Give thanks to YHWH, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever.Psalm 136:1, 2, 10, 17
Give thanks to the God of gods, for his steadfast love endures forever.
…to him who struck down the firstborn of Egypt, for his steadfast love endures forever;
…to him who struck down great kings, for his steadfast love endures forever …
Read Psalm 136, and see if you agree that this is its basic message: “God is good – he has created the world, saved us from Egypt by slaughtering their firstborn sons and army, and gave us land by killing the kings who lived there.”
When we claim “God is good,” what do we mean? The psalmist is glad that YHWH‘s love for Israel is steadfast, but doesn’t seem to think this love applies to Egypt, Sihon, or Og. How do we reconcile the idea of God’s goodness with some of the slaughter described in the Bible?
What’s good about killing the firstborn of Egypt?
Imagine President Bush responded to the 9/11 World Trade Center attacks by successfully killing every firstborn son in Afghanistan. Those crying out for the blood of all Muslims might consider him a hero, but in the judgment of the nations (and mine, and I hope yours!), this would easily give him “war criminal” status. We don’t consider it acceptable to hold all the individuals of a nation responsible for the actions of their dictators. Governments manage to depersonalize civilian deaths by calling them “collateral damage,” but no sane government would excuse intentionally killing the eldest child of every family.
Does God define “good” or does “good” describe God?
The idea that God is good is a core part of the Good News. The world was not created by some evil monster, or as the fallout from some war among gods, but by the God whom Jesus compares to a loving father.
But what is “good?” Is there some objective idea of “goodness” apart from God, or does God define what “good” is? Is there something inherently bad about murder, or is murder bad simply because God says it is? Christians are not of one mind on this question.
- Some say “Without God, there is no morality.” As the only one who can objectively define “good,” God gives us commands to follow; obeying God is good by definition. In this view, there’s nothing wrong with God slaughtering the Egyptian firstborn. By definition, if God does it, it must be good. If you agree, then ask yourself the following questions:
- If this is true, then what is the difference between God and a demon?
- Why does God get to make the rules? Is it simply “might makes right?”
- How would I argue against those who justified the killing of Native Americans and the enslavement of Africans by pointing out Bible passages that indicate such things are sometimes OK? Since they believed God defines good, and that God wanted the U.S. to occupy the land and replace the inhabitants, what was wrong about their behavior?
- Others believe that “good” is a concept independent from God – that it’s reasonable to say “murder is bad” regardless of what God might have said (or not said) about it. In this view, the fact that God is good – that the creator and most powerful one is good, rather than evil – is very good news indeed. If you take this view, then ask yourself:
- How do we know what is good and what is bad?
- How can I keep from completely subjective morality, from simply deciding that “good” is whatever feels right to me at the moment?
- What do I think about Bible passages where God is described as doing things we would normally consider evil?
Where I stand
I believe “good” is an independent concept. Ideas like “right,” “wrong,” and “should” stand on their own and do not need an outside authority to prop them up. If we say that God defines what is good, then we are effectively saying that we “should” do whatever the strongest one says (if we think Power is what makes God God), or whatever the creator says (if we think that being Creator is what makes God God). Both of these ideas are antithetical to Christian morality, which holds up “love” as the ultimate ethical principle.
“Love,” as used in the New Testament, means a concern for the well-being of others, and action in keeping with that concern. Jesus holds up “Love God” and “Love your neighbor as yourself” as the two greatest commandments. Paul writes “the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: ‘Love your neighbor as you love yourself.'” James calls it “the royal law.” When I see examples of loving action in Scripture, in other literature, and in life, I see behavior in keeping with the Jesus I know, behavior that brings joy to the greatest number of people, behavior that meets all the connotations I have with the word “good.” When I see action that is unloving, that holds up some people as more valuable than others, or even completely disregards some people – action like slaughtering children who happen to live in the same area as some king who has behaved badly – I see behavior that I can’t imagine Jesus supporting, behavior that I cannot support regardless of who is doing it, behavior that I have to call “evil.”
So what do I do with the Angel of Death weaving its way through Egypt, killing all the firstborn? The church that raised me told me I had to take all of Scripture literally: Exodus says God killed the firstborn of Egypt, which must be true, and 1 John says God is love, which must be true. But I can’t believe both of those things simultaneously; if God killed the firstborn of Egypt, God is not love, for that act is unloving in the extreme. If God is love, God didn’t slaughter the firstborn. As a follower of Jesus, I choose to agree that God is love, for that is the description of God I see in the Gospels.
Does this mean I simply “pick and choose” the passages I like, and ignore the others? Not at all. Rather, it means that I’m honest with Scripture, and when I see two passages that disagree with each other I need to struggle with them and try and see what God was communicating to the authors, what God may be trying to say to me through the words. My guiding principle throughout is to try and understand them in light of the God revealed in Jesus Christ.