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?