Is God Moral, Immoral, or Amoral?

Marc Chagall, 'Abraham Slaying Isaac'

This is a question I have been thinking through quite a bit recently. And with books such as my friend Eric Seibert’s Disturbing Divine Behavior, Paul Copan’s Is God a Moral Monster?, Eryl Davies’ The Immoral Bible, David Lamb’s God Behaving Badly, Thom Stark’s The Human Faces of God flooding the market and receiving a wide readership, the question appears to be as timely as ever.

This morning I read an essay by John Barton entitled “The Dark Side of God in the Old Tesament” in another recent book, Ethical and Unethical in the Old Testament: God and Humans in Dialogue. Barton had the following to say on the issue:

” . . . there is a strong awareness in the Old Testament . . . that God may be neither moral nor immoral but amoral. To the question posed y the present volume–‘ethical or unethical?’–the answer may sometimes be ‘neither; simply inscrutable.'” (132).

And later on the same page he writes:

“God is not susceptible to human judgment on his actions, and they cannot be classified as moral or immoral: they are simply God’s actions” (132).

In the same volume, Katharine Dell reflects upon the book of Job (“Does God Behave Unethically in the Book of Job?”) in similar fashion. She cites Miles’ biography of God, where he writes the following concerning God’s response to Job in chapters 38-40:

“The Lord presents himself, with withering sarcasm and towering bravado, as an amoral, irresistible force” (178, pg. 315 in Miles)

Dell seems to call this line of thinking into question, concluding that God does indeed act unethically in Job, but from the perspective of humans. She presents a related question near the end of her contribution:

“Perhaps the ultimate question is whether one can accept that God can behave unethically towards human beings and at the same time be exonerated” (185).

The issue does not appear to be easy to solve. Most would assume, I suspect, that God is moral because that is who God is. Such a view, however, I find difficult to reconcile with the biblical text (or at least the idea that God is moral all the time). Such a view, it seems to me, is far more indebted to the ideas of systematic theology than to a careful reading of the biblical text. But when God acts immorally, there are a litany of attendant questions that follow: immoral by whose standards? who are we as humans to judge God in such a way? what does it mean for the life of faith–indeed, life in general–if God has such proclivities? Or, is God amoral, above the fray, beyond such questions? The issues are complex and multifaceted, and press beyond the confines of this blog post, but here is my initial sense of a few salient points. Any attempt to answer this question . . .

  • must avoid being overly apologetic for God
  • must not take as its starting point the idea that God must, should, or can be exonnerated in various problematic instances
  • must take as much of the biblical text into account, not emphasizing more ‘positive’ aspects to the detriment of more problematic ones
  • must understand the highly contextual nature of the question, both for us contemporarily, but also for ancient Israel and what they may be seeking to communicate in and through them
  • must reckon with the intimate and deeply personal way the biblical text describes the God/human relationship (I am here thinking specifically of the work of Terry Fretheim in his The Suffering of God and God and World in the Old Testament.
  • must NOT appeal to Jesus as the answer to the problem of disturbing divine behavior, or use him as the barometer for adjudicating what is and is not authentic of God. Jesus is just as much of a complex, dynamic, and unsettling character, when read properly, as is God.

What do you think? What issues are pertinent? What questions need to be raised? And how would you answer the question?

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?

Read my RBL Review of Eric Seibert’s Disturbing Divine Behavior

My RBL review of my friend Eric Seibert’s Disturbing Divine Behavior has just been published. I have offered my comments on this book elsewhere on this blog (see HERE and HERE). I am glad that my blogging on his book put me in touch with Eric, and we were able to meet at the most recent SBL over lunch, and we have kept in touch via email often since. As will become clear in reading the review, I think the work Seibert is trying to do is important, though I remain (utterly) unconvinced of his proposal; in fact, I think it raises more problems than it purports to solve. But enough about that . . . please, read and offer your thoughts! I’m especially curious about this one, as Eric is a friend and I have thought about and wrestled with this book for a great while.


A Disappointing Book . . . (Paul Copan, Is God a Moral Monster?)

I was quite excited at SBL to see that Paul Copan’s newest volume Is God a Moral Monster? Making Sense of the Old Testament God was available early from Baker (it wasn’t supposed to be out until early 2011). Given my (tangential, yet increasing) interest in the topic, especially in light of my thorough interaction with my friend Eric Seibert’s recent contribution on the topic, Disturbing Divine Behavior: Troubling Old Testament Images of God (watch for my forthcoming RBL review of this volume), I was quite eager to crack this one open. I must say, I am terribly disappointed for a number of reasons.

