Category: Old Testament

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

Disturbing Divine Behaviour : a review part 2

Seibert’s solution to disturbing divine behaviour is a christocentric hermeneutic. He acknowledges that the New Testament itself has some trouble images of divine behaviour. But he insists that we can trust the depiction of Jesus in the New Testament and use him, as the fullest revelation of God, as a guide to interpreting disturbing divine behaviour. He defines the God revealed by Jesus:

• Jesus reveals a God who is kind to the wicked – such as when he calls on us to love our enemies. This aspect of God’s character is only sometimes revealed in the OT.

• Jesus reveals a God who is nonviolent – again the command to love our enemies; throughout the gospels, Jesus never endorses or promotes the idea of God as a divine warrior. He lived nonviolently himself and rejected violence as a way to achieve justice. Ultimately, Jesus’ nonviolence is revealed in his death on the cross.

• Jesus reveals a God who does not judge people by causing historical (or natural) disasters or serious physical infirmities – recall Luke 13:1-5, where people ask Jesus what sin the Galileans committed that God let them be killed by Pilate

• Jesus reveals a God of love

Seibert goes on to show his dual hermeneutic in practice – critiquing disturbing texts with a christocentric hermeneutic, but also affirming them by seeking to find what ‘salvageable’ from such passages.

His final chapter offers some practical suggestions for ‘talking about troubling texts’:

• Stop trying to justify God’s behaviour in the Old Testament – a suggestion that is immensely liberating for me, if indeed I can follow him to here.

• Acknowledge how these texts have fostered oppression and violence

• Help people use problematic images responsibly and constructively

• Keep disturbing divine behaviour in perspective – that is, remember how much of the Old Testament is not troubling.

Seibert has an appendix dealing with Jesus’ eschatological sayings and whether they can be said to reveal a nonviolent God. Strangely, his treatment of hell doesn’t even consider universalism as an option – that is, the idea that ultimately God will reconcile all people to himself. It is at least as supportable of many of the things

I need some time to discern whether I can follow Seibert to where he goes. But his book gripped me. For once I found myself unable to put down a theology book,when usually they are something of a chore to read.

Disturbing Divine Behaviour : a review, part 1

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]

Beat your plowshares into swords

Yesterday the pastor asked if anyone had heard God speaking in worship, and someone said they had a verse from God. It was Joel 3:10. Read it carefully, it doesn’t say what you think it says at first:

‘Proclaim this among the nations:
Prepare for war!
Rouse the warriors!
Let all the fighting men draw near and attack
Beat your plowshares into swords
and your pruning hooks into spears
Let the weakling say, “I am strong!”
Come quickly, all you nations from every side
and assemble there.
Bring down your warriors, O’Lord.’

Yes, it’s the precise opposite of the more familiar verses from Isaiah and Micah which speak of beating swords into plowshares.

So what does it mean for a Christian to invoke these verses and say they apply to us now? What are our plowshares and pruning hooks that we use for making a living which we are going to convert to weapons of war? ‘Turn your computers into bombs, your cars into tanks, we’re going to go kill our enemies’ – is that the intention?

And isn’t the Lord telling the nations that he is going to declare war on them, and they should get ready to fight? He doesn’t seem to be addressing the people of God at all.

‘God’s Genocide’: some not-so-sensitive campus evangelism


I am very disturbed by this poster that was seen around my university a few weeks ago. I’m a part time student, and I only saw the poster after the event, otherwise I would have gone to listen, mainly in the hope that they weren’t saying what I suspect they were saying.

My suspicion was that this talk from the Bible on ‘God’s Genocide’ might be an exegesis of Joshua or Judges. When a poster the next week advertised a talk from the Book of Joshua, my suspicions seemed to be true.

The poster seems to suggest, without any hesitation or moral concern, that God was responsible for genocide. The photo looks like it might be taken from Pol Pot’s regime, which is about the most unfortunate, evil thing you could impute to God.

I imagine that the impulse here is a proud refusal to be ‘ashamed of the gospel’. But the book of Joshua isn’t the gospel. It is Scripture, it is part of our canon, part of our story, but it isn’t the gospel.

I actually think God would like us to be morally outraged and confused by stories like the one in Joshua in which Joshua commands the Israelites in the name of the Lord to destroy every living thing. Maybe this is what the talk said and the poster was just being provocative. I think it was completely insensitively and appallingly provocative.

I don’t know what to do with the terrible stories of genocide in the early part of the history of Israel. Here are some approaches I’ve noticed people taking:

1. The conservative evanglical: God said it, I believe it, end of story. Believing the Bible is the inspired Word of God means taking the stories on surface value. The Caananites were obviously very wicked and deserved to be slaughtered. (The fundamentalist might find some contemporary peoples who need slaughtering; the evangelical will emphasise the extremity of Canaanite wickedness.)

2. The mainstream evangelical: It’s true, but let’s not dwell on it.

3. Historical-critical: some of the readings I was assigned at uni indicated that the archaeological evidence does not exist for the stories in Joshua. Instead of a slaughter and conquer, the archaeological evidence suggests a gradual settlement by ex-slaves from Egypt. This would mean that the biblical record is worse than the reality. Interesting consequences for our understanding of the OT.

4. Texts of Terror : having stories like these in the canon is actually meant to incite us as followers of Jesus to respond with outrage and repentance at our own history and our blindspots. Their canonical function is as a kind of warning.

5. God will fight for us: In Politics of Jesus, John Howard Yoder briefly outlines an approach which reads stories like these from the perspective of the Israelites. They are being moved from where they are (a culture of bloodthirstiness and military prowess) toward the pacifism of Jesus. The significant thing they hear is not that God is sanctioning violence, but that their victory is not linked to military prowess. Their victory comes from God, not from their own fighting. They are still a long way from Jesus, but the culture is already being transformed.

6. Choose your strand: the Old Testament has a diversity of outlooks, some of them in line with the ultimate revelation of God in Jesus, and some of them not. Where the Old Testament fails to live up to the revelation of Jesus’ nonviolence, it is corrected and superseded by Jesus.