From Allan Bevere:
The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.” –Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion
“Jesus is Santa Claus for Adults” –Christopher Hitchens, God Is NotGreat
The sentiments above have gained much traction with people and it is understandable why more than a few, and not exclusive to atheists, have drawn such conclusions about the God of the Bible. It has long been noticed that the Old Testament is quite violent in many places, and there’s a whole lot of sexual escapades taking place as well that do not fit the traditional “biblical” understanding, of sex, so to speak, even among the people God has called. Indeed, at certain places in the biblical narrative, there is so much sex and violence one gets confused on who’s doing what with whom and who’s gruesomely spilling the blood of someone else.
Now in one sense, this is really not a problem, if we are speaking about human behavior only. We know that humanity is a mess; it has been so for a long time. Bloody wars and sexual misconduct are nothing new. Indeed, before we “civilized” twenty-first century humans get too judgmental and look down our long noses at these ancient “savages,” we would do well to remember that in the twentieth century more people were killed in war than in all the previous centuries combined. And let us not forget the scourge that is human trafficking that forces all-too-many women and children into bondage is unfortunately thriving all over the world. Yes, indeed… we modern civilized folks have certainly found ways to one better our ancient, uncivilized ancestors.
The problem with so many of these difficult stories in Scripture is not the human element. History reveals all too clearly the demons that dwell within us. The issue, as pointed out in the Dawkins’ quote above, is that God seems to be all too implicated in this bad behavior; and the biblical text clearly indicates that. How one understands the conquest narrative in Joshua and the attempted genocide of the Canaanites, for example, is indeed difficult and complex. But the problem with the blanket dismissal of the God who is involved in these events as some kind of blood-thirsty tyrant ignores the long and complicated story of how God has chosen to act in the mess of human history, and in particular, the mess of Israel’s history in order that the world might be redeemed. My friend, Dan Hawk writes,
The Old Testament, and the Bible as a whole, relates the story of God’s work in the violent world between creation and new creation. In this world, war is rampant, but God is not absent. Rather, God enters the maelstrom of human violence and makes war in order to establish shalom. The biblical God is relentlessly and resolutely at war with the powers of evil that destroy the creation that God declared good. God’s involvement in war is a messy business, and the questions associated with it allow no easy answers. Instead, the Old Testament sets before its readers the paradoxes of God’s participation in war.
While it might be easy to regard the warlike God of the Old Testament as a necessary accommodation to a primitive society, now superseded by the Prince of Peace, we might question whether an image so central to one part of the Bible can be so completely negated in another. The Old Testament’s witness to God and war reveals that the theological questions swirling around war are as complex and difficult as the moral ones. As such, the Bible leads faithful readers away from simple and stark formulations and toward thoughtful reflection on the difficult questions that must be engaged as they discern the path of the God who is still at work redemptively in a world at war.
In other words, Dawkins and Hitchens offer a simplistic view of God and a simplistic view of Scripture. In their thinking, if God is a perfect and holy being, then God must remain above the human fray and make things right without soiling himself in human affairs; and if he does muddy himself in the mire of the human, it’s proof he is no better than his dysfunctional creatures. Indeed, a perfect God would not allow such imperfections in the first place.
But that is not the biblical image of God given to us in either Testament, and I for one am thankful. In affirming the active presence of Israel’s God on behalf of his people and for the sake of the world, we worship a God who (to say it colloquially) is not afraid or adverse to dive into the blood and tears of this world and get human on him.* The texts of Joshua and Judges are not to be emulated today nor used as justification by Christians to wage war in God’s name. It should be noted that nowhere in the prophetic writings is there ever an appeal to the wars of Joshua and Judges. But what we now have is Jesus and the New Testament witness that helps to sharpen our focus on these texts, and to understand them and their important place in the history of salvation. The Old Testament is not be viewed as somehow beside the point; for without God moving and working through his chosen people Israel, there is no getting to the fullness of time (Galatians 4:4-7) that brings the Prince of Peace, the Son of David, into the world. As Dan observes,
God’s decision to work redemptively through a nation (Israel) unavoidably enmeshed God in the warfare that nations endure in a violent world. By choosing to identify with Israel, God was bound to take sides when the nation, or God’s purposes through it, were threatened or opposed. As with all the other nations of its world, war figured prominently in Israel’s history…. The Old Testament testifies that God was deeply involved in all these wars, on one side or the other. Entering human experience cost God something.
In the violent world between creation and new creation, God participates in and directs war as a form of counter-violence that, within the grand scheme of things, advances God’s redemptive purposes. God opposes violence but uses violence.
Indeed, the Old Testament prophets look forward to that day of new creation when all the warriors’ boots and all the uniforms soaked in blood will be burned when the wolf lies down with the lamb (Isaiah 9:1-7; 11:1-9).
It is no accident that such passages as these from Isaiah are read during Advent; for the God of Israel in the Old Testament, who is not afraid to get human on him, is the same God in the New Testament who is not afraid to come into the world as human in Jesus Christ. Incarnation is the supreme and decisive act of God in human history on behalf of God’s people and for the sake of the world. In the midst of this complex and violent world with the continual ravages of history, the God of Joshua and David who waged war with them, has come to us in Jesus Christ now to proclaim peace to those far off and to those who are near (Ephesians 2:11-22).
This post is not an attempt to smooth over difficult biblical passages. The complexity and the difficulties are there, and thank God for good and competent biblical scholars who work tirelessly to understand them in order to assist the church in its life and witness. As the great Karl Barth once said, the only good reason for the theologian (or biblical scholar, for that matter) to exist is to assist the preacher with the sermon on Sunday morning. What I am offering instead is a way to understand the biblical narrative that avoids the simplistic, cud-chewing ruminations of Richard Dawkins, et al, who have offered a thin view of God and the Scriptures that bear witness to that God. I do not believe in the God Richard Dawkins denies. His God is a caricature not known in the Scriptures. Rather, I believe in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who gets human on him and becomes human in Jesus.
A sanitary God above it all will not do. Our God gets into the human mess to lift us out of it. Our God has a human face…. And by the way… to the late Christopher Hitchens, I say, Jesus is not Santa Claus for adults. No one would ever want to crucify jolly old St. Nick.
* The imagery of God getting human on him emerged from a discussion with Dan as we drove to AAR/SBL in Baltimore. It’s Dan’s imagery, and I think it’s pretty darn good at that.