Why doesn’t God actively judge today, as in the Bible?

This question, like the one I answered last time, was asked in a comment on my post about “Why did God create Satan?”

Q. If God is the same, yesterday, today and forever, why is He not dealing with our immoral, worldly society as He so often did in the Bible? Be it the flood, Sodom & Gomorrah, or any other references, He did not drag His feet, so to speak, and rendered swift judgment. The more I read the Bible, it seems like there are actually three different Gods in one, in the regard of how He was, is and will be.

At least as I understand it, the statement in Hebrews that “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever” was intended to encourage second-generation followers of Jesus to hold fast to the faith they had been taught by His first-generation followers. (Right before this statement the author says, “Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith.”) So this not so much an assertion that God, over the course of the whole Bible, has never changed the way He deals with humanity as it is a claim that we can continue to have confidence in the gospel, the good news about Jesus and what he has done for us, even though those who personally witnessed his earthly ministry have long passed away.

As for whether God deals with humanity differently now than He did in the Bible, here’s what I said about that in response to the question, “Does God change over the course of the Bible?”:

“From the start we see that God is consistent in his character qualities:  creative, loving, generous, merciful even in judgment, and so forth. But these qualities do seem to get expressed in different ways as the divine-human relationship unfolds over the course of the Bible.  . . . For example, when humans turn out to be so wicked, God regrets making them and destroys almost all of them through the flood.  But afterwards, recognizing that ‘every inclination of the human heart is evil from childhood,’ he resolves never to destroy them all again.”

In other words, to use one of the examples you cited—the flood—God says explicitly in the Bible that He will not again respond to human wickedness the way He did at that time. I suggest in the same post I just quoted that “God himself actually changes in terms of how much relational experience He has with humans.” So it is not so much a case of there being three different Gods—a past judgmental one, a present merciful one, and a future judgmental one—but a matter of God’s relationship with us changing as it unfolds over history and experience.

The prelude to the gospel of John says that “the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” So we today are very blessed to live in a period of redemptive history when the mercy that is always balanced with justice in the character of God is at the forefront. But we must be careful not to presume on that mercy, but remember, in light of all the judgment passages you mentioned, as Peter writes in a long and unforgettable sentence (with which I will close):

“If God did not spare angels when they sinned, but sent them to hell, putting them in chains of darkness to be held for judgment; if he did not spare the ancient world when he brought the flood on its ungodly people, but protected Noah, a preacher of righteousness, and seven others; if he condemned the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah by burning them to ashes, and made them an example of what is going to happen to the ungodly; and if he rescued Lot, a righteous man, who was distressed by the depraved conduct of the lawless (for that righteous man, living among them day after day, was tormented in his righteous soul by the lawless deeds he saw and heard)— if this is so, then the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from trials and to hold the unrighteous for punishment on the day of judgment.”

Why didn’t God protect the children he created from an evil being like Satan?

This question was asked in a comment on my post about “Why did God create Satan?” It reflects the same concern as the person who asked the question I originally addressed in that post: If earthly fathers would do everything they could to protect their children from evil people, why didn’t God protect the children he created from an evil being like Satan?

Q. Even as an earthly father, if I had the ability to place my daughter in a perfect environment and allow her to be spotless and live forever, why would I ever create something evil to tempt her, all the while knowing she would give in?

I don’t believe that God deliberately and intentionally made a creature whose role would be to tempt humans to do wrong and so forfeit their innocence and their place in an earthly paradise. As I tried to explain clearly in my original post, I believe that God created Lucifer, not Satan, an angel with great powers and the awesome responsibility of choosing how to use those powers. There was as great potential for good as there was for evil. Unfortunately Lucifer fell through pride and so became Satan.

I also don’t believe that God knew in advance that Eve and Adam would inevitably give in if they were tempted and deceived. I believe they were given freedom that was so genuine that what they would ultimately choose was unknowable in advance.

