Urban Legends of the Old Testament: Radical Islam Has Inherited Ishmael’s Violent Spirit (Genesis 16:12)

Editor’s note: This piece comes from an upcoming book by Gary Yates and David Croteau, Urban Legends of the Old Testament, a sequel to Urban Legends of the New Testament.

The dismissal of Hagar  by  Pieter Pietersz Lastman .

The dismissal of Hagar by Pieter Pietersz Lastman.

He shall be a wild donkey of a man,
his hand against everyone
and everyone’s hand against him,
and he shall dwell over against all his kinsmen.
— Genesis 16:12

The Legendary Teaching on Ishmael and His Descendants

Abraham’s lack of faith and patience that led to the birth of Ishmael through Hagar is the cause of the perpetual conflict between Arabs (the descendants of Ishmael) and Jews (the descendants of Isaac) in the Middle East today. The Bible informs us that the conflict between Ishmael and Isaac would be never ending. Arabs, as the descendants of Ishmael, have inherited his rebellious (“like a wild donkey”) and violent qualities (Gen 16:12), and the existence of radical Islam and violent jihadism is proof that “the spirit of Ishmael” still exists among Arab peoples today. 


Countering the Legendary Teaching

The portrayal of Ishmael as a “wild donkey” conveys a positive message that even resembles the portrayal of the twelve tribes of Israel in Genesis 49. The Bible never prophesies a perpetual conflict between the sons of Isaac and Ishmael, and Ishmael’s descendants even have a vital role in the working out of salvation history and a share in the covenantal blessings given to Abraham and extended through Isaac.


Birth Announcement and Hope for an Oppressed Woman

The declaration that Ishmael would be “like a wild donkey” in Gen 16:12 appears in the context of a birth announcement designed to offer hope and encouragement to a beleaguered slave. Tony Maalouf explains, “Having been the recipient of a special revelation from the ‘God who sees’ everything and cares for everyone, it would become much easier for Hagar to accept her circumstances.”[1] The angelic announcement concerning Ishmael in Gen 16:10–12 was a positive message concerning the future of Hagar’s son.

Readers today understandably read “like a wild donkey” as an insult. Referring to someone in this way in our culture would likely lead to an angry confrontation. Comparing someone to a donkey might seem to convey the qualities of stupidity, stubbornness, or contentiousness. As part of this comforting announcement to Hagar, however, the image likely is a promise that Ishmael and his descendants would enjoy the freedom and independence of living as roving nomads, in spite of the difficulties that such a lifestyle would also entail.

The term wild donkey (pere’) appears only ten times in the Hebrew Bible. It is not always clear whether the connotations associated with the wild donkey are positive or negative. The prevailing ideas associated with this animal appear to be “freedom, isolation, and wilderness habitat.”[2] Gordon Wenham states that the wild donkey is a figure for “an individualistic lifestyle untrammeled by social convention.”[3] The wild donkey lives in barren areas (Job 24:5; Isa 32:14; Jer 14:6; Hos 8:9). In Job 39:5–8, the wild donkey lives in the wilderness and laughs at the noise of the city and, unlike his domesticated counterpart, never has to endure the abusive commands of a taskmaster.

            The second statement about Ishmael in Gen 16:12 does refer to hostilities that would exist between Ishmael (and his descendants) and surrounding peoples. The Hebrew reads: “hand-to-hand with everyone and everyone hand-to-hand with him” and is somewhat ambiguous in meaning because of the lack of a verb. Nevertheless, in twenty-seven of the thirty-three instances in which the noun hand (yad) is followed by the preposition be (“in, on, upon, against”) that has a person, people, or inhabited area for its object, the sense is adversarial and denotes conflict (e.g., Exod 7:4; Josh 2:19; 1 Kgs 11:26–27).[4] The NET Bible even reads, “He will be hostile to everyone, and everyone will be hostile to him.” A people at perpetual odds would seem to be disagreeable and violent, but this statement needs to be read in light of the surrounding context. We have two other important uses of “hand” in this context that inform our understanding here. In Gen 16:6, Abram says to his disgruntled wife Sarai concerning Hagar: “your slave is in your hands” (be + yad) and that she could do with Hagar as she wished. Sarai then mistreats Hagar so that she flees from Abram’s household. In verse 9, the angel of the Lord instructs Hagar to return to Sarai and to submit “to her authority” (tahat + yad; lit. “under her hand”).

The statement in verse 12 about Ishmael’s “hand” being against everyone should then be understood at least in part as a promise of the reversal of Hagar’s powerlessness in verse 9. Ishmael would not be subjugated to others in the way that Hagar was to Sarai, and he would have the strength to stand up to others when wronged. Maalouf explains, “Constant roaming of the bedouin tribes in the desert, with no established legal system and clear civil law code, put them in a state of conflict with each other, and set others against them for fear of their raids, since nomads dislike the settled life.”[5] The point is that Ishmael would be able to contend for himself in these disagreements and confrontations.

The final statement concerning Ishmael in verse 12 that he would “settle near (‘al pene) all his relatives” is also open to interpretation. Because ‘al pene does have an adversarial sense in other passages (e.g., Job 1:11; 6:28), some English translations (NIV, NRSV, NLT) view this statement as also referring to perpetual conflict between Ishmael and his neighbors The NIV reads that Ishmael “will live in hostility toward all his brothers.” The preposition ‘al pene more often has a spatial nuance and likely refers in Genesis 16 to how Ishmael would live away from other peoples because of his Bedouin lifestyle. The fact that ‘al pene has this spatial meaning in Gen 25:18 with reference to Ishmael’s descendants suggests the same meaning is intended here.[6] This last description of Ishmael says nothing about violence or hostility.

