Yahweh is Not Exactly Politically Correct


Queen Jezebel Being Eaten By Dogs by Andrea Celesti.

In his study, “Exodus and liberation,” in The Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament, and Historical Criticism (1993), Jon Levenson tells us that when readers of the Bible are faced with the “fact that the message of the text is not what they wish, interpreters of all sorts are tempted to ignore those elements of the Bible that speak against the desired message and to concentrate only on those that can be made to seem to speak for it. I call this ‘the temptation of selective attention’” (p. 138). Levenson is a bit of a saucy guy. He even accuses the Marxist-oriented liberation theology’s reading of the Exodus of selective attention.

One of America’s foremost critics, Chris Hedges, points out in American Fascists: the Christian right and the war on America (2006) that fundamentalists and evangelicals (perhaps all Christians) cherry-pick verses to “conform to their theology and ignoring, distorting the rest” (p. 6). The interpretive process requires dancing cagily and dangerously through the mined textual landscape. Progressives want a God who l0ves justice and prefers the poor over the rich. Right-wing theocrats somehow manage to find appropriate texts to bolster their apocalyptic visions of the bloody and horrific end times.

But what particularly troubles Hedges is that Christians “often fail to acknowledge that there are hateful passages in the Bible that give sacred authority to the rage, self-aggrandizement and intolerance of the Christian Right” (ibid.). But there are “biblical passages that teach compassion and tolerance, often exemplified in the life of Christ, which stands opposed to bigotry and violence” (ibid.). Liberal churches and Unitarians love the latter texts, but few attend their services.

In “If God is dead, is everything permitted?” in Philosophers Without Gods: meditations on atheism and the secular life (2007), Elizabeth Anderson argues trenchantly that if Scripture is accepted as an “inerrant source of knowledge about God and morality,” then “much of what we take to be morally evil is in fact morally permissible and even required.”

Yahweh rampages through the pages of the Old Testament committing ecocide and genocide in the great flood, visits plagues upon the Egyptians, kills all first-born sons, sends two bears in the woods to tear forty-two children to pieces because they made fun of Elisha’s bald head (2 Kings 2: 23-24) and much more. She wonders: “Can all thus cruelty and injustice be excused on the ground that God may do what humans may not?”

The world we now inhabit manifests fierce forms of religious violence. Like volcanic eruptions, terror in the name of God has flamed out everywhere on our good earth. I would like to explore in a few essays some reasons why religion can animate such violence toward the despised other. A good place to start might be to face the textual evidence that Yahweh, the God of Israel, acts violently, counsels violent actions and abuses women. This is not an easy article to write, but here goes.

In his well-known text, Theology of the Old Testament: testimony, disputes and advocacy (1997), Walter Brueggemann has enough guts to face what he calls the “counter-testimony” in the Old Testament (or, put differently, the parts that most Christians selectively excise from their readings).

Walter states clearly: “Israel’s countertestimony makes clear that Yahweh is a God capable of violence, and indeed the texture of the Old Testament is deeply marked by violence” (p. 381). Recall that in Hosea 13:16 Yahweh “condemns the Samarians, telling them that their children will be ‘dashed to the ground, their pregnant women ripped open.’”

Yahweh commands humans to do horrific things. He commands us to put adulterers to death (Lev. 20:10) as well as homosexuals (Lev. 20:13) and people who work on the Sabbath (Ex. 35:2). Blasphemers must be stoned (Lev. 24: 16), prostitutes whose fathers are priests must be burned to death (Lev. 24:16). And Yahweh repeatedly explicitly directs the Israelites to commit ethnic cleansing (Ex. 34: 11-14) and genocide against numerous cities and tribes. This, Anderson states, is just the tip of the iceberg.

Brueggemann thinks we can only acknowledge that God is capable of violence and acts violently and urges others to do so. But we can never sanction it. This is the first of Walter’s problems: this violent God is an integral part of the sacred texts of Judaism and Christianity. If I am a believer, how can I dodge this image of the Mighty Ruler of the Universe? I could embrace Jesus, whose hand put down Peter’s sword in the garden of Gethsemane, but is the Father of the Lord’s Prayer still the violent Yahweh who counsels massacre of the innocents? Can we pray “Hallowed be thy name”?

