The Bible says “happy is he who dashes your little ones against the rocks,” so God must be evil. So says the New Atheist Movement, led by authors Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Christopher Hitchens. These Four Horsemen, and others with them, have made significant inroads against Christianity in the pop culture. This is not good from my perspective, but it is reality.
And it’s not surprising. After all, parents have outsourced their parental job to government schools, social media, and Netflix, and eagerly let pop culture icons like Katy and Miley raise their kids. Sects like Stanton teach a distorted view of God as well, and contribute to the problem. I’ve seen so many people escape Stanton and turn to atheism in an attempt to run to the opposite extreme. This blog is about finding a reasonable middle ground that includes theism, but not the unbiblically oppressive god that so many leaving Stanton run from.
Can we just stipulate that pop culture is not where the intellectually rigorous go to sharpen their thinking? And make no mistake, the New Atheist movement, for all its pretense of intellectual rigor, is purely a product of the pop culture. Their coordinated attacks on theism are an overt attempt to advocate for self-seeking, a pursuit that destroys every civilization that’s tried it. And our post-modernist culture provides a petri dish for this hedonism to grow and thrive, seeking to unground human morality from any and all absolutes.
Whatever anyone wants to believe is perfectly OK, they say. Who are we to judge? Unless it is a Judeo-Christian belief, then it’s fine to judge all you want, and even attack the believer. I’m not interested in whining and complaining about that, I accept that. What I’m not willing to accept is the charge that the God who endowed us with the natural rights that made America a great nation, and who created a moral framework for humanity to thrive, also endorses infanticide. That is just propaganda.
Since the beginning of the world, those who accept ethical monotheism have always been the targets of societies that want free license to do whatever feels good—whatever advances their well-being, however they choose to define it. For pagan tribes, like the Aztecs and even modern isolated people groups, it may be human sacrifice. For the Canaanite cult of Molech (and Planned Parenthood?) it is child sacrifice.
But did the God of Israel take pleasure in the murder of children? This is currently one of the most popular slams against the Bible, probably because the phrase “happy is he who dashes your littles against the rocks” is a head turner when wrested from its context. It’s an easy argument to make when people like Dawkins have such a biblically illiterate audience to sell books to.
I think the charge comes up more frequently now that pro-life advocates seem to be making political and legislative headway in the fight to defend the innocent. They use the classic “yeah, but” defense. Killing babies is evil. “Yeah, but your God endorses it.” No, not quite.
Let’s look at those passages and bring a dose of reality to the conversation. Here’s the entire 137th psalm with the offending phrase at the end:
1 By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept
when we remembered Zion.
2 There on the poplars
we hung our harps,
3 for there our captors asked us for songs,
our tormentors demanded songs of joy;
they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
4 How can we sing the songs of the Lord
while in a foreign land?
5 If I forget you, Jerusalem,
may my right hand forget its skill.
6 May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth
if I do not remember you,
if I do not consider Jerusalem
my highest joy.
7 Remember, Lord, what the Edomites did
on the day Jerusalem fell.
“Tear it down,” they cried,
“tear it down to its foundations!”
8 Daughter Babylon, doomed to destruction,
happy is the one who repays you
according to what you have done to us.
9 Happy is the one who seizes your infants
and dashes them against the rocks.
The implication by the New Atheists in quoting this verse is obviously that the God of the Bible was happy about babies being “dashed against the rocks.” Nonsense.
First, let’s dive into the context of the psalm (song) itself. It was most likely penned by Jeremiah. In fact, it is included with the Lamentations of Jeremiah in the Septuagint. That is the Greek translation of the Old Testament that Paul and other New Testament writers would have grown up reading and hearing in the synagogues. As for the historical context, it was written during the Babylonian captivity, after the Kingdom of Judah was sacked by Nebuchadnezzar for doing evil. Babylon was located in modern-day Iraq.
A standard pagan act of domination when taking a city was to kill the infants in front of their mothers, and this is what Babylon did to Judah. Parents watched their babies get murdered by the conquering army. Edom makes a cameo appearance in the passage because they were the kingdom on the southern end of Judah that had a grudge against their neighbors to the north, and incited the Babylonian army to tear Jerusalem to the ground.