            The announcement that Ishmael would be like a wild donkey parallels the depiction of a number of the tribes of Israel in Jacob’s blessing of his sons in Genesis 49. Judah is like “a young lion” (v. 9), Issachar “a strong donkey” (v. 14), Dan “a viper” (v. 17), Naphtali “a doe set free” (v. 21), and Benjamin “a wolf” (v. 27). The portrayals of Judah and Benjamin as a lion and wolf are violent in nature and would seem to depict these tribes as violent—predators tearing apart their prey (vv. 9, 27). Judah would subjugate his enemies so that the nations would give obedience to him (vv. 8, 10), and this promise ultimately points to the dominion of the house of David and the future Messiah. Under attack from archers, Joseph’s bow would be strong and agile (v. 23).[7] Military strength would be essential for Israel’s survival and security as a nation in the violent world of the ancient Near East. These portrayals, however, do not infer that Israel was a vicious, warmongering people, and we should avoid drawing similar conclusions about Ishmael and his descendants on the basis of Gen 16:12. We would not suggest from Genesis 49 that the “spirit of Judah” or “spirit of Benjamin” is responsible for the present-day conflicts in the Middle East.


Isaac and Ishmael in Perpetual Conflict?

Christopher Heard notes that, contrary to popular opinion, the Old Testament never prophesies perpetual animosity between the descendants of Ishmael and Isaac.[8] The two brothers are never in conflict as adults and join to bury their father in Gen 25:9. Isaac subsequently lives near Ishmael, suggesting cordial relations between the two. Joseph’s brothers sell Joseph into slavery to a caravan of Ishmaelite traders who take him to Egypt (Gen 37:25–29), but Joseph’s own brothers are the ones who act in hatred. Only two passages in the Old Testament refer to Ishmaelites committing acts of violence against Israel. Ishmaelites carry out raids against Israel during the time of Gideon (Judg 8:24), and Ishmaelites and Hagrites are mentioned as enemies that conspire against Israel in Ps 83:6. Heard writes, “Although Christians commonly claim that Isaac’s and Ishmael’s descendants have fought constantly since Isaac’s birth, it is hard to sustain that claim with biblical evidence.”[9]


God’s Blessing of Ishmael and His Descendants

Ishmael is not the promised child through whom God’s covenant promises to Abraham would be fulfilled, but this fact does not minimize God’s blessing of Ishmael or negate his redemptive concern for Ishmael’s descendants. The circumcision of Ishmael in Gen 17:23 demonstrates that he was included in the blessings of the Abrahamic covenant. The name Ishmael (“God hears”) is testimony to how God had been attentive to the cries of Hagar when she was alone in the wilderness after Sarai sent her away when Hagar was with child (Gen 16:11). The promise that Ishmael would have many descendants (Gen 16:10) parallels the promises to Abraham that he would have numerous offspring (Gen 15:5; 17:20; 22:17).

The blessing of Ishmael would in fact help to bring fulfillment of specific covenant promises to Abraham—that he would be the father of many nations (Gen 17:4–5) and that all nations would be blessed through Abraham (Gen 12:3; 18:18; 22:18). Isaiah 60:6–8 specifically mentions the inclusion and participation of Ishmael’s descendants (Midian, Kedar, Nebaioth; compare Gen 25:13; 28:9; 37:28) in the future kingdom when the nations stream to Zion to worship the Lord. Ishmael’s descendants will bring their wealth as tribute to the Lord and their flocks and herds for sacrifices to the Lord.

            Other specific literary features in Genesis point to favorable and sympathetic readings of the characters Hagar and Ishmael. The birth announcement from the angel concerning Ishmael is the first of such annunciations in Scripture, and similar annunciations in the Old Testament anticipate the birth of a special or promised child (including Isaac, Samson, and Samuel). Hagar’s experience when God intervenes to deliver Ishmael from death in Genesis 21 parallels Abraham’s as he prepares to offer Isaac in Genesis 22.[10] Both Hagar and Abraham take a journey to a desolate place, and both hear an angel from heaven announcing God’s intervention on behalf of their sons (Gen 21:17; 22:11–12). 

 The depiction of Ishmael in Genesis also invites comparison with Joseph in that both are expelled from their home because of their master’s wife.[11] Sarah expels Ishmael because she observes him “laughing” (mocking?) (tsahaq) at the feast for Isaac’s weaning (Gen 21:8–10), and Potiphar’s wife falsely accuses Joseph of attempting to rape her and thus “mocking” (tsahaq) his master’s house (Gen 39:14–17). In spite of their unfair treatment, both young men prosper because God is “with” them (Gen 21:20; 39:2, 21). These favorable comparisons with other individuals who are part of the covenant people of God suggest that we should also view Hagar and Ishmael as positive characters, not as the ancestors of Israel’s perpetual enemies.



Christians have often used wrong interpretations or simplistic readings of Scripture to justify prejudice or hatred toward specific groups of people. Identifying the mark of Cain in Genesis 4:15 as the curse of black skin or equating Native Americans with the Canaanites to justify their extermination are two prominent examples of such readings. Attributing the conflict in the Middle East to “the spirit of Ishmael” or the lack of evangelical compassion toward Arab refugees in our current environment reflects a similar misreading of the Bible. The genealogical relationship between Ishmael and present-day Arabs is complex to begin with, and the statement that Ishmael would be “like a wild donkey” in Gen 16:12 does not characterize Arab peoples as violent. Ishmael plays a strategic role in the working out of God’s plan to bless all nations through Abraham (Gen 12:3), and the descendants of Ishmael will be among the people of God “from every tribe and language and people and nation” (Rev 5:9). Loving the descendants of Ishmael is a reflection of the heart and character of God himself.


