God Gone Wild (or, wrestling with disturbing divine behavior with Seibert, Stark, Copan, Davies, and others)

With my first book about to be available (see HERE), I have already begun thinking through my second book project. At present it will be related to the first, albeit loosely. Put most simply, I am curious about the problematic images of God in the Hebrew Bible and what one is to do with them.

This area within scholarship has been mushrooming recently, with several recent attempts at the question: my friend Eric Seibert’s Disturbing Divine Behavior (see my RBL review HERE), Paul Copan’s Is God a Moral Monster, Thom Stark’s The Human Faces of God, Eryl Davies’ The Immoral Bible (a wonderful volume addressing the important question of method in tackling these texts), and most recently David Lamb’s God Behaving Badly. Each of these volumes get it, with varying degrees of success, important aspects of the conversation. None, however, has left me entirely satisfied that the problem has been adequately (or in some cases, even responsibly) addressed.

At bottom, what I think has been severely neglected in most treatments is honest wrestling with the theological implications and meaning communicated by these texts. As I have said regarding Seibert’s contribution, it is irresponsible and one is no better than Marcion (who himself is unfairly villified; he too was only wrestling with the problem, yet his solution, I hope we would all agree, is egregiously disconcerting) if one opts simply to ignore these texts or eliminate them from theological contention. Moreover, it does the texts a disservice to engage–as Copan and Lamb do on occasion–in what I would call “comparative genocide” discussions, insinuating that ancient Israel is practicing something shared within the larger ANE context but doing so in a more ‘humane’ way or not to the extreme of other more primitive (and by primitive is often meant unenlighted by God and/or Jesus) peoples. In short, too much is made to apologize for these texts and, worse in my view, for God. These texts do not, to my eye, show any hint of concern for divine apologetics. Nor do they seem terribly interested in easy or pat answers. So, for instance, when Lamb asks in the title of each of his chapters, is God “angry or loving?”, “sexist or affirming?”, “racist or hospitable?”, “violent or peaceful?”, “legalistic or gracious?”, “rigid or flexible?”, “distant or near?” I would answer with a simple–yet unsettling–YES. I also think such questions are at the heart of the problem. The very question does ont allow for an “either/or” choice. It is a both/and.

To me, the most fascinating question to pose is what is the theological payoff (which, for folk such as Copan, shifts the question from the realm of historical certainty–which puts Copan on a terribly tenuous track at the outset–to the world in the text itself) of these texts. What do they say about God? Or, to ask the question another way, why would ancient Israel include such texts in their understanding of who God is? Taking theology as its name says, literally a ‘word about God,’ what theological word do problematic texts convey?

I agree with the bulk of those mentioned above that such studies need to be at least in part contextual. Ancient Israel and its texts obviously arose in a culture much different than ours, with mores that may seem terribly problematic for present-day readers. This is fine to acknowledge (see Davies’ final chapter on reader-response for one attempt to articulate the nexus of historical anchorings of these texts with our contemporary setting), but first and foremost it means one must struggle all the more to give the text an honest hearing.

I am not an apologist, nor do I aspire to be one. What I find potentially most troublesome about this conversation is the emphasis on an either/or way of thinking, saying Go dis either all good/loving/kind or all bad/hateful/evil. I find Brueggemann’s idea of testimony/countertestimony, etc. to be a most helpful paradigm in beginning to address the question. It at the very least opens up the important realization that the biblical text speaks with a multiplicity of voices and witnesses, none of which has attained hegemony over the others. It highlights the tensive relationship between these various biblical witnesses and lets them stand, honoring that tension, not allowing one to obliterate the other. It is, in my view, this theological tension that makes these texts most fascinating, and it is this voice that I think is severely lacking in the current conversation.

Just some early musings. Thoughts?


24 thoughts on “God Gone Wild (or, wrestling with disturbing divine behavior with Seibert, Stark, Copan, Davies, and others)

  1. Joseph Kelly says:

    A question that has been raised on more than one occasion in Ethical and Unethical in the Old Testament: God and Humans in Dialogue concerns whether God is moral, immoral, or a-moral. Is morality something to which God is subject? There has not been, to my knowledge, an extended investigation of this question. Sam Balentine at SBL and John Baton and Kathrine Dell in the Ethical and Unethical book all find the God of the book of Job to be unethical, but are not convinced that this is the end of the discussion. I would be interested in reading another OTT scholar fleshing this out.

