The so-called "moral difficulties" are some of the most perplexing ones found in the Old Testament. They include the practice of slavery, polygamy, warfare and acts of treachery, deception and cruelty. But they can be solved by applying a few basic principles. We need to first realize that God did not reveal His complete plan and will for mankind all at once. God's Revelation was given in stages. Much of what was revealed by Christ and the apostles in the New Testament was not available to those in Old Testament times. Tuck points this out by saying:
The so-called "moral difficulties" of the Old Testament Scriptures are, to a very large extent, created by those who cannot recognize that Divine revelation has been given to men in stages, with an evident progression towards completeness, and in each stage with precise adaptation to the associations and the capabilities of the age (Robert Tuck, A Handbook of Biblical Difficulties, p. 11).
God allowed ancient Israel to follow certain customs existing in the society of that time. They were not altogether good and will not exist in God's Kingdom during the coming World Tomorrow when people are converted to a more perfect way of life. But God permitted these customs, and outright sins in some cases, until the people were ready to adopt a better way. As Tuck further says, "Many of the permitted things of the Old Testament are allowed because of their agreement with man's accepted bye-laws, and not because they are absolutely right" (Ibid., p. 13).
Why God Permitted Slavery
The practice of slavery is an example of what God allowed, but which is something that will not be a part of a perfect society. Slavery was so universal among the nations at that time and so deeply seated, it was not practical to do away with it all at once. So God, for the time being, permitted slavery but carefully protected the rights of Hebrew slaves and even made the life of foreign slaves far more pleasant than was the case elsewhere. God gave judgments to regulate slavery and to prevent the worst abuses and evils of it from affecting the Israelites. Harsh treatment and strictness was definitely prohibited (Lev. 25:43, 46, 53 compared with Ex. 1:13, 14). God's way is to eliminate the causes of slavery. While slavery probably began with the custom of taking captives in war, it later was mostly the result of poverty. Slavery was the chief refuge of the poor, weak and unfortunate since there was no welfare plan like the Western nations have today. If a man could not pay off his debts, he could sell himself and his family as s laves (Lev. 25:39, 47; II Kings 4:1). Since slavery was so common, there was little stigma and degradation attached to it. Slaves were regarded as true members of the family. Although they had no civil rights, they nevertheless were regarded as fellowmen with full religious rights. The Israelite in such a condition was not even to consider himself as a slave or "bond-servant," but as a "hired servant" or free wage-earner (Lev. 25:39, 40). Even in the New Testament, slavery is accepted and no where abolished. Jesus Christ did not come the first time to alter social customs, to change governments or to introduce a new society. He came to preach the Gospel — to teach principles of a new way to live. He revealed the truth. He explained the purpose of life. But neither Christ, or His apostles openly advocated the overthrow of slavery. Yet, their teachings had an influence in overcoming slavery and its hardship. Although slavery among the Jews had disappeared by the time of Christ, some of the Gentile Christians were holders of slaves — such as Philemon — and others were slaves themselves. Since slavery was a common practice under the Roman government, the apostle Paul gives many instructions to the Christians living in this situation (Col. 4:1; Eph. 6:5-9; I Tim. 6:1-2; Titus 2:9-10; I Cor. 7:20-24).
Polygamy and Divorce
Polygamy is another practice which God allowed, but no where sanctioned or approved. The legal statutes made it illegal in ancient Israel, but if a man insists on breaking God's laws and committing this sin, God allows it although He will punish the transgressor. There's a penalty to pay for any sin committed. So it is with polygamy. When the Biblical record is closely examined, it is evident that Abraham was not a polygamist. David was before his conversion, but completely repented of it later. Jacob was left with only one wife after his conversion (see Mr. Armstrong's article, "Here's the PLAIN Truth About Old Testament Polygamy"). We must consider when the act took place in a man's life before making a proper evaluation of his character. Yes, there was polygamy in ancient Israel, but it was a sin which God condemned. He never sanctioned it, but always punished those who practiced it. The Israelites also practiced divorce and remarriage. God never legalized this practice, but Moses allowed it because of the hardness of their hearts — their disobedient minds (Matt. 19:8-9). This was Christ's response to the question asked by the Pharisees: "Why did Moses then command [emphasis ours] to give a writing of divorcement, and to put her away?" (verse 7). But they were wrong. Moses didn't command them to divorce. Christ corrected the Pharisees by saying Moses "suffered" or allowed divorce. The Pharisees were referring to the law given in Deuteronomy 24:1-4. Even in the King James Version these verses seem to imply that the people were commanded or instructed to divorce. But the Jewish translation gives a better rendering:
When a man taketh a wife, and marrieth her, then it cometh to pass, if she find no favour in his eyes, because he hath found some unseemly thing in her, that he writeth her a bill of divorcement, and giveth it in her hand, and sendeth her out of his house, and she departeth out of his house, and goeth and becometh another man's wife, and the latter husband hateth her, and writeth her a bill of divorcement, and giveth it in her hand, and sendeth her out of his house; or if the latter husband die, who took her to be his wife; her former husband who sent her away, may not take her again to be his wife, after that she is defiled; for that is abomination before the LORD; and thou shalt not cause the land to sin, which the LORD thy God giveth thee for an inheritance.
