Class, Week 4: The Unfair God

The other day in class (or maybe it was two weeks ago), my professor noted that in the Old Testament intro class he took as a grad student, a classmate at the end of the semester announced that because of the things he had learned there, he could no longer be a Christian.

My professor told the story to encourage us to come to him or make it known if the things we are learning about the nature of the text of the Old Testament cause us to doubt, but he added: “If you’re going to lose your faith, do it over something more worthwhile, like the problem of suffering in the world or because people in the church are jerks.”

It was a light touch, but a true one. Because, if anything, learning about the human fingerprints all over the Old Testament has freed me to appreciate God’s message in the text more. At the beginning of class, you might recall, I described the OT as a “crazy uncle” who embarrasses me in public and for whom I have to apologize later.

As I’ve said before, learning that the Bible is not a pristine book handed down immaculately from God to humanity, but rather a messy collection of legends, stories, laws and theology written down many centuries after they are supposed to have taken place, has freed me to look at the broader truths of the story. I don’t have to defend this ugly passage about murdering infants or that unscientific reference to the foundations of the earth and the waters of the deep.

And yet.

Perhaps it’s my own literalist baggage, but I still struggle with exactly how much leeway God gave the Old Testament authors, whomever they were. After all, this is God’s Word, right? “God-breathed and useful,” according to the author of 2 Timothy.

So we should expect the Old Testament to give us a reasonably accurate view of the character of God, shouldn’t we? Surely, God wouldn’t allow that part to get screwed up. I can get on board with the idea that he probably isn’t interested in breaking the news about biological evolution to ancient Israelites who wouldn’t understand it, and that their own experience with exile and return colored their view of the law and holiness, so I understand that we can safely view a lot of the Pentateuch through those lenses.

But, let’s face it, God in the Old Testament is not just vengeful, he is unfair.

Our reading last week was To Each Its Own Meaning, a collection of essays each describing a different kind of biblical-text criticism. Some of it – source, historical, form – is basic stuff, parsing out the text to determine how many authors there are, when it was written, what commonalities it shares with other texts within the Bible (or outside of it), etc.

But recently new forms of criticism have arisen, poststructuralist criticism and feminist criticism among them, which take a harder look at some of the problems of the passages.

And some of them look squarely at the God these texts present.

For example, Danna Nolan Fewell’s essay on feminist criticism notes a desire by newer critics to “read against the grain,” which describes

a method which does not take the texts’ apparent contexts and intentions at face value, but looks at the doubts they repress or leave unsaid and how this repressed or “absent” element can undermine or undo what the text says.

In Genesis 2-3, the story of the Garden of Eden and the so-called “fall” of man (the words “fall” or “sin” never appear, which makes for fun theological study), newer critics are noting the story’s character of YHWH creates the garden, the people, the tree and the serpent – in other words, he at least indirectly gives humanity both the means and the temptation to rebel.

What does this mean?

Most commentators, for obvious theological reasons, want to “protect” God, to remove this character from scrutiny, much as God pronounces the tree of the knowledge of good and evil to be off-limits to the humans in the garden. Some readers, however, are willing to pluck the fruit, eager to learn what the knowledge of good and evil is all about. Tensions and contradictions within the text, and between the text and reader, may challenge us to reenter the garden with our eyes opened, even if that eventually means running up against the contradictory, unstable character of God.

Yikes. Can we say that?

Can we say this?

The language of the text allows the blame to shift from man to woman to serpent, and there the buck-passing stops because “the serpent’s mouth is stopped with dust.” But as hard as the words try to locate the fault in humans in general, and women and their animal counterparts specifically, the silences, the tensions, the contradictions whisper that, ultimately God is responsible for the “fallen,” or perhaps more to the point, the “realistic” state of creation.

So it becomes clearer – at least it does to me – that accepting the Old Testament’s view of God is increasingly untenable. If the God we worship is truly love, is truly merciful and gracious and just, then he cannot be the God of the Old Testament, who orders the execution of infants and rains fire and brimstone on whole cities while turning the repressed of those cities into salt when they mourn the loss of what little lives they knew.

But perhaps he is not the God of the Old Testament. Perhaps the view of monarchic and postexilic chroniclers and priests is not correct.

Which brings me back to my professor, who noted a better reason to lose one’s faith would be the jerks – or, more accurately, the child abusers, corruption or infidelity – we find in the leadership of our churches.

Yet, like the Bible, God has created the church. He has presumably authorized it to represent him to the world. Yet the God portrayed by the church we can certainly all agree is often a charade – a bad joke of the God we know truly exists. People calling themselves members of his church wave signs that say he “hates fags,” they molest altar boys, sleep with their secretaries and expel the mentally disabled, among many other horrible things.

Perhaps God is so gracious, so merciful and loving, so patient with the messes we insist on making of things that he allows even himself to be misrepresented by the institutions he has ordained to represent him to those who don’t know him.

Perhaps we squirm at some passages in the Old Testament because God squirms at them, too.

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4 comments on “Class, Week 4: The Unfair God

  1. Nicholas says:

    “If the God we worship is truly love, is truly merciful and gracious and just, then he cannot be the God of the Old Testament”

    Or perhaps our definitions of love, mercy, grace, justice, etc are what need revising. 😉

    • Paul says:

      Haha, I suspect our definitions are in constant need of revision, but if they get to the point where they are in line with the actions attributed to YHWH in the Old Testament, they would cease to be love, mercy, grace or justice. There are baseline qualities inherent in those words, the crossing of which turn those words into entirely different attributes (or non-atrributes, as the case likely would be).

      • Nicholas says:

        Yep. But I think we can’t approach the issue until we distinguish between the Ontological will of God and the Economical/Providential will of God. 😉

  2. coarseheart says:

    Mind blowing. Reading your essays is causing all of my previous perceptions of the Bible to be broken down. In the best way possible. In a way that doesn’t just skim over or ignore the texts that have always bothered me.
    Honestly. So incredible.

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