I am aware of a stream within theology (technically known as “infralapsarianism”) that says God ordained the fall so that it would become the occasion for redemption. This is the felix culpa or “happy fall” idea expressed in the traditional Latin mass for the Easter vigil:
O felix culpa quae talem et tantum meruit habere redemptorem =
“O happy fault that merited such and so great a Redeemer.”
I personally see such serious implications for the character of God that I don’t celebrate the fall in these terms.

I’m rather what’s known as a “supralapsarian.” God did not ordain the fall, but once it happened, God worked from “above” it, not from “within” it, to bring about our redemption. For me this idea preserves God’s love and human freedom even while it correctly portrays God as the sole agent of our salvation.

I hope these further thoughts are helpful.

Why wasn’t Aaron punished for making the golden calf?

Q.  I have some questions about the golden calf episode.

First, when Moses asked who was “for the Lord” and the Levites came to him, he told them to “slay each his brother, his companion, and his neighbor.”  He said, “Consecrate yourselves each upon his son and brother that the Lord may bestow upon you a blessing.” I gather they were slaying fellow Levites as a consecration.  This is hard to understand.

I’m also wondering why Aaron wasn’t punished for his part in the episode. Moses asked him, “What did these people to to you that you caused them to commit such a great sin?”  And Aaron reported correctly, “They asked me to make gods for them because they did not know what had become of you.”  However, Aaron was not removed from his priesthood or slain. He just went on being the respected associate of Moses.

I find all this mysterious and hard to understand.

Nicolas Poussin, “The Adoration of the Golden Calf”

I think it helps to realize, to begin with, that in this episode the Israelites didn’t believe they were worshiping a god other than Yahweh.  Rather, they thought they were still worshiping Yahweh, but they were now doing this as if He were a god like the ones the Egyptians and Canaanites worshiped.  Such gods had physical representations in the form of idols, and they were worshiped through immoral revelry.

The episode reveals that to this point the Israelites had been regarding Moses as the physical representation of Yahweh.  That’s why they spoke of him as the one who had “brought them up out of Egypt.” So when he was delayed on the mountain and the people didn’t know what had become of him, they wanted something else to represent Yahweh for them physically.  They “assembled against” Aaron (not just “gathered around” him) and told him to make them a god.  (The Hebrew word is ‘elohim, a plural form that most English versions translate as “gods,” but it should likely be taken as a “plural of excellence” meaning “God,” as the context seems to call for; see the translation note in the NIV.)

Under this pressure, Aaron makes a golden calf, and when the people see the finished product, they exclaim, “This is your God, Israel, who brought you up from Egypt!”  Going along with this identification, Aaron announces, “Tomorrow there will be a festival to Yahweh!”

Unfortunately, if Yahweh were indeed the kind of god who could be represented by a golden calf, then such a festival would involve immoral revelry.  Traditional English versions tend to translate the terms “play” and “dance” in the account with discreet literalism, but the NIV’s “revelry” and “running wild” capture the meaning well.

The people were so “out of control,” in fact, that “they mocked anyone who opposed them,” as a footnoted alternative rendering in the New Living Translation puts it.  Most versions say something like “they were a laughingstock to their enemies,” but as there were no enemies present to observe the incident, I think this NLT alternative captures the sense of the Hebrew term well, which refers literally to those who “stood against” them.

So the people were being recklessly indulgent and they would not listen to their leaders when they tried to restrain them.  it was a near-riot, and desperate measures were called for to prevent the situation from disintegrating completely.  (Otherwise the people might have turned violently against Moses and even killed him.)

And so Moses called out, “Whoever is for the Lord, come to me.”  In other words, “Whoever still respects my leadership and my revelation about what Yahweh is really like, I need your help right away!”  When the Levites rallied to Moses, he told them, ““This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: ‘Each man strap a sword to his side. Go back and forth through the camp from one end to the other, each killing his brother and friend and neighbor.’”

