Saturday, November 28, 2015

Six Challenging Questions Regarding God's Ethics

Below are my responses to six challenging questions by an atheist friend regarding God's ethical behavior in the Bible. These are questions I've struggled with deeply myself, so I definitely identify with those who question the often harsh or seemingly unfair behavior of a God who's supposed to be good and leading us toward a perfect relationship with Him, each other, and creation.

1) Would you drown everyone except 8 people and a boatload of animals?

I think this story is a great example of the use of myth to convey truth. Especially in Genesis, but also throughout the Torah, there are many places where the text incorporates myths from other cultures and usually gives structural clues in the Hebrew as to the nature of the myth. An example of the parallelism within this story is found in the opening verses. In v. 5 “God saw [Heb. wayyar'], v. 6 “the LORD was grieved [Heb. wayyinahem]... his heart was filled with pain [Heb. wayyitasseb]” and on and on. Hebrew parallelism is regularly used both in mythic and poetic genres and suggests a carefully crafted structure, not just a historical account. This is a myth, and while there have been local destructive floods throughout history, Noah's flood almost certainly didn't happen literally.

When this story was included in the Torah, the Jews were in the midst of the Babylonian exile and though they knew the special character of their God, they wanted a way to viscerally convey this character to their people, so they used stories which were familiar, i.e. the Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh (for the flood), the Atrahasis Epic and the Enuma Elish (for creation), and Enmerkar and the Lord of Aratta (the Tower of Babel). Other sources may have been used as well, but these may have been lost. But what is most interesting is not the parallels with these other myths, but what is unique to the Hebrew myths. In the Assyrian, Babylonian, and Sumerian stories, the gods are pissed that humans are too noisy. We just party too hard, baby. So they want to kill us. Then when they realize they'll starve without our worship, they praise one of the gods who sneakily saved Utnapishtim (Noah). The Hebrew God on the other hand, cares about social justice and the violence that spreads through the earth. In fact, the Hebrew contrasts in the language with humanity's violence and the goodness of creation suggests that the violence was so bad, all humanity would have slaughtered each other completely. This means that by saving 8, God saved 8 more than would have survived without intervention.

This story's placement within the book of Genesis also serves an important theological purpose. It is the culmination of the acts of Adam and Eve, which first brought rebellion and deception into the world and out of that, the first acts of violence. This is foreshadowed in the skins with which they are covered, and carried on in the story of Cain and Abel, which in narrative structure (especially in Cain's dialogue with God) mirrors almost exactly the exchange between the first couple and God. Destruction was the inevitable path humanity was already on. I find it very interesting today, that in the face of climate change, we find ourselves in the same place again (only this time our violence is toward the earth and not just toward each other). If humanity cannot change its ways, it may very well destroy itself. I think that is the ultimate point of this story.

It is important to note as well that the Jews reading the Torah during the Babylonian exile would have immediately recognized these stories as myths (both because they were already familiar with the Babylonian myths and because of the Hebraic structural clues); yet even as myths they communicate essential truths about God and humanity: that we have the potential to utterly destroy ourselves, and that God cares about social justice and wants to show mercy to those who will reject the path of violence.

2) Would you consider women as property?

In the ANE (Ancient Near East) all the way through Greco-Roman times, women were indeed seen as property, either the property of the clan itself (whose authority was recognized either in the elder males, or a patriarch) or the property of the pater familias (head of household). These authorities generally had the power of life and death over the men and women under their control. It was through this cultural lens the original audiences (and even authors) of the biblical texts saw their relationships to each other and to their God (or gods). But what is very interesting about even the Old Testament is that, despite many brutal passages read in today's Western cultural light, there are some pretty huge changes to the status of women and all vulnerable classes (including widows, orphans, the poor, and migrants/immigrants) taking place in scripture.

This change begins with the creation myths at the beginning in Genesis (two are found here, as well as another six uses of creation imagery in the Psalms). In the opening verses, men and women are created equally (Gen. 1:27-28). Even in the second story (ch. 2-3), when Eve is taken from the rib of Adam, their relationship is like that of a river. The mouth of the river might be its “head” or its source, yet no part of the river is more important than another. It is all river. Inequality is first mentioned after humanity has sinned, and is described as a consequence of our sin (Gen. 3:16). In this context, all human inequality is the direct result of human sin and is not part of the original created order.

From this point forward, any law code, or instruction, or even mythic (or possibly historic for some) story must be read in the context of human-created inequality. So, in this context, let's say God decides to begin speaking into history and changing things. I think God began to do this gradually, because an outright revolution of thought would have been utterly rejected (as I've stated elsewhere, I think God's relationship with humanity is not deterministic, but a give-and-take, and we have a say in it). The Torah laws represent a compromise, and an understanding that God is not done interacting with (and changing) the nature of our relationship.