  2. pf says:

    Why do the Israelites include these texts? Because they didn’t think there was anything morally wrong with genocide or slavery or sacrificing children or bartering girls for dowries and so on. They were raised in an environment in which they attributed to a deity everything from mundane natural events to the fate of nations.

    What does that say theologically? Well, the authors were wrong about the science and primitive in their moral sensibilities. The texts don’t say anything about god, but they tell us a lot about the people who wrote them. To say differently one has to go through ridiculous contortions to justify a moral code that we today would find horrifying if practiced anywhere in the world.

  3. Beau Quilter says:

    I’ve wrestled with these questions all my life. The conclusion I’ve finally reached is that all of these completely disparate views of God (sometimes loving, but often cruel and immoral by any standard to which we would hold ourselves today) reflect the disparate views of the variety of ancient writers and communities that orally passed on, annotated, and rewrote these texts over the centuries.

    The huge differences that appear in God’s character from text to text are the differences between the men who, from century to century, recreate him in their own image.

  4. John Anderson says:

    @Joseph: A worthwhile question, though how one responds would depend upon how one defines the “God” being talked about. Is it the ‘actual God’ or the ‘textual God’ (Fretheim’s language), and how does one bridge the gap between the two? As you may suspect, I find myself much more comfortable talking about the textual God in such matters. In that sense, I would agree with Balentine, Dell, and Barton in calling the God of Job unethical. I would say the same for the God of the Akedah. And of the Canaanite ‘genocide.’ And so on. But two caveats. First, this does not in any way mean that I think God is only or always unethical. At times, yes, God appears this way. At others, certainly not. And second, I agree that assigning such a verdict to some of God’s behavior is not the end of the question. In fact, I think it is only the beginning of the question. But I also, to reiterate, think such discussions must be couched in the historical context of ancient Israel. I remain unconvinced, at least on the issue of deception, that such behavior was viewed negatively by the biblical authors. This does not mean deception is or should be acceptable now, only that it functioned differently in the biblical context. So for me the question of whether God is moral, immoral, or amoral is itself unnecessary, ultimately. Such discussions belong more to the realm of systematic theology and its attempts to systematize that which I believe is unsystematizable (yes, I just invented that word!). To say an action is moral simply because God does it is laden with problems. Similarly, to say God transcends moral categories and expectations is, to my ears, little more than apologetic pleading. Probing more deeply into what these texts are actually doing is the heart of theological inquiry and produces the most meaningful, albeit at times troubling, theological freight.

    @pf: I would disagree, despite my statements to Joseph above, that the mere presence of genocidal texts such as 1 Sam 15, for example, means ancient Israel had no problem with genocide. I avoid such answers, namely because I think they contribute largely to what enemies of the Old Testament (modern day Marcionites) advocate. What I think needs to be done is probe deeply into the why and what. What do these texts accomplish and say? Only then can and should we begin to wrestle with whether they are or are not acceptable. Your second paragraph also raises the same question Joseph does implicitly: are we talking about the textual or actual God, and what is the relationship between the two?

    @Beau: Your response resonats quite a bit with that of my former teacher, Jim Crenshaw. He makes a similar comment in my interview with him (see the “Scholarly interviews” tab at the top of this page).

  5. David Lamb says:

    John, Thanks for the review. I love the title (God Gone Wild). Actually a friend suggested that exact title to me for the sequel, and I liked it until I realized all the associatations with the original.

    In terms of the either/or dichotomy, I generally agree. You’ll love my story at the beginning of the epilogue. In several chapters, I basically argue it is a both/and, although in others I don’t.

    To be honest, the people I thought would have the most difficulty with my book are the biblical scholars like yourself. I didn’t want to address some of the academic issues (view of Scripture, Seibert’s view is clearly different than mine (he and I have discussed this over dinner) differences between the “textual God” and the “actual God”).

    My audience is meant to be as broad as possible, and I know they aren’t interested in those academic issues. Maybe they should be but that’s not the edge I wanted to push. I wanted to call the church to be less angry, sexist, racist, violent, rigid, etc. And if I brought in more of those scholarly issues, I’d lose my credibility with the primary group I’m trying to speak to. Thanks for the review.

