Disturbing Divine Behavior by Eric A. Seibert (Book Review)

This is part two of a three-part review of Eric Seibert’s books. See my introductory remarks if you haven’t already.

Disturbing Divine Behavior

In Disturbing Divine Behavior, Eric Seibert systematically demonstrates that the Bible (and particularly the Old Testament) both contains and endorses an amount of divine violence that is not only disturbing by modern sensibilities, but also immoral by the teachings of Jesus.

He provides helpful categories for sorting through the different kinds of violence in the Old Testament (p. 17ff.):

  • “God as Deadly Lawgiver”
  • “God as Instant Executioner”
  • “God as Mass Murderer”
  • “God as Divine Warrior”
  • “God as Genocidal General”
  • “God as Dangerous Abuser”
  • “God as Unfair Afflictor”
  • “God as Divine Deceiver”

For each of these categories, he provides a number of passages that illustrate such unacceptable behavior. If you’ve never been directly confronted with the violence of these passages, it may be quite shocking. I’ve read all of them a number of times before, and I was still taken aback when seeing them together like this.

Seibert goes on to explain why and for whom these passages are so problematic. He surveys some ancient approaches to dealing with these passages. And he looks at some recent attempts to justify this violent portrayal of God. He concludes that such violent behavior cannot and should not be defended. Instead, the control belief that guides our understanding of scripture ought to be corrected.

Simply stated, that control belief is as follows: God actually said and did what the Old Testament claims. The influence this control belief exerts over many interpreters cannot be overemphasized. It defines the boundaries within which they believe “solutions” to disturbing divine behavior can be found. If these portrayals really do reflect what God actually said and did, it makes sense to offer a defense of God’s behavior when it seems questionable or out of character. …

But what if this control belief is inaccurate? What if God did not actually say and do everything the Old Testament claims? What then? If this control belief is mistaken and we have determined that a solution to disturbing divine behavior can only be realized by working within its parameters, we run the risk of ending up like Columbus, insisting we have found Asia when our boat is docked in the Caribbean. More to the point, if this control belief is unreliable and we depend on it to guide our interpretation, we risk misconstruing the very nature of God. Given how much rests on the accuracy of this control belief, it behooves us to examine it carefully and thoroughly. (pp. 86–87)

And such a careful and thorough examination is exactly what Seibert does. He probes into every angle as he considers the question of historicity. He discusses, for example, the important differences between modern practices of recording history and ancient historiography.

Recognizing that Old Testament narratives are examples of ancient, not modern, historiography (history writing) leads many scholars to reject the popular assumption that these stories offer a trustworthy description of what took place in Israel’s past. While they would not deny that these stories often refer to real people, places, and events, and are at many points historically reliable, they realize that ancient historiographers were not principally interested in describing exactly what occurred. Assuming that Old Testament narratives were written to preserve a record of what actually happened is a modern—not ancient—historiographic assumption. That is not to suggest that these ancient writers had no interest in history or historical matters. They certainly did. It is merely to emphasize that no simplistic equation can be made between modern history writing and Old Testament narratives. (pp. 105–106)

Seibert also examines a number of contradictory portrayals of God within the text of scripture itself.

For example, while one passage speaks of God as the kind of being whose mind cannot change, another clearly states that “God changed his mind” (1 Sam. 15:29; Jon. 3:10). One passage claims that God punishes “children for the iniquity of their parents” while another portrays God emphatically stating that a child will not suffer for the iniquity of a parent (Exod. 20:5; Ezek. 18:20). On numerous occasions God is described as being “slow to anger,” while other passages seem to belie that affirmation (Exod. 34:6; Num. 11:1). Similarly, despite declarations that God is gracious and merciful, God is sometimes portrayed as hardening people’s hearts for the express purpose of allowing them to be slaughtered mercilessly (Exod. 34:6; Josh. 11:20). In each of these instances, we see competing and contrasting views of certain attributes of God. Contradictory portrayals like these could be multiplied many times over if images of God in the Old Testament were compared with those in the New Testament. (pp. 172–173)

Thus Seibert says we must distinguish between the “textual God” and the “actual God” (borrowing language from Terence Fretheim). “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. One is a literary representation; the other, a living reality” (p. 170). Yet this does not mean that any portion of scripture is entirely devoid of truth about God.

