A common objection leveled at the Bible is its unseemly portrayal of God. The Bible attributes some pretty nasty stuff to God. Although these are not limited to the Old Testament, the OT provides the most striking and famous examples. For a sampling of such atrocities, see the list provided by a reader in the Bible Brain Busters suggestion box.
This is actually a very old objection, dating back to the earliest days of Christianity (and even before that the Jews were already facing this criticism). The age of this problem is both bad news and good news. The bad news is that, since some of the greatest minds have tried to tackle this problem, we will most likely continue to struggle with these texts until the end of time. The good news is that, again since some of the greatest minds have tried to tackle this problem, a number of rich options have been developed to help us begin thinking through this problem for ourselves. In order to keep us from reinventing the wheel, I'll lay out some of these options as a conversation starter.
(1) Reject the passages. One option is to simply reject these passages out of hand as not the genuine Word of God. This option should be praised for its intellectual honesty. But on what basis does one determine which parts of the Bible are good and which are bad? One would have to adopt an independent moral code and place the scripture under its authority.
(2) Accept the passages. The opposite approach is to just accept the passages as is. God is just like that. God does crazy things like this and tells others to do them. Who are we to judge God? Although this approach evidences a confidence in God's revelation, it does not really answer the question directly but avoids it. Clearly there is something strange about some of God's actions and commands in the Bible that should give us pause.
(3) Reject the OT. One famous option (associated with Marcion) has been to reject the Old Testament as the story of an evil God who has been replaced by the good New Testament God. The advantage here is its straightforward theological decisiveness and a seriousness about the newness of the New Testament. The problem, however, is that the New Testament at every point underlines the continuity of God's identity as the God of Israel. Also, this doesn't really solve the problem, since there are some troubling things in the New Testament too (e.g., the Book of Revelation gets pretty bloody!).
(4) Allegorize the Passages. A long standing tradition is to see these stories as allegories for one's spiritual life. Killing the prophets of Baal really means putting to death one's fleshy desires. This is a very practically fruitful option and is certainly useful in some cases. However, one runs against the trouble of determining which passages to allegorize and how to properly allegorize them. To answer this question, one is inevitably led to some external guide to make such decisions. Furthermore, the problem of the morality of God's actions is not really solved here, but avoided by a sort of spiritual slight-of-hand.
(5) Progressive Revelation. A more nuanced option is to say that God's revelation of himself is a slowly unfolding history whereby he unveils aspects of his character in a cumulative fashion over time. Thus we learn of the judgment of God in some passages, the grace of God in others, all of which come to their culmination in Jesus Christ, where God is definitively revealed. The advantage here is that one can acknowledge the morally objectionable character of some passages without having to right them off. The disadvantage is the can of worms open by a notion of progressive revelation: How do we know that God has definitively revealed himself? On what basis can we discern "progress" in revelatory history? If God was already all these things, why did he not reveal himself accordingly from the beginning? Is God himself progressively growing and figuring things out along the way?
(6) Progressive Reception of Revelation. An alternative version of progressive revelation is to see the Bible as God's chosen witness to revelation, and as a human witness it reflects its author's assumptions even as it sufficiently witnesses to God's self-revelation in history. God is who he is, and when he acts in history he acts fully as himself. Yet the human reception of this revelation is not always complete. The advantages here are similar to the notion of progressive revelation, except some of the problematic implications (e.g., progress in God) are cut off. The danger here is that one might be tempted to go through the Bible and says which parts are good and which are bad. Although we can do some internal discernment (according to the rule "scripture interprets scripture"), this is always a tricky thing.
Have a rightly described these options?
Are any major options missing?
Are you inclined towards one of these approaches? Why?
What are some additional strengths and weakness of each option?