MH: 3/16/10 1:15 PM:
I just want to thank everybody for all the wonderful references, I will most certainly check some of them out.
I have tried to read the bible many times, and find it utterly unreadable. The God described in that book in as far as I could ever get through it is an incredibly vindictive and cruel entity. And its full of things that just seem preposterous to me to the point where I can't take it seriously enough to finish the book.
This is interesting, as I've found much of the Bible the most readable book out there. Job and Ecclesiastes helped me through a depressive high school term, and Revelation is the ultimate combination of "Cheer up! The worst is yet to come!" and "Guess what: we win." I challenge you to read Revelation 21 (the descent of the New Jerusalem from heaven to the new Earth) without wanting to see that city, even a little bit.
My number one piece of advise for "new" Bible readers is to ditch the King James Version. The best thing I ever found was a New International Version bible at summer camp. Find an NIV Bible or an English Standard Version bible with wonderful notes. The Quest Bible is an excellent choice.
Second, throw away your notions of God as the eternal grandfather/Santa Claus and as the punisher. The God of the Bible is both Just and Love, and He is not concerned that we can't understand how He balances out those natures.
When I hear about God being vindictive, most people are usually talking about the conquering of Canaan. At the very first blush, it does sound cruel. Kill everyone, burn the cities, etc. However, if you read just a little bit more, you realize that it's not that simple. God behaves in predictable patterns:
* God decides to set a time limit on a sinful people. Over 430 years before Joshua, God tells Abraham that the people of Canaan's time is limited. A few cities get destroyed soon afterwards (from the author's point of view, the absolute worst). The rest get extra time to repent, until the Israelites show up.
* God warns people. Rahab knew God's name, and knew that God was giving the land to Israel. Jonah went to Ninevah to warn the people there that they were under God's judgement. The two angels warned Lot's household to leave Sodom.
* God provides an "out" for the good guys. Ninevah repented and was spared. Rahab and her household became part of Israel. Sodom would have been spared for the sake of 10 good people. (As an aside there, Lot had as many people with him as Abraham did, and Abraham had an army. When Lot went into Sodom, he took hundreds of servants with him. Abraham was sure that at least 10 of the people he sent with Lot would still be righteous. He was wrong.) An entire city was spared just because Lot whined he couldn't walk to the mountains, solely for Abraham's sake.
* God judges individually and collectively. You are responsible for your own sins, but you are also responsible for the sins of your group if you don't act. Rahab rejects her community, and is absolved of both their sins and hers. Lot's wife self-identifies with Sodom, and is punished for its sins, despite being of an otherwise righteous household. If you are "innocent" but won't get out of a sinful people, then you are under judgement.
* God sets your lifespan. This is a hard thought to make sink in, but it is a very Tanach-based Jewish thought: God gives life, and takes it away. God cannot commit murder because He gave the life in the first place, and can set the boundaries as He pleases. If God says "this person's life is over", then that's it.
"What about the innocents/children?" I've heard several arguments that are probably true (Israel didn't have the resources to feed tons of orphans, etc.), but there is a moral judgement hiding in the question. Morally, the real accusation here is "these children deserved to keep living, and it's murder for God to take their life". This is really begging the question. God gave these children their life, and He can decide how long they live.
Morally, either they are innocent at death or they aren't. If they are innocent, then their death is inconvenient but temporary. If they aren't innocent, then they are morally condemned anyway. (I include this not for infants, but those who want to define "children" to include clearly self-aware ages as high as 18 or 21.)
God is not capricious or bloodthirsty, but patient and merciful (the real "God changed His mind" verses always involve God choosing mercy over judgement). He sent Jesus to die on a cross because He wants all of us to live.