches to the city and they immediately humble themselves and repent. God in turn changes His mind and does not destroy them (Jonah 3:9–10). This of course does not go down well with Jonah who wants the city destroyed and in the process of his complaint says something which is instructive,
“…O Lord, was not this my saying, when I was yet in my country? Therefore I fled before unto Tarshish: for I knew that thou art a gracious God, and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness, and repentest thee of evil” (Jonah 4:2)
Jonah knew God’s character. He knew God’s heart was not to destroy them. He knew that that in fact, was the whole aim of God sending him to warn them. Ironically, Jonah himself relied on God’s gracious character in being released from the belly of the fish. He prayed,
“They that observe lying vanities (talking about worshipping idols) forsake their own mercy” [words in parenthesis mine](Jonah 2:8)
He was acknowledging that people who serve idols do not know how much of God’s mercy they are missing out on. God Himself pointed out the hypocrisy of Jonah when the latter cried over a plant that gave him shade for just a single night and in so doing, we see His heart,
“…Thou hast had pity on the gourd, for the which thou hast not laboured, neither madest it grow; which came up in a night, and perished in a night. And should I not spare Nineveh, that great city, wherein are more than sixscore thousand persons that cannot discern between their right hand and their left hand; and also much cattle?” (Jonah 4:11)
The entire Old Testament is a chronicle of God’s promises and love story to and with Israel which climaxed in the Messiah being born as one of their own. God often cuts a love-lorn, frustrated and sometimes desperate figure in His pursuit of an adulterous nation. One minute He vows to punish them, the next, He reassures them of His love, the next He waves a white flag. He displays the vulnerability of a lover helplessly in love with a people who do not love Him in return. The vituperation, exasperation, agony and almost pornographic language in Ezekiel 23 is a master-piece painting of this picture. But in the midst of this love story, there was constant forgiveness and offers of forgiveness,
“And the children of Israel did evil in the sight of the LORD, and served Baalim. And they forsook the LORD God of their fathers…Nevertheless the Lord raised up judges which delivered them out of the hands of those that spoil them…And yet they would not hearken unto their judges but went a whoring after other gods…” (Judges 2:11–18)
“…I have loved thee with an everlasting love: therefore with loving-kindness have I drawn thee” (Jeremiah 31:3)
“Come now, and let us reason together, saith the LORD: though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be white as snow; though they they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool” (Isaiah 1:18)
“I, even I, am he that blotteth out thy transgressions for mine own sake, and will not remember thy sins. Put me in remembrance: let us plead together: declare thou, that thou mayest be justified” (Isaiah 43:25–26)
These are incidences of love and mercy at its purest from the Old Testament God. There are several of such instances recorded in scripture. Whether or not we think He exists, whatever we might think of Him or His methods, one thing that is certain is that He is far from unforgiving.