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Apologetics in the Old Testament

The Israelites were confronted with polytheism, the problem of evil, and Greek philosophy

Jimmy Akin

God’s people have always needed to defend their faith with respect to other viewpoints.

During the Old Testament Period, three major apologetic issues were polytheism, the problem of evil, and early encounters with Greek philosophy.

Most peoples in the ancient world were polytheists—that is, they believed in multiple gods.

By contrast, the Israelites were called to worship only one God, making them monotheists. The biblical authors thus needed to do apologetics to show the Israelites why they should be monotheists rather than polytheists.

One way they defended monotheism was by providing alternative accounts of the world and its history that revealed the role of the one, true God.

Thus, the creation accounts in Genesis show God creating the world by himself—just by speaking—rather than by battling other gods or sexually reproducing with them, as in pagan religions.

The biblical authors also appealed to miracles—to God’s mighty deeds in history—to show the Israelites that “The Lord is God.” They thus pointed to how God led the Israelites out of Egypt and gave them the Promised Land (Deut. 4:33-35). Later, prophets such as Elijah demonstrated the power of God to work miracles in comparison to the powerlessness of pagan deities such as Ba’al (1 Kings 18).

People in the ancient world experienced sin and suffering, just as we do. This led them to ponder “the problem of evil”—that is, why evil exists and why a good God allows us to experience it.

One reason why God allows suffering is because we misuse our free will by sinning. The Old Testament frequently illustrates how sin leads to suffering and death, as in the accounts of the Fall (Gen. 3) and the Flood (Gen. 6-9).

The prophets echo this theme. When God allows sin as a punishment, it is because of human sin—not because the gods are simply capricious, as in pagan religions.

However, suffering is not always a punishment. The Israelites were aware that God sometimes allows people to suffer even though they have not sinned. This aspect of his plan remains mysterious, but God is able to more than compensate those who have experienced suffering innocently. These themes are explored in the book of Job.

Toward the end of the Old Testament period, Jews began to encounter ideas proposed by Greek philosophers, and they needed to know what they should think about them.

Wisdom 8:7 approvingly cites the four cardinal virtues proposed by Plato and other Greek philosophers (i.e., self-control, justice, prudence, and courage).

This showed Jews that they could appreciate and incorporate elements of truth found in non-Jewish writings.

As the principle would be articulated in later centuries, “All truth is God’s truth,” and God’s people do not have to reject an idea just because it’s found in someone else’s writings.

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