Annotated Bibliography


 Maalouf, Tony. Arabs in the Shadow of Israel: The Unfolding of God’s Prophetic Plan for Ishmael’s Line. Grand Rapids: Kregel Academic, 2003. Helpful treatment from an Arab Christian of the role of Ishmael and Arab peoples in the working out of God’s kingdom purposes.



 Wenham, Gordon J. Genesis 1–15 and 16–50. Word Biblical Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2017). Scholarly evangelical commentary with two volumes on Genesis, here presented as one volume.



 Heard, Christopher. “On the Road to Paran: Toward a Christian Perspective on Hagar and Ishmael.” Interpretation 68 (2014): 270–85. Argues for a more charitable Christian reading of the figure of Ishmael.



 Rishmawy, Derek. “I Am Not Abraham’s Mistake.” Patheos, Christ and Pop Culture (blog). February 27, 2013. http://www.patheos.com/blogs/christandpopculture/2013/02/i–am–not–abrahams–mistake/. Argues that popular evangelical theology about Arabs often contradicts biblical teaching.



[1] Tony Maalouf, Arabs in the Shadow of Israel: The Unfolding of God’s Prophetic Plan for Ishmael’s Line (Grand Rapids: Kregel Academic, 2003), 65.

[2] R. Christopher Heard, Dynamics of Dislection: Ambiguities in Genesis 12–36 and Ethnic Boundaries in Post-exilic Judah, Semeia Studies 39 (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2001), 69.

[3] Gordon J. Wenham, Genesis 16–50, Word Biblical Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2015), 11.

[4] Heard, Dynamics of Dislection, 69–70.

[5] Maalouf, Arabs in the Shadow of Israel, 72.

[6] Heard, Dynamics of Dislection, 72.

[7] A strong case can be made for an alternate reading of Gen 49:22 that translates the verse as depicting Joseph as the “son of a donkey” (ben porat) in a manner that recalls the depiction of Ishmael “like a wild donkey” (pere’ ’adam) (rather than “a fruitful vine”). The noun son (ben) is never used with a plant elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible but does appear with animals (Gen 18:7; Ps 29:6). See S. Gevirts, “Of Patriarchs and Puns: Joseph at the Fountain, Jacob at the Ford,” Hebrew Union College Annual 46 (1975): 35–49.

[8] Christopher Heard, “On the Road to Paran: Toward a Christian Perspective on Hagar and Ishmael,” Interpretation 68 (2014): 276–77.

[9] Heard, “On the Road to Paran,” 279.

[10] For fuller development of the Hagar-Abraham parallels, see S. Nikaido, “Hagar and Ishmael as Literary Figures: An Intertextual Study,” Vetus Testamentum 51 (2001): 221–29.

[11] Nikaido, “Hagar and Ishmael,” 232–41.

Adoption, the Children of God, and the Spirit of Supererogation

Adoption, the Children of God, and the Spirit of Supererogation

Jeffrey R. Dickson

The Bible illustrates the wonder of redemption in many captivating ways—all of which demonstrate the goodness of a loving God. One analogy that has become especially meaningful to my family is that of adoption. The apostle Paul writes,

But when the fullness of the time came, God sent forth His son, born of a woman, born under the Law, so that He might redeem those who were under the Law, that we might receive the adoption as sons. Because you are sons, God has sent for the Spirit of His Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’ Therefore you are no longer a slave, but a son; and if a son, then an heir through God. (Gal. 4:4-7)

Recently our family adopted a beautiful little girl and this process has provided us with a new appreciation for what God has accomplished for sinners. This growing admiration for what Christ has completed for the lost has come by means of several parallels that might be drawn between our family’s personal adoption story and Jesus’ program of redemption. To be sure, any comparison between Christ’s salvific work and my family’s experience should not be taken as a suggestion of congruency between the two. However, several similarities do exist that elucidate the heart of spiritual adoption, something of the abundance of God’s grace, and its implications for the believer.

First, my wife and I were under no obligation to adopt. In fact, prior to our newest addition we already had three children of our own. Though we tragically lost our third child (a son) a couple years ago, the only motivating factor behind our desire to adopt a new baby stemmed from a deep and mysterious yearning to show love to another child. Similarly, God was not obligated to redeem lost sinners in a way that would bring them into his family. As God is perfect and (as the passage above intimates) exists in triune community, there is no insufficiency, loneliness, or incompleteness that adopting sinners could possibly satisfy. Instead, it is his mysterious desire to share love, particularly for his Son, with others that motivates him to grow his family. If supererogation is defined as the performance of a work or activity that transcends what duty or obligation requires, God’s spiritual adoption of the sinner is supererogatory in excelsis and par excellence. (Admittedly, some would argue that God himself has no duties, in which case he can’t go beyond his duties, since he doesn’t have any; even if so, though, there’s something of the spirit of the supererogatory at play here in God’s unspeakable grace. Language of duties alone is inadequate to the task of capturing God’s great love.)

