The Jealous God of the Old Testament

At the close of the first chapter of his book The God Delusion, author and atheist Richard Dawkins warns in so many words that he does not intend to dance lightly around his topic. He follows this pronouncement with a damning critique of the “tribal” God of the Jews in the biblical Old Testament, whom Dawkins describes as petty, unjust, unforgiving, vindictive, bloodthirsty, sadomasochistic…and the list goes on for a while.

The invective brought on a smile of familiarity. I know, or at least knew once, the “God” to whom Dawkins is referring. It hardly surprised me that he got this problem out into the open so soon. Dawkins proceeds to say in so many words that it hardly matters what the God of the Old Testament is like, He, along with any other deity, does not exist. But I think the man doth protest too much. I have a sneaking suspicion he really wanted to say all that about the Tetragrammaton and could scarcely wait to get his licks in.

One can hardly blame him. I have invited Christian college students to ask any question about the Bible that they’ve wanted to ask but have been afraid to, and the Old Testament invariably trots out fairly quickly, especially the stuff that looks a lot like ethnic cleansing. If, as Dawkins notes with a humorous story, one bothers to actually read the Old Testament, one finds all sorts of awkward things that have to be dealt with somehow. Reading your Bible can be dangerous, you know.

Be that as it may, I’ll make one comment about Dawkins’ rhetoric before taking on the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

Dawkins’ stylistic choice is very much in the jaunty, dismissive vein of G.K. Chesterton and George Bernard Shaw. Unfortunate, then, that Dawkins is a scientist and not a man of letters, as the other two were. This is no insult to Dawkins nor a veiled ad hominem (personal attack) meant to discredit him by declaring that his word choice doesn’t cut the mustard. I find it entertaining, which he obviously hoped it would be. I also find that it fails to persuade.


GK Chesterton

By failing to persuade, I don’t mean so much that Dawkins is unconvincing as that his approach is not calculated to convince. Oh, he goes to great lengths to bring in cases and quotables, but he sounds far more as if he is orating to canned cheers than that he is really trying to argue. I suppose Chesterton and Shaw were guilty of the same. Which raises an interesting point at the outset, I think.

That point is that many people who take the trouble to address these issues are only half in earnest. A bit of what goes on here is showmanship, verbal sleight of hand, if you will, a bit of mumbo jumbo (C.S. Lewis levels this charge at Christians in Miracles). There really is no question in their minds. The question is answered and the evidence is nicely arrayed. All that remains is to write it up in a way that will convince the already convinced and alienate the already alienated. Anyone sitting on a fence is going to fall off it in the direction they really wanted to fall in the first place. There is a wonderful statement to that effect in Marilynn Robinson’s Gilead, in which the principle character says that he never knew a man to lose his faith who really wasn’t looking to lose it in the first place.

But I enjoy Dawkins’ clever diversions. No, in spite of his legerdemain, I do not dismiss him or his arguments out of hand. And certainly this Old Testament Divinity is not something that can be easily waved aside.

I do wonder that Dawkins does not discuss more credibly, at least so far, the religious impulse among humans. It seems a given that he finds this to be connected to the whole Divine question and so does not seem to appreciate its full significance. It’s as if people will be religious and will have their god and that’s it.

But that isn’t it. People are religious, beginning from a very young age and with or without formal training (see Robert Cole’s studies on children). Even Dawkins is religious in his own way. The religious impulse is not necessarily directly connected to the God question. What it entails mostly is the symbolic way in which humans manage and arrange the enormous burden of things outside themselves and how those things intersect with their own self-awareness–natural events, mysterious contingencies, harmonies and disharmonies, communal and individual values, general and particular happiness, unhappiness, death, larger purposes, time, space, circumstance and uncertainty. The symbolic ordering of these and their direct impact on individuals and groups forms the lion’s share of what it means to be religious. Our rituals and religious practice reassure us that these great unknowns are indeed contained within some sort of ordered and deeply meaningful system. When we meet to worship, we generally pause to re-insert ourselves into our beloved systems in such a way as to enhance our overall sense of well-being.

Now, people will read this and say, “You sound just like Dawkins!” But I really don’t. Unlike Dawkins, I don’t think the religious impulse is some sort of accident of evolution. While I agree with Dawkins that a lot of what passes for religious practice is fashioned after our own image and likeness, I don’t think that the impulse itself is any kind of accident. But I’ll get to that in due course.

For now, let me talk about Dawkins’ bogeyman divinity, his tyrannical megalomaniac of the Old Testament.

One can read the Bible in a number of ways, as Augustine of Hippo was quick to point out in his classic On Christian Teaching. A frustrating tendency exhibited by many critics is to find fault with the Bible as if it were written in our own time and for a literate, comfortably democratic contemporary audience, like Harry Potter. Such critics lampoon the text in near-juvenile fashion for those things that produce the most dissonance with our own time and custom–such as the Mosaic law to stone rebellious adolescents. The critic, gesturing and laughing, expects us to behave like children who should say something like, “That’s just gross,” and the point is scored. In this vein, Dawkins declares, with mock sporting gentility, that the God of the Old Testament is too easy a target, so he won’t go there, so to speak, doing us all a kind favor.

A clever ploy, but it won’t do, as C.S. Lewis was fond of saying. For the Deity that looms large in the pages of the Old Testament, pages that took a couple of millennia to coalesce around its very human themes, is a being who must certainly be reckoned with.

