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God’s Kryptonite

God is all powerful, and stories of other deities are false. Though this is the Christian interpretation today, that wasn’t the case in the early days of the Old Testament, and the Bible itself makes that clear. Let’s look at two examples where God was not all powerful.

The Jehovah Cage Match

In the tale of yet another Old Testament battle (2 Kings 3), Israel, Judah, and Edom are allied against Moab. The year is around 846 BCE. Trekking through the desert, the allied army runs out of water, but the prophet Elisha promises both water and total victory over Moab. The next morning, pools of water cover the ground, plenty for both men and animals.

The Moabite soldiers massed on their border see the unusual water, but it looks blood red because of the morning sun. Thinking that this is the bloody aftermath of infighting within the alliance, the Moabites advance to plunder the camp. Hidden Israelites rise up and turn them back, and then they advance into Moab and destroy all the cities and towns except one stronghold.

The king of Moab has one final ploy. He then takes his son, the future king, and sacrifices him on the city wall to the Moabite god Chemosh. The result:

There was an outburst of divine anger against Israel, so they broke off the attack and returned to their homeland (2 Kings 3:27, NET).

Wait a minute—I thought that Elisha promised that “[Jehovah will] hand Moab over to you. You will defeat every fortified city and every important city” (2 Kings 3:18–19). That’s an odd way of saying, “You will get your butt kicked.”

But more important, in a mano-a-mano between Jehovah and Chemosh, Chemosh wins? Could Jehovah have won but he didn’t get that extra energy boost that Chemosh got with his sacrifice, so Jehovah couldn’t give a hundred percent?

Ever resourceful, apologists have various rationalizations. One is that the Moabites were energized by the public sacrifice and fought with renewed vigor, and another is that Israel’s allies were fed up with the campaign and attacked Israel. Or, perhaps “his son” means the King of Edom’s son, and the Edomites become furious with Israel.

Though what defeated Israel is variously translated as “fury,” “great anger,” “great wrath,” or “great indignation,” the NET Bible says that the Hebrew word in question is almost exclusively used to mean “an outburst of divine anger.”

Those apologists will disagree, but I think that the most straightforward interpretation of the text is that the king of Moab sacrificed his son to Chemosh and then, as a consequence, there was divine anger against Israel. The only two divinities in play here are Jehovah and Chemosh, and though Jehovah is sometimes capricious, it’s hard to imagine why he would defeat Israel when he had just promised to give them victory.

In this cage match, it sounds like Jehovah was defeated.

Tent Pegs Can Be Dangerous

In one of the more oddly savage passages in the Bible, Israel defeats an army led by Sisera, leaving Sisera as the sole survivor. He finds refuge in the tent of Jael, a non-Israelite woman, and he falls into an exhausted sleep. But she’s not the ally that he imagines, and she uses a hammer to drive a tent peg through his head into the ground (Judges 4:17–22).

Sisera had harassed Israel for 20 years with 900 chariots “fitted with iron” (4:3). But as powerful as this chariot force was, Israel (and God) were able to defeat it.

Earlier in Judges, another conflict ends very differently. The book begins with the tribes of Judah and Simeon joining forces to mop up remaining Canaanite strongholds including Jerusalem, Hebron, and others.

One interesting city was Debir, which sounds like the Alexandria of Canaan. Also called Kiriath Sepher (City of Scribes), it was inhabited by giant Anakites, descendants of the Nephilim, to whom ordinary men were as grasshoppers. This defeat of this city is given no comment except that the Judean leader gave his daughter to the commander who captured the city.

But the campaign wasn’t universally successful.

[Jehovah] was with the men of Judah. They took possession of the hill country, but they were unable to drive the people from the plains, because they had chariots fitted with iron (Judges 1:19).

Was Jehovah not supporting them? The verse makes clear that he was. And if he was there, what’s the problem with the iron chariots?

(If God was confounded by them, he’d cry like a little girl if he were confronted with a battalion of the bad boys in the photo above.)

If you want support from the toughest god, maybe Chemosh is your guy. He certainly convinced the Moabites. Or, if Chemosh is just fiction, perhaps Jehovah is the same.