    • John Anderson says:

      Hi David, great to have you weigh in! I appreciate your words about the title. It seems with all titles addressing this topic recently there is the requirement to have some sort of alliteration. And so I tried, ignoring the more provocative resonances it may have with late night DVD infomercials!

      I think one of the central–and most difficult–questions is what God are we talking about. Seibert has adduced Fretheim’s categories of ‘textual’ and ‘actual’ God (though Seibert has admitted to me that he does not think Fretheim would be pleased with how his labels have been used by Seibert), but such distinguishing is ultimately able only to approximate reality. It is little more than conjecture. Perhaps it is the Protestant in me, but I opt to focus on the textual God. How does that God sync up with the supposed actual God? I can do little more than what Fretheim suggests in his masterful The Suffering of God and say it is difficult to say where and when there is overlap, but there must be some. Given, in my mind, the utter subjectivity and impossibility of answering this first question with any sense of confidence, I opt to stick with the textual God. And for those who want to suggest that we need to press beyond the biblical text, into reason and experience, then I would point to an event like the Holocaust and the theological wrestling stemming from it. Put most simply, I am against any attempts to whitewash the problem by exonerating God or others simply on the basis of ‘religion’ or some other similar category.

      I understand the audience issue, though I’m assuming a different audience would not make you change your conclusions overall. At bottom, I think this discussion requires a quite nuanced discussion that presses beyond what I’ve seen thus far. Copan was severely disappointing. Seibert is self-contradictory in many respects.

      The voice you are offering the church is admirable, though I think it is of the utmost importance for people in the pews–not everyone, but those who are ready and willing, perhaps in the context of a small group Bible study or the like–to wrestle with this questions. We should be unsettled. The Bible should make us uncomfortable for a variety of reasons. But it is within the context of the life of faith that these questions I think–and the tensions therein–can and must be most fruitfully addressed. I have seen–and I trust you have as well–first hand the transformative power of looking at these issues with young adults in the classroom. Perhaps others would not be as receptive to wrestling with the issues, but in the end I think that comes down to the fact not that we can’t hear the other side but that we just aren’t very good at ‘wrestling’ with issues that muddy up our current faith commitments. To me, asking these questions–and not necessarily coming to a resolution all the time–is an act of fidelity. It shows that one is taking the Bible, and God, seriously.

      Hope we can get together at SBL. Look forward to continuing the conversation!

  6. Rob Barrett says:

    I think you are asking great questions and I appreciate your heartfelt interest in them. At the risk of self-promotion, you might find my book “Disloyalty and Destruction: Religion and Politics in Deuteronomy and the Modern World” (LHBOTS 511) to be stimulating as I try to address in detail one particular problem: God’s threats of destruction against Israel in Deuteronomy.

  7. jill says:

    If we distinguish between the textual and actual god and don’t want to explore how they overlap, why is there a problem with the bahavior of the textual god? I might not like how the textual god behaves or find him to be a particularly interesting characeter, but its only a problem if I expect the textual god to act like an actual god, if one believes in an actual god. A textual god’s behaviour is only problematic if that god has been (recently) associated with an actual god.

    We could say that the textual god’s behavior is a problem because it has influenced a lot of people’s thoughts about an actual god. But this assumes that the real problem is the potential overlap between an actual and textual god. If we say that we are only focusing on the textual god, then we have avoided the problem. We are just doing a character study of a textual god who some people may find unappealing. Yes, distimguishing between textal and actual gods without exploring the overlap, is technically theology because its “a word about [a] god” (“a god” since there are lots of textual gods), but that’s very different than “a word about God.” After all, any literary reference to any diety is technically theology, yet we generally don’t recognize all these references as problematic. The behavior of textual gods only becomes a problem if we feel that it has influnced people’s ideas about an actual god. If we avoid the overlap, the theological “problem” is reduced and we are left with a more or less interesting secular character analysis (I use secular as a positive term).

    Such a secular character analysis of course can still be a worthwhile project and even make an important academic contribution, but it will have to be a fairly rigorous project because it cannot depend on claims about how disturbing divine behavior is as a sensationalist hook for readers or use such claims as a crutch to justify the merits of the project. The merits of the project will have to depend instead on the rigors of its analysis of an ancient text.