Even the more brutal laws are a vast improvement in terms of social justice when compared with either ANE cultural practice or other written law codes (such as Hammurabai's). Where in other cultures, slaves were held for life against their will, in the Torah they are set free the seventh year, and all debts forgiven after seven sets of seven years (the 50th year of the debt), meaning a debt could not be passed to children or over the estate (as the land was held in trust for descendants forever). The concept of the Jubilee year is remarkably more progressive than even today's debt laws. And where in the ANE, if a slave did a crime they were given a harsher punishment then a rich person, in the Torah all are punished for crimes equally (though harshly). Additionally, where women leaders were unheard of in much of that world, some of the oldest sections of the Torah include the stories (and song) of Deborah, a female judge who leads an army and prophecies to the people (Jg. 4-5), as well as women who kill kings (Jg. 4:21; 9:53) and who decide the destinies of princes (cf. Rebekah, Jacob & Esau). It's certainly not a perfect image of women, but if the Torah were all humanity needed to move into perfect relationship with each other, with creation, and with God; then Christ would not have come (this point is what much of my theology hinges on).

Even in the NT, Jesus and Paul provide a vast improvement in the treatment of women and their status. Women form a central part of Jesus' ministry. It is a woman who brings the Incarnate Word into the world (Mary), and it is women who first discover the empty tomb and bring the Proclaimed Word into the world (by telling the disciples). It is a Canaanite woman who actually bests Jesus with a riddle/analogy in one of the best uses of irony in scripture (Mt. 15:21-28) and it is women who have some of the most intimate discussions and interactions with Jesus (Jn. 4:4-26; Lk. 7:36-50). Women even sit at the feet of Jesus, and listen as his disciples which was unheard of at the time (Lk. 10:38-42). And, even though a later bishop (who wrote Timothy) uses Paul's name to place limits on women leadership in his congregations, Paul himself elevates the role of women, proclaims them equal with men (and all people regardless of background) (Col. 3:11, Gal. 3:28), and even praises the work of women leaders in the church and commends Junia, a female apostle (Rom. 16:7).

3) Would you yourself or would you condone owning another person?

No, I wouldn't. And I don't think God would either. Though Paul tells slaves they should serve their masters, this should be read in the context of the unequivocal rejection of violence by Jesus and the early church, and in Jesus' and Paul's statements regarding the equality of all individuals. Paul's admonition in this case is actually a position of nonviolent subversion of Roman structures. Christians were to serve (whether free or slave) in such a way that defied the expected reaction to those placed in bondage or forced in anyway. It was indeed a revolution, but a revolution that rejected force and instead relied on the overwhelming power of love to change people's hearts, even the oppressors.

As for the Torah references to slavery,  I stated earlier that I think these are concessions to the cultural mindset and state of sin, violence and oppression in human affairs so that God could begin to define humanity's relationship with each other and with God, and that even they were a vast improvement over contemporary societies. The laws are a stepping stone into relationship, but they do not bring us into ideal relationship with God. That's why the Incarnate Word (Christ) took on flesh, but only once human beings were ready for such a radical event to take place.

4) Would you condone beating said person as long as they didn't die right away?

Well, since I rejected slavery in the previous sections, I suppose I'd beat the s*** out of a free man (I kid, I kid). Again, I think the Torah was a progressive approach to the brutality of human beings and was part of the process of God breaking into our interactions with each other and beginning to establish the grounds which would form our relationship with Him (generally framed within the cultural practice of covenant). This progress continues with the ministry of Jesus, who as the Christ, reframes the entire relationship and sheds new light on the old ways.

It is deeply unfortunate that for many centuries the church forgot these important lessons and took steps backward. Still, God's value and love for women, the oppressed, and the alien has shown through in the work of many saints and mystics through history who tapped into the heart of God and shared it with others. And I think that when the progression of scripture is taken as a whole, and informed in the light of the writings of the early Church fathers, we see a definite movement toward rejecting violence and embracing mercy as a reflection of Christ's character.

5) Do you think eternal torture or annihilation for temporal crimes, unbelief or just 'wrong' thoughts is just?

Nope, and I also don't think scripture refers to eternal torture or annihilation. In the Tanakh, death was vaguely referred to as Sheol. This may have been understood as a shadowy existence, though many Jews believed a person lived on in name only, that they were wholly material infused with the “ruach” or “breath” of God, and that their bodies simply returned to the earth with no afterlife. There are many poetic allusions to death in the OT and very few of them suggest some type of afterlife.

