Examining Moral Failure in the Bible

Examining Moral Failure in the Bible: A Theological Understanding of God’s Chosen Leaders

Three-thousand years ago in the palace grounds of Jerusalem, a beautiful woman named Bathsheba caught the eye of King David while she bathed outside her home. She was the wife of one of his soldiers, Uriah, who was off to battle. Overcome by lust, David commanded her to visit him, and seduced her for a one-night affair. After impregnating her, David intoxicated her husband and tried to manipulate him into returning to his wife for the night. But Uriah, out of loyalty to his troops, slept at the entrance of the palace. Unable to convince him to go home, David ordered the commander of his army to arrange for Uriah to be sent into the thick of the battle to ensure that he was killed in action. After he was murdered, the king took Uriah’s widow as his wife.[i]

This story is one of many that skeptics use to criticize biblical ethics. It is a potent example of ethical incoherency in the actions of a biblical figure, which complicates the role-model interpretation of the Old Testament to which many Christians subscribe today. They see the purpose of prominent biblical leaders in the Old Testament as moral authorities, leaders to guide future generations of Christians and to serve as examples for them to emulate. Thus, the popular treatment of these prominent biblical figures is one of awe and reverence. They are praised in church sermons and are taught to children in Sunday school. Skeptics claim, however, that the praise these figures receive is inappropriate. To them, the immoral actions of biblical leaders relinquish any claim to their moral authority. Robert Ingersoll, famously known as “The Great Agnostic,” examined these characters and was horrified by what he saw:

I compared Zeno, Epicures and Socrates, three heathen wretches who had never heard of the Old Testament or the Ten Commandments, with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, three favorites of Jehovah, and I was depraved enough to think that the Pagans were superior to the Patriarchs—and to Jehovah himself.[ii]

To the ancient Israelites, David’s actions would never speak to a man with moral quality. To modern society, he would be a criminal and a pariah. Yet Jews, Christians, and Muslims praise him as a righteous follower of God.

To Ingersoll and many others like him, it is absurd that Christians honor these flawed biblical figures and that God divinely chooses them. This not only reflects the hypocrisy of Christians, but it also reflects poorly on God. To condone such barbarous behavior, let alone choose these individuals as vessels of his will, is to encourage evil itself, a contradiction of the virtuous Jesus portrayed in the New Testament. In this debate, both sides presuppose a role-model interpretation of the Bible. Yet, this common presupposition is false. The claim that Old Testament figures do not warrant their status as role models has merit, but the popular Christian claim that these figures should be seen as role models does not. In fact, the role model interpretation is not only flawed in its own right, but creates a debate where there should not be one. Rather, seeing the Old Testament as a message of God instead of a message of people avoids many of the insinuations raised by skeptics and offers a greater positive and thematic view of Scripture as a whole.

Before this interpretation can be properly addressed, it is important to be aware of the current context surrounding the debate resulting from this role model mindset. While the role model interpretation can theoretically be used for any Old Testament character, the three figures perhaps most subject to this interpretation are David, Abraham, and Moses. Rick Warren, mega-church pastor and author of the book, The Purpose Driven Life, wrote how David was “a man after God’s own heart because he applied the Word to his life and practiced what he knew.”[iii] Adherents of this theory see the Old Testament as establishing David’s personal qualities as a righteous man; Jeremiah’s prophecies connecting the House of David to Christ seemingly confirms David’s righteous place within the biblical narrative.[iv] For the vast majority of Christians, particularly those within American Christianity, King David is portrayed as a man in love with God, devoting his life to God’s will and glory, and as a legitimate vessel for Christ’s later coming.

Whereas Christians often depict David as a man of love, Abraham is seen as a man of faith. When called into the land of his inheritance, Abraham “obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going. By faith he made his home in the promised land like a stranger in a foreign country.”[v] This portrait of Abraham pervades popular Christian thought and influences many peoples’ impressions of Abraham’s character. The praise that Abraham receives in Hebrews is often seen as a justification for viewing Abraham as a role model. To many, Abraham is a model of faithful self-sacrifice, driven not by fear or uncertainty but by a conviction to obey his Lord.