That God’s grace is beyond explication in terms of duties alone in adopting anyone manifests in several additional parallels that can be drawn between our family’s experience and the experience of redeemed sinners everywhere. For instance, the offer of adoption is not always reciprocated. For my wife and me, the process of being matched with a birth mother involved sharing our carefully crafted profile with several potential women. Five of these women passed us over for someone else in spite of what we believed was a fairly attractive and convincing presentation. Though we thought we had produced a convincing appeal to raise their biological children, they decided to choose another family. In the same way, Christ’s offer of adoption into the family of God is not always accepted either. This is especially curious given all the convincing proofs of his ministry (as witnessed, for instance, in the compelling case for the historicity of his resurrection), his glory (as seen in the beauty and design found in creation), and his goodness (as evidenced in common grace throughout the world and moral tendencies within the human person). In fact, God’s case for adoption includes the most compelling profile of all, rendering the proposition of passing it over for something/someone else especially grievous and tragic.

Adoption also comes at an unusually high price, often requiring great sacrifice. This was true in the life of our family as we counted the cost and sacrificed plans and pleasures to satisfy what was required to bring our girl home. Added to legal costs were traveling fees and other accommodations as we were made to go a long distance and remain a couple of weeks before being reunited with our older children. Even further, there were multiple hoops through which we were made to jump in order to bring our adoption to finalization. However, what was true in a financial, emotional, geographic, and legal sense for our family is even truer of Christ who, in providing for the adoption of sinners, was required to pay the ultimate price—his life. Not only that, but Christ traveled much farther in his efforts to arrange for sinners to be invited into the family of God and ripped through far more red tape.

. . .although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. (Philippians 2:5b-8)

This passage highlights not only the special and sacrificial barriers Jesus crossed, but also demonstrates the myriad of hoops he jumped through, as it were, in order to pave the way for the spiritual adoption of the redeemed.

Finally, for our family (and most others who adopt children), our new baby girl will not be considered a second-class child nor will she even be introduced as “my adopted daughter.” We consider her as much ours as our other children and her status as one of ours will never change. She has become another member of our family in every way for as long as God leaves us on the earth. In fact, she stands to inherit a portion of what little my wife and I may leave behind along with our other kids. Similarly, God’s adopted children are called “sons and daughters of God” in every meaningful sense. Their legitimacy as children in God’s family is further confirmed by the inheritance they will one day share—“therefore, you are no longer a slave, but a son; and if a son, then an heir through God” (Gal. 4:7). This would have proven especially meaningful to the first century reader as most adoptees were adult males and the reason for adoption was usually to pass on one’s inheritance [Hugh Lindsey, Adoption in the Roman World (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 25, 28]. Finally, their status as one of God’s children is permanent as Jesus says, “and I give eternal life to them, and they will never perish; and no one will snatch them out of My hand. My Father, who has given them to Me, is greater than all; and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand” (John 10:28-29). Again, first century readers would have no doubt appreciated the connotation of permanence associated with adoption as under Roman law a man could never disinherit an adopted son but could more easily put away a naturally-born child [Ramsay, A Historical Commentary on St. Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1979), 353)].  

Perhaps this is why the adoption image is utilized in the scriptures to speak of Christ’s redemptive work, for, in it, the unspeakably gracious nature of God is on full display, the high cost of Christ is in full view, and something of the permanence of the familial relationship that is forged as a result is adequately celebrated. All of these considerations demonstrate, among other things, the desperately helpless state of the adoptee (lost sinners) and something of the overwhelming benevolence of the adopter (the Lord God). Much as our little girl was helpless, if left unto herself, to enter a good home, so too are lost sinners without a relationship with Christ. That said, praise be to God that he arranged a program for adoption, provided for its cost in the giving of his Son, and paved the way for full and final inclusion in the family of God.

Jeff Dickson.JPG

Jeffrey Dickson, PhD studied Theology and Apologetics at Liberty University where he now serves as an adjunct professor of Bible and theology. Dr. Dickson is also the senior pastor of Crystal Spring Baptist Church in Roanoke VA where he lives with his wife Brianna and their children.


Urban Legends of the Old Testament: God Created Evil

God Created Evil

Isaiah 45:7

Editor’s note: This piece comes from an upcoming book by Gary Yates and David Croteau, Urban Legends of the Old Testament, a sequel to Urban Legends of the New Testament.

The Legendary Teaching on Isaiah 45:7

Isaiah 45:7 teaches that God is the cause of moral evil in our world. The KJV of Isaiah 45:7 reads: “I form light and create darkness, I make well-being and create evil, I am the Lord who does all these things.” On his blog “Daylight Atheism,” Adam Lee refers to Isaiah 45:7 as one of “the most shocking” passages in the Bible because it reminds us that, “Evil exists because God created it.”[1] Theologians attempting to resolve the dilemma of how and why evil exists in a world under the control of an all-loving, omnipotent, and omniscient deity “can pack it in and go home now,” because this text (and others like it) inform us that evil comes directly from God.[2] Christians mistakenly believe that God is pure and holy when their own Scriptures teach the opposite.