To be sure, some Old Testament portrayals capture a great deal more of God’s true essence than others, and some positively distort what God is really like. But I believe that most—if not all—provide us with opportunities to gain some insight into the character of God. In my estimation, the way forward lies somewhere between the extremes of total acceptance and total rejection…. (pp. 180–181)

So where does that leave us? How do we read such texts of scripture responsibly? What criteria do we use to discern the actual God from the textual God? Such questions bring us to my favorite part of the book.

In chapter 10, “Evaluating Disturbing Divine Behavior by the God Jesus Reveals,” Seibert makes the case that Jesus, and his teaching about God, should be the baseline by which we judge all other pictures of God. Seibert considers “the kind of God Jesus reveals” and identifies “some key characteristics of God that Jesus emphasized through his life and teaching” (p. 190ff.):

  • “Jesus Reveals a God Who Is Kind to the Wicked”
  • “Jesus Reveals a God Who Is Nonviolent”
  • “Jesus Reveals a God Who Does Not Judge People by Causing Historical (or Natural) Disasters or Serious Physical Infirmities”
  • “Jesus Reveals a God of Love”

Although more characteristics could be discussed, enough has been said to develop a reasonably clear picture of the God Jesus reveals. … The Christocentric hermeneutic I am advocating suggests that this view of God should function as the standard by which to evaluate all other portrayals of God in Scripture. Since portrayals of God in the Bible can sometimes hinder our efforts to think rightly about God, a christocentric hermeneutic is essential to help us determine which depictions distort rather than display God’s character. Portrayals that correspond to the God Jesus reveals should be considered trustworthy, while those that stand at odds with this view of God should be regarded as unsatisfactory. (p. 204)

The book concludes with some additional strategies and practical suggestions for evaluating scripture. Two appendices then discuss violence in the New Testament, and inspiration and the authority of scripture.


Simply put, I love everything about this book. But I think my favorite aspect is just how systematic Seibert is in his approach to these matters. No stone is left unturned. And the various sets of categories he has identified are tools I will surely be returning to as I process such biblical texts in the future. I wholeheartedly recommend this book to you, as well as its sequel, which I will be reviewing soon.

[My review of The Violence of Scripture is now available.]

Pick up your own copy of Disturbing Divine Behavior as a paperback and The Violence of Scripture as a paperback or a Kindle eBook.

Disclosure: I received a free copy of each book from Eric Seibert and Fortress Press in exchange for an honest review.

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • gimpi1

    This book sounds fascinating… I think you sold at least one copy here.

    • http://hippieheretic.com/ Chuck McKnight

      Awesome. You won’t regret it!

  • http://infiniteoceanoflightandlove.blogspot.com/ Daniel Wilcox

    The huge difficulty with all of this is what to do with those horrific verses throughout the Hebrew Bible.

    Based upon your review, I’m adding Siebert’s book to my Amazon list.

    Besides, I like to keep up on what Messiah College profs are up to. My wife and I used to be members of the Brethren in Christ denomination.

    • http://hippieheretic.com/ Chuck McKnight

      That is indeed the difficulty. I think you’ll enjoy this book.

  • Rafi Simonton

    I plan on getting the book as well. Unless the difficulties are acknowledged, our faith is diminished and becomes merely a bulwark to keep at bay the nagging doubts of uncertainty and ambiguity. Characteristics of a post-Einstein world.

    However, I am bothered by the possibility that the old argument “OT bad NT good” could be at work here. Which all too often has deteriorated to an unconscionable anti-Semitism. When the truth is more that the Christian traditions froze the OT in time. While learned Jews produced a remarkable set of interpretations of Scripture known as midrashic literature.