    • John Anderson says:

      Hi Jill,

      Some very worthwhile comments, thank you. I agree, largely, though I don’t think I’ve made my position as clear as I could have. My focus on the ‘textual God’ does indeed–perhaps in good Protestant fashion–presuppose some overlap. My citation of Fretheim above attempts to capture that . . . yet how one articulates or argues where that overlap is and isn’t is the intangible. At the same time, I don’t think the question must be posed only for modern reading communities. As you will see when my book comes out in a few months, while I am not an historical-critical scholar, I do think it is essential to anchor such disturbing texts and images in their proper historical contexts (which, for me, are defined quite broadly). I focus on the textual God primarily because a) that’s the ‘God’ to which I have the most concrete witness; b) I am a biblical scholar [ok, this one was a cop out reason, I confess!]; c) most importantly because it is that particular image of God (not to deny a diversity of images of God in the OT) that ancient Israel sought to communicate and, at some point, deem authoritative. It is, then, in a way, a descriptive theology I aim to accomplish. How does the text construct the textual God? Or, put another way, I don’t think the textual/actual question MUST be the starting point of the discussion. I hope that clarifies things a bit.

  8. jill says:

    That does help clarify some things John. Regarding, a, b, and c, no need to apologize for being a biblical scholar (b) or working with the data and you have and that you are trained to analysis (a). If one is in a socio-ecomonic position to study what one wants to study, no need to apologize for it. As Stanley Fish said, I do literary criticism because I like the way I feel when I do literary criticism.

    One thought about point c regarding the subject that Israel sought to communicate in the particular texts in which these images of god appear, e.g. parts of Joshua, etc. Is what they sought to communicate a particular image of god or is the image just a byproduct within a text that sough to communicate a particular national ideology or political support for a particular group or whatever else? For example, does the Mesha Stele seek to communicate a particular image of the Moabite god or is that image a byprodect of the efforts to communicate a royal ideology supporting Mesha or a Moabite national identity, etc.? Not that we can cleanly divide theology from political systems, but we might have to specific whether these texts sought to communicate theology (“a word about God”) or if that word is just a byproduct enmeshed in another issue. If we try to figure out what Israel sought to communicate we might slip into the authoral intention issue that I know you like to stir clear of.

    If we instead focus on the fact that these texts, along with others, at some point were deemed authorative, all we can say for sure is that what was deemed authorative were certain texts, without getting into the intention of the (unknown?) people who granted them authority. Were they granted aothurity because of the images or traditions about a particular god or a particular time or person or political party or system, etc. that appear in this texts, who knows? We can’t say what those texts communicated to some people that made these people think that these texts were worth granting authority to without getting into the intentions of other readers. Yes, we known that certain texts became authorative but we don’t know for sure what anyone in ancient Israel or later authorizing readers, for that matter, sought to communicate. Its possible that the image of god in these texts is incidental to whatever their (unknown) communicative goals were. Maybe, maybe not, but we can’t say.

    This doesn’t mean we can’t do a descriptive theology or analysis of how certain texts construct a textual god if that’s what we are interested in studying and we feel other people might be interested in this topic as well. After all, you have the texts and the training to describe how these texts construct a textual god. But I think that your points a and b are more convincing: your are a biblical scholars and you have access to the data that allows you to do a project that you want to do. If you have the time and resources and support structure to do it, nothing wrong with that (without getting into a Marxist analysis of the social privilages that allow for scholarship to continue, she said tongue in cheek).

    • John Anderson says:

      @Diglot: Thanks, buddy! I’m actually starting to swirl a proposal around in my head. Hope to get something on paper soon. My Eisenbrauns book is in indexing now (which means we’re awaiting a cover design basically and then let’s send it to the printer and binder!), so when that is done I think book project number two can commence more earnestly.

      @Jill: As you may suspect, I agree largely with what you say. I do like to steer clear of authorial intent, and indeed, I don’t think we can know for certain why these texts were deemed authoritative, nor can we know for what purpose. And that is where I find the postmodern context to be a liberating one. Biblical studies is no longer bound by the hegemony of historical-critical methodologies (though, I admit, they are important and worthwhile; I even published a redaction-critical piece on Habakkuk 3 in ZAW, so I can and do at times think in these categories), and with the exciting advent of literary approaches to the text and appreciation for the polyvalence of a text, I think there remains much exciting work to be done. I am hopeful my forthcoming book with Eisenbrauns will be evidence of that.