God gives every indication of being simply a literary character who has evolved over time. Of course he has setbacks—it wasn’t like he was all-powerful. At least, not at this point in the story.

We know that reason is the Devil’s harlot,
and can do nothing but slander and harm all that God says and does…
Therefore keep to revelation and do not try to understand.
— Martin Luther

Photo credit: Wikimedia

About Bob Seidensticker
  • Don Gwinn

    Learned something new today–thanks!
    (I’ve never heard of Kiriath Sepher or the giant Anakites.)

    Given the way many apologists seem willing to resort to the explanation that various parts of the Bible must be interpreted as products of their times (see, for example, the defense of slavery in the Bible) are there apologists who argue that the ancient Israelites believed that other gods like Chemosh existed–at that time–but were clearly mistaken, since we now know that Jehovah was almighty and unique the whole time?
    Something like, “The passage describes an instance of the Israelites misinterpreting events, because their faith was not strong enough. Eli was right and so was Jehovah, but neither had promised an easy, smooth victory, had they? So the Israelites would have prevailed in the end if they’d persevered; the ‘outburst of divine anger’ was probably just a sudden storm, which we now know was only a coincidence and not created by Chemosh. But they lost faith, gave up, and went home. The lesson God wants us to learn from this is simply not to lose faith even if it looks like someone else’s god is turning the whole world against you . . . . . &c.”

    Obviously that would imply that the Bible couldn’t be inerrant, and it would also contradict what the biblical scholars and believers have claimed to know for certain for the least couple of millennia, but that doesn’t seem to stop apologetics.

    • Bob Seidensticker

      Don:

      are there apologists who argue that the ancient Israelites believed that other gods like Chemosh existed–at that time–but were clearly mistaken, since we now know that Jehovah was almighty and unique the whole time?

      I did a bit of searching but could only find this from our old buddy Wm. Lane Craig. He said, “It doesn’t seem to make sense: God was with them, and yet they failed. … And so I was led to what was, for me, a radical new insight into the will of God, namely, that God’s will for our lives can include failure. In other words, God’s will may be that you fail, and He may lead you into failure! For there are things that God has to teach you through failure that He could never teach you through success.”

      Doesn’t really tackle the issue head-on.

      But I’d like to soon do another post on polytheism in Judaism.

      • http://pushthepulldoor.blogspot.com Don Gwinn

        Not quite what I was picturing, but it seems just about as sketchy. “Beware of false prophets and prophecies, because sometimes God will send a prophet to demand that you kill and die for a cause, and it’ll turn out that He was just luring you and your men to your deaths and ruin for his own purposes. You will know when this happens because it will seem like His will was thwarted, which as we know is impossible. Also, do not accept personal checks from God.”

  • arkenaten

    Ah, such heart warming tales that every Christian should read as bedtime stories to their little ones.
    “You expect me to go to sleep after hearing this! Are you chuffing mental, Pa?

    There were gods all over the bloody place in the good ole days, right? :)

    Good Post, Bob.

  • smrnda

    I’ve always gotten a good laugh at the idea that the OT god couldn’t beat the chariots of iron. It fits much more with a pagan understanding of a god, where deities have great powers but are far from omnipotent.

  • http://www.seditiosus.blogspot.com Schaden Freud

    I’m always really fascinated by the way Yahweh evolves over the course of the bible. Please do another post on Judaic polytheism soon, Bob!

  • DrewL

    God gives every indication of being simply a literary character who has evolved over time. Of course he has setbacks—it wasn’t like he was all-powerful. At least, not at this point in the story.

    I like how you use Scripture to debunk not “Christian” beliefs but really your own beliefs. Pick up any Old Testament commentary written by a guy with a PhD: you’ll find plenty of reflection on how the God character of the Old Testament reflects the genres and cultural contexts in which the different books were written. Believe it or not, ancient middle-eastern authors wrote like and thought like…(wait for it)…ancient middle-eastern authors. What a shock.