But at the end of the Jews’ 70 year captivity, God allowed the Medo-Persian Empire (roughly equivalent to modern-day Iran) to sack Babylon, ending its domination of the region. Cyrus the king of Persia was so determined to conquer smug Babylon, that he is said to have spent two seasons digging manmade tributaries for the deep river protecting Babylon so that his armies could cross on their horses. He was a patient conqueror. He then defeated the Babylonian army outside the walls, only to have them retreat inside the gates.
Since he couldn’t penetrate the city walls, and Babylon had prepared vast stores of food to endure a siege, he dammed the river flowing under the city gates. This provided a passageway for his army in the middle of the night. The book of Daniel describes this last night of Babylonian rule as the once-great empire fell to Persia.
The Jews were gradually given the right of return to their homeland under Cyrus’ rule, and their rebuilding of Jerusalem and its walls would become the topic of Ezra and Nehemiah. Those who didn’t return to Jerusalem from the Babylonian exile became the ancestors of the modern-day Iraqi Jews.
If we are to understand Psalm 137, it’s important to recognize that the legal framework of the Old Law described justice as an eye for an eye (one-for-one retribution). In a primitive civilization, this was a marked improvement over the surrounding pagan cultures, which most often had a standard of sevenfold retribution, or worse, death. This psalm, then, was a very human emotional cry for justice from parents who had seen their own babies murdered by the occupying Babylonian army.
Even the most godly of parents whose children have been slaughtered in front of them would understandably have a hard time not wanting some sort of retribution for the murderers. God never prohibits mankind from feeling the emotions of the human experience, and even challenging Him about those experiences. He does want moral restraint; and the Bible describes many overreaches of that. That’s what makes the Bible such a powerful document, because it describes the raw human experience, along with the teaching and training of a loving God trying to improve it.
Notice also that it’s not the author, or even the wronged Jewish parents, who wanted to inflict retribution on Babylonian babies. Jeremiah is simply predicting what will happen. It was a prophetic prediction that some future army (the Medes and Persians) would take joy in slaughtering Babylonian babies, which they did.
Psalm 137 is therefore a mournful piece of poetry based on a real-life historical atrocity. The psalm remembers longingly the Jews’ homeland and independence, but never has God taking joy in the suffering of innocent babies. Nor does Jeremiah, the author, express joy in the slaughter of babies. Instead, it is merely a prediction of a future doom that Babylon would experience.
It is a gross misreading of the text to charge the God of Israel with taking delight in cruelty to children. God is fundamentally a loving and just God, and spent thousands of years educating a rebellious creation with free will about how to maximize human happiness by living society with moral restraint and justice.
God has always had to relate to mankind where he was, not necessarily where he wanted them to be; kind of like what we have to do with our kids. This fits perfectly with the New Testament theme that the Old Law was a “schoolmaster” to bring us to a better understanding of love, law, justice, and grace.
To charge the God of the Bible with atrocities like this one (and others put forward by New Atheist authors) is the result of either intentional deception or biblical and historical illiteracy—and most likely a bit of both. I lay the bulk of the fault at the feet of parents who haven’t taught their kids a sound biblical understanding of the God of love the Bible reveals.
Kids who have grown up believing everything that is recorded in the Bible was endorsed by God have been set up for future unbelief whey they see that bad things by both good and bad people are recorded in it. But the disingenuous New Atheists have an easy time preying on those who really have no interest in thinking through these things for themselves. Most people just want to be free to “enjoy their life,” as Christopher Hitchens’ bus tour promoted. What they don’t understand is that they are sowing the wind, and will reap the whirlwind.
If you were raised with this view of scripture (or you came to understand it that way, whether intentionally or not), I encourage you to consider that you’ve been misjudging the God of the Bible based on teachings of men. It’s not hard to reclaim the doctrine of Christ (i.e., the preeminence of love) on which Jesus says the entire law and the prophets hang. Isn’t that good news?
In the meantime, we should inoculate our kids against the anti-God propaganda in our pop culture by teaching them the truth—that the Bible is a faithfully recorded history of mankind’s best and worst moments. It was never intended to be a code book to be cited like a municipal building ordinance. It contains the good, the bad, and the ugly parts of human history. But what ties it all together into a coherent volume is its unfolding revelation of morality, and the “golden thread.” That golden thread is the Good News of Jesus Christ that runs through it from Genesis through Revelation.