  9. pf says:

    John: you say: “I avoid such answers, namely because I think they contribute largely to what enemies of the Old Testament (modern day Marcionites) advocate.” But how can you come up with an honest assessment if you reject answers because you prefer different results or don’t like the people who advocate certain answers?

    I understand because I was reluctant to embrace the logic of what I said in my comment for a long time for largely the same reasons you said. It is such an unchristian way to think. But I couldn’t get over the fact that it is the only logical answer.

    There is no difference between the actual god and the textual god because they are one and the same. Our experience with the actual god — unless you talk to a voice in a burning bush — is what we believe about god derived on texts.

    I don’t care where it is written, but gods don’t tell people to kill people. They just don’t, and people who believe otherwise should have no objection to Osama bin Laden. So where does that leave stories in the Hebrew Bible about genocide or stories in the New Testament about god killing 1/3 of the world over and over? They reflect the mistaken understanding of the authors of the books.

    • John Anderson says:

      We obviously disagree. Regarding your first question, this is not an a priori assumption that I hold but rather one that I have derived from close readings of texts. Check out my RBL review of Seibert’s book, where I lay out more concretely this position. I argue for it; I don’t accept it and rule it out uncritically.

  10. Thom says:


    Thanks for inviting me in. You wrote:

    I am not an apologist, nor do I aspire to be one. What I find potentially most troublesome about this conversation is the emphasis on an either/or way of thinking, saying God is either all good/loving/kind or all bad/hateful/evil. I find Brueggemann’s idea of testimony/countertestimony, etc. to be a most helpful paradigm in beginning to address the question. It at the very least opens up the important realization that the biblical text speaks with a multiplicity of voices and witnesses, none of which has attained hegemony over the others. It highlights the tensive relationship between these various biblical witnesses and lets them stand, honoring that tension, not allowing one to obliterate the other. It is, in my view, this theological tension that makes these texts most fascinating, and it is this voice that I think is severely lacking in the current conversation.

    I am, as you know, all for letting the different voices stand and not attempting to blur them into one another. And where texts are in tension, it is best to let them remain in tension. But sometimes it goes beyond tension into the realm of outright opposition, and to let opposing texts stand “in tension” would be to abandon any attempt to make any kind of affirmation about God’s character. My view is that where such texts stand in opposition to one another, we have to struggle and use moral reason and experience to decide which is closer to the voice of God/truth. And unlike Seibert, as you know, I do not advocate a marcionite approach to the theologically problematic texts: rather, they retain their status as scripture by serving as lessons learned about the kind of characteristics we cannot faithfully ascribe to God. They reveal God by showing us who God is not, and reveal us by showing us what we tend to want God to be (a god in our own image who serves our own agendas).

    My approach does not ignore what the problem texts are saying about God, the theological message they wish to relay. Rather, it takes their claims most seriously; it tries to hear what they are really saying about God, rather than trying to squeeze what they’re saying within the paradigm established by other voices. Sometimes, we simply must make choices, and the failure or refusal to do so leaves us powerless against the deleterious effects the terror texts can have and have had on Christian communities and on broader society.

    I don’t deny that we can glean positive insights about God from the terror texts; but that effort must be secondary to our responsibility to confront what these texts really are trying to say about God, to evaluate them, and if needs be, condemn them. But if we condemn them, we also must recognize ourselves in them. That is the first way such texts may serve a positive function as scripture, though not necessarily the only way. But if we thrust confrontational readings to the background because it makes us uncomfortable, we are not, I argue, exercising our God-given responsibility to struggle to find out who God really is and what God really wants. If Job could argue with God, we most certainly can argue with the text—which is not at all God, but a collection of attempts to witness to God.

    • John Anderson says:

      Hey Thom, thanks for commenting. This thread is quickly becoming a gathering place for those who have written (and are aspiring to write) books on the topic. Maybe I should give Seibert a holler and get him to weigh in; I’ll let you call Copan (wink)!

      Admittedly, of the triumvirate Copan, Stark, Seibert, I resonate most with your approach to these texts. The ‘negative revelation’ idea is appealing, and I do think you are one of the few who takes them honesty AS troubling texts. Are you familiar with Eryl Davies’ recent volume The Immoral Bible? It is a great volume on method in approaching biblical ethics, surveying evolutionary, cultural relativist, canonical, paradigmatic, and reader-response approaches, and assessthing their strengths and weaknesses in relation to such texts. It is a must read if you have not yet done so; put it to the front of the line. But I hear in your final paragraph above resonances with what Davies suggests is the best way to deal with these texts: reader-response. A caution: Davies articulates reader-response differently than some. At bottom, he argues much as you do, suggesting that we are to ask questions of these texts and critique them where necessary. We are to subject them to “ethical criticism.”