There is no command to divorce given here. The judgment of the law is in verse 4 and concerns what is forbidden after a man marries a woman, becomes displeased with her, gives her a bill of divorce and another man does the same to her, When and if that happens, the law forbade her to remarry her first husband. This was to check a hasty divorce and prevent further degradation, The man had to consider the consequences. Once he divorced his wife and she remarried, there was no chance for him to get her back even though her second husband divorced her. Christ taught plainly against divorce which is actually the same as polygamy, Instead of having more than one wife, a man who has married, divorced and remarried, has an actual wife and a discarded wife. The Bible makes it plain that polygamy or divorce is nothing less than adultery and a violation of the seventh commandment (Ex. 20:14; Rom. 7:2-3).
Why God sent Israel to War
Both the Old and New Testament explain that war fare is not God's Way. It is the transgression of the sixth commandment: "Thou shalt not kill." It is contrary to Christ's teaching to love our enemies and it destroys faith in God to protect us and fight our battles for us. Why, then, did God command Israel to fight against its enemies? Since Israel lacked faith and would not trust God to fight their battles for them, they became a warfaring nation. God allowed them to make this decision just as He allows individuals to sin and allows nations to go to war. He permits it, but doesn't approve it. But even though God allowed Israel to go to war, He still wanted His purpose to be carried out. He wanted the Israelites — the descendants of Abraham — to take over and settle in the land He promised Abraham. As Mr. Armstrong explains in his booklet, "Military Service and War," since Israel had made the decision to be a fighting nation, "God used them to do the fighting in driving out the inhabitants illegally possessing the land God had allotted to Abraham's descendants. Consequently God gave orders for them to do what fighting — and killing — was necessary to accomplish God's PURPOSE of putting them in the land of Promise!" (p. 33). But even though God allowed it, that didn't make warfare right. It still was a sin which God permitted because He created men as free moral agents. God's purpose is to develop righteous character in mankind and this requires free moral agency. So God used Israel to accomplish His purpose of exterminating the Gentile inhabitants of the Promised Land. This is why He ordered them to go to war. He told them to do what was required to fulfil His purpose. This is God's prerogative since He has the right to take human life. He merely used Israel as His instrument and executioner. The actions of the prophets and kings must be regarded in this light. Since Israel was a warfaring nation, they used strategy, deception and fighting skills to overcome their enemies. So Elisha deceived the King of Syria by strategem (II Kings 6:19). David's treatment of the Moabites (II Sam. 8:2) was right according to the rules and customs of warfare. All of them could have been killed, but David, through mercy, spared a full third of them.
Sinful Actions of Righteous Men
People are shocked and bewildered when they read of the sins committed by the prophets and kings in the Old Testament. How could such righteous men like David, Abraham, and Moses — men God used — commit such atrocious acts as are described in detail? The Bible, like no other book, contains moral teaching. It tells us how to live rightly in obedience to God and His laws. The Bible teaches by giving examples of what happened when men disobeyed God. It graphically portrays the end result of sin. By reading these examples, we should know how to avoid the same pitfalls and making the same mistakes (I Cor. 10:6-14). Both good and bad points in a man's character are revealed in the Bible. His faults, failings and sins as well as virtues are there for all to see. Tuck gives the reason why:
The direct relations of Scripture to the teaching of morals comes out in nothing so impressively as in the fact that the character and conduct of the persons introduced are fully and honestly detailed. In the ordinary biographies of gifted and good people we always have one-sided pictures. The human faults are hidden or slurred over, and palliated. Exactly the opposite is true of the Scriptures. Their mission is moral; so they give us the men as they really were, and expect us to call their moral failings by their right names, and to learn from their sins as well as from their virtues. (Robert Tuck, A Handbook of Biblical Difficulties, p. 14.)
