Quotes from Disturbing Divine Behavio(u)r

Eric Seibert, Disturbing Divine Behavior, Fortress Press 2009.

Is God really in the business of summarily executing those who are “wicked” and “displeasing” in God’s sight? If so, how does this fit with the ugly realities of the modern world? If God instantly executed individuals like these, then why were people like Adolf Hitler, Saddam Hussein, and Slobodan Milosevic allowed to live so long and do so much evil?

– p. 19

Regardless of how one tries to resolve the tension, it is hard to deny that the Old Testament presents God in ways that appear ethically questionable, if not downright immoral. God is portrayed as one who sanctions violence, particpates in war, executes individuals for seemingly minor offences, and annihilates large groups of people in dramatic acts of divine destruction. If we are honest, many of us will admit that these images of God do not match up very well with some of our beliefs about God. Understandably, this creates a dilemma for those of us who affirm Scripture’s authority yet remain at a loss for what to do with these problematic portrayals.

– p. 34

“If reading the Bible does not raise profound problems for you as a modern reader, then check with your doctor and enquire about the symptoms of brain-death.”

-p. 35

Others do not find these passages problematic because of their comfortable familiarity with them. The familiarity effectively anesthetizes some readers of the Bible, preventing them from experiencing any significant discomfort with the unsettling images of God these stories contain. In short, they have grown so accustomed to these narratives that they are no longer troubled by them.

– p. 51

As Noll puts it, “The storyteller requires a capricious deity to make the plot work… The error we moderns often make is to assume that the characterization of Yahweh “mattered” to the ancient author and the original audience – it almost certainly did not. That is to say, this tale was not designed to teach some religious truth about a god called Yahweh.”

– p. 147

9 thoughts on “Quotes from Disturbing Divine Behavio(u)r

  1. I’ve recently been doing quite a lot of rewriting of well known parables, particularly the Prodigal Son. How would the parable have turned out:

    1) If the elder brother had taken over the house?
    2) If the character of the Father was different?

    It seems to me that the parable would have been different had it occured, say in Joshua or Ezra. In some ways that’s just another way of saying that there’s forward movement from Old Covenant to New Covenant.

    Many of the problems that occur to us stumble over a rock of the apparent inconsistency in God’s character. For myself, I have more problems with God’s choice of agent – Israel – and the human role in divinely sanctioned violence. If God had done violence directly it would have been less objectionable – God gives and God takes away, etc.

    Nathan, I think this is the most important issue of all for 21st Century Christians. As a Christian pacifist I like to blame the Constantinian fall for a whole batch of ills but at the back of mind is Robinson’s and Cupitt’s critique of theism. Is it really enough to blame the Constantinian shift for religious justification of violence when, being ‘honest to God’, the real problem is inherent in the nature of God (i.e. God’s sheer, overwhelming ‘over-againstness’)? There are a number of things that prevent me from going all the way with the anti-theists, not least a fear of the kind of reductionism and individualism that would flow from reducing God to subjectivity. I believe we should preserve the ‘dignity of the other’, even when that ‘other’ is God. However hard and mysterious it might be I still believe in theism but I’m bold enough to believe that ‘overwhelming’ doesn’t equate to ‘coercive’. In my mind there’s that stubborn, wonderful, undignified picture of a father picking up the hem of his garments and half-running, half-stumbling to forgive.

  2. Hi Nathan,
    I agree with Phil that this is one of the most serious issues facing the church in the 21st century.

    The evangelical church, in particular, seems unwilling to face the issues of “God’s violence” in some parts of the OT and in certain ways the book of Revelation is interpreted in the NT to maintain God’s violent judgment “in the last days”.

    It seems to me that Jesus was non violent. Maybe a possible solution is to say that Jesus is the one Word of God and to assess everything in the bible in the light of this one Word.

    Maybe inspiration does not mean that there is a direct identity between the words of the bible and the Word of God. Maybe the identification is more indirect.

