The Good Book?

In my previous post, I wrote about my journey through reading the Bible and later coming to terms with the fact that I couldn’t trust its reliability as I had done for many years. However, in many ways this was a relief. If what the Bible recorded was truly history, the interventionist God depicted within its pages would have a lot to answer for. Jules Renard puts this well: ‘I don’t know if God exists, but it would be better for His reputation if He didn’t.’

The fact that the Bible’s God is not the most amiable character is far from a new revelation. Richard Dawkins’ famous excerpt from The God Delusion [1] highlights his unpleasant nature in a particularly memorable way. It’s also an issue that apologists and regular church-goers continually find the need to address, either publicly to defend their faith, or privately to reconcile what they believe. For many years, I was such a person.

When you read the Bible as a Christian, you’re fitted with a lens which encourages you to ignore its difficulties for the most part. You believe that God is good, and therefore anything in the text which confirms this idea is highlighted, while the (many) things which challenge it are explained away or simply abandoned to the trust that God knew what he was doing. It was not until I began the process of deconstruction that I was able to see the main protagonist of the Bible for what he really is. I find myself continually revisiting old passages with fresh horror at what I used to believe.

Though there are many examples of God’s egregious character littered throughout the Bible, either in isolated episodes or recurring themes, I’d like to focus here simply on three. My hope is that I can approach these examples and explore what it looks like to read the Bible without a devotional lens.

It was not until I began the process of deconstruction that I was able to see the main protagonist of the Bible for what he really is.

Let’s start with the cheery occurrence of the worldwide massacre, by which I mean the story of Noah’s ark. A few years ago when I was volunteering with a church youth group, we had a teenager join us who was an outspoken atheist. He would often raise objections and questions which were a breath of fresh air to my theological brain, although with the church-raised youth in mind, it would perhaps have been better if he was a little more careful with the frequent obscenities. On one evening we broke into discussion groups, and even though I was in a different room, I could hear him shouting, ‘People don’t drown in their sleep!’ It appears they were discussing the flood.

And he’d hit the nail on the head. When it’s told in church – or usually to children in Sunday school – the images that are conjured up are those of giraffes, elephants and zebras going up the gangplank into a big boat. History is written by the victors. You don’t hear the story from the perspective of the countless families scrambling onto their roofs or to the nearest hilltop to escape the ever-rising water, parents holding their children above them as they take their final breaths, the primal screaming and wailing as the lifeless bodies of loved ones float around them in increasing number.

No, let’s think about the pretty rainbow instead.


From Evan Almighty (2007). Unlike the biblical Noah, Steve Carell lets more people on his boat.

Not only is it an event unparalleled in horror, it also raises some thorny theological questions. The reason that God provides for drowning the world is the wicked nature of humanity; he regrets that he ever made them. However, if the foundational Christian doctrine of original sin is to be upheld, why did humanity’s evil state take God by surprise in this way? In later history, God attempts to deal with sin through the means of laws and animal sacrifices which are claimed by Christians to prefigure the life and death of Jesus. If, therefore, as we’re often told, Jesus was God’s ‘Plan A’, why was the flood at all necessary? Did all of these people suffer an unimaginable fate simply to make a point? Did God forget his plan in a momentary blip of anger?

In fairness, the Bible shouldn’t shoulder all of the blame, as it’s not actually where this story originated; it’s found several hundred years earlier in Tablet XII of the Mesopotamian Epic of Gilgamesh. In this account, the gods decide to flood earth because humanity is being too noisy, essentially rendering the gods the divine versions of an angry neighbour. However, one of the pantheon takes pity and so warns the human protagonist about the oncoming storm.

Those defending the Genesis adaptation of the story will argue that the historicity isn’t important, rather we should focus on the theological truths it tells us about God. I’m not really sure that helps to put God in a better light. In a recent Marvel film, Thanos only attempted to wipe out half of humanity, and he was unequivocally the bad guy. Christians would have a far easier time if these chapters happened to go missing from the Bible. Maybe we need another council of Bishops.

God has another chance for large-scale smiting when we turn to the story of Israel escaping from Egypt. After four-hundred years of watching his people oppressed as slaves in the land of Egypt, God decides that now is about the right time to act; God’s timing, after all, is unquestionably perfect. He has a chat with Moses who will be his mouthpiece – he can evidently talk to Moses directly but is nonetheless too shy to speak to meet with the Egyptian king himself – and ask Pharaoh to let his people go. However, God has something extra up his sleeve… ‘I will harden his heart so that he will not let the people go.’ (Exodus 4.21)

Huh.

Seems like God didn’t quite get the gist of the original plan; whose side is he on exactly?

Ultimately, self-image and reputation are God’s priorities.

As the story unfolds, Moses asks Pharaoh to let them go, he refuses as predicted, and God sends a plague before Moses asks again. This happens in increasingly dramatic cycles.

Why is this all happening? A little later, God explains to Pharaoh that if he wanted, he could just wipe them all out. However, ‘for this reason I have allowed you to remain, in order to show you my power and in order to proclaim my name through all the earth.’ (Exodus 9.16) So, God could have just destroyed the Egyptians to let Israel go, or presumably he could have found some non-violent way. Instead, he hardens Pharaoh’s heart in order to refuse his own request, so that everyone can know that God’s pretty great at magic tricks.

