Disturbing Divine Behavior: Troubling Old Testament Images of God / Eric Seibert (Fortress Press, 2009)
In this book, Eric Seibert tackles head-on a question which has long been in my mind: what are we to do with the troubling Old Testament images of God? The ones where, for example, he orders the Israelites to commit genocide and kill men, women and children?
Many evangelicals would disown Seibert and his answers, but he comes from an evangelical perspective, with evangelical questions. But instead of the standard evangelical approach of justifying why God did these things in the Old Testament, Seibert claims God did not do them.
Seibert doesn’t actually present anything startlingly new to me. Studying theology at Murdoch University, I was made well aware of mainstream (“liberal”) Old Testament scholarship, with archaeology and textual criticism leading scholars to the conclusion that there was no widespread genocide of the Caananites or a flood which decimated the world. What is so compelling for me reading the book is that Seibert uses this evidence to answer questions I have coming from an evangelical background. Most “liberal” scholars don’t bother to address the concerns of evangelicals.
Seibert starts out by outlining the problematic portrayals of God that he is talking about. He confines his scope to the Old Testament historical books and divides the problematic portrayals into a number of categories – ‘God as deadly lawgiver’ – laws where the penalty for disobedience is death; ‘God as instant executioner’ – passages where God instantly strikes people dead for evil; ‘God as mass murderer’; ‘God as Divine Warrior’; ‘God as genocidal general’; ‘God as dangerous abuser’; ‘God as unfair afflictor’ – such as in the case of Job or Pharaoh’s divinely hardened heart; and ‘God as divine deceiver’ – the example being 1 Kings 22. It’s a disturbing catalogue of divine behaviour.
In an important chapter, he examines ancient approaches to disturbing divine behaviour. It is easy to think that it is only more sensitive modern readers like us who are disturbed by parts of the Old Testament, but the reality is that Jewish readers were disturbed by some parts before the Old Testament was even finished. Thus, Seibert gives us the example of the writer of Chronicles who in 1 Chronicles 21:1 changes 2 Samuel 24:1 to say that Satan was responsible for prompting David to take a sinful census, rather than God. For me, it begs the question that if the writer of Chronicles felt he had permission to question – and “correct” – disturbing divine behaviour like this, perhaps we, with the full revelation of Jesus Christ, have similar permission?
Seibert goes on to discuss an early Christian interpreter of disturbing divine behaviour – Marcion. Marcion was so disturbed by the Old Testament that he rejected its authority altogether and produced an abbreviated New Testament, with Old Testament references cut out. It’s a good idea for Seibert to tackle Marcion directly, as he knows he is going to be accused of being a Marcionite. He insists many times that he’s not a Marcionite, that the Old Testament still holds authority for him, but that we must discern each text. Interestingly, Marcion pursued a very literal reading of the Old Testament, more like we would make today, and this is what made it so disturbing for him. Seibert traces other ancient interpreters who managed to be less disturbed by making allegorical or typological readings. Marcion anticipated our contemporary dilemmas better than these others; branding him as a heretic might have been necessary, but the problems he had with the Old Testament came out of valid questions.
The next chapter is “Defending God’s Behaviour in the Old Testament”, surveying approaches evangelicals take to explain disturbing divine behaviour, all assuming that God did and said exactly as the Old Testament records.
- ‘Divine immunity’ approaches basically claim that by definition anything God does is good and right and thus morally defensible. It usually appeals to how little as humans we understand of God’s ways. Seibert sees this approach as inadequate because it restricts honest inquiry about the character of God. It actually dishonours God by claiming he acted in ways that are inconsistent with our basic beliefs about what is right – we have to redefine evil behaviour as ‘good’. But ‘is genocide ever good?’ (p.74)
- Another approach is ‘the just cause approach’, supplying a rationale for God’s behaviour – human sin was so bad they needed to be slaughtered. But what about babies? And surely the responses to some particular offenses are out of proportion – like Uzziah in 2 Samuel 6:1-11 who steadied the ark and was struck dead.
- ‘The greater good approach’ argues that in these cases God was preventing a greater evil. Of course, what could be more evil than everyone perishing in a flood is difficult to fathom.
- ‘The “God acted differently in the Old Testament” approach’ argues for a discontinuity between God’s past and present behaviour. But if God instructed the Israelites to commit genocide just because that was all they could understand at their stage in development, our questions about God’s character aren’t answered at all.
- ‘The permissive will approach’ claims that God’s instructions to violence were a compromise because of Israel’s disobedience. The disturbing divine behaviour is contrary to God’s perfect will, but necessary because of the situation. This approach doesn’t actually rescue the text (it’s still inaccurately reports what God wants) or God’s behaviour (He still does these disturbing things).
Coming as he does from an Anabaptist tradition, it seems strange to me that he doesn’t spend longer addressing the approach of the most important Anabaptist thinker – John Howard Yoder. Yoder offers a way of reading the Bible that is different to any of the approaches Seibert discusses. Yoder approaches biblical texts from the ground up, finding their inspiration or theological truth in the way the writer has taken the prevailing cultural standards and worldview and transformed it. Yoder finds a trajectory in each case. In The Original Revolution, he deals explicitly with one of Seibert’s test cases – that of Yahweh ordering Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. Yoder doesn’t even permit us to ask the question of whether Yahweh actually asked Abraham to do this. Instead, he points out that human sacrifice was not a moral issue for the ancient reader. It is not the point of the story at all. Instead, the point is that Yahweh calls Abraham to give up the very means through which Yahweh was going to fulfill his promise to make Abraham the father of many nations – a son. The ethicity of sacrificing Isaac is not a permissible question for the ancient Israelite. Yoder doesn’t expect the text to conform to his own ethical expectations of God. Debating its historicity is a sidetrack for him. His viewpoint has the potential to undo a lot of Seibert’s assumptions, and I would like to see some engagement with it. Of course, Yoder’s point is opaque and he doesn’t flesh it out; people aren’t going to respond to his solution in the same way many will resonate with Seibert’s.
[Part two coming tomorrow]