    I’m not saying that the apparent horrid behavior of the OT God can be symbolized away. Only that images of ancient origin have to be understood in context. Read the mythologies of various pagan cultures; whether Egyptian, Assyrian, Nordic or Greek, their chief deity is hardly exemplary. The OT is also the record of a people transitioning from a tribal god to one of universal significance. That they didn’t quite get everything perfectly 3,000 years ago is not surprising.

    • http://hippieheretic.com/ Chuck McKnight

      Yes, that is an important pitfall to avoid. And though I did not bring it up in my review, Eric Seibert actually spends a good deal of space cautioning against that very thing. He’s very careful both to avoid the implication that the problem is a Jewish one, and to acknowledge that such problems exist in the New Testament as well.

    • Reuben Anderson

      “However, I am bothered by the possibility that the old argument “OT bad NT good” could be at work here.”

      Except that the whole NT is constantly referencing the OT as depicting, prophesying and foreshadowing Jesus. As did Jesus himself. I’m so frustrated when people raise such questions. It’s generations of bad exegesis and its’ why we need books like this and CWG.

  • Occam Razor

    I’m an old Messiah grad, and Eric seems like a great guy, and I agree that one can’t view the violence in the OT as history or that it reflects real commands of God. But why would we view the NT scriptures any more literally or valid?

    That’s the whole nut of the problem. It’s not just the OT, it’s all of Scripture that needs to be seen as what it is: the reflections of people struggling to come to grips with their idea of the divine.

    Eric rightly is horrified by the violence in the OT. But the answer isn’t to selectively promote the things you like out of the Bible (which is pretty much what everyone does, as Schweitzer noted), but to understand that all of it reflects human culture, nothing more or less.

    The fact is that the whole idea of God killing his son to save our “sins,” is no less horrifying than genocide in Jericho. What kind of a madman needs to kill something in order to forgive?

    • http://hippieheretic.com/ Chuck McKnight

      Eric and I both agree with you. The problems are particularly notable in the OT, and that’s why he focuses there in his book, but he also acknowledges that similar problems exist in the NT as well.

      • Reuben Anderson

        When it says in Timothy “All scripture is God breathed…”, I believe that it is means “Scripture is CONTINUALLY brought to life by the Holy Spirit AS YOU READ it”. It’s not the case that there is a simple choice between inerrancy and some kind of post-modern textual relativisim. Actually, the text is meant to be understood in a community of believers who have been given sight by the Holy Spirit through their faith in Jesus. The Spirit is the living witness to truth, not the text.

        So I don’t accept there is a “problem”. Whether the text is historical or figurative or imagined or contextualised is missing the point. It starts here and now, with us and the Holy Spirit, seeking the meaning He wants to communicate to us. Historical analysis, textual criticism, church tradition are all just valuable, often trustworthy aids in that process, not authorities.

        So before bringing to bear a “gospels-based” hermeneutic and using that as a filter to see the OT, we have to know the real, living Jesus.

        Sorry to be so strident and so charismatic about it. Born from experience though.

  • http://www.faithmeetsworld.com/ Rob Grayson

    Looks like a great book, Chuck. And from your review, it seems like Seibert takes a line I would be happier with than the somewhat more convoluted line Boyd takes in his new book The Crucifixion of the Warrior God.

    • http://hippieheretic.com/ Chuck McKnight

      Yes, from what you and others have said of CWG so far, I would agree. Still looking forward to perusing it though. I believe my copy is supposed to come tomorrow!

      • http://www.faithmeetsworld.com/ Rob Grayson

        I’ll be very interested to hear your thoughts once you’ve ploughed through it, Chuck.

  • Tim

    Right; sounds like a great book!
    The whole thing makes so much more sense when you understand that a lot of what we find on the pages of scripture is people’s perceptions of what God is like, rather than what he is actually like. I’m convinced one of the main reasons for Jesus was to give us a clearer picture of God, so a Christocentric hermeneutic is vital to understanding what God is actually like.

    • http://hippieheretic.com/ Chuck McKnight

      Absolutely!