      And to clarify, I am entirely on board with wrestling with the tension. This is part of what my book will do in the final chapter; I argue for how we can hold together and make sense of the twin theological claims of YHWH as deceptive yet trustworthy. There is profound meaning in the tension, and I think asking the question and wrestling with the tension is the most important task. To claim any sort of resolution for the tension is problematic in my view. But to wrestle with the tension and begin to move into understanding the complexities and intricacies involved, yeah, I’m on board with that.

      Where I think you and I may differ, and where I may press further, is that I am–at least at present–not beyond saying that God may or may not be any of these troubling things. Again, where I differ with many involved in this conversation–this is where Seibert and I parted company–is that I am not explicitly making such claims about who the ‘actual God’ is or is not based upon these readings. But if pressed–in a world where the Holocaust and other terrors have taken place without adequate divine response for many–I would say that God very much has these qualities at times. I am against whitewashing or sanitizing God just because it’s God we’re talking about (which is where I think the debate goes most often, and frustratingly so). Doing so prejudices a particular view of who God is and attempts to handle these texts as ‘other.’ I continue to wonder, though, and my forthcoming book wrestles in the final chapter with this idea, what happens when we let the text tell us who God is rather than any a priori assumptions I bring to the text (N.B. – I am not saying I have no assumptions. Of course I do; what I have just stated itself is an ontological assumption about who God is and is not; but as I describe in my book, I think the task must be handled by shedding, as much as possible, the assumptions of systematic theology and classical theology that say God is X, and so anything that is not X is not God, however articulate and thoughtfully argued away).

      • Ed Babinski says:

        John, You stated that you were against whitewashing or sanitizing God. But the choice is actually between arguing in favor of a particular story/text being “inspired,” or, rejecting the “inspired” nature of a particular story/text that depicts the deity as a mass murderer. Are such depictions inspired? Are those particular stories/texts inspired? And if so, in what manner? Inspired by man or God? So maybe you don’t have to whitewash or sanitize God, but simply reject particular stories/texts as “inspired cover to cover.” That’s the way C. S. Lewis viewed matters:

        To John Beversluis, July 3, 1963 (the year of C. S. Lewis’ death): “The real danger is of coming to believe such dreadful things about Him. The conclusion I dread is not ‘so there’s no God after all,’ but, ‘So this is what God is really like. Deceive yourself no longer.'”[3] Only four months before his death, Lewis wrote in a letter to an American philosopher that there were dangers in judging God by moral standards. However, he maintained that “believing in a God whom we cannot but regard as evil, and then, in mere terrified flattery calling Him ‘good’ and worshipping Him, is still greater danger.”[4]

        Lewis was responding specifically to the question of Joshua’s slaughter of the Canaanites by divine decree and Peter’s striking Ananias and Sapphira dead.

        Knowing that the evangelical doctrine of the Bible’s infallibility required him to approve of “the atrocities (and treacheries) of Joshua,” Lewis made this surprising concession: “The ultimate question is whether the doctrine of the goodness of God or that of the inerrancy of Scriptures is to prevail when they conflict. I think the doctrine of the goodness of God is the more certain of the two indeed, only that doctrine renders this worship of Him obligatory or even permissible.” [5]

        “To this some will reply ‘ah, but we are fallen and don’t recognize good when we see it.’ But God Himself does not say that we are as fallen at all that. He constantly, in Scripture, appeals to our conscience: ‘Why do ye not of yourselves judge what is right?’ — ‘What fault hath my people found in me?’ And so on. Socrates’ answer to Euthyphro is used in Christian form by Hooker. Things are not good because God commands them; God commands certain things because he sees them to be good. (In other words, the Divine Will is the obedient servant to the Divine Reason.) The opposite view (Ockham’s, Paley’s) leads to an absurdity. If ‘good’ means ‘what God wills’ then to say ‘God is good’ can mean only ‘God wills what he wills.’ Which is equally true of you or me or Judas or Satan.”[6]