When Jesus talks about Gehenna, much of what he was talking about was actually referring to the upcoming destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem (which happened 40 years after he died and a few years after the gospel of Mark was likely written). Like almost all prophets (including John of Patmos, who wrote Revelation), he was speaking of contemporary conditions and the near future. Now, ever since Clement of Alexandria (and the Alexandrian school), many have ascribed deeper allegorical meaning to these utterances, and I think that's fine as long as we recognize that there are certain lessons which can apply to every generation, there are certain ones which apply only to the original generation, and there may be some that refer to an apocalyptic final future (but these interpretations must always be taken with a grain of salt).

I do think scripture affirms a bodily resurrection, though I don't believe in an immortal soul (which I think is a Greco-Roman syncretic addition to later Christian thought). In fact, I think many of our modern Christian thoughts around the afterlife are Gnostic holdovers that need to be re-examined. Honestly, if an immortal soul was all that was needed for existing, a bodily resurrection wouldn't be necessary. But as Paul states, without the bodily resurrection of Christ, we have no bodily resurrection. And if we have no bodily resurrection, we have no hope (1 Cor. 15:3-19). While much of scripture is infused with myth, I affirm the historicity of the death of Jesus and the discovery of the empty tomb, as well as the perception by the disciples that they saw the risen Lord soon after. It through understanding these specific events as historical that my faith in Christ takes shape.

While I do not have a definitive answer, I have been looking at different possibilities for interpretation. One, is that the condition popularly known as “hell” (a word which never appears in scripture) is actually a post-resurrection state of an individual (or even a state in this life), where they are so filled with rejection, bitterness, and hate that they are agonizing and suffering in the midst of their willful separation. If this is the case, then I think that God's mercy is so great, that in the very moment this person were to turn to God, they would be immediately accepted into the Body of Christ. This could leave open the possibility for even universal reconciliation among all human beings (and, I interpret “human being” to mean all life that has evolved the agency to enter into relationship). Though, there may be some who would so much rather wallow in their own bitterness and general crapitude, that even though they may be resurrected into the midst of Paradise, still they would eternally and wilfully suffer in their own personal “hell.”

If these possibilities are the case, then perhaps scripture (and Jesus) is using the creative imagery of Gehenna and fire to describe these states. There are many places throughout scripture where concrete terms are poetically used (such as in the Psalms and Proverbs) to describe more abstract concepts. A great example is the female personification of wisdom in the proverbs. Concrete imagery (especially in prophetic and apocalyptic works) helps us to grasp almost ungraspable concepts.

6) Would you let your son be tortured and killed to solve a problem you created?

Which one, Samson or Conan? That's right, I named my sons Samson and Conan (I like epic characters, what can I say?). Anyway, I assume you are referring to Christ. I think this is where the doctrine of the Trinity comes into play (though it is a very sticky topic, with much of its thought originating well outside the scope of scripture and more in the context of 4th century Greco-Roman culture and Greek philosophy). I think that Christ as God's Son may be understood to the effect that the substance, Being God is eternally, coequally Personalized in perfect internal relationship as the Trinity. This relationship becomes our model for relationship, and it is with this understanding that Christians call Jesus the Son. We believe that the Son eternally proceeds from the Father, just as a Word is the expression of the Originator, while at the same time Being the Originator.

That might sound like a lot of word salad (and I think some of the 4th century and later formulations border on word saladness), but its better if we go back to my point in a previous post about how the symbols of language fail to fully register direct experience, and even less so, direct being (in this case, the Being of God). Part of the value of the symbolic language of Sonship is its connections to sonship (as in the Son of Man, the Son of David) in the OT, and Jesus' special context within Israel. Anyway, the point is, it is God Itself who took on flesh, was tortured, and was killed for a problem that we created. If we have free will (and I think we do, at least in a limited way in our environment), and we were created for relationship with God, creation, and each other, and to be able to create or destroy (as God does, cf. Gen. 1:26-27; Deut. 30:19), then we need to take responsibility for our own actions. Honestly, this is the point of humanism, and helps explain humanism's roots within Christianity. We are responsible for our own problems, and our decision to enter into Christ signals our willingness to be part of the solution.

Final Thoughts

I hope these responses help any readers who are struggling with the idea of a God revealed in scripture and in flesh. As I said earlier, they are the fruit of my own struggle, and it is my hope that they save you some time and maybe some heart-ache; and will hopefully lead you down the path toward the truth (wherever that may lead you).

#christianity #atheism #interpretation #hebrew #women #torah #tanakh #bible #ethics


Ty J. Wilson said...

Do you think that God is subjected to the current culture?

Brother Ivan, the Sinner said...

I don't think God is necessarily subjected to the current culture, but I do think God desires to engage with human beings, regardless of their culture; and I think each culture can bring its own, unique insights (or blindspots) when perceiving and engaging wth God's work in the world.