    You seem to be working from your own presupposition (the Bob faith belief): God could only possibly exist is if Bob’s 20th century post-Enlightenment highly Platonic (thereby not Hebrew) American Protestant Fundamentalism-professed deity character appears consistent throughout every page of the Bible, somehow completely immune to the very human-based and socially-constructed interpretative frameworks by which any ancient authors would be limited. If that’s your presupposition, then you’ve made a sound argument here.

    But debunking your own very poorly-conceived presuppositions about the Old Testament doesn’t really get you anywhere other than proving you have some very poorly-conceived presuppositions about the Old Testament. Maybe that makes a fun Saturday for you, but if you ever want to reason with the big boys, I’d encourage you to actually read something by someone with letters after their name.

    • Bob Seidensticker

      drewl:

      you’ll find plenty of reflection on how the God character of the Old Testament reflects the genres and cultural contexts in which the different books were written.

      I’m sure you’re right, but this isn’t what I was talking about.

      … deity character appears consistent throughout every page of the Bible …

      The Christian claim is that God never changes. The Bible refutes that. That seems relevant to me and worth exploring and discussing.

      I’d encourage you to actually read something by someone with letters after their name.

      Robert Price? Bart Ehrman? Richard Carrier? Richard Dawkins? Daniel Dennett? Sam Harris?

      Nope–I have no use for the facts, nor can I imagine that any atheist does. You should know this already.

      • DrewL

        The Christian claim is that God never changes. The Bible refutes that.

        I like how you state this as if Christians just never noticed something so completely obvious in 2,000 years. It’s the equivalent of the Sunday School creationist jumping up and down in science class yelling “How come monkeys still exist if we evolved from them????”

        Robert Price? Bart Ehrman? Richard Carrier? Richard Dawkins? Daniel Dennett? Sam Harris?

        You’ve diagnosed your own problem here, thanks. You’re reading guys with degrees in zoology and neuroscience for instruction on Ancient Middle-Eastern literature. Thanks but no thanks: I’d prefer to read people who actually know something about the subject at hand AND haven’t made their career selling books with intentionally polemical titles that get them talk show interviews. Reading Dawkins, Harris, and Dennett on Scripture and theology is no different from reading Christian pastors on evolution. Thanks, but I’ll stick with the real scholars on this subject.

        I’ll end with my usual line: if anyone values sincere intellectual inquiry on this subject written by neutral (non-faith-driven) academically-sound perspectives, let me know, I can dig up some reading recommendations for you. Otherwise, feel free to merely engage Bob’s imaginary strawman arguments; I wouldn’t want real scholarly insight getting in the way of your intellectual self-gratification.

        • Bob Seidensticker

          drewl:

          I like how you state this as if Christians just never noticed something so completely obvious in 2,000 years.

          I’ve long since stopped being amazed at Christians playing games with the facts of reality. Not all Christians, of course, but some.

          I agree that it’s obvious, but most fundamentalists will deny that, I think.

          You’re reading guys with degrees in zoology and neuroscience for instruction on Ancient Middle-Eastern literature.

          I have read those guys, but my point was actually sarcasm (to respond to what might have been a bit of sarcasm from you).

          Reading Dawkins, Harris, and Dennett on Scripture and theology is no different from reading Christian pastors on evolution.

          Who does that? Not me. I read Ehrman for that, as well as Greg Koukl, Wm. Lane Craig, “Antony Flew,” John Warwick Montgomery, and others.

          Otherwise, feel free to merely engage Bob’s imaginary strawman arguments

          Tell me more. What are the flaws in my arguments?

    • trj

      Pick up any Old Testament commentary written by a guy with a PhD: you’ll find plenty of reflection on how the God character of the Old Testament reflects the genres and cultural contexts in which the different books were written. Believe it or not, ancient middle-eastern authors wrote like and thought like…(wait for it)…ancient middle-eastern authors.

      Sure, the authors at the time described and thought of God in a different way from us. They related their work to the cultural, political, literary, and religious contexts that existed back then. Nobody actually contends that.

      And it would seem some of the authors didn’t actually think God was omnipotent. Again, no surprise there, as back then the general view of God was clearly less abstract than that of more modern times.

