Friday, August 04, 2006

Difficulties with Genesis (and What to Do About Them)

I really enjoyed my most recent journey through Genesis; it’s been rich and fulfilling. Yet I promised from the outset not to shy away from things that puzzle or trouble me. So here’s my attempt to keep my word.

Corporate Guilt and Generational Curses

On a gut level, I detest the story of Noah and Canaan. Noah’s curse, which results in Canaan’s land being forfeit to the seed of Shem hundreds of years later, looks to be a travesty of justice. And what about the women and children of Sodom? Sure there are no righteous men, but must their infants endure the judgment? Having read the Bible before, I know this is just the tip of the iceberg. Just wait ‘til the slaughter starts in Joshua.

Now, of course we need qualifiers. This was the worldview of the time. And in some ways it is rational – what we do does affect our children whether it is fair or not. Children endure the blessings and curses from the actions of their parents simply because they can not exist apart from their parents. It is the opposite extreme to our radical individualism. Yet it is still an extreme, and God does not have much of a problem with it.

One might also say that God had to reveal himself in stages to man: he couldn’t do everything at once. But we are still stuck with actions on God’s side that are unjust. If we simply discount this as imperfect revelation, by what principle do we do this? I cannot accept merely subjecting scripture to the spirit of the age, any more than my mind can reconcile attributing injustice to God.

A Tribal Diety

The picture of God in Genesis is wonderful in so many ways, but there are some things that are philosophically troublesome (and its only going to get more so for a good while). God is indecisive, he is surprised by things, he wants to do one thing (wipe out creation), then changes his mind. He is soft on Cain, but harsh on Sodom. He doesn’t seem to know what to do about Sodom without going there himself. In other words, he often acts like the ancient picture of a petty anthropomorphized god, and not what we read in, say, the Westminster Catechism:
God is a Spirit, in and of himself infinite in being, glory, blessedness, and perfection; all-sufficient, eternal, unchangeable, incomprehensible, everywhere present, almighty, knowing all things, most wise, most holy, most just, most merciful and gracious, long-suffering, and abundant in goodness and truth.
This picture didn’t just come from the first cause/unmoved mover of Platonic Philosophy (as intellectually appealing and Christianizable as it is). It is also the picture that emerges from the Jewish prophets. So how do we reconcile these portraits without playing Thomas Jefferson and cutting out the parts of the Bible we don’t like?

A Way Forward?

I know in the past, when faced with such difficulties, I've often looked for quick-fix solutions. There may be ways of stretching what is in the text to try to fit it into the mold of how we know God to be in other parts of scripture. I really don’t think we can always do this with intellectual integrity. If we insist that there are no inconsistencies then I fear we are defending the Bible by not really engaging it.

Perhaps part of the solution is to embrace a certain level of mystery. I’m all for that, but you have to be careful when playing this card. If used lightly, mystery can be just a cover up for “doublethink” – holding two contradictory ideas in your mind and choosing not to deal with the contradictions because the implications are uncomfortable.

Who can guide us through this? Perhaps we can take comfort in Jacob’s wrestling with God. We are striving as opponents, but not actually enemies. We are butting heads with the Bible because we love it, and we seek the blessing that we just know it will give us!

Rather than going on to Exodus right now, I’m going to seek a little counsel on how do deal with these important concerns. Let’s skip forward to the book of Job.

I would give my thoughts on reconciling these difficulties, but they would probably fall into the 'quick fix' category. So I will be interested to here what you find in your quest. I like the analogy of Jacob wrestling with God. Even if we are 'fighting', at least we are engaging the text fully, which I should think is to God's pleasure.

The quandry you present becomes much less of a quandry if the doctrine of total depravity is accepted. Nobody "deserves" to be spared God's judgement and wrath. Anyone who receives anything but judgement is the recipient of grace, not justice. Also since the Bible is not an exhaustive treatise about the characters who populate its pages there are doubtless many details in these stories which would likely vitiate our modern version of justice.

As to the places where God appears to be indecisive, it is not God who needs to make a decision, but man needing to have the clarity that God's seeming indecisiveness brings. For instance God did not need to go down to Sodom to see if it was really as bad as He had heard. Abraham and those of us reading about it later needed to have this window into both the nature of God and the nature of man. It is similar to when I ask my young children to try to figure something out. I know or could figure out the answer much faster and more accurately than they could, but if I just spoon-feed them the answers they will not learn to think and reason for themselves as quickly or well as if they are challenged.


The solutions you pose I am not unfamiliar with, but in the end I have to say that I'd put them in the "quick-fix" category of hermeneutics that only resolves a difficulty by disengaging from the text itself. I think we end up in a far richer place if we take the Bible on its own terms and let it tell the story. If there are inconsistencies, assume there are wise reasons for them. If we are overzealous to resolve or justify troublesome parts of scripture, we may actually miss out on what God is trying to tell us.

I don't think total depravity is a satisfying solution to the problems I raised. For one thing, that doesn't seem to be at all the point Genesis is trying to make. God is just, and his justice involves sparing the righteous and punishing the wicked. It would be unjust for him to punish indiscriminately, as Abraham and the prophets perceive. And lets not be obtuse - you would be as horrified as I would be of any magistrate who sentenced petty thieves and mass murderers to the same punishment. Regardless of total depravity, the distinction between actual wicked and righteous people isn't just some quirky modern notion of justice - it is right out of the law and the prophets. It is from this perspective that the uncritical acceptance of corporate guilt and generational curses is jarring to the modern eye (and even the later prophets - "the fathers eat sour grapes and the children's teeth are put on edge").

Your point about God "appearing to be indecisive" is well taken. I think we all end up here eventually: that God speaks of things in human terms to help us understand something outside our experience. But the obvious retort is, "well, what are you, an angel? Who are you to say you have surpassed such "human" conceptions of God, and can tell us what was really going on?"