Copan is offering a rebuttal to the New/Neo-Atheist movement, which I can appreciate a great deal, though his manner of doing so is hardly convincing in my view. The book is intentionally written and pitched at a popular level, which is not a problem in and of itself, but this is not what I was expecting. Copan’s volume is comprised of a number of chapters, each addressing a particular problematic issue (i.e., divine arrogance, divine child abuse, the weirdness of the Old Testament [i.e., kosher laws, for instance], among many others). While I am appreciative for what he is trying to do–the Neo-Atheist argument is simply too facile, rudimentary, and extreme–his arguments are not convincing. My biggest complaint is that while he accuses the Neo-Atheists of arguing from their own theological a priori, I would say Copan is equally guilty of this charge. He is critiquing the Neo-Atheists for arguing from an a priori when Copan is doing just this in his attempt at a defense. He similarly employs weak exegesis in my view, for example claiming that God’s command that Abraham “Please take your son” in Gen 22  shows God as being “remarkably gentle as he gives a difficult order” (47). All this seems based upon the word “please” (‘na’ in Hebrew), a particle of entreaty that cannot so easily be translated as “please,” allowing the interpreter to move on. This is another annoyance; while Copan does not appear to know Hebrew (which is not the annoyance, mind you), he is reliant upon other scholars who do. Those he relies upon, however, are clearly in the conservative camp, and he commits the logical fallacy of citing another scholar’s work as evidence that a given point is authoritative and correct. The interpretive issues and conversations on these texts are far more diverse and complicated than Copan seems to admit. Despite this being a popular level book, engagement with both sides of the debate (and some voices in-between as well!) would be worthwhile. Things are not simply black or white (with Copan seemingly always arguing for the ‘white’).

Another big complaint I would register is that Copan frequently psychologizes the biblical characters. I am open to allowing a modicum of psychologizing in interpreting biblical texts, but only where the narrative gives the reader license to do so. Copan, however, pushes things beyond these bounds. For example, in his desire to defend the Akedah in Gen 22 Copan makes statements such as “Because Abraham already knew God’s faithful–and even tender–character and promises, he was confident that God would somehow fulfill his promise to him, however this would be worked out” (47) or “Abraham had confidence that even if the child of promise died, God would somehow accomplish his purposes through that very child. Abraham believed God could even raise Isaac from the dead” (48, italics mine). The italicized phrase highlights another concern I have: these readings are heavily colored by New Testament texts and categories. This is certainly a legitimate mode of interpretation, but how might these texts function in their own contexts, with their own integrity, as part of the Old Testament? Moreover, if the NT is the hermeneutical key to unlocking these texts (which you will see in my review of Seibert I am convinced is NOT the case and actually raises more problems than it aims to solve!) I wonder what this then says about contemporary Judaism’s continued affirmation of these texts as authoritative.

Spoiler alert!!! While I have not yet finished the book, I have seen from the table of contents that Copan is going to suggest Jesus as the answer to this all. This is a problem in itself, for a variety of reasons, among them that it runs the risk of feeding a Marcionite/supersessionist reading and that it drains these texts of any sort of theological profundity, power, or freight, relegating them simply to antiquated musings of ancient Israel that are at best ethically inferior. My forthcoming book argues these texts in fact have quite a bit to say about God, but more on that another time. I am simply not convinced such texts NEED or WANT our apologetics, and I am nearly confident we are doing the texts a severe disservice when we attempt to do so.

Update on my teaching status for the Spring semester

Many of you know I am currently adjuncting at my undergraduate institution, Augustana College in Sioux Falls, SD. Teaching there has been one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve had. I will be teaching there again in the Spring semester.

I will also, however, be adjuncting at Dakota Wesleyan University in my hometown of Mitchell, SD. The course I am teaching is entitled Understanding the Old Testament; it is a freshman/sophomore introduction to the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament. I am tremendously excited to be teaching an Old Testament intro at last! It was a joy trying to figure out what books to use.  Here is what I arrived at (all are required for the course):

New Oxford Annotated Bible, with Apocrypha (4th edition)


Terence E. Fretheim, The Pentateuch (Interpreting Bible Texts)


Richard J. Clifford, The Wisdom Literature (Interpreting Bible Texts)


Jack Lundbom, The Hebrew Prophets: An Introduction


Eric A. Seibert, Disturbing Divine Behavior: Troubling Old Testament Images of God


Elie Wiesel, Night

The Textual God and the Actual God? Reflecting on an Aspect of Eric Seibert’s Disturbing Divine Behavior

Recently I have been working through various parts of Eric Seibert’s brand new volume, Disturbing Divine Behavior: Troubling Old Testament Images of God.  This issue–which long-time readers of this blog will know is of keen interest to me as it pertains in a way to my dissertation project–seems to have become quite prominent in scholarship recently.  Seiberts is among the most recent treatment.  I was excited about the title of the book.  Methodologically, though, I am disappointed.

