This is a continuation of a prior post on the Bible and what it does and does not say. The series will continue next time as well.
To respond to the claim that the Bible is immoral, a claim often made in our current world, it makes sense to try to unravel several distinct charges that can be made against the Bible on moral grounds:
- The authors claim that God favors some people over others, while also arguing that “God is no respecter of persons”;
- They attribute to God behaviors, attitudes, and values that in a human being would be considered highly unworthy or immoral;
- They advocate, or at least defend, violence against vulnerable people, most notably the Canaanites, but also others; and
- They turn a blind eye toward slavery and the mistreatment of women.
All of these would be serious charges if true. A demonstration of them would reduce the Bible to a heap of nationalistic texts more worthy of Fox News than of a great religion. The fact that some Christians attempt to defend imperialism, warfare, racial or economic discrimination, and other horrendous practices in the name of the Bible certainly makes the task of defending it harder. Still, I will try to understand it, in part by rescuing it from some of its self-appointed defenders and in part by showing that many of the charges against have little or no basis in fact.
To take the first charge first, it is very important to understand what the Bible actually says about the election of Israel. Hate-groups on both the left and right of the political spectrum have often used the biblical notion of election to brand Jews as arrogant or dishonest. At many historical points, the attack on election has linked directly to persecution. It is thus highly surprising that some enlightened secular critics of Christianity on the political left should employ such simplistic understandings of biblical teaching. In the Bible, election does not imply some sort of special treatment. It implies higher standards of justice and peace. Nor is election an end in itself, for as the single most important text on the subject, Genesis 12 puts it, “in you shall all the nations of the world be blessed.” Judaism’s contribution to human civilization has been almost incalculable, especially given the small number of Jews who have lived at any given time.
Nor does the Christian understanding of the Church’s election as a grafting onto Israel (see Romans 9-11) imply special treatment, since the Church understood itself as people redeemed from sin, not as people who have merited a relationship with an ever-benevolent God. When critics charge Jews and Christians, and thus the Bible, with self-promotion in pursuing a doctrine of election, they simply do not understand what we are saying. In fairness, we often do not understand well ourselves. But the problem lies much less with the Bible or the religious doctrines of the two faiths than with our failure to live out the implications of our own beliefs.
The second objection is more serious, and it has occupied biblical interpreters since at least the first century BC. The great Jewish biblical interpreter Philo, roughly a contemporary of Jesus, already addressed this question in a series of commentaries on the Pentateuch. His answer, which has often been followed in one way or another, was to interpret the biblical texts about God’s emotions and actions metaphorically, even allegorically. In such a construal, God does not really express anger or joy, sorrow or frustration. Such attributions of character or behavior are simply the closest human equivalents for untutored minds.
Such a strategy has obvious problems, not least that it seems simply to dodge the text’s plain statements in the interests of a predetermined agenda. But is this really what Philo and his countless followers are doing? After all, texts do signify in many different ways, and metaphor is an important one, widespread in many cultures and bodies of literature. Moreover, given the fragility of human language, its lack of precision even for describing human lives, is it really so implausible to think that our words and discourses would suffer from serious limitations in their talking about an infinite being? Surely Philo’s approach is not as off-base as it seems at first.
To get hold of the biblical approach to divine characterization, we might propose several considerations. (1) Things may not always be what they seem in a text. For example, when Yahweh asks the Satan to consider his servant Job and then allows the poor man to experience various trials that would prove his valor, we do well to ask what is going on. On the one hand, the Almighty seems to have immense confidence – almost too much confidence – in human capacity for virtue. On the other, Yahweh’s motivations are not entirely clear. Not only must the reader allow for the demands of a narrative – a character has to initiate a trial in order for the following theological discourse to have some connection to human experience – but the precise motivations of Yahweh are not entirely clear even within the narrative. By wagering on human integrity, doesn’t God (in the story at least) intend to disagree with those human beings who would defend cosmic justice by erasing the dignity of their own species? In other words, how do we take the narrative itself, as a realistic representation of an event in history or a history-like happening, or as a parable not to be taken literally? Surely the last options makes most sense of the literary goals of the book of Job. Thus it would be silly to imagine that the author of Job imagines God as a puppet-master working humans through their paces to illustrate his own superiority (which is never in question in the book of Job or the Bible as a whole).
(2) If texts are not always what a superficial analysis of them would make them seem to be, how do we know when we’re giving them due consideration? The short answer is that we have to become better readers, attentive to subtlety. This is not some exercise for a small elite group. It is a task available to all, and in fact, a very democratic task in many ways. The church and the synagogue have always existed as reading societies – among other things! – fostering thoughtful, engaged, life-changing consideration of story and song, prophecy and wisdom. At least we try. And we should keep trying.
(3) So, to continue the response to the second charge, we have to be very careful not to assume that the various biblical texts’ portrayal of God are straightforward. We should always ask, if a text portrays God as angry, say, what the source of the anger is. Is anger about injustice inappropriate, for example? Would a deity unmoved by suffering or oppression be preferable to one who loved good and hated evil in some way or another? Something to consider.