God’s Kryptonite

God’s Kryptonite January 26, 2013

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

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  • Vince Foster

    Well the Qur’an is NOT elastic like the Bible is . It does not tell stories the way the Bible does or make contradictory claims. Islam does not have a hierarchy ala the Catholic church. People use what is called ijtihad (personal reasoning) and this of course varies greatly by person.

    Using the Qur’an out of context can certainly be dangerous.Many people rely on religious scholars or outdated rulings by long dead historical figures rather than do research themselves. Also keep in mind that in countries like Afghanistan , where many terrorists are. the literacy rate is like 20%. Add that to the turmoil of living in an area that was colonized after the fall of the Ottoman empire and where free expression is often surpressed and extremism of one form or another is likely to pop up in some portion of the population. Geo-political concerns are as much to blame here as a persons view of a certain Qur’anic verse.

    In any case the Qur’an , in its compilation, its style and its content is very different than the Bible. One can be an atheist and recognize this. They are very different books.

    • But, of course, many Christians argue that the Bible is not elastic. Similarly, the many flavors of Islam (some accept abrogation while some don’t, and so on) says that Muslims will interpret the Koran in different ways as well.

      • K.C.

        Yep like I said people use personal reasoning. But people interpret the U.S. Constitution differently too. That does not make it comparable to the Bible. People disagreeing about the meaning of something does not mean that the thing they disagree about is faulty, it simply means that people see things differently.

        In any case Christians arguing something does not make it so. AN ATHEIST will say that the Qur’an is significantly different than the Bible. One need not, by any means, be a Muslim or a Christian to see that they are very different books. The Bible is a more or less sequential set of stories starting with their version of the creation and continuing through the history of the Jewish people and culminating with the story of Jesus and letters from Paul et al. The Qur’an is NOT structured like that. You can think it is a holy book or a piece of garbage or anything in between. That does not change the facts about how it is written.

        For good or ill the Qur’an is written as poetry. The whole thing in Arabic rhymes. It makes refernces to a few stories and makes some claims but is not biographical nor does it try to document the history of a people. In content, structure, style and substance it is different than the Bible and contains no textual errors.

        Please note that the Bible is NOT agreed on by Christians themselves and never has been. The Coptic church has one with 83 books, the Orthodox have 79, the Catholics have 72 and the Protestant Bible has 66. By contrast ALL Qur’ans have the same number of surahs, and are word for word the same.

        As much as Sunni ans Shia and Sufis dispute with each other they DO NOT argue about the words of the text but what they mean. If you go to a Sunni a Sufi or a Shia they all have exactly the same Qur’an and it has always been that way. So no the two books are not comparable

        • Whatever6669

          Year old, don’t care. For any future readers: the quran is EXACTLY like the bible in that they both contain fictional tales, absurdities (Adam being 60ft tall, hello), contradictions, bigotry and immorality taught as morality, etc. Also, Paul and Mohammed both probably got their “revelations” from epileptic seizures.

          Also, there were various compilations of the koran until one was settled on and other texts destroyed, by Uthman I believe. I know some Shia say that Ali Abu Talib’s was first and contained verses not found in others, but alas it was lost, and also what we have today is missing verses that were removed or lost. For that matter, there’s variation on how the verses were collected to start with.

        • Whatever6669
        • Greg G.

          Paul got his revelations from reading the Old Testament scripture. Everything he says about Jesus can be found in the Old Testament and most of that from Isaiah*. His Rapture rap comes from Isaiah and Daniel. The accounts of Paul in Acts are just fiction. Paul’s visit to the third heaven might have been a drug-related incident, though.

          *That is true of all epistle writings about Jesus except those taken from the gospels in 1 Timothy and 2 Peter.

        • Whatever6669

          It’s a hypothesis that he had a seizure on the road to Damascus. He later wrote a few times about his ailment. So I could see where he had an epileptic seizure, mistook it for god, and then wrote some of the NT to conform to the OT, as anyone could have. Likewise Mohammed probably had seizures based on his descriptions, but later started using his “revelations” for his own gains, which iirc I think even one of his wives noted.

        • Trying to shoehorn religious writing into a sensible, reality-based world isn’t my preferred approach. Paul’s story about his Damascus-road experience could’ve been a seizure … or it could’ve been a story that he made up to justify his role within the church. Or that dramatically grew over the years into the form we see today. Or that someone else write down above Paul’s signature. Or perhaps other explanations in the “it was just a story” category.

        • Greg G.

          Paul doesn’t say much about that. There are three mutually contradictory accounts in Acts about it, but they are fictional accounts written by (most likely) Luke.

          The last account of it is in Acts 26 where Paul is testifying in Agrippa’s court. The phrase “kick against the goads” is a Greek idiom that goes back as far as Euripides’ Bacchae from about 400BC. So Paul is speaking Greek quoting Jesus speaking Aramaic who is quoting Dionysius, a Greek god speaking a Greek idiom. Imagine Jesus coming down from heaven to quote a Greek god from an old play. It would be like Jesus quoting Caddyshack during the rapture.

        • MR

          Jesus: “Hey everybody, we’re all gonna get laid!”


        • Greg G.

          Jesus, to the Pope: Oh, this is the worst-looking hat I ever saw. What, when you buy a hat like this I bet you get a free bowl of soup, huh?

        • Adam being 60ft tall

          Wow–that is nuts! Now take the Bible by contrast. It says that Adam lived to be 930 years old–completely sensible. And that’s why the Bible trumps the Koran. QED.

        • Whatever6669

          I do hope you’re being snarky, lol.

        • Yep.

  • K.C.

    Catholics do not use the King James Bible. That is the Protestant version. The King James Bible has 66 books as opposed to the Catholic Bible which has 72