This is actually characteristic language referring to all Israelites, not just Levites.  And it was only after the Levites did this to stop the situation from spinning completely out of control that Moses told them, ““You have been set apart to the Lord today, for you were against your own sons and brothers, and he has blessed you this day.”  In other words—in response to your first concern—Moses didn’t say to them, “God will bless you if you slay your fellow Levites.”  He said, after the fact, “Because you were willing to take the Lord’s side, even though this meant killing your fellow Israelites because they were rioting against Him, you have been set apart to the Lord.”  And that was the blessing—being set apart.  The blessing wasn’t something material that was promised in advance as a reward or incentive for taking up the sword.

In response to your second concern, I would suggest that Aaron was not punished for making the golden calf because he did this only when he was pressured by the people.  He may even have feared for his own safety and life if he refused.  He still should not have made the idol, but the responsibility was much more with the people than with him.  (This was a case similar to the one in which Miriam instigated a revolt against Moses’ leadership and enlisted Aaron to support her; she was punished but he was not, as I discuss in this post.)  The law of Moses would later distinguish between cases in which a leader sins and cases in which “the whole Israelite community” sins, and I think this was one of those latter cases.  In fact, the community was punished for their sin on this occasion not just by the Levites’ swords, but also through a plague that God struck them with afterwards.

I hope this explanation helps address your concerns.  But many aspects of the episode, including as the methodical slaughter of Israelites at God’s command, may still remain troubling and difficult to understand for thoughtful readers today.

Why was only Miriam punished with leprosy when she and Aaron rebelled against Moses?

Q. When Aaron and Miriam rebelled against Moses, why was only Miriam punished with leprosy?

“The Leprosy of Miriam,” woodcut from 1583 Bible.

The main explanation seems to be that Miriam was held more responsible because she instigated the challenge in the first place and then enlisted Aaron to support her.  There are two things in the text that show us this:
• Miriam is named before Aaron at the start of the account.  In every other place in the Bible where they are named together, including later in the same account, Aaron is mentioned first (conventionally, as the eldest brother in the family).
• The verb “speak against” is actually in the feminine singular in Hebrew:  “She spoke, Miriam, and Aaron, against Moses . . .”
Both of these things suggest, as I said, that Miriam originated the challenge and enlisted Aaron to support her, so she is held more responsible and given a greater punishment.  This shows us the fairness of divine justice.

One additional possibility to consider is that God spared Aaron specifically so that he could intercede as Israel’s high priest, approaching Moses with a renewed recognition of him as God’s representative, to ask forgiveness for Miriam’s sin and for his own:  “Please, my lord, I ask you not to hold against us the sin we have so foolishly committed.”  If Aaron had been struck with leprosy, he would not have been able to function as a priest according to the laws in Leviticus.  So God may have spared him in mercy specifically so that he could intercede for sin in this way as a priest. (It’s Moses who actually prays for Miriam’s healing).  We see that God’s very judgments are tempered with mercy, even if this sometimes makes them seem unfair.

Sparing the high priest so he could intercede for sin is a bit like the way God spared King David from direct personal punishment after he sinned by taking a census of his fighting men.  God may have spared David because the people still needed a king to rule their nation and lead their armies. When David saw the plague that was striking down the people, he recognized his own responsibility and prayed, “I have sinned; I, the shepherd, have done wrong.  These are but sheep.  What have they done?  Let your hand fall on me and my family.”  But instead of afflicting David directly at that point, God in mercy ended the plague entirely.

This is a warning to people in vital offices:  You may be spared immediate personal judgment not because you are entirely innocent, but because God still needs someone in your role and you’re not bad enough yet to be removed from it!  Aaron should not have concluded that he was less deserving of some punishment than Miriam for the same revolt, even if not the same punishment. Leaders today who “think they are standing firm” should “be careful that they don’t fall.”

Did Jephthah really sacrifice his daughter?

