Introducing Disturbing Divine Behavior
What follows is a slightly revised version of the comments I made at the opening of the Mennonite Scholars and Friends Forum at the Society of Biblical Literature’s Annual Meeting in Atlanta in Fall 2010. The purpose of my opening remarks was to say a little bit about what led me to write Disturbing Divine Behavior and to discuss the general approach I take in the book. 1
If we hope to counter some of the deleterious effects problematic portrayals of God have upon readers of the Old Testament, it is imperative we begin talking about these images and the kinds of problems they raise.
I fell in love with the Old Testament during my first year at Messiah College. It was there that I began to realize that the Old Testament was a virtual treasure trove I had barely begun to explore. During those years, the Old Testament came alive for me and profoundly shaped my understanding of God, the world, and humanity in more ways than I can recall. Yet as I continued studying the Old Testament through seminary and into graduate school, I also realized that these texts raised certain problems for Christian readers like myself. There were numerous texts in which God’s behavior seemed highly problematic and seriously out of line with my beliefs about God’s character. For example, how could the Old Testament’s depiction of God as warrior be reconciled with my belief that war is categorically wrong? What was I to do with a story in which God reportedly drowned the entire human race except Noah and his family (Gen. 7:23)? What theological lesson was I to learn from God’s genocidal decree that Saul utterly annihilate every last Amalekite, including “child and infant” (1 Sam. 15:2 NRSV)? What sense was I to make of God’s slaughter of seventy thousand people as punishment for a census which God prompted David to take in the first place (2 Sam. 24:1-17)?
Time and time again I discovered God behaving in ways that appeared ethically questionable, if not downright immoral. The Old Testament repeatedly portrays God as one who sanctions violence, participates in war, and annihilates large groups of people in dramatic acts of divine destruction. These revelations were unsettling to say the least. Nestled among the very same texts which had brought me such profound insights were passages that threatened to dismantle some of my most cherished beliefs. What was I to do?
I simply could have chosen to ignore these troublesome texts. After all, that seems to be the way the church often “deals” with them. Yet these portrayals were too pervasive, and their implications too problematic, to pretend they did not exist. Therefore, I wanted to develop a responsible way of reading these texts which would value the Old Testament without encouraging false views of God.
This book grows out of my own struggle with these difficult passages. My attempt to deal with these troubling texts is guided by a deep respect for Scripture and a desire to use the Bible responsibly when thinking about the character of God. As a member of the Brethren in Christ Church, I approach this issue as an Anabaptist committed to the authority of Scripture and to the God Jesus reveals.
THE APPROACH TAKEN IN THE BOOK
The book contains three main sections. The first section examines the problem from a variety of different angles. In this section, I explore numerous Old Testament passages which contain examples of what I call disturbing divine behavior. These passages are categorized according to different kinds of divine behavior under headings such as “God as Instant Executioner,” “God as Mass Murderer,” “God as Divine Warrior,” and so on. I also discuss various types of individuals who have been bothered by these images—religious pacifists, Christian educators, feminists—and I consider some of the ways these individuals have been negatively impacted by such texts. Some attention is given to the way the early church wrestled with these images and to the various solutions they proposed. Since these solutions are no longer considered viable today, I then discuss several contemporary approaches to the problem of disturbing divine behavior. In one way or another, these approaches attempt to defend God’s behavior and to explain why it was right for God to behave violently and abusively.
The second section of the book focuses on the nature of Old Testament narratives themselves, since that genre is the focus of the book. Many people who try to explain God’s behavior in the Old Testament operate with a fairly large and often unstated assumption, namely, that God actually said and did what the Old Testament claims. I challenge that assumption in various ways in this section of the book. I deal directly with the issue of historicity and suggest there are good reasons for calling into question the assumption that God actually said and did all the text claims. Some of these reasons include the nature of Israelite historiography and the theological worldview assumptions that governed how people understood God and described God’s activity in the ancient world.