Brueggemann observes that this particular articulation of negativity brings to our attention three issues of counter-testimony. The first is Yahweh’s enforcement of sovereignty. The texts say that Yahweh works violence to reinforce his sovereignty. Walter thinks that this is one way of understanding the Exodus. Pharaoh is deposed because he is a subject or vassal of Yahweh. So his recalcitrance must be punished; and, boy is it ever! If Yahweh creates the world of some strange fiery, swirling depths, there also seems to be a fiery depth from which he acts against Pharaoh. Even Cecil B. de Mille can’t capture it.

The second issue, “Conquest and settlement,” cuts to the heart of many profoundly troubling issues in our neo-colonial world. I am a Canadian and thus a member of a settler-colonial state that subjugated or conquered its indigenous peoples and stole most of their land. Brueggemann says that in the Old Testament, Yahweh’s violence is especially related to “’conquest’ of the land of promise and the ‘settlement’ of Israel in a land that was already occupied by others” (p. 382).

He does say that Israel tries to “rationalize” this inconvenient fact (Ex. 23: 23-33; Judg. 2:15; 20-23; 3:1-6). But on the whole, Yahweh doesn’t “seem to blink at the violence required” (ibid.). This action does not harmonize with affirmations that Yahweh is “good to all, and his compassion is over all that he has made” (Ps. 145:9).

Clearly, Brueggemann is uneasy before these texts. He rejects various attempts to mollycoddle them. One response from apologists is that Yahweh acts this way because he is so insanely jealous and committed to his first-born child, and will do anything for it. This view assumes “unqualified passion” (ibid.); and may also be seen in the prophetic passages of Hosea, Ezekiel and Jeremiah, where Yahweh as husband treats his adulterous bride rather badly, to say the least.

So it is okay, then, to smack my wife around because I am insanely jealous and don’t like her actions. Another response is that seizing the land-by-violence is an ideological mask uttered by those who want the land and need God’s legitimation.

Walter is more open to the third response. Here the liberation theology paradigm kicks in: that we can expect violence when the landless confront the stronger land-owners. Theologians may bicker about the interface between an ethnic and a class reading. But says our Old Testament scholar, “land-by-violence” is a primary claim for this God. It turns out to be a costly claim for Israel, who learned that the land taken for Israel in violence by Yahweh can also be taken from Israel by Yahweh’s violence” (p. 383).

Brueggemann thinks that: “This testimony, saturated with passion and ideology, permeates Israel’s sense of land, perhaps in a way that not only feeds the militarism of the West, but also is evident in contemporary Israel. No doubt much of nativism in the United States receives some of its theological justification from this tradition. Of course, without Yahweh’s forceful resolve enacted as violence, Israel would have had no core story. It may be that in the long sweep, that the violence of Yahweh can be answered for, but it can hardly be justified” (ibid.).

Notice twinges of equivocation: Walter uses the word “perhaps” to soften the shocking nature of the havoc created by this core story in our world. And the acquisition of Israel’s “core story” almost, but not quite, legitimizes the massacre of the Palestinian inhabitants of the Promised Land.

In my view, Brueggemann has just enough courage as an American theologian to admit that his country’s militarism is grounded in its understanding of itself as a “promised, special land” and Americans as a “chosen, special people.” This parallels contemporary Israel’s self-understanding as a chosen, special people who can do whatever they will to scourge the land of its original inhabits because this is precisely what Yahweh requires of them.

In 2009 the Palestinian organization Kairos published the remarkable document, “A moment of truth: a word of faith, hope and love from the heart of Palestinian suffering.” In this document the Palestinians shout out: “It was an injustice when we were driven out. The West sought to make amends for what Jews had encountered in the countries of Europe, but it made amends on our account and in our land. They tried to correct an injustice and the result was a new injustice.