        To Dom Bede Griffiths, Dec. 20, 1961: “Even more disturbing as you say, is the ghastly record of Christian persecution. It had begun in Our Lord’s time – ‘Ye know not what spirit ye are of’ (John of all people!)[7] I think we must fully face the fact that when Christianity does not make a man very much better, it makes him very much worse…Conversion may make of one who was, if no better, no worse than an animal, something like a devil.”[8]

        3. C.S. Lewis, A grief Observed (New York: Seabury Press, 1963), pp 9-10.
        4. Letter quoted in full in John Beversluis, C.S. Lewis and the Search for Rational Religion (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1985), pp. 156 f.
        5. Ibid., p. 157. Emphsis added.
        6. Cited in ibid., p 157.
        7. In the “Gospel of John,” Jesus’ enemies are depicted more than sixty times as simply, “The Jews.” Jesus’ concern for Israel as seen in the Gospel of Matthew (10:5-6 & 15:24) is absent from the Jesus who appears in the Gospel of John (5:45-47 & 8:31-47). The Gospel John, having been written after previous Gospels may reflect the growing breakdown of relations between the early Christian church and the Jewish synagog.
        8. The Letters of C. S. Lewis, ed., W. H. Lewis, (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., 1966), p. 301.

        FINAL NOTE ON C. S. LEWIS’S REJECTION OF THE INSPIRATION OF THE STORY IN ACTS 5. An article has recently appeared that argues such a story is merely a “stock scene,” Such an article would probably be cited by Lewis today, adding to his suspicion that such the tale in Acts 5 was probably composed and inspired by men, and not a genuine depiction of Peter’s actions nor those of the Holy Spirit, see, “Divine Judgment against Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:1–11): A Stock Scene of Perjury and Death” JBL 130, no. 2 (2011): 351–369 by J. Albert Harrill http://www.thefreelibrary.com/Divine+judgment+against+Ananias+and+Sapphira+(Acts+5%3A1-11)%3A+a+stock…-a0260494365

  11. Thom Stark says:


    My perspective is this: I do not deny that God may be genocidal, but if so, then I would not desire to be in relationship with such a God, no matter how loving this God may be at other times. (I mentioned this in a footnote in my book.) But I do not think at all that we are “whitewashing or sanitizing God” by saying that what the text describes is not really God. We’re simply rejecting one humanly-constructed conception of God. I do not accept that everything the text says about God is true.

  12. John Anderson says:


    Fair enough, and I generally agree. I think the difference is that I am less concerned at present in making the move to say “this is who God is out there, wherever God ‘is'” as I am elucidating the textual God. It’s a methodological issue. Where I continue to struggle, however, is in making the move from textual to actual; how do we know? what experience(s) need inclusion? does the Holocaust damn the entire enterprise? Again, I’m attempting to offer a descriptive theology of the God of the text, or, as Walter Brueggemann masterfully puts it in his magisterial OT theology:

    “I shall insist, as consistently as I can, that the God of Old Testament theology as such lives in, with, and under the rhetorical enterprise of this text, and nowhere else and in no other way. This rhetorical enterprise operates with ontological assumptions, but these assumptions are open to dispute and revision in the ongoing rhetorical enterprise of Israel.”</i?

    This is the hermeneutical posture I am assuming.

    • Thom Stark says:

      Well, Brueggemann’s statement may be masterful, but it’s a bit unclear. Clearer I think is what you said before the quote. I am all for elucidating the textual God. I just don’t think that should prevent us from making judgments about that God. And why should it, since the text itself not infrequently makes such judgments about God.

      I agree that the move from textual to actual is fraught with ambiguity. That’s the ambiguity in which my theology lives. But I will say that if actual God’s morality is worse than our own best insights, then I don’t want to have much to do with actual God. But my statements about actual God are based in hope, not ontic certainty.

      • John Anderson says:

        Thom! How dare you say such blasphemous things about Brueggemann. Heresy! Heresy I say!

        I also don’t think it should prevent us from doing so, but I do think 1) too often people erroneously begin with the presupposition that the two are one and the same, collapsing the two together; the textual God must be understood before one can make tha second move; 2) the glitch: I have no idea how to make that move, and haven’t found a satisfactory treatment yet. Terry Fretheim addresses this in the opening pages of his book The Suffering of God, basically saying there must be some level of affinity between the two, but what that is and where it is . . . well, it’s hard. He’s right. And I am utterly dissatisfied with how Seibert has addressed the matter.

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