Seibert’s main contention is that one may–nay, must–distinguish between the “textual God” and the “actual God.”  For Seibert, the OT images of God are not divine portrayals but rather human  depictions of the divine which “both reveal and distort God’s character” (170).  God, therefore, did not say and do everything the Bible says God did.  Fair enough.  I’ll follow. 

How then does one adjudicate what is and is not the true (and I hesitate to use that word) portrayal of God in the text?  How does one distinguish the “testual God” from the “actual God”?  Seibert proposes a Christocentric hermeneutic.  He writes:

“I wil argue that the God Jesus reveals should be the standard, or measuring rod, by which all Old Testament portrayals of God are evaluated.  Old Testament portrayals that correspond to the God Jesus reveals should be regarded as trustworthy and reliable reflections of God’s character, while those that do not measure up should be regarded as distortions.  Using a christocentric hermeneutic in this way employs a principled approach to determining the degree of correspodnence between the textual God and the actual God that keeps us from simply making choices based on our own preferences” (185).

This hermeneutic is problematic for a variety of reasons, not least of which is that it relegates these problematic images of God to utter meaningless and drains them of any theological import.  Nevermind history . . . the theological ramifications of these portrayals evaporate as well.  I will not here engage in a thorough, systematic refutation of Seibert’s proposal; I hope the difficulty is patent as it stands.  But I would like to raise a few questions that I think press the issue in an important way:

1) What makes the NT and/or its portrayal of Jesus ‘infallible’ and more reliable than what we have in the Hebrew Bible?  Could one not advance just as well the possibility (likelihood?) that the NT is shaped in a highly theological and intentional way, often in line with and as a reflection of Israel’s Scriptures, and that it also may be prone to the same difficulties of differentiating “textul” vs “actual.”

2) To piggy-back off #1, who is the “textual” and who is the “actual” Jesus?  To clarify, I think it is quite clear from the gospels that Jesus’ character also should not be whitewashed.  What about Matt 15 and its parallels, where Jesus calls a woman seeking healing for her sick child the French equivalent of a ‘female dog’?  Even if you want to advance the idea that Jesus is testing the woman (a reading I find terribly wanting, especially in Matthew) then you still have to wrestle with Jesus’ harsh rhetoric.  There are other examples I could offer . . . many stem from my past work in Performance Criticism, where along with a group we embodied, staged, and acted out various texts and even the entirety of Matthew.  Every decision, from clothing to facial expression to tone and intonation became decisions loaded with interpretive import.  I came to the conclusion here that Jesus probably yelled sometimes too.  He should hardly be whitewashed himself.  So, is there a textual Jesus and an actual Jesus?

3) I am troubled by Seibert’s use of the phrase “measuring rod” in the quotation cited above.  My difficulty resides namely in what this language evokes.  The Greek word kanon, meaning precisely that–measure, rod, reed–is where we get the word “canon.”  I do not wish to imply Seibert intends this, though he may, but saying Jesus’ revelation of God should be the “measuring rod” may just as well be put that Jesus’ revelation of God is the canon.  I can’t make that move.

4) Lastly, Seibert tackles perhaps my biggest worry head-on: Marcionism.  He seeks to distance himself from what Marcion did in the following way:

“I want to draw a clear distinction between what I am doing and what Marcion did centuries earlier. Rather than rejecting the Old Testament, I have proposed an interpretive appraoch that can help us evaluate the appropriateness of various portrayals of God in the Old Testament.  Since some Old Testament portrayals of God do not accurately reflect God’s character, these particular portrayals should not be used to determine our beliefs about what God is really like.  This is consistent with the way Jesus used various images of God in the ‘Old Testament.’  Although Old Testament texts were obviously very important to Jesus–he quoted from them and referred to them on numerous occasions–he did not embrace every portrayal of God contained in them.  Instead, he endorsed some and rejected others.  Like Jesus, we too can reject certain portrayals of God without consequently rejecting the Old Testament.  Just because we find some portrayals of God problematic, we should not repeat the mistake of Marcion.  Marcion treated the Old Testament as though it came from one cloth, so to speak, equally bad and problematic from start to finish.  In doing so, he robbed himself of many valuable and unobjectionable insights that can be derived from the pages of the Old Testament.  Moreover, by failing to appreciate the rich diversity of the Old Testament, Marcion lost the opportunity to hear the Old Testament’s own critique of certain problematic portrayals of God” (211).

I see the difference, and I agree Seibert is not advocating a jettisoning of the entire OT.  He is, however, jettisoning much of it that is not consistent with the NT.  There is no place for tension in Seibert’s understanding of things.  What’s more, there is no place for recognizing the “rich diversity” of the OT of which Seibert writes above.  His explanation here distances him from Marcion, yes, but I am still reticent to say it justifies his approach, which at least, latently, seems to have neo-Marcionite underpinnings.


(For other reflections that may inform your reading of this post, see HERE and HERE)