Disturbing Scholarly Behavior: Seibert’s Solution to the Problem of the Old Testament God
I recall a story from my childhood of a neighbor trying to deal with a large tar stain on the floor of his house. Nothing seemed to remove it so he decided to pour on a generous amount of gasoline. While the gasoline worked amazingly well at removing the stain, the fumes from the gasoline were ignited by the furnace pilot light and the ensuing explosion burned down his house. The lesson I learned is that sometimes the solution creates more issues than the problem. This seems to be an appropriate analogy for Eric Seibert’s efforts in his book Disturbing Divine Behavior: Troubling Old Testament Images of God (Fortress, 2009). Seibert confronts the tenacious problem of how God acts in the Old Testament in such cases as his command for Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, his command for Israel to kill the Canaanites or the Amalekites including “infants and children,” or his behavior in smiting Uzzah dead for his attempt to steady the Ark of the Covenant. Seibert suggests that all other approaches to the problem of disturbing divine behavior are inadequate, so he proposes a more radical “gasoline” solution which in some respects works amazingly well. As a reader, one can be lulled into a sense of amazement as the problem dissolves away. However, if one backs up the lens, one can almost feel the explosion of the fumes and the ensuing burning down of the house. Seibert’s solution to the problem of disturbing divine behavior will touch—or “torch”?—much that is dear to most Christians. The solution leaves an almost unsalvageable Old Testament (and large sections of the New Testament including Revelation), and a virtual rejection of what most Christians believe in terms of biblical inspiration and authority, one aspect of the atonement, and Jesus’ final return in judgment at the end of the age. One is left to wonder whether the “gasoline” solution comes with more casualties than the removal of the stain was worth. This reviewer certainly thinks so.
Seibert has boldly confronted a problem and suggested a remedy, presumably knowing that it will be unpopular among many.
Eric Seibert, an Anabaptist scholar and Old Testament professor at Messiah College in Pennsylvania, is conversant with a wide variety of scholarship, referring with seemingly equal familiarity to conservative scholars like Walter Kaiser or Tremper Longman III as to those of a much more critical leaning like Keith Whitelam or Phyllis Trible. He writes in an accessible and gracious manner, so the book could easily function as a textbook for a college level audience which seems to be one of his objectives.
In order to understand Seibert’s perspective, it is necessary to recognize the type of Anabaptist Seibert seems to represent. There are Anabaptists who advocate nonviolence on the basis that Jesus taught this as the proper stance for followers of God who were to leave all retribution and vengeance to God (cf. Rom. 12:19). God in his ultimate wisdom and unfathomable justice is the only one who can use what appear to be violent means rightly. The second type of Anabaptists are those who see this as fundamentally inconsistent and insist that followers of God should pursue nonviolence not simply because Jesus modeled and taught this while on earth but because nonviolence is and always has been the modus operandi of God. Therefore God completely rejects violence in his dealings with the created order both in past history and presumably as well at the end of the age. Seibert is an advocate of this second type of Anabaptism, and as a result, Old Testament images of Yahweh advocating and participating in violence are not only profoundly troubling but conflict with this core belief. While for the first type of Anabaptist and for many Christians, the “tar stain” of God’s violent behavior in the Old Testament is a difficult problem, for Anabaptists like Seibert, it represents a central threat to the validity of their core belief that God can by definition not do anything violent and thus a solution must be found in order to maintain the core belief. This is what this book is fundamentally about—and the lengths someone will go to find that solution.
In the introduction, Seibert admits that his motivation for the book arose because of the incongruity between the Old Testament images of God as a warrior and his own belief that war is “categorically wrong” (4). He reassures the reader that he “value[s] the Old Testament” (4), “affirm[s] the authority of Scripture” (5), and believes that “[w]hat we think about God really matters!” (6). These three statements should certainly encourage most readers to continue. The book itself is nicely divided into three parts of four chapters each with the addition of two appendices which are integral to the success of the thesis.
EXAMINING DISTURBING DIVINE BEHAVIOR
In the first part, Seibert introduces the problem—namely that the Old Testament in particular has many instances where God behaves in morally objectionable ways. These include occasions where God is portrayed as a “Deadly Lawgiver,” “Instant Executioner,” “Divine Warrior,” “Genocidal General,” “Dangerous Abuser,” “Unfair Afflictor,” and “Divine Deceiver.” In case somehow one missed the moral issues involved in these titles, Seibert clarifies that these are problems because God seems inconsistent in terms of punishment, immoral, indiscriminate in killing, excessive in his use of force, unfair in not allowing an opportunity to repent, self-contradictory, and ultimately very unlike the God Jesus reveals in the New Testament.
