God's "Cruelty"?

Some atheists pounce on how the Old Testament seems to portray God as cruel. This is a question Church Fathers (Origen) addressed as well, so it is not something modern atheists discovered.

A minority of Christians do take every account, verse, word in the Bible literally, whereas the majority note how Biblical authors used a lot of symbolism and metaphors to make their point. Bishop Barron’s eleven minute video talks about the use of metaphor in the Old Testament war stories.

Summary: The war stories, especially the ones that cruelly demand the execution of all, are used to make the point that all evil, all that is wrong, must be eliminated. He gives examples: Today would we be content if we eliminated ninety percent of pedophilia, or do we insist we eliminate it all? How about a spouse being faithful ninety percent of the time? How often in our own life do we try to rid ourselves of a major flaw yet perhaps keep a small part to play with? In the same way Old Testament authors are teaching the lesson that of eliminating all that is wrong, not accepting that leaving some of it around is acceptable.


Would we eliminate the children of pedophiles? Cause the war stories include the Hebrews ordered to slay the children.

The order of a ban includes everything. If used metaphorically, including children means not even a small amount is to be left to “play with”.

Interesting in the Bible accounts is that we also see no such massacre occurred. In fact, Saul remained friendly toward their leader. That is our first clue the written account is metaphoric. That fact that Saul did ‘play with’ their king is what led to his downfall. In other words, even the strongest of men can be brought down by continuing to dabble in a bit of evil, perhaps even with the best of intentions.

Our times may change, but people remain pretty much the same. Take your example. Let’s say society decided to do the same ban on pedophilia. Someone points out that children who have been victims often grow up to engage in pedophilia themselves. Should the children be killed to eliminate pedophilia? I think the reality would be the same reality we see in the Bible…not even the leaders, let alone the children, are killed.

That’s not what 1 Sam 15 says at all. Saul killed everyone (man, woman, child, infant) except their leader, Agag. His soldiers kept some of the prize livestock and God was unhappy. In the end, after being cajoled, Saul relented and killed the rest including Agag.

It was not Saul who killed Agag, but Samuel.

Thanks. He did so in order to make things right with the Lord.

Doesn’t change that women, children and infants were slain as per God’s instruction.

Returning to metaphor: Saul and his men had nothing to do with women, children, infants, but Saul did remain on cordial terms with Agag.

Samuel insisted this was wrong and ended Saul having anything to with Agag–Agag was dead to all, including the king.

Samuel was a priest, not a warrior or executioner, which also indicates the author may have been using metaphors in his account.

Hmm, the Bible seems pretty explicit that this happened but I guess if one squints hard one could interpret the Chapter as metaphor.

Heck, maybe Saul never existed at all and his whole existence is metaphor.

When a table is scattered with books, the first thing a person interested in books will determine what kind of book it is. Is it history, science, literature, comic.

The Bible is literature. The foundation is fact, but the end result is a theme or a lesson. The English language is subjective, where words have meaning. The Hebrew language is not subjective, it uses images to portray a subjective English word such as ‘anger’.

Taking the position that the Book of Samuel is a strictly historical fact would be similar to a taking the position that Gone With the Wind is strictly historical fact.

How many thousands of years would need to pass before a minority would insist that God With the Wind is strictly historical fact?

I’m with you on the lack of historicity of the Bible. But God With the Wind sounds pretty good.

:slight_smile: Didn’t even notice that typo!

There’s nothing in the account that says Saul was on “cordial terms” with Agag.

Only that he kept him alive.

The metaphor concept falls apart rather quickly when you look at the text. Samuel visits Saul with a message from God reminding Saul that because the Amalekites ambushed His people as they came out of Egypt, Saul should ignore every man, woman, and children, as well as all the livestock. To make this snubbing complete, Saul gathers up the Israelite army in Telaim and marches off to give Agag the social snubbing they had coming. Before the snubbing begins, he sends messengers to tell the Kenites that because of their metaphorical kindness to the Israelites, they need to withdraw from the Amalekites as this snubbing will be great. Instead of snubbing the lot of them, Saul decides to invite Agag to hang and is bound in chains as is the custom of those times.

Yes, there are metaphoric terms and phrases in Hebrew but many languages use metaphors, as a teacher I am really surprised that you are obfuscating when literal words are being used and when metaphor is being used. Perfect examples can be found in the passage in question. Instead of annihilating the phrased was “smite to doom” as was the same phrased used for offerings that were given to God that were to be completely destroyed, as opposed to the fellowship offering. When Agag was brought before Samuel the term used is loosely translated as luxuriously, a metaphor speaking to the fact that he had not humiliated and stripped of his kingly accouterments.

Part of Samuel’s duties as a priest was the slaughtering of animals for sacrifices, including bulls. The man had to slaughter and cut up bulls. Killing a person would have posed no physical difficulty.

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Bishop Barron was pointing out that God commanding the slaughter of people could be taken as metaphor to make the point that being a people set apart meant remaining apart from all evil; that it is not in God’s nature to indulge evil. God wished His people to be preserved from all evil. Tolerating a little bit of evil wasn’t part of God’s plan, God’s Law, God’s way.

A story may use metaphor without every word in the account being a metaphor. Some parts may be literal while other parts a metaphor. That is where study comes into play, and that study of just that one story could take years. Not everyone is going to reach the same conclusions.

I do like Bishop Barron’s and Origen’s conclusions. However, I am still of the opinion that the accounts show indications of two political parties–one which I think of as the Priestly Party, the other one more Secular.

Yes. I was surprised hear this verse about Babylon during the divine liturgy:

Happy shall he be, blessed shall he be, who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock, against the stone.–Psalm 137:9

The Greek fathers interpret verses such as these as metaphors for personal struggles:

The holy Fathers say to us that in our spiritual warfare, if we don’t defeat our sins and our passions when they’re small, when they’re infants, when they’re babies, when they’re children, they will grow up and destroy us . You have to kill the sin when it’s little. You have to be faithful in little, and let not the littlest evil live, because if it does, it will grow big and strong, and it will kill you .

Commentary on Psalm 137,By the waters of Babylon… - ORTHOGNOSIA

I found it interesting that this has been discussed for ages. Thank you for the link.

This appears to me to be a report or observation of what will happen, not a command that God otders to be carried out.

I’m curious. Do the Jews see the destruction of the Amalekites as metaphor or as history?

The Orthodox quote reminds me of something I heard one of my fave preachers say about 40 years back concerning youthful sin not being dealt with.

“The things that nag you when young can kill you when you get old.”

Not a verbatim quote but that was the gist of his remark.

God is not cruel.

People are.