When God Abuses

images-2Does the Old Testament portray God as abusive?

In our Old Testament Theology class, we must give two presentations about the topics covered over a given week’s reading in our textbook, Walter Brueggemann’s Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony. Dispute. Advocacy. My first presentation was on the topic of Yahweh as hidden, abusive and inconsistent. The next week’s assignment was covering the topic of Yahweh as unresponsive, unreliable and unjust.

These are Brueggemann’s categories, and they end up being pretty redundant. The same verses used for describing Yahweh has hidden are equally applicable for describing him as unresponsive, and vice versa. Further, his hiddenness and unresponsiveness clearly make him unreliable, as does his inconsistency. In which case, Brueggemann could have saved a lot of space and simply focused on Yahweh as abusive, unreliable and unjust. But to the extent Yahweh is unreliable and unjust, doesn’t this also make him abusive?

I’d argue yes. In fact, I’d argue the primary counter-testimony of Israel in the Old Testament, whether the authors intended this or not, is that Yahweh is abusive. Abuse is God’s defining action in the texts that push back against the central portrayal of God as loving, just, merciful parent and partner.

There are a number of reasons why I argue this.

First, I want to make a distinction because there are three types of texts that describe God in this way, and I want to focus on just two. Some texts are written from the first-person perspective of those who feel they’ve been abused by God – Jeremiah in 20:7ff., for example, or any number of psalms. These are certain people’s expressed feelings, not third-person portrayals of Yahweh’s words and actions. As such, they don’t have quite the same credibility; their purpose is less narratival and more emotional. Instead, I’ll be focusing on the other two: The historical narratives that carry the gravity, if not the reality, of neutral observation, and the first-person discourses, those words ascribed to Yahweh himself.

So let’s look at the three overarching categories into which we’ve grouped Brueggemann’s six portrayals: unreliable, unjust and abusive.

Yahweh as unreliable

The traditional testimony of Israel is that she abandoned Yahweh (e.g. Jeremiah 2:13), but there are some counterexamples in which the reverse is described: God abandoning Israel. It’s easy to dismiss this as a retaliatory move by Yahweh against the already faithless nation, but I’d argue that abandonment or forsaking is a one-way street: If Israel has already ended the relationship by abandoning or forsaking Yahweh, there is nothing left for him to abandon. The verb is active and final; it implies initiative taken by the subject. So when we see the following passage in Isaiah 54:6-8, we are seeing a counterclaim against the core testimony of Israel’s culpability in the severing of its relationship with Yahweh:

As an abandoned and dejected woman the Lord has summoned you;
as a young wife when she is rejected,
says your God.
For a brief moment I abandoned you,
but with great mercy I will bring you back.
In an outburst of rage,
I hid my face from you for a moment,
but with everlasting love I have consoled you,
says your redeemer, the Lord.

Now, this passage certainly has in sight Israel’s own sins; Yahweh is not without reason in forsaking his bride. Nevertheless, he – not Israel – is the actor in the dissolution of the relationship. He “rejects” and “abandons” Israel. But more disturbing is the reason cited: Yahweh’s “brief moment” of rage, an “outburst.”

Yahweh’s so-called “hiddenness,” then, is not universally ascribed to some grand unknowable plan or to Israel’s own failures. In at least this one instance, he abandons Israel in a fit of anger, one he almost instantly regrets. Of course, that fit has disastrous consequences. Isaiah 54 is written in the midst of the exile, which led to the suffering and death of thousands of people.

Yahweh is portrayed as unreliable in other ways – namely, through inconsistency.

