Ahem. And now, a reading from the Book of Isaiah, Chapter 13:
“See, the day of the Lord is coming—a cruel day, with wrath and fierce anger…Whoever is captured will be thrust through; all who are caught will fall by the sword. Their infants will be dashed to pieces before their eyes; their houses will be looted and their wives violated.”
The Word of the Lord.
If this were Sunday morning, you’d respond, “Thanks be to God.” However, if you’re anything like me, after hearing a passage like that, the words would get caught in your throat. You’d squirm a bit, because, in all honesty, it doesn’t seem like something to be grateful for. On a very basic level, it’s disturbing to remember that—oh, right—passages like that exist in the Bible, too. It would be so much easier if they didn’t.
It is passages like these that many critics of religion look to when arguing that Yahweh, as depicted in the Bible, is a cruel, vindictive and evil figure. Richard Dawkins, renowned New Atheist and author of The God Delusion, famously wrote that “The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction… a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.”
The extreme way that God reacts when the Israelites pursued other deities, Dawkins argues, resembles “nothing so much as sexual jealousy of the worst kind.” When one considers the massacres, the brutal laws, the condoning of slavery and the ethnic discrimination, Dawkins says—and many, many others would agree—it is astounding that people still follow such “an appalling role model as Yahweh.”
Yikes. Are they right?
Well…there’s certainly a case to be made. But it’s incomplete.
For me, I take a lot of comfort in the phrase “Word made flesh.” It’s as if all that could ever be said or known about God lives inside the person of Jesus Christ. As if His beating heart and scarred hands are the only sufficient answer to the question, now and forever.
To start with, if we’re going to reckon with God as depicted in the Bible, then we have to take a long, hard look at the Bible and see it for what it is. And that is: COMPLICATED. The Bible sitting on your shelf today did not come into existence as it currently is, one book, leather-bound, footnoted and with chapter headings. No, it was written down by dozens of authors in multiple genres—history, poetry, law, letters, wisdom literature, etc.—over thousands of years, through wars, famines, invasions, exiles and scientific and philosophical developments. The Bible is NOT a book, it is a library, and one that, as scholar John Collins recognizes, “is marked by lively internal debate, and by a remarkable spirit of self-criticism.”
The Bible is in conversation with itself and cannot be read properly otherwise. At the center of that conversation is the question: Who is God?
This is one thing that New Atheists like Dawkins fail to recognize. By cherrypicking particularly egregious laws or horrifying scenes, they neglect the larger context of the Bible. As Bruce Birch notes, the world of Scripture exists “in a cultural context utterly unlike our own, with moral presuppositions and categories that are…in some cases repugnant to our modern sensibilities.” That cannot be ignored.
One of these key contextual differences, then, is the significance of covenant. Remember when Richard Dawkins said that God’s angry response to His people’s “[flirting] with rival gods” resembles “sexual jealousy of the worst kind?” In this assessment, Dawkins reflects a very post-Enlightenment, postmodern understanding of covenantal relationships, one that doesn’t map onto Scripture at all. As Paul Copan notes in his essay, Is Yahweh A Moral Monster?, “the marriage covenant” is uniquely valued in Scripture (beginning in Genesis 2), as is the relationship between God and his people (established by Abraham in Genesis). Both relationships hold the weight of unbreakable commitment. Thus, for the Israelites, it was more than just “flirting,” Copan argues; it was “adultery,” to which the only “appropriate response…is anger and hurt.”
In other words, if God’s reaction to His people’s waywardness seems extreme, it only speaks to the seriousness of the covenant between them. Does that solve the problem of the Old Testament God’s behavior? It certainly brings nuance to it.
But does it solve it? The truth is, when it comes to the question, I don’t know if we’ll come away with an answer we’re completely comfortable with. If we don’t believe God is a moral monster, then we have to come to terms with the fact that our Bible is way messier than we want. We may even have to recognize that God differs from book to book.
Here’s a simple, not-so-controversial example (borrowed from Gregory J. Riley’s terrific book, The River of God). In the Old Testament, God is described as having a material, corporeal body. He walks around in the Garden of Eden in Genesis 3:8 and shows Moses His back in Exodus 33:23. However, in later books of the Bible, God doesn’t have a body anymore. He is “spirit” (John 4:24), “invisible” (1 Timothy 1:17) and “dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see” (1 Timothy 6:16). Okay…why the discrepancy?
Once again, context. Like most civilizations living in the Ancient Near East at the time, the Israelites subscribed to a three-story understanding of the universe: the dome of heaven where God lived, earth in between, the underworld below. This made sense, based on what they knew of the universe. God’s up there with the stars (or are they angels?). We’re here. The dead are down there. It’s logical, right? But then, two scientific discoveries rocked everything. First, around the 6th century BCE, some Greek astronomers discovered something monumental: five other planets in the sky, moving. Then, around the same time, Pythagoras discovered that the earth was spherical. Suddenly, the whole three-story universe had to be re-evaluated. If heaven wasn’t just a dome, but was this expansive space all around, then where was God? Answer: everywhere. This new understanding of God required Him to be immaterial, to be, as Gregory J. Riley writes, “enormous, beyond human comprehension, hidden and infinite behind the veil…”
So, in that specific instance, the Israelites understanding of God, when faced with scientific discovers, underwent a transformation. God didn’t change. But His people’s understanding of Him did. And I think that might be the key to understanding the way God is represented in the Old Testament, especially in light of Jesus. Copan puts it this way: “as we read the Scriptures, we are regularly reminded of an advancing, though still-imperfect, ethic on the surface while various subterranean moral ideals (for example, the divine image in all humans, lifelong monogamous marriage and Yahweh’s concern for the nations) continue to flow gently along.” In other words, God continues to reveal Himself and His ideals to His people, culminating, of course, in the person of Jesus Christ.
So. Is God a moral monster? I don’t think so. I think an assumption like that fails to understand God in the context of the Bible; which is to say, in all of its messiness, cultural specificity, and fluctuation. God is big, and we are small people trying to know Him. Maybe that helps. Maybe it doesn’t. For me, I take a lot of comfort in the phrase “Word made flesh.” It’s as if all that could ever be said or known about God lives inside the person of Jesus Christ. As if His beating heart and scarred hands are the only sufficient answer to the question, now and forever.