The Shorter History of God
First some history. The Hebrew tribes were a violent lot, not just because their literary enemies, like the 3rd century BCE historian Manetho, says they were, but violent even by their own reckoning. From Abraham’s fatwah on the cities of the plain, described gleefully by the author of Genesis (Genesis 19:12-29) as the first victory of Yahweh against his enemies, right down to the final humiliation of the God-forsaken people (their description) and the fall of the southern kingdom of Judaea (586 BCE), the love of war and the smell of blood dominates the Hebrew Bible.
Take for example this little story in the Book of Judges: A certain Levite takes a concubine, who deserts him. Outraged, the Levite drags her away, by night, from her father’s house – a bad move because thieves, brigands, and homosexuals are about after dark. Bypassing the chance for an overnight stay in Jebus, the Levite and his concubine find lodging with a Hebrew family of Benjamites in the village of Gibeah. When the aged householder refuses the demands of a band of rampaging youths, who want to have sex with the Levite traveler, the old man tosses out his daughter and the Levite’s girlfriend as substitutes. The young men of the city pack-rape the women throughout the night, and with vampire-like aversion for sunlight leave them for dead the next morning. Outraged that his concubine could not defend herself against the sex-starved youth of Gibeah, the wayfaring Hebrew chops her into “twelve pieces, limb by limb and sen[ds] the pieces throughout the whole of Israel.” The text is chillingly ambiguous whether the concubine is dead or still alive when the vivisection takes place. (Judges 19.)
Entertaining? You bet—almost Hollywood caliber horror. The only difference is, this horror story occurs in a book thought to be revealed by a God who is fundamentally good and eternally just, one who rewards whom he wants, humiliates when he wants, is jealous when he feels like it, and compassionate when he doesn’t feel like being jealous. He is a lot like the trolls your grandmother told you about, only he lives in the sky, not under a bridge, and he plays tricks on people rather than goats. This God proves his might by exalting his people over other people, except in those (frequent) cases when it becomes necessary for him to spank his elect so severely they perish at their enemies’ hands. Then their enemies, with his blessing, take away their land, destroy their temple, and send them penniless into dispersion. This God seldom brings you presents; almost always sticks and lumps of coal, for which nonetheless you have to say thank you.
The climax of this way of thinking, all deference to the maligned Mel Gibson, is the image of a God so brutal that he inflicts pain, bloody suffering, and death on his innocent son as a vicarious way of venting his anger against the sinfulness of his chosen people. Christian theology may try to disguise this bottom line, or find an ethical tradition to replace it. But it is the core teaching of the Bible that this is the way God acts; this is the way God is. The Christian bifurcation of the “angry” Old Testament God and the “forgiving” and compassionate God of the New systematically overlooks the fact that only in the Christian Bible does God evolve into an abusive father who arranges the death of his own son as an covert means of regaining the fealty of a race he sold into sin in the Garden of Eden. Nor am I exaggerating the traditional theology on this point; almost all the church fathers from the time of Irenaeus onward saw the sin of Adam as creating a game of chess which God could only win by resorting to deception: fashioning a second man, like Adam, who could cheat death of its right to his human soul by being quintessentially (but “invisibly”) divine. Bluntly, God “pays” the devil, who “owned” us after the fall, a human life to let us go (Irenaeus, V.1.1.); but the devil could not take the God-man and gets caught out by his greed. This is sometimes called the “ransom” theory of the atonement. It sees the devil as Shylock to God’s Portia, demanding more than his due and losing the whole jackpot—world, flesh and princely pomp—in the bargain. Translated: You have a neighbor who treats his teenage son abysmally, a father whose acts of cruelty are frequent, known, and unprovoked, and whose reason for beating the child is that, as a consequence of the boy’s disobedience, the father does not have the respect of his neighbors. To gain their respect he decides that his son must pay the price. So, convincing the son that the long-term benefits to reputation far outweigh any momentary pain, he shoots him at high noon on a Saturday within plain sight of a dozen of his neglectful friends. In a criminal case we should have no difficulty asking that the father to be locked up without parole. In theology, we argue that the Father loved the world so much he just had to do it.
Because the theology of violence and concomitant suffering—which theology dubs redemption and atonement—so permeates the ancient Semitic world, the Jews reacted appropriately, theologically speaking, to the Assyrian, the Babylonian, the Persian, the Greek-Macedonian, and the Roman assaults on their national identity. God could fight on whosoever side he chose, but there was always a reason, and the reason always had something to do with fidelity, and fidelity always with carrots and sticks. The worse the humiliation, the worse must have been “what was done in the sight of the Lord, who rewards good and punishes evil.” It is only when the whole political dream lay in smoke, as it did in April in the year 70 CE, that Hebrew theology can no longer accept the terms of the Abrahamic covenant in the same old way. After all, a god who promises a land, the miraculous increase of Abraham’s descendants (“as populous as the stars in the sky”), and the final victory over the enemies of God, but then who gives the land to strangers, sends his chosen people into Roman ghettoes and Syrian slavery, ensures their defeat in every battle with the goyim, might just be trying to tell you something. The idiot’s Guide to Messianism might suggest that this God enjoyed the company of fools or making fools of his customers, with every act of destruction attended by a false promise of restoration, renewal, refreshment. The whole fabric of messianic and apocalyptic expectation is drawn against a background of unhappiness and disappointment, against hope that can be measured in literary units but always ends with “not yet,” “later, “sometime next year.” The Jewish and later the Christian inability to acknowledge the disconfirmation of their messianic claims, their stubbornness in the face of defeat is the origin of ancient anti-Semitism, like that of Tacitus and the beleaguered Vespasian and the staple of early anti-Christian polemic by the likes of Celsus and Porphyry: “How terrible it would be if God the Creator should stand helplessly by and see the heavens melting away in a storm of fire—the stars falling, the earth dying. For no none has ever imagined anything more glorious than the beauty of the heavens.” (Porphyry, AC, Apoc. 4.24).
The disconfirmation of the apocalyptic and messianic God is a fact of history. He did not set fire to the world. He did not send a rescuer. He did not come again. Skeptics will say that these things were not done because this God does not exist anyway. But for dispersed Jews and newly legitimated imperial Christians of the fourth century, their changed circumstances required closing the book on this God, making him a figure of the past, a symbol of majesty, just as later, in the Enlightenment he could become a watchmaker, whose services were admirable but no longer required.
The God of a superceded Judaism and a triumphal Christianity may look different to the adherents of the competing traditions, even to scholars studying these traditions. Judaism retreated into mysticism and ethics. Christianity spun doctrines, invented a new kind of state to serve as his museum, and enshrined his brutal demands in more humane codes. But by and large, the Levite and the punishing god of hosts who counted his enemies by the tens of thousands was kept safely locked away in the Book, in languages sufficiently arcane that fewer and fewer could read the awful diary of his deeds. It took the Reformation to unlock it, to free him. But, as luck would have it, by the time he was freed, he found among his covenanted people, old and new, a Spinoza–later by not much a Voltaire, a Hume. Disobedient children all. And he had wasted the life of the only son he had to spare centuries before. –Sad really. If only he had been a better father.
R. Joseph Hoffmann is Professor and Chair of Religious Studies at Wells College and a Senior Fellow at the Center for Inquiry International.