For all of our modern-day assumptions about the unchangeability of God, he changes quite a bit in the Old Testament:

  • He visits a flood on humanity then promises never to do that again despite the problem remaining unresolved.
  • He says he will personally intervene to rescue Israel but decides to send Moses instead – and then determines to kill Moses right after commissioning him!
  • He prohibits remarriage after divorce – but then urges Israel to “remarry” him.
  • He countermands his own threat to punish people for their crimes to the fourth generation.
  • He refuses to forgive a disobedient but repentant Saul while extending (unasked for!) forgiveness to the murderous and repentant David.
  • He claims to see “into the heart” when selecting David as his next king, but requires tests to determine the faith of Abraham and Job.
  • He induces David to take a census, for which he punishes Israel and Judah by killing 70,000 people.
  • He allows Satan to kill Job’s family, destroy his possession and afflict him with disease, seemingly to win a bet.

And this doesn’t take into account the more “traditional” portrayals, in which Yahweh changes his mind after being asked to do so by Abraham, Moses and Amos.

Yahweh as unjust

Several of the examples of inconsistency mentioned above can also easily be described as unjust. Certainly, the census – which we discussed last week – is a stunning example of injustice. A plain reading of that text is that Yahweh was looking for a reason to strike at Israel and Judah, so he tricked David into sinning so he could do it. His inconsistent treatment of Saul and David smacks of injustice; there is no reason from the text to believe Saul, selfish though he might have been, was any worse of a person than David. Yahweh simply liked David better. The story of Job is a story of injustice, pure and simple; no, giving him more kids later does not counteract killing them all in the first place.

There are further hints of injustice in the Old Testament.

In Jeremiah 31:28, Yahweh says he has “watched over” Israel to “pluck up and break down, to overthrow, destroy and bring evil.” This is what Brueggemann calls the “two-step sequence,” and he considers it part of Israel’s core testimony – Yahweh acts in faithful solidarity with Israel but also out of his own “self-regard,” and sometimes those clash. The result, I would argue is an inconsistency that leads to injustice and unreliability – and therefore abuse.

In Isaiah 47:6, Yahweh speaks to Babylon: “I was enraged with my people … and put them under your power.” Brueggemann notes that Yahweh then condemns the nation for failing to show Israel mercy – a standard Babylon would have no reason to know existed. I’d go further: Yahweh seems to act surprised that Babylon would act so harshly, even though their tactics were well known across the Ancient Near East. In other words, Yahweh seems to be acting deceptively in pretending he didn’t know how poorly Babylon would treat Israel when he allowed them to be the agents of his punishment.

Which leads us to the most egregious act of injustice portrayed in the Old Testament: the exile itself. The authors recognize this, which is why so much of the text focuses on trying to explain why it happened. The injustice of the exile is most obvious through the testimony of Amos. In that book, the prophet condemns Israel for its abuse and oppression of the poor – but that leaves a problem, because God’s proposed solution for this society that hurts the poor is one that will hurt the poor even worse. Assyria’s method of raping, pillaging and torturing through the countries it overran was certainly not in any way preferable to whatever abuses they were suffering under Israel’s corrupt religious and political authorities.

Yahweh as abusive

One of the key images used for Yahweh in the Old Testament is that of caretaker – God is Israel’s gardener, king, righteous judge, father, mother and lover. But his actions described above are manipulative, inconsistent, violent and threatening. If they were undertaken by a person, they would be called abusive.

Consider how psychologists today characterize abuse:

Emotionally abusive behaviors include excessive and continuing criticism, denigrating, terrorizing, repeated blaming, insults and threats against children by their caretakers.

Psychological maltreatment includes “a repeated pattern of caregiver behavior or a serious incident” telling a child she is “worthless, flawed, unloved, unwanted, endangered or only of value in meeting another’s needs.” And child emotional maltreatment is classified in six ways: “Spurning, terrorizing, exploiting or corrupting, denying emotional responsiveness, isolation, and neglect.”

The exile clearly fits the bill as “a serious incident” that told Israel she was “worthless … unloved, unwanted [and] endangered.”  Yahweh spurned Israel, terrorized, isolated and neglected the nation and denied it his emotional responsiveness. To the extent Yahweh caused or allowed the exile to occur, he engaged in abusive parenting.

But Yahweh is not only parent, he is also partner. And again his portrayed actions meet the standards of abuse.