Introduction and Countering the Legend

A rather simple matter of translation corrects the mistaken idea that Isaiah 45:7 views God as the source and creator of evil in the world. The majority of modern translations do not follow the KJV in translating the Hebrew word ra`ah in verse 7 as “evil” but instead offer the translation “calamity” (ESV, NAS, NET, NKJV) or “disaster” (CSB, NIV). The point of the passage then is that God brings or causes “disaster” when he acts in judgment. The blog mentioned above accuses the modern translations of attempting to soften the actual teaching of Isaiah 45:7, but the fact that the Hebrew word ra`ah can refer both to moral “evil” and “disaster/calamity” is recognized in all Hebrew lexicons and easily demonstrated from the biblical text.[3] John Oswalt notes that the range of meaning for the Hebrew word ra`ah  is similar to that of the English word “bad” in that it can refer to moral evil, misfortune, or that which does not conform to a real or imagined standard.[4]      

The Old Testament prophets often made word plays based on the semantic range of ra`ah. On more than one occasion, the Lord commands the people through the prophet Jeremiah to turn from their “evil” (ra`ah) way so that he might relent from bringing upon them the “disaster” (ra`ah) he had planned for them (cf. Jer 26:3; 36:3, 7). The word play effectively communicated how the Lord’s punishments would fit their crimes and justly correspond to the people’s actions. The same idea is found in Jonah 3:10, which states that when God saw that the Ninevites had turned from their “evil” (ra`ah) ways, he did not bring upon them the “disaster” (ra`ah) he had threatened to bring against their city.

              The translation of ra`ah as “calamity” or “disaster” in Isaiah 45:7 also makes sense in light of the message of the entire oracle found in 45:1–7. In verses 1–4, the Lord promises to raise up the pagan ruler Cyrus, the future king of Persia, and to enable him to subdue nations as a means of gaining Israel’s release from exile in Babylon. The Lord would remove every obstacle that stood in the way of Cyrus and would give to him the treasures of the peoples he conquered. Cyrus conquered Babylon in 539 B.C. and issued a decree allowing the Jews to return to their homeland in 538 B.C. The Lord would accomplish his purposes through Cyrus because he is the one true God over all of history (v. 5). Yahweh’s ability to announce his plans in advance and then to carry them out would demonstrate his sovereignty and incomparability to all peoples (vv. 6-7). Verse 7 concludes the oracle with a powerful assertion of the Lord’s control over both nature and history. He is the one who created the light and darkness, and as the creator, he is also the one who uses both “success” (shalom) and “disaster” (ra`ah) in the working out of his plans within history.

The fact that ra`ah carries the meaning of “disaster” or “calamity” is further reflected by how it is contrasted here to shalom, which means “peace, health, or well-being.” As Ben Witherington explains, the text is not saying that God created good and evil, but rather that “he brings both blessing and curse, even on his own people.” [5] The Lord had brought “disaster” on his people in the judgment of exile, but he would also bring the shalom of restoration and return. Israel’s shalom would also mean “disaster” for Babylon. This understanding of Isaiah 45:7 also accords with the clear teaching of James 1:13–17 that God is not the author of evil.

Rather than attributing the origin of moral evil to God, Isaiah 45:7 instead offers a strong affirmation of God’s sovereignty. Gary Smith comments, “Everything that happens in the world is connected to God’s activity, whether it appears to be good or bad. It all works together to fulfill God’s purposes, even if people do not understand or accept these things as the work of God.”[6] God is sovereign over all things but not in a mechanistic way that removes human ethical choices and responsibility. Even when the Lord “raises” or “stirs up” kings and armies to carry out his divine judgments (cf. Isa 9:11; Jer 51:1), these entities acted because of their own evil desires rather than divine compulsion and were fully culpable for their crimes (cf. Isa 10:5–14; Jer 50:29; 51:7, 33–39). In Zechariah 1:15, the Lord states that he is “fiercely angry” at the nations who had gone too far in executing punishment on his own people with whom he was only “a little angry.” The fact that God holds these nations responsible for their actions reflects that they acted on their own accord and that they exceeded God’s intentions. Terence Fretheim comments, “The exercise of divine wrath against their excessiveness shows that the nations were not puppets in the hand of God. They retained their power to make decisions and execute policies that flew in the face of the will of God.”[7]


By David A. Croteau, Gary Yates

Proverbs 16:4: Has God Created Wicked People to Destroy Them?

              The fact that the Hebrew word ra`ah can be translated both as “evil” and “disaster” is not only the key to a proper understanding of Isaiah 45:7, but also helps to clarify the meaning of Proverbs 16:4, another passage dealing with God’s sovereignty over humans and the world he has created. The verse reads, “The Lord has prepared everything for his purpose—even the wicked for the day of ‘disaster’ (ra`ah).” The verse does not mean that God causes wicked people to do evil things, and it is not teaching that God creates the wicked to accomplish his purposes or that he predestines them to do evil so that he might glorify himself by their destruction, as some have claimed.[8] The verse does not explain why God creates wicked people but rather states that God governs his world by making sure that deeds and consequences correspond.[9] The verb “to do” (pa`al) means “to work out, bring about, accomplish,” and most English translations reflect the idea of God working out everything “for its purpose” or “for his purpose.” The word “purpose” (ma`aneh) actually means “answer” (cf. “answer [ma`aneh] of the tongue” in v. 1), and “for its answer” actually refers to how God causes every action to the appropriate consequence as its “answer” or counterpart. God operates his world so that the wicked will ultimately experience their “day of disaster” as punishment for their deeds.[10] Even when judgment is delayed, this ultimate time or reckoning is inevitable and unavoidable. No one is exempt from judgment or accountability to God.             

              This interpretation of Proverbs 16:4 fits with the larger message of Proverbs that the path of wisdom and righteousness leads to life and blessing, while the path of folly and wickedness leads to cursing and death. This understanding also fits with the contextual focus in Proverbs 16:1–7 on how God administers justice to the righteous and the wicked. The Lord “weighs motives” to determine a person’s true nature (16:2), he will not allow the arrogant to go unpunished (16:5), and he causes others to be at peace with a righteous man (16:7).



