Thoughts on Eric Seibert’s Disturbing Divine Behavior
In Disturbing Divine Behavior, Eric Seibert raises critical theological and ethical issues focused on God’s role in violence, particularly acts of physical violence against human beings as recounted in a number of biblical texts. These texts have been troubling for many Christians and particularly those of the “Peace Churches” which espouse a theology which proclaims a God of peace, love, and compassion, who expects followers of Jesus to imitate him by turning the other cheek, loving their enemies, and returning good for evil. The question that Abraham asks in Genesis 18:25—“Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?”—implying that God’s own behavior should be consistent with what God expects of humanity, begs the question: Should not the God of all the earth live peacefully with the divine creation even as the divine expectation is that the creation, particularly human beings, live peacefully with one another?
We need to avoid the trap of thinking of ourselves as morally and intellectually superior to another culture and another age.
Seibert begins by amassing texts, primarily from narratives in the Old Testament, that implicate God in extreme and what appear to be unjust acts of violence, which include genocide and the slaughter of innocent people. As examples, he cites the flood story (Gen. 6–9), plagues sent against Israelites (Num. 16:46–49) and Egyptians (Exod. 15), the call for the extermination of the Canaanites (Deut. 7:1–2) and the massacre of Job’s family (Job 1).
In the second chapter Seibert asks, For whom are these texts problematic? He assembles a long list of troubled readers, including pacifists, Christian educators who must teach and explain these texts, and people such as Native Americans who have been dispossessed. Let me add one more: persons who are concerned about the way these texts are used to fuel anti-Semitic notions that Judaism is inferior to Christianity because of the Old Testament’s depiction of God.
Seibert presents both ancient and contemporary approaches to violent God texts. He mentions early re-interpretations that emend the texts, sometimes placing blame on the satan who becomes a divine being almost as powerful as God. Marcion (second century CE), who proposed excising the entire Old Testament from the Christian canon and who was later declared a heretic on this account, is also discussed. Seibert explains why these approaches are inadequate and offers his own alternative, one that separates the issue of historicity from that of function and truth. He moves from a strictly biblical approach to the problem to a theological approach because, essentially, that is where the problem (and solution) lies.
Seibert raises the very important issue of the literary genre in which violent biblical texts are embedded. He rightly points out that “we are not naturally knowledgeable about the characteristics of many genres appearing in the Bible. This is understandable since many of these genres are ‘extinct’ ” (105). He notes that “one of the problems with demanding the historical veracity of Old Testament narratives is that it misconstrues the nature and function of this ancient literary genre” (125). These statements ring true. They imply even more than they say.
It must be acknowledged that when we read the Bible we are reading texts that were first written for people of another time, culture, and place, all of them alien to our twenty-first-century Western worldview. We need to avoid the trap of thinking of ourselves as morally and intellectually superior to another culture and another age, which can only lead to misunderstanding and misinterpreting the texts. It is therefore our obligation to learn as much as we can about the ancient world and its context if we are going to try to properly understand these writings.
Because the focus of Seibert’s book is on narrative texts, the question of the nature and function of storytelling must be understood well. Stories may be fictional, like the parables of Jesus, or historical, like the account of the fall of Samaria. But there is a reason why some stories have been told over and over and have been recorded in written form while others have not. The question is not just, What does the text say? but, What does the text intend to accomplish? What was and is the expected response of the reader or hearer of these stories?
Missing from Seibert’s initial discussion of the violent God image is the recognition that images of violent gods or spirits were common in the Ancient Near East, Europe, Africa, and Asia. As Seibert well knows, the Enuma Elish, to which the biblical story of creation is often compared, opens with gods warring with each other and practicing genocide against the human race. The Bible’s portrayal of God as violent is, in that sense, not unique. One might ask why violent God images are nearly universal. It probably has to do with trying to make sense of the harsh, brutal, and short lives that humans lived until fairly recently in history. When bad things happened over which people had no control, they found it easy to posit supernatural wrath as the cause. But the pervasiveness of violent god images in the cultures of the Ancient Near East helps explain why ancient Israelites likewise thought that their God was capable of brutal violence.
Postmodern scholarship has brought to our attention the role of the reader in interpreting texts. Unfortunately, Seibert’s bibliography reflects a great disparity in the number of men and women and various nationalities represented in his sources. His modern authors consist of 243 men, 21 women and perhaps 5 persons of color. What does it mean to read texts of disturbing divine behavior from such a homogeneous cultural group whose host nations have been responsible for some of the greatest atrocities of the twentieth century? I am trying to get at the mindset, not cast blame.