Lastly, Moses is viewed as the biblical figure that encapsulates justice. Writer of the Ten Commandments and leader of the newly-formed nation of Israel, Moses is seen as a man of the law. Bruce Feiler of the Washington Post describes how Moses’ influence does more than merely permeate popular culture, for “he is the champion of oppressed people; he transforms disparate tribes in a forbidding wilderness into a nation of laws; he is the original proponent of freedom and justice for all.”[vi] Both secular and Christian readers familiar with Moses associate him as the author of biblical law and therefore see him as the embodiment of biblical morality. While not the only figures receiving admiration, David, Abraham, and Moses are three biblical leaders commonly evoked as ideal models of righteous followers whom people ought to imitate.

To counter this reputation, skeptics often submit examples that show why David, Abraham, and Moses do not deserve their moral praise. In addition to the story of David and Bathsheba, skeptics have accused David of committing war crimes. In his book Atrocities, Massacres, and War Crimes: An Encyclopedia, Alexander Mikaberidze wrote an entire entry devoted to King David’s massacres of 22,000 Syrians and 18,000 Edomites, as well as his purchase of his first wife with 200 Philistine foreskins.[vii] To critics, these actions are an affront to human decency. At most, this is proof to them that David committed war crimes. At the very least, David’s armies committed actions that, while acceptable to the ancient world, would be unacceptable to the modern world. Critics also point to David’s many personal flaws. He was vain, neglected his family, and even ran a protection racket before he was king.[viii] King David is far from the ideal king—while he pleased God in many ways, his many weaknesses preclude him from being the moral example that many Christians respect.

Abraham, another prominent Old Testament figure, is not so much a man of undying faith, but rather a man with continual lapses of doubt and internal conflict. The Abraham that God first encountered at Ur is far from the Abraham often portrayed in Sunday school. Author Preston Sprinkle, using the historical context of Ur during Abraham’s time, concludes that when God first calls Abraham, he is engaged in idolatry, offering sacrifices to the gods of the sun and moon, and having sex with temple prostitutes.[ix] Despite Abraham’s laudable acceptance of God’s call, he repeatedly displays doubt and fear during his journey. Abraham continuously questions God’s plan and protection, to the point of lying about his wife and risking her life twice, once in Egypt and again in Gerar.[x] His lies nearly cost him his inheritance—God’s promise of a mighty nation through the line of Sarah. Yet despite God’s promise, Abraham, believing his wife too old to bear children, has a child through his concubine.[xi] He is a patriarch defined by a remarkable interplay between conviction and contradiction—a man of faith on one hand, and a man of doubt on the other; a man in pursuit of the Lord, and a man that runs away.

Moses often receives the harshest criticisms. Christian Bale, who portrayed Moses in the 2014 film Exodus: Gods and Kings, called him a “likely schizophrenic… one of the most barbaric individuals that I ever read about in my life.”[xii] Richard Dawkins, after examining Moses’ slaughter of the Midianites, concluded that “Moses was not a great role model for modern moralists.”[xiii] Robert Ingersoll devoted an entire book to condemning Moses’ moral shortcomings. In one of his chapters, he claimed that Moses, after witnessing the golden calf, was unjustified when he ordered the Levities to slaughter the sinners. He reasoned that the commandment that forbade idolatry had not yet been delivered by Moses to the Israelites, therefore “to inflict punishment for breaking unknown and unpublished laws is, in the last degree, cruel and unjust.”[xiv] It is clear that a close examination of Moses’ actions reveal a deeply flawed leader who is no more immune to sin than the common man. There is no doubt that some of the appearances of moral indiscretion can be explained through proper historical and theological context. At the very least, the objections leveled against Moses cast significant doubt onto his ability to act as the moral authority that many people want him to be.

The arguments against the moral integrity of these characters seem to compromise their status as moral authorities. But even if these leaders were righteous, the Christian is still left with an interpretation that suffers from two dangerous weaknesses. First, seeing these leaders as moral role models makes the false assumption that we can relate to their stories. Graeme Goldsworthy writes how approaching the Old Testament like a character study neglects the context behind their narratives:

It should be recognized that the ‘character study’ approach is frequently used in a way that implies quite wrongly that the reader today may identify with the character in question. But we must reckon with both the historical and theological uniqueness of the characters and events if we are not to misapply them. Is it in fact true that if God took care of baby Moses, God will take care of me? …The theological significance of Moses and of his preservation is all but ignored in this case.[xv]

The character study approach is both overly simplistic and a dangerous red herring. The reader, in the attempt to summarize the Old Testament material, places the role model at the center of every story. For instance, the reader may see Exodus, Samuel, and Genesis as a study of Moses, David, and Abraham, respectively. But by devoting all attention to the character’s traits, motivations, and actions, the reader ignores the historical and theological context of these figures as well as the reasons for their placement within the biblical narrative. Goldsworthy argues that the unique relationship these characters had with God precludes any meaningful comparison with the average reader. Modern believers cannot simply superimpose the lives of these leaders onto their own. That is not only impossible, but it is contrary to how the Bible should be read and understood.