In the second chapter, Seibert lists seven distinct groups who find this divine behavior problematic: Religious Pacifists, Christian Educators/Clergy, General Theists, Feminists, Dispossessed People, Atheists/Agnostics, and People of Faith. If one accepts Seibert’s description of the Old Testament God as a “Genocidal General” and “Dangerous Abuser,” it would be difficult to find many folks, Christian or not, who would report that they did not find this behavior problematic, which makes one wonder why it was necessary to list these seven distinct groups. That being said, Seibert is candid about how difficult the problem is specifically for him as a religious pacifist—a revelation that will help us make sense of the lengths he is willing to go to solve the problem:
[P]eople who are committed to resolving conflict nonviolently are likely to find the Old Testament’s violent images of God highly problematic. Such images seriously complicate their efforts to persuade people to engage in nonviolent peacemaking. How can we promote peace when God frequently seems to be at war? How can they claim it is inappropriate for Christians to participate in war when so much of the Bible seems to sanction it? God’s involvement in war in the Old Testament creates real problems for religious pacifists, particularly for Christians committed to following the nonviolent way of Jesus. (37)
For the rest of the book, Seibert will focus mainly on the divine violence question and his center of attention will be the Old Testament’s portrayal of a God willing to sanction genocide and the indiscriminate slaughter of innocent children and infants.
Seibert goes on to demonstrate how Christians throughout history have responded to this problem. He begins with ancient approaches which include things like attributing troubling behavior to Satan rather than to God (e.g., 2 Chr. 21:1), emending the text to make it less offensive, rejecting the Old Testament completely (Marcion), or ignoring the literal text meaning in favor of typology or allegory. Seibert reassures the reader that none of these is acceptable and that “removing problematic passages violates the integrity of the text and is not the way forward” (66). He then goes on to describe modern solutions to the problem and how they are clearly ineffective for the task at hand. Seibert highlights more popular views like the “Divine Immunity Approach” which suggests that if God does something it must by definition be good and just. Seibert counters with:
Is genocide ever good? Can killing Canaanite men and women—not to mention defenseless children and infants—be “right” just because God orders it? Is abuse ever moral? Can injustice ever be just? Regarding bad behavior as good simply because God is the one described as doing it strikes me as a very simplistic and extremely dangerous way of handling problematic portrayals of God. (74)
He then addresses the very popular “Just Cause Approach” which tries to supply a rationale for each of the divine behaviors that we might find problematic. For example when God kills a group of people or an individual, this approach suggests that God was justified in doing so. Seibert notes that often the Bible provides just such an explanation (e.g., Gen. 6:11–13 or 2 Kgs. 21:10–15) claiming that some sins are punishable by death. However, Seibert disagrees with the biblical justifications and it is here where Seibert will likely lose many readers. He challenges the Bible’s own claims that some sins should be punishable by death and does not believe there could be any defense for “indiscriminate killing” (75). In his opinion, God’s response to a particular offense like Uzzah’s reaching out to support the Ark (cf., 2 Sam. 6:7) was excessive and this points to an “inflexible and uncompassionate deity, one more concerned with meticulous obedience to the law than with pure motives” (76).
Seibert is even more forthright in his critique of the “Greater Good Approach” which suggests that God’s violent actions in protecting Israel in the Conquest were for a greater good—to keep the nation spiritually pure. Seibert acknowledges this is exactly what the Bible says (cf. Exod. 23:31b–33; Deut. 20:16–18) but rejects this explanation as “extraordinarily dangerous” (78) and likens it to Adolf Hitler’s attempt to purify the human race in the final solution (79). It is in this chapter that many readers will experience cognitive dissonance since Seibert asserted earlier that he valued and affirmed the authority of Scripture, but it is becoming increasingly clear that this must mean something different for him than it means for most Christians. Seibert then confronts and rejects the remaining two options—God acted differently in the Old Testament (e.g., because of progressive revelation or because Israel was a theocratic state), or God’s disturbing actions in the Old Testament reflect his permissive will and thus were not a true reflection of his character.
Seibert finally begins to reveal the essence of his solution under a section entitled “Control Beliefs.” Christians in general have approached the problem of disturbing divine behavior with the following fundamental presupposition or control belief: “God actually said and did what the Old Testament claims” (86). Seibert will fundamentally reject this belief. It is hard to imagine that Seibert really expects readers to reject this core belief this quickly: “Oh wow! Of course. What was I thinking?” Seibert then offers us his way out of the problem: “What if God did not actually say and do everything the Old Testament claims? What then?” (86).
