Shuck and Jive

Opinions expressed here are my own and do not represent the views of the congregation I joyfully serve. But my congregation loves me!

Thursday, July 07, 2011

Defending God

There is a new trend among apologists to defend the God of the Bible. I am thinking of two books. One by Paul Copan, Is God a Moral Monster and David Lamb, God Behaving Badly: Is the God of the Old Testament Angry, Sexist, and Racist?

I haven't read either, but I have read blog posts about them and the product descriptions and I generally have an idea of their theses. If I am not fair, please call me on it. Apologists in general have a job, that is to defend their beliefs. These beliefs include usually some form of biblical inerrancy and the goodness of God.

For instance, in David Lamb's new book, the author defends "God":

While Yahweh's legal punishments seem violent, they were actually effective means of reducing violent crime and promoting peace among his people. Personally, I'm glad that the God of the Old Testament took extreme measures to care for the poor and the powerless and to prevent bloodshed and war.
In the blog post about the book, the author defends the "eye for an eye" justice system, which was an improvement over "two eyes for an eye." The author writes:
An eye for an eye, therefore, limits the violence, resulting in simple, swift and straightforward justice in a world without an overly complicated legal system.
I'll give the author that one. But that isn't the real problem with YHWH. What are YHWH's problems?

First, he wasn't real. YHWH is a fictional character. He never existed except in the imaginations of those who created him. Once we recognize that obvious truth, we can actually move ahead from the ideologies that trap us into putting halos around bad texts and defending horrendous ideas.

Second, the fictional YHWH chooses as his special friend one ethnic group over another and proceeds to give this group stuff, such as land, forever. That is convenient, especially if you are the chosen ethnic group.

Third, the fictional YHWH is not merely angry, sexist, and racist. He is far worse. He is genocidal. He has to be to justify a chosen group killing others to get their stuff and call it holy war.

When you draw near to a town to fight against it, offer it terms of peace. If it accepts your terms of peace and surrenders to you, then all the people in it shall serve you in forced labour. If it does not submit to you peacefully, but makes war against you, then you shall besiege it; and when the Lord your God gives it into your hand, you shall put all its males to the sword. You may, however, take as your booty the women, the children, livestock, and everything else in the town, all its spoil. You may enjoy the spoil of your enemies, which the Lord your God has given you. Thus you shall treat all the towns that are very far from you, which are not towns of the nations here. But as for the towns of these peoples that the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance, you must not let anything that breathes remain alive. You shall annihilate them—the Hittites and the Amorites, the Canaanites and the Perizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites—just as the Lord your God has commanded, so that they may not teach you to do all the abhorrent things that they do for their gods, and you thus sin against the Lord your God.
That is but one example. Any person with conscience who reads these texts can see that YHWH is not always virtuous. At times he serves as a justification for people to take the property of others.

This puts us people of the book types in a bit of a spot, doesn't it? We who with holy pomp read texts from sacred scripture and conclude each reading with, "This is the Word of the Lord" have some explaining to do. (Full disclosure: I no longer close scriptural readings with that phrase.)

My explanation is this. The Bible and its characters including "God" are humanly created. The Bible is a staple of Western literature and through its stories we gain insights into a particular time in history. The creation of YHWH and God was an ancient attempt to find meaning and place, to justify actions, and to offer supernatural explanations for natural and political events. Neither these stories nor their characters need defense.

That said, there are some wonderful things in the Bible. There is a concern on the part of YHWH for the oppressed, for economic justice, and for the outsider. But not all of it is good. Neither are human beings all good. The Bible is one window into what it means to be human with all of our contradictions. "God" or YHWH is the character upon which the ancients projected themselves. We can grow in understanding of ourselves by wrestling with these stories.

It may not be much of an explanation, but I think it is far superior to pretending that genocide was an OK thing for the Israelis to do because God told them to do it in the Bible and the Bible can't be wrong. That explanation will never let us mature beyond the Bible and its texts of terror. When we find texts in which God does behave badly, we should say it, rather than sugar coat or defend these texts, the characters, or the authors.


  1. If someone actually reads Numbers 5:11 ff (as one of many examples), they need to 1) give up on the idea of a good God, 2) give up on the idea of inerrancy and 'the revealed written word of God', or 3) do some major-league spin 'n' sophistry. I take Option 2.

  2. There is always another option. And in this case I would posit option 4: read each piece in its context and compare with the entire thrust of the Bible (care for the vulnerable, care for creation). If it does not jibe with that or its context is suspect, then move on to something more in keeping with the spirit of the whole. Actually, as a read this in context, this is kind of a more positive spin on option 2.

  3. What's the big problem with Numbers 5:11? A woman against whom an uncorroborated charge of adultery is laid goes free if she can drink a little dirty water. Makes more sense to me than some of the "rational" canons of proof routinely relied on to put people away for life in our existing legal system.