The second weakness of this approach is that it places an unnecessarily large burden of proof on the Christian to justify seeing these people as moral archetypes. There is warrant to many of the skeptical arguments against the righteousness of these characters, and there is no guarantee that any believer who tries to defend this paradigm will be successful. Instead what is more likely to happen is incoherence, and that any discoveries that run counter to an established narrative of these figures can tempt one to ignore or minimize the sin. For instance, seeing David as a moral example can lead one to either dismiss his personal flaws, or at the very least, downplay their impact. This response is less a form of cognitive dissonance than an intellectually dishonest attempt to preserve an exegesis. This exegesis deifies these characters to the point where any valid criticism of their character is viewed as heresy. An even greater concern, however, is that Christians will build their faith and witness on whitewashed Bible heroes, and then have their faith and witness shattered when those “role models” are discovered to be less exemplary than advertised.

A Christian understanding of the Old Testament does not depend at all on the morality of the figures themselves. It instead replaces a moral reading of the Old Testament with a theological reading.[xvi] Popular culture, with a moral approach to the Old Testament, often makes people the primary focus of the story. On the contrary, the primary character of the Old Testament is God himself. The entirety of the Bible is fundamentally a story about God, a doorway into his essence, showing us what he is and who he is. Thus, “reading the Bible theologically means that we look first and foremost at what the passage teaches us about God.”[xvii] His nature is littered throughout his interactions with humanity, from the leaders that he appointed to the commoner whom God wanted to transform. The actual moral qualities of these individuals are irrelevant.

The purpose of reading about David, Moses, and Abraham, therefore, is not to extract moral lessons from their actions. Rather it is to learn about God and his qualities through his interactions with these figures. In particular, discovering God’s divine grace in these passages allows us to reconcile God’s desire to ordain these people as men of great importance and influence with their deep moral flaws and inconsistencies. Sprinkle describes divine grace as “God’s relentless and loving pursuit of His enemies, who are unthankful, unworthy, and unlovable.”[xviii] Viewing God’s divine grace and unconditional love in the microcosm of the Old Testament shows a God who gives purpose and love to those who do not deserve it. God led Abraham out of Ur in spite of his idolatry, not because he could, but because that is who he is. God is grace, and by anointing sinners he is merely acting in accordance with his nature. He loved Moses even after his moral failures, and forgave David after his sexual crimes. God is both generous and relentless in his pursuit of sinners. The Old Testament could not be properly understood without God’s grace. To examine these figures without this theological context risks viewing the Old Testament as an inconsistent moral guide, instead of a window into one of God’s most defining characteristics.

Viewing God’s divine grace in the macrocosm of the overall biblical narrative demonstrates the central Gospel message of Jesus’ death and sacrifice. Christianity affirms not only man’s broken nature but also our inability to overcome it through our own efforts. Jesus Christ, being infinitely holy and righteous, came to Earth and entered our world to die, thereby providing the perfect gift and paying the ultimate penalty. By his infinite love and grace he removes the guilt of our sins, allowing us to experience perfect communion with him.[xix] By understanding how God’s interactions with Old Testament figures reveal his grace, one can establish a bridge between the God of the Old Testament and the God of the New Testament.

The different ways in which God relates to different people in different time periods and contexts can often mislead an honest reader into thinking that the God of the New radically changes from the God of the Old. In fact, both God’s ordinations and his sacrifice are expressions of the same nature. They derive not from a vengeful God and a compassionate God, but the same God, infinite and changeless. Reading the Old Testament theologically and recognizing the extent by which God reaches out to the sinner provides additional context to his ultimate sacrifice thousands of years later. From this perspective, Jesus’ death on the cross should not be a surprise, even though it is no less unjustified. His death, a centerpiece of Christian faith, is nonetheless a part of a coherent whole between Old and New.