    I have read somewhere that, although there was considerable diversity among early Anabaptists, by and large Anabaptists thought that the NT alone was normative for Christians and the OT was illustrative, not normative. I am not sure if this is correct but it does seem to me to be helpful.

    I concur with Phil that we cannot blame the Constantinian shift alone for the church’s move away from its largely pacifist stance of the first three centuries of the Christian era.

    It might be a useful exercise to study how the early Christians interpreted the texts of violence in the pre-Constantinian era.

    John Arthur


    1. This book covers some of your final question of interpreting violent texts in the early church. His basic answer was that most of them allegorised the texts, looking for a hidden truth about Jesus. Except for Marcion, who read these texts ‘literally’ and came to reject the entire OT…

  3. Hi Nathan,
    Marcion’s solution to reject the OT was very drastic. Jesus did not do this (Mt.5:17 ff).

    Jesus interpreted the law and the prophets as being summed up in a twofold command: love God with your whole being and your neighbour as yourself.

    Jesus never quotes from the texts of violence. However, the OT was used by many in the history of the church to support violence. e.g. to support the crusades, to execute people for “witchcraft”, heresy, and to engage in violent religious wars.

    The early church solution to interpreting the texts of violence by means of allegorising and finding hidden meanings is really no solution, at least not for evangelicals.

    The story of Jesus is rooted in the OT and the prophetic vision of the coming reign of shalom. Hence I cannot accept the solution of Marcion.

    I think that I am left with 2 alternatives (If there are other viable ones, please let me know). They are:

    (1) Seibert’s solution which I tend to favour. Assess the OT in the light of the coming of Jesus and reject the view that God is speaking directly through the texts of violence commanding violence. (I have not read Seibert so I hope I have understood him properly from your summary)

    (2) Yoder’s solution set out in chapter 4 of the Politics of Jesus. i.e. Yaweh is the God who saves his people without their needing to act.

    I would like (at some time) to do a detailed investigation into Yoder’s claim that the believing Israelite would not have asked the kind of question that we ask of the texts of violence.

    If I could assure myself that Yoder’s view is the most probable, I would adopt it over Seibert’s solution.

    John Arthur

  4. I’m not one of these people that assume that if we ‘face the truth’ the truth is necessarily grim but I suspect that many conservative Christians don’t take either the allegorical or Marcionite route: we simply ignore the question and hope it will go away. Of course, it won’t, not least because there are a growing legion of acerbic critical humanists out there that will remind us of it.

    Constantinianism was possible, not because Constantine and Eusebius were villains but because by the time Constantine came along the church was ready to say ‘yes’. The argument applies to clericalism, voluntary church membership and other issues as well as Christian attitudes to violence, including the brutal suppression of paganism. The New Testament vision (whether Christ’s teaching or the Pauline view of ‘church’) was simply explained away or simply finessed out of existence.

    I don’t pretend to have a straightforward approach to the ‘scandal’ of God’s apparent inconsistency but my insticts are to go to the person and teaching of Christ (and his ‘fulfillment’ of the Law) and start from there. As for the Old Testament I still think Millard Lind’s ‘Yahweh is a Warrior’ is hard to beat as an approach to Yahweh War.

  5. Hi Nathan and Phil,

    Thanks Phil! I must read Lind’s book. Nathan, has Vose Seminary a copy of this in its library?

    John Arthur

  6. Hi Nathan,

    Which online journal are you referring to?

    It is one thing to attempt to demolish Seibert’s arguments but it is another to provide a solution to divine disturbing behaviour that is in the OT text and which Seibert highlights.

    I hope the review attempts to provide a solution at the same time it critiques Seibert’s book. If it is an Anabaptist critique I hope it compares Seibert’s position with that of Yoder.

    If it is an Evangelical but non Anabaptist review, I doubt very much that it will even attempt to provide a viable solution. If it does, I will be pleasantly surprised. But then perhaps it is not the function of a review to offer an alternative solution?

    John Arthur

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