God’s people can trust that even when evil appears to be winning the day, the Lord remains in control and directs the course of history. If God used the Assyrians, Babylonians, and Persians to accomplish his purposes in the ancient world, we can rest assured that God remains sovereign over the chaotic world that we live in today. Injustice, violence, terrorism, and even the threat of nuclear war will not prevent God from bringing history to its desired end when he rules over all in the new heavens and new earth. God’s sovereignty is such that he uses even the evil plans and actions of sinful humans to accomplish his purposes without in any way being the cause or source of that evil. God is not only all-powerful; he is also perfectly good and holy with no taint of evil in his character. Believers can trust that the one in charge of human history is “too pure” to even look at evil (Hab 1:13).





Oswalt, John N., The Book of Isaiah, Chapters 40-66. NICOT. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998. Scholarly evangelical commentary with clear explanation of meaning of Isaiah 45:7 and why this verse does not teach that God is the creator of moral evil.



Witherington, Ben. “Mistranslated and Misquoted Verses-Isaiah 45:7.” February 20, 2016. http://www.patheos.com/blogs/bibleandculture/2016/02/20/mistranslated-and-misquoted-verses-isaiah-45-7/. Accessed December 20, 2016. Evangelical NT scholar provides brief explanation refuting idea that Isaiah 45:7 presents God as the creator of evil.




[1] Adam Lee, “Little-Bible Verses V: God Creates Evil,” January 21, 2007. Accessed December 20, 2016. http://www.patheos.com/blogs/daylightatheism/2007/01/little-known-bible-verses-v-god-creates-evil/


[2] Ibid.

[3] See the entries on ra`ah in BDB, 949 (categories 2 and 3); and HALOT Study Edition, 2:1262–64 (categories 4 and 5).


[4] John Oswalt, The Book of Isaiah, Chapters 40–66, NICOT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 204–5.

[5] Ben Witherington, “Mistranslated and Misquoted Verses—Isaiah 45:7,” February 20, 2016. http://www.patheos.com/blogs/bibleandculture/2016/02/20/mistranslated-and-misquoted-verses-isaiah-45-7/.. Accessed December 20, 2016.


[6] Gary V. Smith, Isaiah 40–66, NAC 15B (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2009), 258.


[7] Terence E. Fretheim, “’I Was Only a Little Angry’: Divine Violence in the Prophets,” in What Kind of God? Collected Essays of Terence E. Fretheim, Siphrut 14, ed. M. J. Chan and B. A. Strawn (Winona Lake, Ind: Eisenbrauns, 2015), 173–74.


[8] John Calvin (Calvin’s New Testament Commentaries: The Epistles of Paul the Apostle to the Romans and the Thessalonians, trans. Ross Mackenzie [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1960, 1995], 207–8] writes on this verse: “Solomon also teaches us that not only was the destruction of the ungodly foreknown, but the ungodly themselves have been created for the specific purpose of perishing.”


[9] Allen P. Ross, “Proverbs,” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, vol. 6, rev. ed., ed. T. Longman and D. E. Garland (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008), 144.


[10] Ibid.

5 Common Objections to the Moral Argument

By Paul Rezkalla   The Moral Argument for the existence of God has enjoyed a long tradition of defense from theistic philosophers and thinkers throughout the history of Western thought…and a long tradition of misunderstandings and objections from even some of the most brilliant minds. In its abductive form, the moral argument seeks to infer God as the best explanation for the moral facts about the universe. One popular formulation is as follows:

  1. Moral facts are best explained by God’s existence.

  2. Moral facts exist.

  3. Therefore, God exists.

Here are five of the most common objections to the argument and why, in my view, they are not insuperable.

 1. “But I’m a moral person and I don’t believe in God. Are you saying that atheists can’t be moral?”

The moral argument is not about belief in God. Rather, the argument usually deals with grounding and substantiating objective morality. If God does not exist, then objective morality becomes much more difficult to explain. Sure, atheists can be moral. In fact, I know several atheists who are more moral than some theists! Religious leaders in the New Testament were among the biggest detractors and critics of Jesus. The issue of belief is not pertinent. The argument instead highlights the fact that there must be a sufficient basis for there to be objective morality. God, in light of the distinctive features of morality, can be argued to be their best explanation.

2. “But what if you needed to lie in order to save someone’s life? It seems that morality is not absolute as you say it is.”

We need not talk about absolute morality here. There is an important difference between absolute and objective. Absolutism requires that something will or must always be the case. For the record, such moral facts exist—like the inherent badness of torturing children for fun. But nothing so strong is called for here. Objectivity simply means (human) ‘mind-independent’ or ‘judgment-independent’. When I argue for objective morality, I need not argue that it is always the case that lying and killing are wrong; the moral argument I’m sketching does not defend absolute morality. Rather, it contends that there is a standard of morality that transcends human opinions, judgments, biases, and proclivities.

Suppose that some nation today decreed that every one of its brunette citizens would be tortured to death simply for being brunette; it would still be the case that it is wrong to torture brunettes to death simply for being brunette.

The statement, “It is wrong to torture brunettes to death simply for being brunette” is true, regardless of whether or not anyone believes it to be true. This is what is meant by objective.