THE NATURE OF OLD TESTAMENT NARRATIVES
Part two of the book fleshes out Seibert’s basic thesis, which can be summed up as follows: All the disturbing divine behavior in the Old Testament did not actually happen and/or it was falsely attributed to God because of the erroneous theological assumptions of Old Testament authors. In order to demonstrate that Old Testament narratives did not necessarily happen historically, Seibert shows this to be the case for the book of Jonah and then attempts to demonstrate the same conclusion for the Conquest Narrative (Josh. 6–11) based upon its implausibility, contrary archaeological evidence, and lack of extra-biblical evidence. Seibert agrees with many critical scholars that Old Testament narratives cannot be trusted to be historically accurate in every case; they only provide evidence of the context of the presumably much later writer (106). Seibert concludes by tying this discussion into his larger thesis: “Acknowledging that there are some things in the Bible that did not happen, or did not happen as described, effectively exonerates God from certain kinds of morally questionable behavior” (112).
Recognizing that acceptance of his understanding of the significant disjunction between the narrative and historical veracity is “indispensable to the argument that [he] is making in the book” (116), Seibert addresses objections that Christians might have to this claim (e.g., it sounds historical so it must be; it is irreverent to question the Bible; it involves doubting, which is bad; it leads down a slippery slope; it undermines my faith; it diminishes biblical authority). The two critical questions really surround the connection between faith and historical events and, secondly, the connection between historical veracity and biblical authority. While Seibert affirms that the New Testament affirmation of Jesus’ resurrection as grounded in historical reality is important, he posits that there are “relatively few cases” in the rest of Scripture where this connection is essential (120). It would be interesting to know which Old Testament events—if any—would make this short list. If the Old Testament narratives proclaim theological truths such as God is the creator/sustainer of the natural world, and is the redeemer of Israel, is not some level of historical veracity necessary to substantiate such claims?
In terms of biblical authority, Seibert makes the completely appropriate argument that a story that is not historical can be “true if it communicates truth” (123). Now it is at these times that the reader encounters some puzzling argumentation. No one should disagree that non-historical stories can be true if they communicate truth. However, this is not what Seibert will argue regarding countless Old Testament (and New Testament) texts which he says “distort” the character of God. These texts are not true historically, says Seibert, but he will also reject them as being true in the second sense. They are not communicating truth about God at all. If one accepts Seibert’s thesis, many Old Testament texts are not really true in either senses of the word “true” and he provides no further explanation here for how these texts are still “authoritative.”
If the Old Testament was not written to tell us about God or to recount historical events, then naturally one should ask, For what purpose was it written? Seibert suggests that Old Testament narratives reflect human attempts to explain national failures and disasters, to support the ruling elite and promote their policies by means of “political propaganda,” and to encourage certain behaviors and beliefs. These human efforts to write Old Testament narratives often have God doing disturbing things (e.g., killing). Seibert suggest this is totally understandable because these writers were simply reflecting their “basic theological worldview” (148) which included such ideas as God controling the natural world, causing personal fortunes and misfortunes, rewarding the obedient and punishing the disobedient, sanctioning warfare, bringing victory and defeat in battle, and being the sole divine causal agent (151–61). Since the Old Testament perspective on such topics as cosmology and polygamy were seemingly misguided, then one can also question and critique Old Testament theological perspectives: “If Israel’s nontheological worldview assumptions were culturally conditioned and sometimes in need of revision, might the same be true of Israel’s theological worldview assumptions? If so, it would seem we should proceed with caution, being careful not to uncritically adopt Israel’s theological assumptions as our own” (163–64; emphasis in original).
RESPONSIBLE READINGS OF TROUBLESOME TEXTS
In Part 3 Seibert sets out a method for reading the Old Testament that he desires to be somewhere between a Marcionite rejection and the commonly held view that the Old Testament reflects actual historical realities and is an accurate description of God. The first step is to clarify that there is a gap between how the Old Testament describes God (“the textual God”—a term borrowed from Terence Fretheim) and what God is really like (“the actual God”). Since the Old Testament reflects “human portrayals of God, it is not necessary to assume that every Old Testament image of God reflects what God is really like” (170). This provides a new freedom for Seibert who can now read 1 Sam. 15, where it appears God orders Saul to kill all the Amalekites, and proclaim: “God never issued this genocidal decree” (176). If one is tracking with Seibert so far, it would be logical to ask, How can one know when an Old Testament portrayal of God can be trusted and when it should be rejected? Or to use his language, when is the textual God like the actual God and how can one know?
