One of the constant challenges made by skeptics of the existence of God is what they sometimes call the tyranny of God. The charge is that God has done things that make it impossible to believe that He is a God of love and mercy. They suggest that the biblical stories are just myths contrived by brutal and primitive societies. This misunderstanding is often caused by Bible translations.
They give examples like 2 Samuel 12:31 where David “puts people under saws, axes, and iron and passes them through brick kilns: … ” Perhaps the most frequently used case is 2 Kings 2:23-25 where Elisha has God send a bear to rip up a group of children who are kidding him because he is bald. Just reading these stories in your KJV Bible might make you think that there is some validity to the challenges, but there is a far more basic problem here.
The problem in these cases and many others is translation. In many cases, the King James is a very poor translation of the original language, and the meaning many English words has changed since 1611. You can see this by looking at modern Bible translations or by using The Word: The Bible in Twenty-six Translations. Let us take the two examples above to see what we mean.
Second Samuel 12:31 does not say that David cut up people with saws and irons and burned them in kilns. It says he forced them into doing these things as labor. The people involved cut wood, made bricks, picked rock, and the like. It may have been hard labor, but it was not wanton brutality. The story in 2 Kings 2:23 -25 is badly distorted by the KJV use of the word “child.” The actual Hebrew word in the passage refers to a young man in a militant form–sometimes referring to an army. This was a gang of teenage thugs who were not just making fun of Elisha, but denigrating God and His spokesman. The reference to baldness probably had to do with the fact that lepers shaved their heads, and as such were outcasts. This is a case of a direct challenge to God and His representative.
To get at the question of whether we understand God’s methods, purposes, or nature, we must look at the original language and the context in which it was written. Failure to do this is not confined to those who would discredit God. It is also seen in the work of some fundamentalists and religionists.
In the debates about evolution, many creationists do not look at the words in Genesis and what they mean and how they were understood by the people of Moses’ day. The fact that the Sun, Moon, and stars were created in verse 1 and then became fully visible in verses 14-19 is lost if one does not look at the difference between the process of creating (Hebrew bara) and making (Hebrew asah). Failure to take the Hebrew words literally has caused some to limit God’s creative process to the week of Genesis when clearly God’s miraculous acts took place before the week started.
Those who claim to take the Bible literally must work at understanding what the author wanted to convey in the original language. Comparing different Bible translations can help to clarify some problems. For a detailed explanation of the Hebrew words in Genesis, we recommend our booklet God’s Revelation in His Rocks and in His Word available in printed form or online.
–John N. Clayton © 2017