3. "Where’s your evidence for objective morality? I won’t believe in anything unless I have evidence for it." Well, many would suggest that the evidence for objective morality is ubiquitous. If by ‘evidence’ you mean incontrovertible proof beyond any shadow of doubt, such an evidential standard is simply unrealistic and beyond our ken for nearly everything except a few beliefs internal to our own heads. After all, how do you know with absolute certainty that you are not a brain in a vat being electrically stimulated by a crazy scientist who wants you to think that all of this is real? You could be in the matrix, for all you know (take the blue pill)! How do you know with complete assurance that you weren’t created a couple minutes ago and implanted with memories of your entire past life? How could you possibly prove otherwise?

See where this is going? Denying the existence of something on the basis of, “I will not believe unless I have completely sure evidence for it” leaves you with solipsism, at best. We believe in the reality of the external world on the basis of our sense experience of the external world. And we are justified in believing that the external world is real unless we have good evidence to think otherwise. There is no way to prove with utter certainty that the external world is real, or that the past wasn’t created 2 minutes ago and given the appearance of age. Similarly we have no good noncircular evidence for the reliability of testimony or the reliability of induction, and these are just a few examples we could adduce. And yet we all believe that the external world and the past are real. In the absence of defeating evidence, we are justified in trusting our experience of the external world. In the same way, I think it’s plausible to suggest by parity in reasoning that we can know that objective morality exists on the basis of our moral experience. We have access to moral facts about the universe through our moral experience. Unless we have good reason to distrust such experience, we are justified in accepting the reality of the objective moral framework that it presents us with.

Despite how resistant we might be to accepting the truth of moral objectivity, no one really denies that there are some moral facts (except psychopaths and some sociopaths). Take the following scenario: In 1978 a fifteen year old girl was walking to her grandfather’s house when a man offered to give her a ride. She got in the car with him. He then kidnapped her, raped her repeatedly, hacked off her arms at the elbows with an axe, and left her to die. Although she survived, she was terrorized by this traumatic event. Her attacker served only eight years in prison and told her during the trial that one day he would be back to finish the job.

Now answer the following question: Was this act wrong?

If yes, you believe that there is at least one moral fact in the world.

If no, you face a fairly formidable burden of proof. There’s theoretical space for skepticism, but it’s hardly the obvious position to take.

4. "If morality is objective, then why do some cultures practice female genital mutilation, cannibalism, infanticide, and other atrocities which we deem unacceptable?’

There can be two responses given here:

The first response is that even though not all cultures share the exact same moral facts, most embrace the same, underlying moral values. For example, there are certain tribes that practice senicide (authorized killing of the elderly) due to their belief that everyone in the afterlife will continue living on in the same body that they died with. Thus, in order to ensure that those in the afterlife are capable of hunting, swimming, building houses, etc., the elderly are killed before they become too old to take care of themselves. This act is done with the well-being of the elderly in mind. The moral value that most of us hold would suggest that “the elderly are valuable and must be taken care of,” is also accepted by these tribes, even though their construal of the nonmoral facts diverges from our own.

The second response is that some cultures do, in fact, practice certain things that are straight up morally abominable. Cultures that practice infanticide, female circumcision, widow burning, child prostitution, and the like are practicing acts that are repulsive and morally abhorrent. The fact that we realize the difference in how certain cultures treat their women, children, and elderly and are outraged at immoral practices is evidence that we believe in objective morality. A man’s decision to have his 6-year old daughter circumcised or sold into prostitution is no mere cultural or traditional difference that we should respect, uphold, or praise, or even cultivate an attitude of impartiality toward; rather these are atrocities that need to be advocated against and ended. The existence of multiple moral codes does not negate the existence of objective morality. Are we to condone slavery and segregation simply because they were once allowed under our country’s moral code? Of course not. We condemn those actions, and rightly so.

Take the example of Nazi Germany: the Nazi ideology consented to the slaughter of millions, but their actions were wrong despite their convictions to the contrary. Tim Keller summarizes this point succinctly:

The Nazis who exterminated Jews may have claimed that they didn’t feel it was immoral at all. We don’t care. We don’t care if they sincerely felt they were doing a service to humanity. They ought not to have done it. We do not only have moral feelings, but we also have an ineradicable belief that moral standards exist, outside of us, by which our internal moral feelings are evaluated.

Simply because a society practices acts that are contrary to what is moral does not mean that all moral codes are equal. Moral disagreements do not nullify moral truths, any more than people disagreeing on a mathematical calculation negates an objectively right answer.

5. "But God carried out many atrocities in the Old Testament. He ordered the genocide of the Canaanites." For starters, this isn’t really an objection to the moral argument since it does not attack either premise of the argument. It’s of course an interesting issue regarding the moral character of the God of the Bible, and for those interested, this site recently posted a new book by Paul Copan and Matthew Flannagan; we encourage you to take a look. Beyond that, we can say this: by making a judgment on God’s actions and deeming them immoral, the objector is appealing to a standard of morality that holds true outside of herself and transcends barriers of culture, context, time period, and social norms. By doing this, she affirms the existence of objective morality! But if the skeptic wants to affirm objective morality after throwing God out the window, then there needs to be an alternate explanation for its basis. If not God, then what is it? The burden is now on the skeptic to provide a naturalistic explanation for the objective moral framework—an explanation that explains all that needs to be explained without changing the topic, watering down the categories, or reducing the significance of morality.

New Book by Paul Copan and Matt Flannagan: Did God Really Command Genocide?

Over at Baker Publishing's website, you can pick up a copy of  Paul Copan and Matt Flannagan's new book, Did God Really Command Genocide?.  Copan and Flannagan are leading the way in providing substantive responses to objections raised against the goodness of God in light of the Old Testament conquest narratives. While you wait for the book to arrive, you can listen to lectures by Flannagan!

