There are some pretty interesting passages in the Old Testament that raise questions about divine morality. My own take on these passages is that humans wrote the Bible, and that the cultures of ancient people were brutal, and therefore they wrote that brutality into their descriptions of gods and believed these harsh “divine” commands were just. In many ways, the descriptions of God resembles a kind of harsh despot who can be giving, but only in response to fierce loyalty – for example, asking Abraham to sacrifice his own son as a test of loyalty. If, on the other hand, we believe that God wrote the Bible and these verses really do reflect God’s actions and commands to the Jews, it raises some hard questions about what is moral, and also contrasts with the “gentle Jesus”/”God is Love” ideas that modern American culture usually attributes to God. I’m sure some people will attempt to argue that what was “just” back then is not “just” today – they have different standards. I agree that they had different standards if you are talking about human perceptions of justice.
Then [Elisha] went up from there to Bethel; and as he was going up by the way, young lads came out from the city and mocked him and said to him, “Go up, you baldhead; go up, you baldhead!” When he looked behind him and saw them, he cursed them in the name of the LORD. Then two female bears came out of the woods and tore up forty-two lads of their number. (2 Kings 2:23-24)
Elisha, the prophet of God, becomes frustrated by a bunch of children mocking him. He curses them in the name of God, and bears to kill forty-two of them. Seems like some pretty harsh punishment for a bunch of children – even if they are ignorantly mocking a prophet of God.
Biblical Commentary: (Link) I looked up some Biblical commentaries on these verses, just to give believers a chance to explain these verses from their perspective. The commentaries ranged from claiming that: the children were very bad for making fun of his physical imperfections, the children had malicious hearts, God was punishing the parents for raising their children badly, God was making an example of these children to instill fear in idolitors who might be tempted to ignore Elisha, God defending the honor and authority of His prophet. I can think of quite a few alternative ways to accomplish these goals without the deaths of 42 children. According to the John Wesley commentary, if any of the children were innocent, then they had terrible parents and, “this death was not a misery, but a real blessing to them, that they were taken away from that education which was most likely to expose them not only to temporal, but eternal destruction.” Yikes. It becomes increasingly clear reading these verses and commentaries why Fred Phelps believes in the harsh, all-rules-and-little-mercy version of God.
Then David said to Nathan, “I have sinned against the LORD ” And Nathan said to David, “The LORD also has taken away your sin; you shall not die. However, because by this deed you have given occasion to the enemies of the LORD to blaspheme, the child also that is born to you shall surely die.” Then Nathan returned to his house. The LORD struck the child that the wife of Uriah had borne to David, and it became desperately ill. (2 Samuel 12:13-15)
In this verse, David is told that God “has taken away your sin”, but not entirely, because David’s son will die because of a sin he has committed. The Bible has a tendency to punish children for the sins of their fathers – often for many generations. While this might punish the father, it also punishes the children who have not sinned. If it is just for God to kill or punish the children of people who do wrong, perhaps governments should exact punishments against children of criminals. Of course, we all know how that would work out: there would be a well-founded outcry against it because it is unjust to kill the child of someone as punishment. So, which is it: it’s okay to kill a child as punishment for the crimes of a father (as God does) and our views of acceptable punishment are wrong, or are our views of acceptable punishment correct and God did something immoral?
Biblical Commentary: (Link) According to the Matthew Henry commentary: “The landlord may distrain on any part of the premises where he pleases” (read: God can kill anyone he wants and it’s okay because humans are His property) and dead children are “are well taken care of [in heaven]”. The morality of killing children to punish fathers still seems questionable. As far as the idea that God can kill anyone he chooses because humankind are his creation always reminds me of a father saying, “I brought you into this world, and I can take you out.” – a phrase that I generally associate with abusive fathers. In any case, the “landlord” analogy essentially says that God can do anything to anyone and it is moral because we are all His property; there is nothing God could do to humans which could be considered “immoral” or “evil”. So, if God randomly picks a young child out of a crowd, tortures that child to death with His bare hands in front of the child’s parents – that action is entirely moral according to the “landlord” principle. The landlord principle also has the same philosophical problems as “might makes right”. As far as “dead children are well taken care of”, this statement could also legitimize governments killing the children of criminals.
Link to the next article: The Bible you haven’t read – Part 2