Abraham was a man of great faith. But the Bible records a time when he lacked faith and committed a sin. When he instructed Sarah his wife to tell the Egyptians she was his sister (Gen. 12:11-33), he not only told her to lie but showed by this action that he lacked faith in God to preserve both himself and Sarah from the dangers confronting them in Egypt. This God did in spite of Abraham's transgression and weakness. Moses' impulsiveness is illustrated on three occasions: (1) when he slew the Egyptian (Ex. 2:11-12), (2) when he dashed down the tables on which were written the Ten Commandments (Ex. 32:19) and (3) when he smote the rock twice at Meribah, instead of only speaking to it as God commanded (Num. 20:3-13). Gideon had good intentions but did wrong by trying to take the arrangement of the religious affairs into his own hands (Judges 8:27). This act influenced all Israel to go a whoring after false gods. Then we come to the example of David — called "a man after God's own heart" (I Sam. 13:14). His sins and weaknesses are vividly illustrated. But so are his good points. God recorded David's sin of adultery and his subsequent killing of Uriah the Hittite so he could have Uriah's wife Bathsheba for himself. But He also recorded his deep repentance (Psa. 51) in order that we might learn a valuable lesson from it. That lesson shows how merciful and long-suffering God is towards His people, and how much He is willing to forgive us if only we will recognize and rightly value the great sacrifice that Christ made to atone for our sins. David's sin of numbering the people (II Samuel 24:1-17) puzzles some people. David's census was a sin, but it is not always wrong to take a census. The purpose of the census is what must be considered. Remember, Moses also numbered Israel (Ex. 30:12), but that census was directed by God for the purpose of obtaining money for building the tabernacle. That census was not wrong. The census instituted by David was wrong, however. First, notice that Satan, not God, provoked David to number Israel (I Chron. 21:1). The census was inspired by Satan the Devil rather than God. Secondly, the sin of David consisted in its being for the purpose of knowing how many warriors were available for some meditated plan of conquest. Notice that the military leader, Joab, directed this census. If David trusted in God to fight his battles, the number of warriors would not be necessary to be known. If David could know how many warriors he had in comparison with his enemy (I Chron. 21:3), that would satisfy his pride and vanity. Thirdly, the census enabled David to institute a permanent system of taxation which was regarded, at that time, as a reproach upon the freedom of the people and not to be used by the king of Israel. For these three reasons, God regarded this census taken by David as a sin. David repented of this sin, however, but not before many thousands of people were killed because of it (I Chron. 21 and II Sam. 24).
Acts of Treachery
Ehud's treacherous assassination of Eglon (Judges 3:15-21) presents another difficulty. If God raised up Ehud to deliver Israel, how could he do such a thing? There is no doubt that treachery and assassination are wrong in God's sight. Although God raised up Ehud as the deliverer of Israel, no directive was given to Ehud to do what he did. God's purpose, however, is carried out through the actions of men whether they be good or bad.
Tuck comments on this point by saying:
It is not always sufficiently recognized that, in using men as the agents for carrying out His purposes, God employs mortal beings, who put character into the method of their obedience. God orders the thing, but man finds the particular way of doing it. And so God may approve and reward the thing done, and even punish the agent for the sin in his method of doing it. An illustration of this may be found in the story of the violent Jehu (Robert Tuck, A Handbook of Biblical Difficulties, p. 13).
The story of Jehu's slaughter of the Baal worshippers is found in II Kings 10:18-28. God allows His servants to devise their own methods in carrying out His will.
It will become clear that, in many cases, God can approve, and even reward, a man for the thing done, when He must disapprove, and even punish a man for, the spirit and manner in which he has done it (Ibid. p. 62).
There are acts of apparent cruelty that may be difficult to understand. The account of Elisha cursing little children (II Kings 2:23-24) is one. All becomes clear when we understand that "little children" should be translated "youths," that "thou bald head" was an insolent epithet of contempt, and that these juvenile delinquents were expressing the sneers and sarcasms of their idolatrous parents. God's judgment on them was to teach others to honor and respect the office of God's minister.