Q. Did Jephthah really sacrifice his daughter?  Or is the other point of view correct that says that she lived her life as a virgin and in that sense was sacrificed?

George Elgar Hicks, “The Lament of Jephthah’s Daughter”

Unfortunately Jephthah most likely did sacrifice his daughter after he vowed to make a burnt offering of “whatever comes out of the door of my house to meet me when I return in triumph.”  The author of Judges includes this story as one of several horrific examples of what happened in the days when “Israel had no king” and “everyone did as they saw fit.”  These examples support the overall argument of the book, that the people need a king to help ensure that they will know God’s law and follow it.  As I explain further in my study guide to Joshua, Judges, and Ruth:

* * * * *

It wasn’t unusual for an Israelite who was counting on the LORD to make a vow, as Jephthah does.  This was a promise to acknowledge God publicly when he brought deliverance.  Vows like this are described often in the Psalms, for example, in Psalm 66:  “I will come to your temple with burnt offerings and fulfill my vows to you—vows my lips promised and my mouth spoke when I was in trouble.”

There would have been nothing wrong with Jepthah’s vow if he had only known the law.  Moses allowed the Israelites to offer anyone or anything they wanted to the LORD in payment of a vow, but it specified that if they dedicated a human being, they had to “redeem” that person by offering the value of their labor instead.  (These regulations are found at the end of the book of Leviticus.)  Jephthah should have paid ten shekels of silver into the LORD’s treasury, rather than sacrificing his daughter as a burnt offering.  But by now the Israelites were so used to Baal-worship, which included human sacrifices, that they were actually prepared to offer human sacrifices to the LORD–even though he had expressly forbidden them in the law.  And so Jephthah’s daughter suffers a horrific fate.

* * * * *

After offering this explanation, I then make these further reflections on the story of Jephthah:  “However, apart from his ignorance of the law and these tragic consequences, Jephthah is in other ways an exemplary judge.  He continually acknowledges the LORD as the one who delivered Israel in the past and who should be trusted to do so again.  The narrative says that the ‘Spirit of the LORD’ was on him, and that ‘the LORD gave [the Ammonites] into his hand.’  The book of Hebrews names him as a hero of the faith.”

In light of these observations, I ask these questions in the guide:

• Was Jephthah the best man he could have been, given his nation’s state of spiritual decline?  Or could he have been better?  If so, how?

• What consequences do you see in your own culture of an ignorance of God’s ways?  What activities are accepted, perhaps without question, that God doesn’t want people to practice?

What would you say in response to these questions?

Why didn’t Jesus explain his parables to everyone?

Q. I have a question about something I read today in my quiet time in the gospel of Mark. Why didn’t Jesus explain all of his parables to everyone who was listening?  Instead, it says he explained them to his disciples later, but for the public, everything was in parables. Is it because he knew the crowds were just “fans” who thought the things he said were interesting but not important? Jesus even says,”otherwise they might turn and be forgiven.” That sounds strange to me. Doesn’t he want each and every person on earth to believe, even though he knows there are many who won’t believe?

Vincent van Gogh, “The Sower,” 1888

Jesus says the things you’re wondering about when he’s explaining the Parable of the Sower to his close followers.  As I observe in my Mark study guide, it may appear that he doesn’t want “those on the outside” to understand, since he says that when they listen, they will be “ever seeing but never perceiving” and “ever hearing but never understanding.”  However, Jesus is actually quoting these phrases from the book of Isaiah.  That was how God described what the response of the hard-hearted Israelites would be when he sent Isaiah to speak to them.  These words explain what happens to someone whose heart is hardened, as represented by the first kind of soil in the parable.

(I discuss the passage in Isaiah in this post, in response to a question about whether God actually hardens people’s hearts so they won’t believe.  As I say there, “God really wants people to respond positively to his warnings and invitations and so be rescued. But the language here reflects God’s knowledge of the people’s confidence in their own strategies and his realization that they will choose their own way even more stubbornly when they’re challenged. And so God tells Isaiah, ironically, to go and make the people even more insensible and resistant. Whatever their response, the reality of the situation needs to be proclaimed.”)