One’s mindset inevitably shapes one’s interpretation of the Bible. The New Revised Standard Version Bible, for example, highly valued for its careful scholarship and attempts at gender inclusivity, is nevertheless quite violent and militaristic in its translation of certain texts. Perhaps the reason for this is that some translators were World War II veterans who instinctively thought in military terms. The NRSV inserts military structure and rankings that could not possibly have existed in ancient Israel—in Rome maybe, but not in Israel. The NRSV has God’s instructions in Joshua 6 include words and phrases such as “march around,” “soldiers,” and “charge.” The King James Versions reads “compass the city,” “men of war,” and “ascend up.” The Catholic “New American Bible” has “soldiers” “marching” in verse 3 for a “frontal attack” in verse 5. “Soldier” language envisions a trained military force; “warriors” or “men of battle” does not. “March” into the city or prepare for a “frontal attack” has God giving specific instructions that do not appear at all in the Hebrew text, which in fact uses liturgical rather than military language, priests and people rather than warriors playing major roles. The NRSV’s translation of punishment for capital offenses in Exod. 21—those who break the law “shall be put to death” (17)—is also a distortion of the Hebrew, which merely states that offenders “will die.” God does not command killing, though it is often interpreted that way. Although there are certainly many disturbing images of God in the Bible, the translators have added disturbing images even when they are not there.
Perhaps rather than treating these texts as snapshots of who God is or as a pattern for ethics, a functional approach might be adopted. What is the function of these stories in the societies to which they were originally addressed? Alexander McCall Smith, who is primarily known in this country as the author of the No. 1 Ladies Detective novels, published a small collection of traditional folktales as told to him by children and adults in Zimbabwe and Botswana. The book is titled The Girl Who Married a Lion (Canongate, 2005). In the preface, he writes, “It was a particular pleasure to hear the stories from children, as they told them with such spirit and enjoyment.” Most of the stories have an element of violence in them, including the death of children. Yet the children telling the stories seemed not to be bothered. A theme that runs through many of the stories reinforces traditional Ndebele values, such as generosity and commitment to the family and community. People get into trouble when they fail to be generous or when they stray from the norms of society. There are real human and natural dangers in traditional Ndebele life. The stories are meant to protect the children by discouraging risky behavior. At some point they will realize that these stories are just fictional stories not chronicles of real events, and by that time they will also realize the truth in them and will have experienced their protective value.
People who come from societies where story is the main way of transmitting knowledge and cultural values seem better equipped to understand how to read and interpret stories. Seibert notices that ancient people were disturbed by some of the images of God and dealt with them in a variety of ways: through the emendation of the scribes, through inserting the satan figure into texts, typology and allegory, or simply excising the Old Testament and references to it from the Bible. But most stories were not emended in this way.
A PBS Frontline special titled “Law and Disorder” recently aired on WFYI in Indianapolis. Focusing on violence perpetrated by a few police officers in New Orleans following the flood caused by Hurricane Katrina, it told the story of a man shot by police and left in his car to die. The man’s brother, unaware that it was the police who had shot him, asked the officers for help. They drove the car away and set it on fire with the dead man in it. When an investigation proved that the allegations were true, the brother said he had forgiven the officer who killed his brother. With tears in his eyes, he said he had to forgive the officer because if he did not, God would not forgive him. The brother had an image of a vengeful and violent God who would “get” him if he did not do what God required. Many would regard this as a disturbing image of God, but on the positive side, it was that image that prevented the man from exacting revenge on the officer who killed his brother. Consideration of the function of stories may be helpful in understanding the intended effect on the reader of their violent images. People who have experienced extreme violence may even find such stories to be a catalyst for the telling of their own stories and asking questions about God’s role in suffering.
In addition to considering the class/cultural aspects of a text, interpretation should also take into account differences in urban and rural worldviews. Readers of biblical texts must always be aware that they are reading material that was first directed to an ancient society with worldviews and cultural assumptions very different from those of the contemporary world. Ancient people knew how to tell and use stories. Many of us, however, because of our exposure to scientific ways of thinking, have an impaired ability to read and interpret stories as stories.
A key element in Seibert’s solution to the problem of biblical texts that depict a violent God is to embrace as normative the God revealed in Jesus: “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). Importantly, Seibert points out that this God is also found in the Old Testament. The violent images of God are not the dominant ones; God is—above all—good, just, merciful, and forgiving. One can find the same measuring stick in both Old and New Testaments.