I have to chuckle a little, at your cautioning me from taking the text at face value here (since God was just speaking on a level we could connect to) when you decry me doing the same sort of thing with Genesis and modern science!

Anyway, hope I'm not being overly harsh here. Though I am sure you can take it as well as you can dish it out, I want for us to try to understand as well as spar. So I do have a suggestion: would you mind reading my stuff on Job (particularly the last post) when you get a chance? It's my own answer to the questions I raised in this post. You'll be better equipped to take me on when you have a feel for my entire position.

Wow, I reread my comment and it came across pretty snarky. Sorry about that!

No apology needed. No harm, no foul! However, I will accept it anyway since one should always accept an apology graciously and sincerely offered.

There's no reason to assume you have to make sense of everything in the bible - it's myth, and primitive, tribal myth at that. Difficulties like this only come if you make unwarranted assumptions that god exists and/or that the bible is some arbiter of Truth.

Ahh, but I do make these assumptions (on what I see as good evidence) - that God exists, and that he has chosen this collection of (human authored) books to reveal things about himself and his intentions for us.

Some of the mythology may be primitive in form (though the ideas are some of the most profound in all of literature!), but tribal? Please...these are dwellers of a specific piece of land focused on a specific city, if there ever were such a people! The creation story has a strong relationship (with some striking and profound differences) to the Enuma Elish - a creation myth of the great Babylonian Empire.

You come across as a bit of a philistine, Chuko - glibly dismissing what may be (if nothing else) the greatest work of literature of all time as if it were trash. That sort of air doesn't really command respect from those who listen to you.

I don't mean to dismiss study of the bible in any way - its historical and sociological importance can't be doubted. It may very well be the most important piece of literature of all time. Also, I wasn't clear - I was primarily referring to the old testament.

However, you must see the problems with using the old testament as a moral guide. You've read it - in the bible, God demands worship, belief, and love. His actions are usually criminal and sadistic - he supports slavery and unjust laws and punishments. He's hardly a universal god, he's concerned about the Hebrews - a tribal people briefly united under two kings. You have to jump through hoops to apply this to a Christian American.

You're happy to read some of the bible as metaphorical. Where do you draw the line? An all-powerful invisible being is fine, but his murders or the biblical contradictions with observation must be allegory?

You can't possibly be a follower of the childish god of the old testament, surely. Who is this God you believe in?

I do in fact worship the God who created the universe, who revealed himself to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who chose the people of Isreal as a platform to bless the entire world, and who was ultimately revealed in his son Jesus - who died and rose again. Yup - I'm afraid you're indeed dealing with one of those.

As far as the other things you mentioned, I have mixed feelings. I agree that some of what you say needs to be taken to heart, but I also don't really think you're judging fairly to assess the god of the Old Testament as sadistic and childish. Yes, if you insist on a cynical and suspicious reading of everything, you might come to such a conclusion. But hear me out.

I suggest that much (not all, but much) of what repulses the modern reader of the Old Testament is common to the ancient world. The slavery, the implacable brutality, the severe laws - this was just the cultural mosaic of more or less the entire world back then. I would recommend traveling back in time, and entering the world of the ancients as if you were living in a foreign country today - with your eyes wide open. When you travel abroad, you don't immediately assume that the other culture is inferior just because they do things differently, or in a way that seems worse to you. Rather, you recognize that you need to reserve judgment until you can truly understand this alien world.

So, I recommend you read the Enumma Elish, the Epic of Gilgamesh, The Iliad, the Odyssey, and any other primary ancient text that grabs your interest. Enter into a world where gods rule and mortals tremble, where immortals withhold the gift of eternal life tauntingly out of the grasp of men, and then crush them for their hubris. It is a dramatic and colorful, and yet inescapably tragic world. The gods are pitiless and cold - yes having a few favorites - but utterly merciless toward those who displease them. Ultimately, the gods are in it for themselves and their pleasures - and mortals are at best a fun curiosity, and more often are terrified slaves. Religion has little to do at all with morality, and entire civilizations worship gods whose images are made to look as horrible as the artists can imagine - while the blood of human sacrifices flows down the alter, or screaming babies are cast into roaring fires.

And then read the Bible. Here is a god who creates the world, not out of the castration of his own divine father, but out of nothing by his own command. Here is a god who makes man, not out of the blood of a rival, not as a slave or curiosity, but from his own image - his own stamp on creation. Here is a god who cares about justice - who refuses to tolerate filth and evil even if it is directed towards his own worship. Here is a god who, in the same breath of cursing man for his typical rebellion, promises redemption and refuses to abandon him. Here is a god who chooses a people not because of how great and vast their cities are to build him beautiful temples and wonderful sacrifices, but because he sees within them a faith that will allow him to use them to bless the entire race of man, whom he loves dearly - longingly - passionately. Here is a god who, even when his people reject him to worship other gods, abandons them only as a father disciplines his children - even in the act of punishment planning their redemption. Here is a god, who, unlike Palas Athena, in preparing to destroy a wicked pagan city - sees their repentance and has mercy on them - thinking even of their cattle. Here is a god, finally, whose incarnate face is that of a man mocked, crowned with thorns, and strung up on a cross - dying to give life to his beloved and rebellious people.

It is only after wrestling with this stark contrast, and being amazed at the intense love of the god of the Old Testament, that you can even begin to fairly critique the ugly parts. Otherwise I fear prejudice and cynicism will blind you to the wonder and beauty that is right before your eyes.

You are very welcome to stick around, Chuko - and go through the story with me. Don't hesitate to bring these issues up - they absolutely cannot be ignored. But don't let them keep you from experiencing the most magnificent story ever told.

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