Since my "rebirth" in Christianity (which followed a period of what I called "devout atheism"), I have been reading from the Old Testament. My earlier conclusion was that there was some pretty outrageous stuff in these books; as one old timer put it, "The God of the O.T. was a mean s.o.b."
To make sure we understand, here's a pretty scary excerpt:
However, if you do not obey the Lord your God and follow all his commands and decrees I am giving you today, the following curses will come upon you...Because of the suffering that your enemy will inflict on you during the siege, you will eat the fruit of the womb, the flesh of the sons and daughters the Lord your God has given you...The most gentle and sensitive woman among you--so sensitive and gentle that she would not venture to touch the ground with the sole of her foot--will begrudge the husband she loves and her own son or daughter the afterbirth from her womb and the children she bears. For she intends to eat them secretly during the siege and in the distress that your enemy will inflict on you in your cities. (Deuteronomy 28:15, 53-57)
So how the heck can I reconcile this stuff with my professed love for a God of infinite mercy and love? Well, for one thing, the one book Jesus cites the most is Deuteronomy, and Jesus says that our Heavenly Father is perfect. To the extent that I think Jesus' moral sense is more refined than mine (in the same way that I concede that certain artists have a better artistic sense than mine, even though it is ultimately me who has to decide on what I think is good and bad art), then I take His opinion seriously.
Beyond that, though, I had this thought: Elsewhere in Deuteronomy, the Lord lays out detailed regulations for the Jews. Except for the harshness of the punishments, most of the Law seems perfectly reasonable, and conducive to their well-being. Also in this book, Moses tells of all the blessings the Lord will pour forth on those who obey the Law.
So I wonder: Could the Lord have made it so ridiculously black and white--i.e. obey Me and have untold riches, disobey Me and have disgusting curses--in order to prove the point that humans need His grace? In other words, the actual Jews did not obey, and look at all the horrible things that have befallen them since. Even if you are a skeptic, the Jews themselves (at least most) certainly believed in this stuff. So the question is, if you had been delivered from Pharaoh through miracles (or--for the skeptic--if your parents assured you that this was what happened and you believed them), why in the world would you construct a golden calf and start worshipping it??
I think the Old Testament was intended as a lesson (to future readers) on human nature, and once we realize this, God's stern warnings are more intelligible.