      The only problem, of course, is that their description clearly contradicts the more modern depiction of God as being omnipotent. This is not really a problem of differing context, as you imply, but one of basic theological self-contradiction.

      Perhaps your grievances would be better directed at the many Christians (in fact, most Christians) who maintain that God actually is omnipotent, regardless of what the Bible says, and particularly the ones who claim the Bible is inerrant.

  • DrewL

    The only problem, of course, is that their description clearly contradicts the more modern depiction of God as being omnipotent. This is not really a problem of differing context, as you imply, but one of basic theological self-contradiction.

    Why stop there: there are scriptures that have God asking questions; that challenges his omniscience. There are scriptures where God enters a place, leaves a place, fills rooms, occupies mountains, etc; that challenges his omnipresence. There are scriptures where God clearly has emotions; that challenges his impassibility/immutability.

    These “contradictions” have been debated by theologians for two centuries. Few Christians would be completely caught off guard by such discrepancies between narrative Scripture and systematic theology. I think atheists would probably be more caught off guard by just how frequently and substantively these discrepancies have been debated in theology with so few thinkers in the debate turning to atheism as a result. If we really think people have a responsibility to abandon any belief system at the first sight of nuance, complexity, and what seems like contradictions at times, we should probably be picketing theoretical physics conferences and history conferences in addition to churches.

    I’d encourage you and Bob both to rethink your approach which seems to be: for God to exist he must have all these particular properties and conform to these particular expectations that I’m placing on him from my own seemingly omniscient perspective. Oh, didn’t conform to my expectations in Judges 1:19? Game over, God’s a big phony. Maybe that’s a fun way to spend your weekend, but it would make far more sense to actually engage some serious thinkers on what these concepts and scripture verses actually mean and how they’ve been interpreted in the past. But that’s probably too much work.

    • Bob Seidensticker

      drewl:

      Why stop there

      Why indeed? Your questions make a lot of sense.

      God isn’t omniscient in the Garden of Eden when he asks questions, nor is he when he has to send angels to do recon on Sodom and Gomorrah to verify reports that he’s heard. He wouldn’t need to test Job if he were omniscient; he’d just know. And so on.

      I think atheists would probably be more caught off guard by just how frequently and substantively these discrepancies have been debated in theology with so few thinkers in the debate turning to atheism as a result.

      This is true, but what do we make of it? Muslim scholars have debated their own tricky issues, and they haven’t diverted from the straight and narrow. Is that strong evidence that Islam is correct? Or should we consider that maybe their religious views have compromised their objectivity?

      abandon any belief system at the first sight of nuance, complexity, and what seems like contradictions at times

      At first sight? Of course not. But when pummeled with this sort of thing, they owe it to themselves to rethink their presuppositions.

      Maybe that’s a fun way to spend your weekend

      Not for me. I place no constraints on God; it’s the Christians themselves. I simply look for contradictions in the Christians’ own story. When I find them, sometimes I point that out.

    • trj

      … your approach which seems to be: for God to exist he must have all these particular properties and conform to these particular expectations that I’m placing on him from my own seemingly omniscient perspective. Oh, didn’t conform to my expectations in Judges 1:19? Game over, God’s a big phony.

      Personally, I’m ok with the Bible being inaccurate. I can certainly imagine believing in God despite the Bible getting things wrong now and again. You, on the other hand, for all your talk about how the biblical authors were a product of their time and culture, seem unable to consider that maybe they just got some things wrong. Oh no, there are no contradictions in the Bible, it’s just a matter of understanding it correctly, then all apparent contradictions resolve themselves. Yeah sure, that sounds plausible.

    • http://www.seditiosus.blogspot.com Schaden Freud

      “Why stop there?”

      Good question, and personally I don’t stop there. It doesn’t take a deep thinker to figure out there’s no such thing as a square circle.

    • http://pushthepulldoor.blogspot.com Don Gwinn

      Good thing you remembered to put “contradictions” in scare quotes; otherwise I’d have assumed that saying two mutually exclusive things and claiming that both must be true was a real contradiction.