The last part of the book builds upon the previous discussion and provides specific guidance for dealing responsibly with disturbing divine behavior in Old Testament narratives. Since this section is where I chart a way forward, it is helpful to describe this part in more detail.
A THREE-STEP APPROACH
In the third section of the book, I advocate what could be called a three-step approach for dealing with problematic portrayals of God in the Old Testament.
The Textual and the Actual God
The first step involves recognizing the need to distinguish “between the textual God and the actual God,” to borrow language from Old Testament scholar Terence Fretheim. 2 According to Fretheim, the textual God is the God located within the pages of the Bible while the actual God is the God who transcends those pages. 3 The textual God is a literary representation, whereas the actual God is a living reality. Far too often, interpreters equate these two, or at least give the impression of doing so, acting as though you can draw a straight line from text to theology. This is dangerous. Just because the Old Testament portrays God in a particular way does not mean it reflects what God is really like. These literary portrayals are culturally conditioned and reflect ancient Israelite perceptions about God. As such, they do not always provide trustworthy insights into the nature and character of God, the actual God.
Acknowledging the need to differentiate between the textual God and the actual God is an important first step in dealing responsibly with disturbing divine behavior in the Old Testament. It keeps us from blindly accepting everything the Old Testament claims about God, and it raises our awareness of potential differences that exist between the characterization of God in these stories and the character of God in real life. While it is true that Old Testament portrayals may and sometimes do reveal God’s character, it is just as likely that they may not. So how can we determine which portrayals are trustworthy reflections of God’s character and which portrayals are not? This brings me to the second step of this approach.
A Christocentric Hermeneutic
We should utilize a Christocentric hermeneutic to determine which portrayals of God are trustworthy representations and which are not. The God Jesus reveals should be the standard by which all portrayals of God are evaluated. This interpretive approach is grounded in two key theological assumptions. The first assumption is that God’s moral character is most clearly and completely revealed through the person of Jesus. Those who want to know what God is like, how God behaves, and what God cares about, should look at Jesus. Second, God’s moral character is consistent throughout time. When we see God in Jesus, we see the character of God as God always has been, is, and always will be. God is not malicious one day and merciful the next. If Jesus reveals the moral character of God most clearly and completely, and if God’s moral character is consistent throughout time, then it stands to reason that the God Jesus reveals should be the standard by which all literary portrayals of God are evaluated.
Obviously, this begs the question: What kind of God does Jesus reveal? Among other things, Jesus reveals a God who is kind to the wicked (Matt. 5:43–45; Luke 6:35), nonviolent (Matt. 26:51–52; Luke 9:51–56; 23:34), and fundamentally loving (Luke 15:11–32; John 3:16; 1 John 4:8b). The God Jesus reveals is not one who causes historical (or natural) disasters or one who inflicts people with serious physical infirmities as a means of judgment here and now (Luke 13:1–5; John 9:1–3).
Of course, this God is no new deity, unconnected to Israel’s past. On the contrary, this God is already found in the pages of the Old Testament. Jesus attempts to reintroduce this God to people by correcting certain misperceptions about God that had developed. Jesus does this by selectively using some images of God from the Old Testament while avoiding others. For example, Jesus never speaks of God as one who commands genocide, abuses, deceives, or acts unjustly. These unsavory characteristics, which are evident in certain Old Testament portrayals of God, do not factor into Jesus’ description of God. On the contrary, the God Jesus reveals is one who loves enemies and calls us to go and do likewise. For example, in Luke 4, Jesus tells two Old Testament stories about God’s grace to outsiders during the prophetic ministry of Elijah and Elisha. The God Jesus reveals through these Old Testament stories is one who is embracing and inclusive rather than parochial and nationalistic.