Matthew Flannagan,  "Can God Command Evil? The Problem of Apparently Immoral Commands" 



Link: Dr. Matthew Flannagan on God, Ethics, and Divine Commands

Over at the Tentative Apologist, you can listen to a discussion with Dr. Matthew Flannagan on  what skeptics would call the "abhorrent" commands of God. Flannagan explains how to make sense of a good God and  the testing of Abraham, Joshua's conquest, as well as how to respond to cases of people claiming to justify crimes by an appeal to a divine command.  Click here to listen.   

Are All Atheists Unbelievers?

In a recent online debate with an atheist, I was arguing that folks involved in such debates need to work hard to maintain a respectful attitude with their dialogue partners. It is easy and tempting to fall into contention and animus, and so all the more important to guard against it. My atheist friend challenged me with Psalm 14:1, which declares that the fool says in his heart there is no God. His suggestion was that my commitment to be respectful in dialogue was at odds with this biblical revelation, which, as applied to him, an atheist, was rather less than respectful.

Faced with this challenge, I responded along such lines as these: Although it's true that the Bible features some verses to suggest that there's a serious issue going on with atheists, I don't think this means that in a discussion today with an atheist, a Christian is obliged to think his interlocutor a fool. The Bible features quite a number of teachings, after all, including to love one's neighbor as oneself. This seems to imply, among other things, giving them the benefit of the doubt, being patient, hoping for the best for them, building friendships with them, paying heed to their perspectives, interpreting them charitably, listening to understand and not just critique. This is where I think it makes great sense prima facie from a biblical perspective to treat atheists as intellectually honest and authentic, sincere searchers for truth. They may not all be, but surely many of them are, at least in my experience.

Beyond that, isolated verses need to be understood contextually, which can take some serious investment of time—and I’m far from an exegete. Nonetheless I might identify a few mitigating factors as we interpret and apply such verses. On a biblical perspective, God is thought of as the source of reality, the locus of value, life and light and more besides. The true "unbeliever" would be, I might suggest, in light of this, not one who simply entertains intellectual doubts about the existence of a personal God, but one who rejects all that the biblical writers thought God represented—and to do so at the level of the heart. To reject God would include rejecting light—deep convictions about rightness and wrongness, for example, issuing in corrupt actions. On the classical picture of God, aspects of which came into clarity later but were built on solidly biblical ideas, as opposed to the idea of a mere contingently existing demi-god or Demiurge, God is the Ground of Being; his being and goodness are interchangeable. To deny God's being is to deny goodness itself, both metaphysical and moral.

This is all obviously relevant to the question about how God and morality are related, and relevant in numerous senses—ontological, epistemic, performative. If one takes God as the foundation of moral truth, the locus of value, the Ground of Being, to deny God is naturally to be interpreted as rejecting foundational truths, axiomatic moral ones among them. As one commentator discussed Psalm 14:1: “This is hardly to be understood of a speculative denial of the existence of God; but rather of a practical belief in His moral government.” So to someone shaped by such an understanding, a worldview according to which God functioned thus foundationally, what would be the natural way to characterize, say, someone vicious and altogether corrupt who rejected moral strictures or constraints altogether? It might be natural, frankly, to dub such a person an "unbeliever." More than natural, it might be the most accurate way to put it, as part of what true atheism entails is just such moral corruption. This is, again, not to say all professing atheists are this way, or even will inevitably be this way; rather, quite to the contrary, it is to suggest that exactly because plenty of atheists are not this way, it may take more than intellectual metaphysical speculations of atheism to qualify as true unbelief.

The point is that this language about unbelief can't simply leap the huge hermeneutical gap and be applied today with complete casualness. I am not inclined to see such verses as applying to someone like my internet interlocutor: a self-professed humanist with a deep concern for others, a love for humanity, a passion for reducing suffering in the world. I could be wrong, but I see such values as rooted in God, and his embrace of such values as a disqualification for being a full-fledged unbeliever. That he wouldn’t agree isn’t relevant; if he’s right, I’m wrong, of course; but if I’m right, he’s wrong—and not the skeptic he thinks he is. Maybe being an unbeliever is less a binary question than a continuum; or maybe it is a binary issue, but the point of no return requires more than voicing intellectual doubts about God’s existence.

As another commentator put it, “We ought . . . carefully to mark the evidence on which the Psalmist comes to the conclusion that they have cast off all sense of religion, and it is this: that they have overthrown all order, so that they no longer make any distinction between right and wrong, and have no regard for honesty, nor love of humanity. David, therefore, does not speak of the hidden affection of the heart of the wicked, except in so far as they discover themselves by their external actions.”

So, from my perspective—and this is the argument I’m trying out—I don't see my friend as having fully "rejected God," as I see (rightly or wrongly) many of those values to which he remains adamantly committed as rooted in God. Likewise with the biblical writers, for whom God represented ultimate reality and, as such, true unbelief would include such a thing as rejection of moral light. The Bible needs to be read and interpreted and applied carefully and sensitively and with profound discernment, according to sound principles of exegesis and hermeneutics. Folks have misinterpreted it before, and if someone were to interpret it today to suggest that dismissing all professing atheists as evil and foolish (more so than the lot common to men), I would respectfully suggest that he is not being sufficiently attentive to sound principles of interpretation. Intellectual speculative denial of God’s existence may not be enough to make one a true unbeliever in the sense of Psalm 14:1.


Photo: "Cross section of a trees' roots" by A Escobar. CC License.