While confusing, and an undeniable ego trip, this isn’t too horrific to begin with. Perhaps God just had a loft full of frogs and locusts that he needed to get rid of, and this was the perfect opportunity. However, it takes a particularly dark turn with the final plague: killing all the firstborns of Egypt.

Now, some commentators have argued that while God does harden Pharaoh’s heart, in doing so, he is only facilitating and confirming Pharaoh’s choice to harden his own heart. There is some evidence for this in the text, though it is not a convincing or trouble-free position to take. There are parallel theological difficulties in Romans 1 which tell of how God ‘gave over’ the non-Jewish people to foolish thoughts and practices because they failed to honour him. Would a God who seeks the best for his creation not desire to point them the right way? Apparently not. God is pretty pissed off with them for not worshipping him, so to hell with them. Literally.

Before carrying out this final massacre, God quite clearly states his purpose: ‘Pharaoh will not listen to you, so that my wonders will be multiplied in the land of Egypt.’ (Exodus 11.9). It seems that ultimately, self-image and reputation are God’s priorities. In which case, it’s a shame that so many of his acts were committed to writing.

Anyway, it all has a neat ending. The firstborns are all slaughtered, Israel goes free, and God gets booked in as a support act for Derren Brown.


'Let my people go! Or don't, whatever... I'm not sure what God wants.'

What’s next? Let’s go for the Canaanite genocide.

Israel’s conquest of Canaan is a foundational episode in the nation’s history. God promised Abraham from the outset that he would give his descendants this land in the Fertile Crescent as a possession, and around 700 years later, he’s going to make it a reality. The problem? Other people are living there. The solution? Kill them all. The close relationship of this national takeover and the current political situation in the Middle-East are not accidental.

God commands the following in Deuteronomy 20.16-18:

Only in the cities of these peoples that the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance, you shall not leave alive anything that breathes. But you shall utterly destroy them: the Hittite and the Amorite, the Canaanite and the Perizzite, the Hivite and the Jebusite, as the Lord your God has commanded you, so that they may not teach you to do according to all their detestable things which they have done for their gods, so that you would sin against the Lord your God.

It is then left to the following book of Joshua to describe this activity taking place.

Apologists have attempted to defend all of this by claiming that the Israelites did not manage to completely wipe out the Canaanites; their presence throughout the rest of the Old Testament testifies to this fact. True, but it entirely misses the point. The problem is not whether Israel carried out the command, but the fact that God commanded it. All this answers is that God’s people are either more merciful than he is, or simply ineffective. Apologists have also claimed that the very language used is hyperbolic – analogous to how football fans would say that their team ‘annihilated’ the opposition – a tenuous argument which ignores the clear context of and reason given for the conquest.


Finally, this very reason for the conquest is appealed to: the people were not slaughtered arbitrarily, they were wicked and deserving of punishment, and this is what God delivered via the Israelites. Yet this just brings up further problems. If the people were truly sinful, why could God not reveal himself to them like he did to the Israelites, and give them his laws instead of wiping them out? Echoes of the flood are conjured up in our minds at this point. Even though God promised after that event to never again destroy humanity, he’s clearly been a little loose on that vow since.

I could quite happily re-imagine God as non-violent, but it would mean throwing out the book which so heavily contradicts that picture.

Curiously, the horrendous nature of this didn’t really strike me on my initial journey through the Bible; when you’re reading the Old Testament, bloodshed becomes so common as to desensitize you to killing, much like video games are accused of doing. In 2012, aged seventeen, I went to the Greenbelt festival, a left-leaning gathering centered on faith and the arts. While there, I attended a talk by the political activist and pacifist John Dear who spoke on the topic, ‘Blessed are the Peacemakers’, and used the nonviolent ministry of Jesus as an example to emulate. That’s all well and good, I thought, but there was a lot of violence in the Bible before Jesus arrived on the scene. In true Greenbelt style, there was a Q&A afterwards with a roving mic. I was too shy to voice my concern to everyone gathered there, but fortunately I managed to grab John afterwards on his way out.

When I voiced my question about how the conquest in Joshua could line up with the message of non-violence, his response shocked me: ‘That’s not God.’

The idea that the conquest may have been an exaggerated or even mythical origin story had been floated in a previous seminar, but I’d not heard it stated so bluntly. He went on, ‘It’s a reflection of the community; who do you follow, Joshua or Jesus? Re-imagine God as nonviolent and it’s so beautiful.’

This, for me, encapsulates the dichotomy that Christians are faced with when reading the Old Testament: take it at face value and try to reconcile the problematic God within, or, as John Dear expressed, take it as a flawed human document either without divine-inspiration, or at least a highly-filtered version. If you go for the former, you have a lot of work cut out for you on what I personally would consider an impossible mission as God’s PR department. However, if you opt for the latter, the impossible mission now becomes discerning what within the Bible is actually divine, leading to highly subjective interpretations of God based primarily on the preference of the individual.

I could quite happily re-imagine God as non-violent, but it would mean throwing out the book which so heavily contradicts that picture.

Ultimately, this is what I had to do.


[1] ‘The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.' Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, 51.

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