(Answer by Steve Gregg)
Problems with Old Testament ethics
An opportunity has arisen to mentor a young man in prison who has doubts about the Bible. He struggles with a few things in the OT, such as (Genesis 19) why did God allow Lot to give his daughters to have sex with the men of Sodom vs8 (doesn't sound like a loving parent), and why (vs 30-38) a drunken Lot to allow his daughters to have sex with him? How was God at work in that? Also, how is the violence of Joshua any different than Islamic State? See Joshua 6:21 "they devoted the city to the Lord and destroyed with the sword every living thing in it-- men and woman, young and old, cattle sheep and donkeys". Why would a God of love command such wholesale slaughter? These are not easy questions for me to answer and I am seeking your wisdom.
Thanks for writing. Of the questions you mentioned, the ones about Lot's actions are the easier ones to answer. Lot is not recommended as a role model. He was a product both of his sinful nature and of his culture. The offering of his daughters to be raped was a cultural thing. The Middle Eastern idea of hospitality is that, when you bring guests into your home, you will sacrifice anything, including your life, for their protection while under your roof. Lot saw his daughters as being among the things he was willing to sacrifice to protect his visitors. There is no suggestion in scripture that he did the right thing.
His getting drunk and sleeping with his daughters, on the other hand, was a manifestation of his sinful nature. The Bible gives no indication of divine approval on this behavior.
Your friend has a misunderstanding of what the Bible is. Most of it is historical narrative. Historical narrative, when accurate, records good and bad human behavior, because both occur in human history. Some people may think that the Bible records stories, not because they are historical, but because they are moral tales illustrating divine values and preferences.
Such a misunderstanding would require that we identify some kind of divine approval of the wickedness of mankind that occasioned the flood, of Abraham's lying about his wife and calling her his sister, of Judah's fathering twins with his prostitute daughter-in-law, of Simeon and Levi's slaughter of the innocent men of Shechem, of Joseph's brothers selling him into slavery, of Pharaoh's killing of Jewish male babies, of David's sin with Bathsheba and his murder of her husband, of Amnon's rape of his sister Tamar, of Judas Iscariot's betrayal of Christ, of Herod's beheading of the apostle James, and of hundreds of other wicked acts recorded in the narratives. None of these things were done under divine direction, and none of them are said to have had God's approval.
The Bible (and its Author) cannot be blamed for telling the stories just as they occurred. God can only be held responsible for that of which He approved. Which brings us to the slaughter of the Canaanites—of which God's approval is clearly recorded.
On this question, I have a policy of pointing out to the questioner that the proper answer can only be appreciated by those who are on God's side in the controversy between God and sinful mankind. The unbeliever is generally not on God's side, which means that no answer given by a believer will satisfy him, and I needn't waste my time attempting the impossible.
The critic of God's ways is not looking to be satisfied, but to find fault. His assumption is that he is in the position to judge God—rather than the other way around. He believes that God must justify Himself before the court of the sinner's judgment—rather than the other way around. In other words, the unbeliever's whole orientation, in this matter, is the reverse of reality.
From this vantage point, the true answers about God's prerogatives will never be accepted. If the unbeliever wishes to understand such things, he must start at an earlier point, by coming to appreciate who God is, and who man is in comparison. Once a person has decided to take sides with God, good answers are forthcoming, but it is premature to discuss them with the unbeliever.
There is apparently a temptation, in the face of these criticisms, to become defensive (making our position appear weak). Seeing the way some Christians backpedal and explain away uncomfortable biblical passages, one gets the impression that they are embarrassed and apologetic for what God says and does. They make it look as if it is the critic who has made a strong case, and we have to desperately defend God against formidable attacks. The opposite is the case.
It is the skeptic who is standing in quicksand. He has no evidence for his position. He is ignorant of reality. His aggressive antagonism should not be mistaken for authority, but must be recognized as the response of desperation and fear that it really is. There is no validity in any man's criticism of His Maker. The Christian must not make apologies for God's revealed acts, as if to suggest that God really has been caught holding the bag and requires our services to make Him appear somehow less guilty. It is the believer who stands in the place of authority and truth. Let the unbeliever defend his position, if he can!
What can be clarified to the unbeliever is that the chasm between these Canaanite wars of conquest and the Islamic Jihad are as broad as is the chasm between truth and untruth—if Yahweh is God in reality and Mohammed's god is not. The true God has every right to decree judgment on rebellious man—whether through military action, through worldwide flood, or through fire and brimstone raining upon them. A false, non-existent god has no comparable right.
Both Israel and Islam claim God as the authorizer of their military conquests. The difference is that Moses and Joshua really were acting under God's orders, where Mohammed was not. The proof of this statement would be the same as the proofs that Israel was really in possession of God's revelation and that Mohammed was not.
If biblical Judaism has God as its founder, and Islam does not, then the difference between Israel's wars and Mohammed's is the difference between divine judgment and merely human war crimes. The claims of Israel, concerning their divine authorization do not stand on the same ground as do Mohammed's claims. The God who revealed Himself to Moses also brought ten supernatural plagues on Egypt and parted the Red Sea. The god who revealed himself to Mohammed—well, what did he ever do?
Another difference between the Canaanite wars and Jihad is that the latter seek to force conversion or death on all infidels. God never gave similar commands to Israel. Israel never encouraged unbelievers to convert to Judaism by threats of violence. God's object was not the conversion of Canaanites, but the annihilation of their wicked society, and the turning over of their land to a nation more worthy of its possession. Apart from the Canaanites (and the Amalekites) Israel was never commanded to exterminate any pagan nations, nor to convert any Gentiles by force to the worship of Yahweh. Israel was not engaged in an agenda of world conquest, as is Islam.
Again, these differences are not likely to be appreciated by unbelievers, but they are fundamental differences between the wars of Israel and those of Islam, and should be recognized.