  • Dave Warnock

    DrewL, you seem to be either missing the point of the argument here, or you haven’t tried to co-exist with fundamentalist, evangelical Christians who claim that the Bible is indeed inerrant, and that it is to be taken literally, and that it is, in fact, the very Word Of God. These folks DO make the claim that He is omnipotent, omniscient, etc. and that the stories in the OT are all factual and true and happened just as it is written. Bob is not creating the contradiction, he is pointing out the obvious contradiction between what the Bible says about God and what many millions of modern Christians claim they believe about him.

  • Nate Frein

    Bob, do you have any recommendations for an annotated bible? Something that would actually compare and discuss different translations, interpretations, etc?

    I ask because I do want to get a deeper knowledge of the bible (and it’s been decades since I read the King James version I got from catholic sunday school), but it’s not feasible for me to go and read multiple different editions.

    • Bob Seidensticker

      My own paper Bible is the NIV Archaeology Study Bible.

      An excellent snarky one (KJV with all the nutty stuff highlighted) is:
      http://skepticsannotatedbible.com/

      A good online version with lots of different translations and keyword lookup:
      http://www.biblegateway.com/

      To compare many translations against each other:
      http://bible.cc/2_kings/3-27.htm

      The best online Bible that I know of with lots of scholarly commentary is:
      https://net.bible.org/#!bible/Matthew+1

      And if you really want to get silly, you can try this one:
      http://www.blueletterbible.org/

      I sometimes get a word number (each word is numbered–for example “LORD” [or Jehovah] is H03069) from the NET Bible and then look it up in the Blue Letter Bible to get a second opinion.

      Anyone else have suggestions?

      • Paul D.

        The Oxford Annotated Bible with Apocrypha has great introductions and commentary (better than the NET, which is too evangelical and fudges the text in places). And, if you can get it, the 1966 Jerusalem Bible (original hardcover edition) with translators’ notes is awesome.

        • Bob Seidensticker

          Tin tin:

          Thanks for the tip. I’ve ordered a 1966 Jerusalem Bible.

          As for the Oxford bible, I see a 2010 edition, a 1977 “Expanded Edition,” and a 2001 Third Edition. You’d recommend just the latest edition, I suppose?

    • Nate Frein

      Cool, thanks for the responses!

  • Pingback: Giant Librarians of Debir, or Who is stronger: Yahweh or some iron chariots? | Remnant of Giants

  • smrnda

    DrewL, I agree with you that plenty of Christians notice these discrepancies. There are plenty of Christians who recognized discrepancies in whether or not the Bible agrees with science and who reject a literal interpretation of genesis, or who question the historical reliability of certain portions of the Bible. My take is once you start saying ‘the Bible is not some totally authoritative document, it’s kind of a human-made thing’ why keep treating any of it as divine? To me, the ‘liberal Christian’ is just failing to explain why, in spite of all its deficiencies, they’re treating the Bible as special, and a failure to actually make precise statements of belief. If you have this fuzzy vague cloud of ‘beliefs’ then what is Christianity? To me, professing faith in something that is vague and poorly defined is just professing belief in something that you can argue ‘well, that’s not what I mean’ whenever anyone brings up a difficult point. Liberal Christianity does a good job of explaining what it doesn’t believe, but a poor job explaining what it does believe and why.

    • cowalker

      A person identified as “Will” made a comment on this blog post
      http://www.patheos.com/blogs/religionqanda/2013/01/why-are-holy-scriptures-so-complicated/
      that has me mulling over a theory.

      Will: “. . . obfuscation is a simple and effective means of driving back skeptical inquiry. Key to the staying power of various religious traditions is the idea that they are untestable and require enormous amounts of study and interpretation to properly understand, due to the inherent ‘mystery’ of the divine . . . . In short, when divine beings do things that seem to run counter to our expectations, it’s very handy for religious leaders to be able to point to confusing, contradictory texts and say “the Lord worketh in mysterious ways.”