I’m going to shock many readers by suggesting that there are two deities in the Old Testament. There is a “real” deity and a “religious” deity. I think we catch glimpses, sometimes only the shadow, of the “real” divinity (I don’t think Dawkins has perceived this one, however). But then I think there is a “religious” divinity that is actually the being humans create to “explain” the stark, unrelenting nature of a reality beyond their control. I call that Being the “God of Consequences,” the inescapable and sometimes grinding wheel of cause and effect. Once you strip any lingering anthropomorphism or ethno-centricism from the text, I think this somewhat cobbled-together deity emerges.

This latter deity is Dawkins’ bogeyman and has also been the religious bogeyman residing near the heart of much religious activity and angst. To Jung, he is the dark Father (Darth Vader), to Northrup Frye, the Judge who punishes wrongdoing, to Aquinas, the originator and maintainer of Lex Naturalis, (Natural Law) to the Greeks, the Fates and Furies all together, to Odysseus, the vengeful Poseidon, to Blake, the great, bearded man measuring the expanse of the world with an architect’s tool.

In fact, Dawkins may not entirely escape that deity by dispensing with a “personal” supernatural entity. In fact, by declaring his allegiance to the soul-less, though magnificent machine of the Universe, hasn’t Dawkins allied himself with the same impersonal force that lurks behind most ancient religious literature, the very force against whom Gilgamesh raged so long ago? What does it matter if the God of Cause and Effect is replaced merely by a cold, naturalistic Cause and Effect? The Furies are replaced by a more mathematical Consequence. Homer’s nymphs are transformed into mere numbers. So be it.

In Dawkins’ world, then, cause and effect, contingency and consequence are absolute, irrevocable governors of the system. There’s nothing to be done about it. One must settle in for the atomistic ride and do the best one can. Is that the way the world is, one has to wonder? Here again, I’ll have to defer discussion.

But I need to conclude with the two-part God of the Old Testament. The forces beyond human control are real, as real as the rising and setting of the sun, as the cycles of the moon, as summer and winter, as heart-attacks and pneumonia, as the domino-effect of human action and reaction across continents. But, if there is a genuine God, these forces and occurrences are not that God. If they are anything, they are mind and matter set into a profoundly intricate web of intersections and connections–of living and growing and reproducing and dying–that none of us can fully grasp. In fact, they are that whether or not there is a God behind it all.

I had to make that distinction before I could embrace something I could call faith, the distinction that God and Consequence are not one and the same. I confess it’s a difficult distinction to make and I won’t fault anyone who thinks I’m a little nuts for having to make it. But when I did, it made an enormous difference and it liberated me from an obsession with the very faux-deity with whom Dawkins and many others like him have so much trouble. And, like Philip Pullman, I do think the faux-deity is alive and well in much that passes for Christianity. That’s an ominously loaded statement and I’ll have to do it more justice later. For now, I’m just making the preliminary point that one need not be at pains to defend the God of the Old Testament.

I realize, of course, that the other “real” being to which I have briefly and enigmatically alluded would receive no more respect from Dawkins than the faux-deity and I don’t want to appear to be alleging that this “real” being is somehow outside the scope of Dawkins’ critique. Nor do I wish to sound, just yet, as if I am presenting this being as actually, without quotes, real. Let’s not get ahead of the verbal tennis game.

But next I will regrettably have to deal with Dawkins red herring picnic with the Founding Fathers.

Note: Please forgive the lack of links in this copy. I have simply run out of time to dress this up. Apologies.

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4 thoughts on “The Jealous God of the Old Testament

  1. Dean

    I think you’re not being at all fair with Dawkins and his coverage of the Old Testament God. The OT God acts in explicitly evil ways, even beyond simple “God of Consequences”. Jehovah explicitly punishes the Israelites on several occasions for not fully devastating a civilization (one example that comes to mind is Numbers 31:7-18)

    He even mandates forced marriage as punishment if a woman is raped, “If a man happens to meet a virgin who is not pledged to be married and rapes her and they are discovered, he shall pay the girl’s father fifty shekels of silver. He must marry the girl, for he has violated her. He can never divorce her as long as he lives” (Deuteronomy 22:28-29)

    It could possibly be said that God was simply working with what he had at the time (which is supposedly why he permitted slavery, rape as a condoned spoil of war, etc.) and this is pretty much C.S. Lewis’s defense of the OT Jehovah. However, the problem then becomes a matter of our ethical source. Is something right because God has arbitrarily made it so (which, if that is the case then God really is a jerk when he condones slavery!), or because morality supercedes even God himself (which means God was acting against a universal moral code when he allows slavery).

    No, if one believes in the basic creed laid out in 1 Cor 15, one should be at pains to defend the God of the Old Testament. If not, the whole thing, from the fall of Adam to the resurrection of Christ, comes crashing down.

  2. Rachel

    I once struggled with the God of the Old Testament (he broke my hip and changed my name. ha.). Seriously, it didn’t take long to realize that He was pretty explicit about the holiness of His people. In explaining my childhood, I often say I feared my mother the way I fear God–knowing she had impossibly high standards and she could eliminate me at any moment. I feel that awe and fear I have of God is from reading the Old Testament, while that intimate closeness I have with Him is from reading the New. Thank God for grace and mercy.

  3. Matthew Melton

    I guess while I am in deconstructive mode, I would have to ask why the development of the law (likely appropriated from Middle Eastern precedent) or the “punishment” of peoples as a description of negative event are necessarily Yahweh at all. Must we go there because the text indicates it? Does it all come crashing down if we don’t? I hardly think so.

    I grew up in a tradition that freely attributed stuff to God that was ridiculous. The healthy suspicion I learned from their lunacy is something I take with me even when reading a Hebrew redactor. You might say that leaves me without much to stand on. I laugh and reply that all our floors are made of water.

    I don’t suppose an ignostic would want to commit to a particular molecular structure as defined as H20, however.

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