Is God Merciful?
When we see how God punished people or directed Israel to carry out the punishment, it appears that He is overly cruel and heartless. We must examine all the evidence to discern the real attitude of God. Look at the destruction of the entire Canaanite population (Josh. 8:26-28). At first glance, it looks unmerciful. But, as Tuck says, "the national condition of the Canaanites called for an overwhelming national judgment" (Ibid., p. 27). And here again we must remember that God's purpose must be fulfilled. Before the Israelites could safely dwell in the Promised Land, that land had to be cleansed of its idolatry, idolatrous symbols and relics and even of the corrupt and perverted people. Torrey further explains:
First of all, let us say, it is certainly appalling that any people should be utterly put to the sword, not only the men of war, but the old men and old women as well, and the young women and children. But there is something more appalling than even this, when one stops to think about the matter, and that is that the iniquity of any people should have become so full, their rebellion against God so strong and so universal, their moral corruption and debasement so utter and so pervasive, even down to babes just born, as to make such treatment absolutely necessary in the interests of humanity (R. A. Torrey, Difficulties in the Bible, p. 48).
It was out of mercy and kindness to the nation of Israel and the human race that God caused this cancerous and corrupt nation to be destroyed. If it had been allowed to remain, Israel would have been corrupted by it. The destruction of Amalek (I Sam. 15:2-3) is said to be one of the most perplexing difficulties in God's Word. We need to realize that the Amalekites as a people had done wrong against Israel. God demanded that the death penalty be exacted by Israel. The death penalty required the death or destruction of the guilty race.
God Reguires Exact Obedience
Many difficulties can be solved by realizing that God requires exact and complete obedience to His instructions and punishes the disobedient. Uzzah had good intentions when he tried to keep the Ark from falling, but he had to die because Godts instructions were not obeyed. The fault was mainly David's and Uzzah suffered because of it.
He died to awaken David to the importance of exact obedience to God's injunctions. He was an example of disobedience in touching the Ark, for which the stumbling of the oxen seemed a good excuse. The example, and the judgment following, opened David's eyes to see his disobedience in putting the Ark on a cart, when God had commanded that it should only be carried on the shoulders of the Levites (Robert Tuck, A Handbook of Biblical Difficulties, p. 35).
Compare I Chronicles 13:1-14 with chapter 15:1-2, 11-15. Uzzah's good intentions didn't excuse the failure to obey exactly as God had instructed. And because Saul also disobeyed God and chose to spare the condemned king Agag, Samuel as God's prophet had to carry out the sentence by hewing Agag in pieces (I Sam. 15:33). About this incident, Tuck says:
Man must obey God just as God commands. Exact, unquestioning obedience is so absolutely essential as the foundation of morals and character, that even a scene like this of the killing of Agag may be necessary to get it fixed on the mind of a king, of a nation, and through the Bible, of the world.... but we may fairly regard it as the striking dramatic teaching of the all-important truth, that if man proposes to obey God, he must obey thoroughly and precisely (Ibid. p. 48, emphasis mine).
Another incident is recorded in I Kings 13. A prophet from Judah was told not to eat and drink while performing his mission in Bethel. But a prophet from Bethel lied to him and said: "I am a prophet also as thou art; and an angel spake unto me by the word of the LORD, saying, Bring him back with thee into thine house, that he may eat bread and drink water" (I Kings 13:18). Instead of obeying God's exact instructions, this prophet from Judah trusted in the words of a man. Because of his disobedience, he was killed by a lion and buried in Bethel. It sounds so harsh, but we need to learn the lesson brought out by Tuck:
God requires a strict, precise, minute, and entire obedience of His commands. When He speaks, man must do at once, exactly and without questioning, what He orders. He must be even obeyed in the precise way He directs. It is not enough for man to obey, but to choose his own times and ways. To teach this lesson God shows that He will not pass over even small failures from obedience in His trusted and honoured servants (Ibid. p. 53, emphasis mine).
The prophet from Judah was deceived, but this chapter is not about deceivers. It is about those who don't perfectly obey God. The prophet from Judah didn't carry out God's precise instructions and was punished for it as a warning to us and to all ages. These examples are vital lessons to us who read about them. They are written and recorded for our adminition (I Cor. 10:11).