      My theory is that for a scripture to survive over time, it must contain ambiguous stories, outright self-contradictions and multiple, disconnected moral observations that can be cherry-picked. These traits provide an evolutionary advantage, enabling the scripture to survive cultural upheavals, because they allow adaptability. How else could Christians over the centuries derive from the Bible all the different gods and Jesus’s needed to bless the feudal system, democracy, the colonization of the world by Western Europe, slavery, abolition, capitalism gone wild, burning heretics at the stake and the practice of religious tolerance? Clearly the Koran is equally elastic–inspiring military invasions of multiple continents, suicide bombers, and virulent anti-Semitism as well as many peaceful, tolerant Muslim lives.

      What I can’t understand is believers who claim with a straight face that Biblical (or Koranic) authority provides moral guidance, when it couldn’t be more obvious that it functions like tea leaves or Tarot cards.

      • Bob Seidensticker

        cowalker:

        My theory is that for a scripture to survive over time, it must contain ambiguous stories, outright self-contradictions and multiple, disconnected moral observations that can be cherry-picked.

        The hidden value of contradictions–interesting idea. I’ve thought the same thing myself. Perhaps if a religion gets over its early fragmentation (which Christianity had in spades), the ugly amalgam that results has this as a silver lining.

        What I can’t understand is believers who claim with a straight face that Biblical (or Koranic) authority provides moral guidance, when it couldn’t be more obvious that it functions like tea leaves or Tarot cards.

        I’d imagine that your insight applies here as well. What they claim is that it provides their moral guidance, which means that they can find support for whatever moral presuppositions they have. You can find love and savagery in the Bible and lots in between.

      • Patterrssonn

        Daniel C. Dennet talks about just this thing in “Breaking the Spell”.

    • trj

      My take is once you start saying ‘the Bible is not some totally authoritative document, it’s kind of a human-made thing’ why keep treating any of it as divine?

      I’d say that’s were faith comes into the picture. A liberal Christian chooses to believe certain things because he/she thinks “it just makes more sense” (or makes them feel more comfortable, or something like that – the particular reason is not important).

      Certainly, it reduces the authority of the Bible and their own position as biblical authorities, and I guess most of them realize as much. Some of those who are conscious of their own musings regarding the Bible’s veracity may even take that one step further and ask themselves why they should really believe anything in the Bible at all.

      But mostly they’ll simply say that it’s what they choose to believe, not attempting to justify it. They take it on faith. Whether you and I consider their position to be honest or consistent isn’t relevant to them.

  • Greg G

    A Bible resource I have found useful is biblestudytools.com. I usually get to it when I copy a Greek word or phrase from blueletterbible.com and Google it. It gives a list of verses where the phrase appears in the Greek and it has Next and Previous links to Greek words in alphabetical order so you can find other forms of the word with various suffixes.

    I’m far away from my computers with the link actually saved so use my method.

    • Bob Seidensticker

      Nice!

  • John Kesler

    An interesting fact about Judges 1:18-19 is that the translators of the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible/OT), apparently feeling uneasy about v:18′s claim that Judah captured four of the five major Philistine cities–despite v:19′s assertion that iron chariots prevented dispossession of plain-dwellers–changed v:18 to a negative and eliminated v:19′s reference to iron chariots. Compare the KJV, based on the Masoretic Text, to Brenton’s Septuagint:

    KJV
    18 Also Judah took Gaza with the coast thereof, and Askelon with the coast thereof, and Ekron with the coast thereof. 19 And the LORD was with Judah; and he drave out the inhabitants of the mountain; but could not drive out the inhabitants of the valley, because they had chariots of iron.

    LXX
    18 But Judas did not inherit Gaza nor her coasts, nor Ascalon nor her coasts, nor Accaron nor her coasts, nor Azotus nor the lands around it. 19 And the Lord was with Judas, and he inherited the mountain; for they were not able to destroy the inhabitants of the valley, for Rechab prevented them.

    • Bob Seidensticker

      John:

      First observation: the word “drave” is cool and should be used more often.

      Second: That’s a fascinating observation. For close reading of a passage, I go to several sources, but this LXX/MT distinction went over my head. Now that I look again, http://www.biblegateway.com shows “took” in the translation vs. “did not take” in the Septuagint in a note. Oops–that’s a rather large difference.


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