Back here in Mark, it’s clear from the Parable of the Sower that other kinds of responses are possible, since the parable eventually describes the seed finding good soil and bearing much fruit, representing those who not only believe, but help others to believe.

It’s even clearer from the next parable that Jesus wants everyone to understand.  He uses a lamp to illustrate that he’s not deliberately concealing the truth about himself; he wants this to be “brought out into the open,” and ultimately it will be.

And so he invites everyone in the crowd, right after telling the Parable of the Sower, “Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear.”  Jesus wants people to hear and understand–if they want to themselves.  In other words, as has often been observed, parables were the perfect vehicle for Jesus’ purposes because they either reveal or conceal the message, depending on the state of a person’s heart.  They reveal the truth to those who are open to it, but conceal it from those who aren’t ready for it yet.

That’s why, after telling the parable about the lamp, Jesus also warns his listeners–most likely the entire crowd once again–“Consider carefully what you hear.”  If people don’t understand, it’s not because God doesn’t want them to understand, it’s because of how they’re listening.  They might be just “fans,” as you put it, listening carelessly to what Jesus says as some kind of novelty or diversion.

I think you actually model the kind of response Jesus is looking for.  You’re not just reading his words in your daily quiet time as some kind of religious duty.  You’re thinking carefully about them, and if something bothers you, you don’t just gloss over it, you try to find out what it means.

Keep doing this!  That’s what it looks like to be someone who truly has “ears to hear.”

What about the law in the Bible about masters beating their slaves?

Q. An atheist has challenged me about a problem in the Bible that I have been trying to resolve.  In Exodus 21:21 it says about a slave who is beaten by his master, “Notwithstanding, if the slave survives for a day or two, the master shall not be punished: for the slave is his money.” How is this consistent with a compassionate God who wants to protect the weak?  Can you help me with this?

Thanks for your question.  This law in Exodus is one that compassionate people of faith really struggle with, as it seems to suggest on first reading that once masters have paid for slaves, they can do anything with them that they want.  But I believe that the proper way to understand this law is by recognizing that it was originally intended to protect slaves from severe beatings.

Someone asked me about that same law on this blog earlier this year, as one of a number of questions about slavery and the Bible. Here’s what I said in response:

* * * * *

The law in Exodus about beating a slave should not be understood in any way as giving permission to masters to beat their slaves severely, so long as they don’t quite kill them.  For one thing, this law specifies that if a slave dies immediately from a beating, the master must suffer the death penalty, just as in the case of a free person being murdered. The Hebrew says literally, “vengeance shall surely be taken.”  The NIV says that the master “must be punished,” but this is not specific enough; the ESV says that the slave “shall be avenged,” and this is clearer.  The first part of this law provides the same protection for slaves as for free persons, an unusual and perhaps unique piece of legislation among ancient cultures.

The second part of this law says that if the slave does not die immediately, but after a day or two, “he is not to be avenged,” that is, the master does not suffer the death penalty.  The reasoning behind this stipulation is that the slave’s survival for a time suggests that the killing was not intentional. The law of Moses carefully distinguishes between the penalties for murder and manslaughter (that is, for intentional and unintentional killings).  The explanation “for the slave is his money” does not mean that the master has bought and paid for the slave and so can do anything with him that he wants.  Rather, the meaning is that the loss of the price of the slave, a significant sum in the ancient world, punishes the master sufficiently for manslaughter.  The master has, in effect, punished himself.

Even though understanding more about the background and intent of this law can help us recognize that it is designed to protect slaves, not the masters who beat them, it is still a very difficult law for compassionate followers of Jesus to read today in the Bible.

* * * * *

I hope this helps answer your question.  If you have more concerns, please comment on this post and I’ll try to respond to them.