This singular focus on the theological aspects of the Old Testament should not detract one from seeing the value of these Old Testament leaders and patriarchs. Instead, our role as a reader is to observe from these prominent figures the different ways these people struggle with and respond to God’s character. Goldsworthy applies this perspective in his commentary on the battle of David and Goliath:

The application of this truth to the believer is somewhat different from a simple identification of the believer with David. Rather we should identify with the ordinary people of God, the soldiers, who stand and watch the battle fought on their behalf. The same point may be made about the lives of all the biblical characters who have some distinct office bestowed on them by God.[xx]

As observers of David, Abraham, and Moses, we learn not from their morality but from their humanity, an example of ordinary people endowed with extraordinary responsibilities, and yet falling desperately short of God’s ideal. We can express solidarity with them because, as human beings, we are endowed with gifts that we do not deserve and struggle to accept. And yet we cannot be hasty as to fully identify with them, because we differ in time, culture, and calling. Still, it forces us to focus on the central biblical message—the Gospel, which is Christ, the Word of God made flesh. Biblical characters do not have their own message. David’s message is not about love, just as Abraham and Moses’ messages are not about perseverance and justice. Instead, they give us a story: their responses to God’s message.

When many skeptics critique biblical figures such as David, Abraham, or Moses, they do so with the assumption that any evidence that compromises these figures’ moral authority compromises the Bible’s authority. This is a dangerous misunderstanding, not because it misunderstands the Bible’s role within Christianity, but because it has misled many Christians into basing their confidence in Scripture on these flawed individuals. Even if the critics’ claims were true, they have no theological impact on the Christian understanding of the Old Testament. It does not matter if David was a womanizer, Abraham was a murderer, or if Moses was a schizophrenic dictator. What does matter is the fact that these characters, regardless of their personal attributes, are conduits for God’s message. The only person in the Bible whose morality had any theological significance was Jesus Christ. Jesus, the centerpiece of the New Testament, is goodness. Being the embodiment of moral perfection, Christ is the role model that both believers and skeptics can trust. It is because of this goodness that Christ is passionate about pursuing those who ultimately do not deserve it.

i. See II Samuel 11.
ii. Robert G. Ingersoll, “VI. Volney, Gibbon, and Thomas Paine – Voltaire’s Services to Liberty –
Pagans Compared with Patriarchs,” in Why I Am An Agnostic, vol. 4 of The Works of Robert G. Ingersoll, in Twelve Volumes (New York: The Dresden Publishing Co., 1901), 45.
iii. Rick Warren, Rick Warren’s Bible Study Methods: Twelve Ways You Can Unlock God’s Word (Grand
Rapids: Zondervan, 2006), 36.
iv. See Jeremiah 23:5.
v. Hebrews 11: 8-9 (NIV).
vi. Bruce Feiler, “Moses: Biblical Prophet, American Icon,” The Washington Post, 5 December 2014,
<http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/ article/2009/10/15/AR2009101503474.html>.
vii. Alexander Mikaberidze, “Old Testament, Atrocities in the Hebrew Bible,” in Atrocities,
Massacres, and War Crimes: An Encyclopedia (Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, LLC, 2013), 506-507.
viii. See I Chronicles 21, II Samuel 13-22, and I
Samuel 25.
ix. Preston Sprinkle, Charis (Colorado Springs: David C. Cook, 2014), 52.
x. See Genesis 12:10-20 and Genesis 20.
xi. See Genesis 16.
xii. Catherine Shoard, “Christian Bale: Moses was ‘barbaric’ and ‘schizophrenic,’” The Guardian, 5
December 2014, <http://www.theguardian.com/ film/2014/oct/27/christian-bale-moses-was-barbaricand- schizophrenic>.
xiii. Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2008), 278.
xiv. Robert G. Ingersoll, Some Mistakes of Moses (Washington, D.C.: C. P. Farrell, 1879), 233.
xv. Graeme Goldsworthy, “The Gospel and Kingdom,” in The Goldsworthy Trilogy (Milton Keynes, UK: Paternoster, 2000), 25.
xvi. Sprinkle, 28.
xvii. Sprinkle, 28.
xviii. Sprinkle, 23.
xix. See Romans 5:11.
xx. Goldsworthy, 25.

Joshua Tseng-Tham ’17 is from Toronto, Ontario. He is a double major in Economics and Philosophy.

Image: Michelangelo’s ‘David’ – Eduardo Paolozzi, 1987 from WikiArt.

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