Seibert’s criterion for deciding whether or not a depiction of God reflects the actual God is not the New Testament as a whole, for it too contains images of God as “instant executioner” (cf. Acts 12:21–23) and willing to use “massive violence on an unprecedented scale” (cf. Revelation). His measuring stick is, rather, what he calls a “Christocentric hermeneutic”:
I will argue that the God Jesus reveals should be the standard, or measuring rod, by which all Old Testament portrayals of God are evaluated. Old Testament portrayals that correspond to the God Jesus reveals should be regarded as trustworthy and reliable reflections of God’s character, while those that do not measure up should be regarded as distortions. (185)
The portrayal of Jesus in the Gospels becomes the center and according to Seibert, “the more troubling Old Testament images did not govern his view of God” (190). “Jesus never speaks of God as one who commands genocide. Nor does he describe God as one who abuses, deceives, or acts unjustly” (190). For Seibert this silence is equated with rejection. But the argument from silence hardly seems strong enough to support Seibert’s assertions. If these Old Testament images of God were so profoundly opposite to the actual God, it is difficult to imagine that Jesus wouldn’t have spent more time clarifying this critical point: “You have heard it said that God is violent and kills sinners and causes disaster to those who reject him, but I tell you. . . .”
According to Seibert, Jesus reveals a God who is kind to the wicked, a God who is nonviolent (which leads Seibert to reject the penal substitutionary view of the atonement since it involves divine wrath), a God who is not a judge causing historical disasters or serious physical infirmities, and a God who is love. This Christocentric hermeneutic means that “regardless of the text’s claims, God never commanded the Israelites to commit genocide by slaughtering Canaanites or annihilating Amalekites. Such horrific violence stands against everything God stands for” (204). So when one is reading a troubling Old Testament portrayal of God, the solution is to say “This is not God!” (205).
In the final two chapters, Seibert demonstrates how to become a “discerning reader” of these texts and to encourage others to become the same. He suggests a form of “reader response” where we “question, critique, and sometimes even reject certain portrayals of God” (210). To anyone suggesting that his method looks strikingly similar to Marcion’s rejection of the Old Testament, Seibert reassures them that “I have no desire to discard, diminish, or otherwise discredit the Old Testament” (211). It is hard to imagine that someone could argue that many of the Old Testament portrayals of God are inaccurate, and that many events described in the Old Testament never actually happened, but that these facts should in no way diminish or discredit the Old Testament.
Seibert’s method is to employ a “dual hermeneutic” (212) where one evaluates the Old Testament text, rejecting its distorted portrayals of God if present, but then tries to appreciate the remaining theological and ethical teachings in the text. Again, it is bewildering to imagine this working very well in a preaching situation: “Well folks, about half of what our text claims God is saying and doing is profoundly distorted and culturally conditioned, so let’s just toss that part out. But there are still some real gems here if we look carefully.” If I accepted Siebert’s solution, I could find few compelling reasons to teach and preach from anywhere outside of the Gospels. If the Christocentric hermeneutic is so in conflict with the rest of the biblical portrayals, why would one bother studying and teaching on these other texts just because some hidden theological or ethical insight might emerge?
In the final chapter, Seibert provides guidance for how we should talk about troubling texts especially in the church and academy. He advises his audience to be open and bold to proclaim, when need be, “This is not God,” but at the same time “be careful not to denigrate the Old Testament or give the impression that it is theologically irrelevant” (241–42). I remain unconvinced that this is a realistic possibility.
REEXAMINING THE NONVIOLENT GOD
There are two big questions that remain unanswered in the book and Seibert addresses each in a separate appendix. The first is: How does one deal with New Testament portrayals of Jesus that show him involved in or advocating divine violence? Seibert recognizes that this is a question that, answered one way, would undermine his entire argument and methodology, so he puts extensive energy into its response: “[I]f Jesus reveals a God just as violent as some of the portrayals of God in the Old Testament suggest, it raises serious questions about the usefulness and validity of using a Christocentric hermeneutic to address the problem of disturbing divine behavior in Old Testament narratives” (245). Seibert rejects the options that Jesus’ teaching about eschatological judgment did not reflect his real view of God (cf. I. Howard Marshall) or that these violent teachings about God did not originate with Jesus (cf. Walter Wink)—a sort of “textual Jesus” versus “actual Jesus” distinction. While it is ironic that Seibert rejects the exact method he uses for the Old Testament God when applied to Jesus, it makes sense in that if the New Testament portrayal of Jesus is just as culturally conditioned as the Old Testament portrayal of God, the New Testament Jesus obviously cannot function as the key hermeneutical principle for identifying the true character of God.