Using the God Jesus reveals as a measuring rod to evaluate other depictions of God will inevitably lead to the conclusion that certain Old Testament portrayals only partially reveal God’s character while others badly distort it. This means we will sometimes need to reject certain portrayals of God in the Bible as being largely incompatible with God’s true nature. For example, when we encounter passages in the Old Testament which portray God commanding or engaging in acts of violence, we should conclude that such portrayals do not accurately reflect how God behaves. God is not a deadly lawgiver, an instant executioner, a mass murderer, a divine warrior, or a genocidal general, despite what many Old Testament texts suggests. These problematic portrayals of God do not accurately describe the character of God. Instead, they can largely be viewed as culturally conditioned understandings of God that need to be evaluated—and critiqued—in light of the God Jesus reveals.
As we begin to see God through the lens of Jesus, we realize that when we read the Old Testament there are times when we simply must say, “This is not God!” God is not in the business of acting unjustly, abusing people, or perpetuating acts of violence. If God is fundamentally loving and nonviolent, it stands to reason that God never has—and never will—commission, sanction, or participate in acts of genocide. Whenever we encounter portrayals of God engaging in such behaviors, we must unambiguously declare that God never did (or willed) such terrible things. Literary descriptions of God like these do not faithfully reveal who God really is. Therefore, instead of rushing to God’s defense, attempting to explain why God was justified to act in such ethically and morally problematic ways, we should acknowledge that these portrayals do not display God’s true nature.
Becoming Discerning Readers
This raises a third, and final question, namely, what then should we do with Old Testament passages that contain portrayals of God that we reject? Should we simply ignore those passages or can we use them in theologically responsible ways? I believe we can still benefit from those passages by becoming discerning readers. We need to discern between what is unusable and what is still salvageable. We need to use “a dual hermeneutic,” to borrow language from Renita Weems, whereby we accept what we can and reject what we cannot. 4 This requires looking for value in texts that might initially seem so problematic they are not worth the effort. Still, as discerning readers we have the advantage of critiquing aspects of the text that are unacceptable without abandoning the text as theologically bankrupt. All this involves a much more nuanced way of reading and applying Old Testament texts, particularly those containing disturbing divine behavior. For example, when dealing with a passage like Gen. 22, the near sacrifice of Isaac, we should clearly state that God does not—and never did—desire human sacrifice. God never requires us to kill others as a test of our loyalty. But we should also use this passages to demonstrate that God wants us to come to the same place as Abraham, where we are totally committed to God and willing to hold nothing back. In this way, it becomes possible to reject a problematic image of God while still finding positive ways to read and interpret the text in which that image resides.
As discerning readers, we approach biblical texts, even troublesome ones, with a genuine openness to learn from them and to be challenged by them. Our attitude should be characterized by respect for the text, even as we struggle with it. We should expect these texts to provide fresh insights and new perspectives even as we recognize their limitations in helping us think about what God is really like.
Whether or not the approach I have outlined here is the best way to deal with troubling images of God is certainly open to debate. Still, if we hope to counter some of the deleterious effects problematic portrayals of God have upon readers of the Old Testament, it is imperative we begin talking about these images and the kinds of problems they raise. We should freely acknowledge that biblical portrayals of God have the capacity both to reveal and to distort God’s character. 5 Some portrayals help us see God clearly while others do not. Portrayals that do not accurately reflect God’s character should be identified as such and handled very carefully. We must do this if we hope to use the Bible to think accurately about God. Rather than acting like such difficulties do not exist, or are relatively insignificant, we must start talking honestly about the problems these portrayals raise and how these problems can be addressed. I’m grateful this forum gives us the space to do just that.
- What follows is adapted from Eric A. Seibert, Disturbing Divine Behavior: Troubling Old Testament Images of God (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2009). Reproduced by special permission of Augsburg Fortress Publishers.
- Terence E. Fretheim and Karlfried Froehlich, The Bible as Word of God in a Postmodern Age (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1998), 116.
- Ibid., 116–17.
- Renita J. Weems, Battered Love: Marriage, Sex, and Violence in the Hebrew Prophets (Overtures to Biblical Theology; Minneapolis: Fortress, 1995), 100.
- This language of revealing and distorting God’s character occurs repeatedly throughout Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer, Jesus Against Christianity: Reclaiming the Missing Jesus (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 2001). See, for example, pp. 16, 65, 88, and 137.