The psychologist L.E.A. Walker in the 1980s famously developed a three-phase cycle-of-violence model to describe partner abuse:

  1. building tension
  2. acute battering
  3. honeymoon

The honeymoon phase is described as “a period of calm, loving, contrite behavior on the part of the batterer. He may be genuinely sorry for the pain he has caused his partner. … He attempts to make up for his brutal behavior and believes he can control himself and never again hurt the woman he loves.”

Again, Yahweh’s actions, especially those in Isaiah 47 and 54, fit this description. In those passages, he seems regretful of what he’s done in angrily and compulsively sending Israel to exile, and he promises to make it right. He promises never do it again, a cycle reminiscent of the flood, as a matter of fact. But Israel will always bear the scars of the abuse she suffered in exile.

No doubt, some will object to the use of psychological literature to define God’s actions in the Old Testament. God’s ways are higher than ours, after all. Nevertheless, I think it’s helpful to clarify exactly what actions we’re seeing described here.

Brueggemann engages in a euphemistic dodge by labeling such behavior as emanating from Yahweh’s “self-regard.” This merely obscures the fact that he is then not acting in Israel’s regard. He is being selfish. And this means the behavior of Yahweh in the Old Testament is profoundly in tension with the description of love in the New Testament – where 1 Corinthians 13 tells us love is patient, kind, unselfish and does not keep a record of injuries.

Abuse is a selfish act; it fails the test of 1 Corinthians 13. To the extent that Yahweh’s actions in the Old Testament fit the commonsensical definition of abuse, they cannot fit the commonsensical definition of love. Which is problematic because even the Old Testament equates Yahweh with love.

If God is to be our definitional standard for love, ascribing to him actions of abuse upends our basic definition and renders impossible our own task of loving God and loving others.

This leads to the inescapable conclusion: Either the portrayal of Yahweh as an abusive monster is accurate, and our definition of love as unselfish, generous and others-focused means nothing, or it is inaccurate, and we must reckon with the fact that so much of our Bible is given over to faulty portrayals of the God who inspired it.

Obviously, I choose the latter. In fact, I would argue it’s the only option. But that’s not to say we should stop reading the Old Testament. In fact, realization of this problem can lead to a healthier, more freeing way of reading the text. Further, these texts, for all of their alarming portrayals of divine abuse, can help and heal us, who are all scarred to varying degrees by the abuse of this world.

Through these texts, God makes clear that he allows us to understand him incorrectly, question him directly, demand from him a better outcome than what we’ve received and even contradict ourselves as we attempt to describe him. In the end, he has shown he will love us no less than to identify intimately with us and restore his connection with us through the incarnation.

In the end, God does not abuse humanity, but instead suffers its abuse on the cross. When dealing with the counter-testimonial texts of the Old Testament, this fact will help us see our way through the harm, pain and abuse described by the authors. More, it will help us learn to embrace these troublesome texts as expressions of a universal struggle to understand why suffering exists in this world. Their exile is our exile, too.

Updates: I forgot to include links to the psychological literature, and I cleaned up a couple of grammatical mistakes I caught in reading through the post.

3 thoughts on “When God Abuses”

  1. If the Bible is so undependable, it seems to me the course of wisdom to ignore it completely, not “embrace” it with, as you teach, its portrayals of “divine abuse.”

    1. Hi Von,

      Thanks for the response!

      That’s certainly one way of approaching it, but I think labeling the Bible as “undependable” seems to assume that we’re trying to get some sort of dependable, universally applicable moral code out of it. I don’t think that was the intent of the Bible’s authors and editors, so I do not view the various contradictions or inaccuracies as evidence of a lack of dependability. Rather, I see them as the real-time working out of people’s journey with God – discovering who he is, what he’s like and how to live in community with him. As with all of us, there are missteps and confusing events, times when we struggle with who he is and how that comports with our lived experience. But through it all, we see the picture develop of a God who is madly in love with his creation and will do anything – even die – for it.

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