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?