Chapter 7 is entitled “The ‘Good’ Book and the Changing Moral Zeitgeist.” Zeitgeist means “spirit of the times” (p. 265).
I must confess that Dawkins presents some accurate information in this chapter although one could and should certainly argue with his conclusions.
For example, Dawkins says that much of what the Old Testament teaches and narrates about God and God’s people is morally questionable by modern standards. As might be expected, since Dawkins is a scientist and not a theologian or biblical scholar, he offers the same old rundown of allegedly questionable stories, ranging from the God-sanctioned destruction of the residents of Canaan to the Mosaic law’s assignment of the death penalty for offenses like adultery and idolatry to the attempted sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham.
Let me say right now, as honestly and openly as I can, that such episodes are indeed troubling. Christians and all people of faith ought to face and not run from the hard questions that our Scriptures raise. Some of us simply say, “If that’s what the Bible says that God commanded, then that’s that.” Others of us say, “While I certainly believe what the Bible says, I also recognize that the voice of God is received by human beings and, in cases like the commanded destruction of whole peoples, who can know how much of that was God and how much of it was what the leaders of the people wanted?” Others of us say, and I tend to fall in this camp, “While the Old Testament certainly reveals things that we need to know about God, and included in those things are the facts that God is holy and judges sin, the ultimate revelation of God is in his Son Jesus Christ from whom we learn that God is finally and ultimately a God of love, grace, and sacrifice who goes to unspeakably great lengths to save us—but who still is holy and judges sin.”
I do wonder, though, how much harm we have done in trying to make God palatable to modern sensibilities? On the one hand, I’m no proponent of a “flat Bible” approach; I believe that God revealed himself more and more completely until he revealed himself most fully in Jesus Christ. I would even say that God has continued to reveal himself in subsequent ages, with the caveat that we must judge any perceived further revelation by his ultimate revelation in Jesus and by his revelation in Scripture. Dawkins speaks somewhat approvingly of those more “enlightened” theologians who have demythologized (Dawkins doesn’t use that word but that’s what he means) all the narratives of the Old Testament. Granted, some narratives are to be taken symbolically but it’s pretty clear where the Bible means to be recording history, albeit it interpreted history, which is the only kind there is. But who is to say that God is not sometimes involved in the rough and tumble world of human geopolitics? That’s where real life happens.
This much I must say, though: even were I to conclude that God in fact told the Israelites to slay all the inhabitants of Jericho or some other city, I would never say that he still tells people to do so today and I would draw that conclusion based on Christian principles. I must take seriously the Old Testament’s witness that the people of Israel were his special people. I do not believe, however, that God has adopted any other nation in that way. So, if somebody says “God wills that we destroy Samarra” or “God wills that we wipe out Tel Aviv” or “God wills that we attack New York City” I will receive that as the heresy that I believe it to be. In other words, those Old Testament narratives are not transferable.
[I will continue to respond to chapter 7 on Friday.]