Seibert favors an approach that “explains” that Jesus’ teachings about eschatological judgment are not as violent as they appear. In order to do this, Seibert rejects literal or metaphorical perspectives on end time judgment and hell and supports a conditionalist or annihilationist view which allows for “the possibility of divine punishment that is not violent” (253). In response to the predictable criticism that God and Jesus are portrayed violently in the book of Revelation, Seibert suggests that this book reflects a “distorted” picture of God and Jesus which does not pass the test of a Christocentric hermeneutic. In dealing with texts where Jesus seems to predict violence against Jerusalem and thus endorse the view that God could be involved in divine violence as judgment, Seibert tries a number of evasive maneuvers before suggesting that maybe these texts do not originate with Jesus at all (259).
INSPIRATION AND AUTHORITY OF SCRIPTURE
In the final appendix, Seibert makes the amazing claim that he will demonstrate that his “proposal for handling problematic portrayals of God in Old Testament narratives is compatible with doctrines of divine inspiration and biblical authority” (263). While he admits there will likely need to be some revision, “it will not necessitate abandoning those fundamental convictions about the nature of Scripture” (264). However, after describing views of biblical inspiration held by most Christians (viz., plenary inspiration or conceptual inspiration), Seibert admits:
It is not difficult to see how plenary and conceptual views of inspiration do not correspond well with some of the ideas proposed in this study. For example, if God exercised the kind of control over the content of the Bible envisioned by these approaches, it makes little sense to claim that numerous portrayals of God actually distort God’s character. If God is ultimately responsible for the content of the Bible as these views claim—albeit via human agents—then it stands to reason that the Bible’s portrayals of God would accurately reflect what God is really like. Surely God would not inspire these writers to depict God inaccurately! That would not make any sense. And, if all biblical portrayals of God accurately reflect God’s true nature, it makes no sense to speak of differentiating between the textual God and the actual God since they are one and the same. (266–67)
This of course raises the question why he could seriously assert only a few pages earlier that his approach would not necessitate abandoning these fundamental convictions.
Seibert goes on to argue that these views of inspiration are inadequate and proposes a perspective he labels “general inspiration” where God is only indirectly involved in the writing of Scripture, more like a “foreman” (274) who oversees but does not control or prevent the workers (or writers) from making mistakes. While this analogy is helpful in some respects, one can only wonder about a foreman who oversees a project like the Old Testament which, according to Seibert, reflects “ubiquitous” violence (146) and is thus apparently categorically opposed to the character of the foreman. One expects that the final product will reflect the qualities of the supervisor in a general sense, acknowledging that the supervisor cannot be held responsible for each detail in the project. Seibert concedes that this inspiration question is really the big one: “Adhering to an improper view of divine inspiration is perhaps the greatest single obstacle to finding a responsible way of dealing with disturbing divine behavior in the Old Testament” (275). It does seem a little disingenuous for Seibert not to admit much earlier in the book that his approach will require a rejection of the most commonly held views of biblical inspiration and biblical authority.
It is obviously much easier to critique a solution as I have done than to propose an alternative. Seibert has boldly confronted a problem and suggested a remedy, presumably knowing that it will be unpopular among many. And he has helpfully initiated much discussion on the issue of the Old Testament God. For that, we must all be thankful. While there are some assumptions about the Christocentric hermeneutic that one could question (e.g., Does Jesus’ apparent “silence” about these violent Old Testament events really prove profound rejection or could one argue that this actually reflects tacit approval? Is Jesus and the God Jesus reveals as unidimensional as Seibert asserts?), the central issue of the book is how much one is willing to sacrifice in order to accept the solution. Those who agree with Seibert that divine violence is fundamentally oxymoronic and hold similar views on “general” biblical inspiration and authority will obviously have an easier time adopting his proposal. Seibert seems to believe that the solution requires only minor adjustments to one’s beliefs in these areas, but many Christians will certainly disagree and wonder about the true cost of solving the problem. One could also ask whether Seibert’s central control belief that the actual God can never be involved in actions which appear violent should be maintained if so much of the biblical text needs to be functionally rejected in order to bolster this view.
Although Seibert never mentions them, the New Atheists have played a significant role in pressing Christians to deal with this issue more directly. Scholars such as Paul Copan (Is God a Moral Monster? Making Sense of the Old Testament God [Baker, 2011]), Christopher J.H. Wright (The God I Don’t Understand: Reflections on Tough Questions of Faith [Zondervan, 2008], and David T. Lamb (God Behaving Badly: Is the God of the Old Testament Angry, Sexist, and Racist? [IVP, 2011]) have all responded recently to the kind of questions Seibert addresses. Most Christians, even many Anabaptists, will find these options more acceptable in terms of their overall methodology even if they might resolve the issues less effectively.