Furthermore, we know that certain theologians in the West try to attach a biblical and theological legitimacy to the infringement of our rights….The ‘good news” in the Gospel itself became a “harbinger of death” for us. We call on all theologians to deepen their reflection on the Word of God and rectify their interpretations so that they might see the Word of God as a source of life for all people.” The authors of this document counterpoise their universalistic interpretation to the particularistic and politicized narrative of the contemporary state of Israel.

It is now thirty years since Edward Said published his classic essay, “Michael Walzer’s ‘Exodus and Revolution’: a Canaanite reading,” in Grand Street, vol. 5(2), Winter, 1986. Today it still packs punch. For Said, the “most troubling of these [that is, the muting and minimalizing of aspects of the Old Testament] is of course the injunction by God to exterminate their opponent, an injunction that somewhat takes away the aura of progress and national liberation which Walzer is bent upon giving to Exodus.”

Said draws in G.E.M de Ste. Croix’s words from his monumental text, The class struggle in the ancient Greek world (1981): “I can say that I know of only one people which felt able to assert that it actually had a divine command to exterminate whole populations among those it conquered; namely, Israel. Nowadays Christians, as well as Jews, seldom care to dwell on the merciless ferocity of Jahweh, as revealed not by hostile sources but by the very literature they themselves regard as sacred.”

The third and final issue Brueggemann draws out is “Yahweh’s profound irrationality.” When I first read that I winced—what, Yahweh is “irrational”? How could that be? He thinks that this third issue goes beyond “rationality regarding enforced sovereignty or class struggle. There is a profound irrationality about Yahweh, which Yahweh enacts peculiarly against Israel” (p. 383). O my god, I live in a viciously anti-rational world and the sacred text of Judaism and Christianity offers me an irrational, nasty God for my obeisance!

One troubling matter here is that, while we embrace the idea of intimacy—a loving God who sees the little sparrow fall—in the imagery of Hosea, Jeremiah and Ezekiel “permits intimate violence, in which Yahweh is the forceful husband who imposes his way and will on a hapless, defenceless wife” (p. 383). This has led Renita Weems to write a surprisingly judicious book with this title: Battered Love: marriage, sex and violence in the Hebrew prophets (1995).

This “battered love” imagery appears first in Hosea and Jeremiah, but reaches “fullest expression” in Ezekiel (see chapters 16, 20 and 23). Ezekiel 16 is a horrific, even pornographic vile account of what Yahweh intends to do to his whoring bride and her lovers: expose and destroy them in a vicious manner.

Brueggemann exclaims that in Ezekiel “Yahweh’s mad passion for Israel has turned to the kind of irrational destructiveness that appears to be driven by sexuality embedded in violence, or violence embedded in sexuality…” (p. 383).

Using the tools of historical-criticism and literary analysis, Weems argues that these male prophets drew a dramatic and lurid allegorical link between Israel as bride who forsook her husband. This helps a little: but can one cast away the patriarchal husk and battering love (that is, rape)—language used by these ancient men of limited horizon to extract the pearl of truth? Still, how do we account for the image of a “Yahweh out of control”? This seems more demonic than anything else.

Brueggemann goes on to observe that in exilic Isaiah, “Yahweh’s massive act of destroying Jerusalem appears to be the work of a wronged lover who determines to humiliate, and finally, to destroy the erstwhile object of love. It is noteworthy that in all of these cases the fury is spent and Yahweh returns to recover the relationship. Irrevocable damage has been done, however, and the testimony lingers on” (p. 384).

Brueggemann wishes that these texts “had not been given is, that they had been expunged from the record” (ibid.). However, Walter then turns abruptly from facing the darkness of these texts and the fact that they had been consciously chosen for inclusion. This at least means that the Old Testament presents us with a violent God who urges Israel (and all others imagining the country they are colonizing is a Promised Land) sacred legitimation for using “holy violence” to purge the land of its impurities and inferior sinners. It also sacralized the American delusion that they are the “city upon the hill” and “light unto all nations”.

The best Walter can do is to extrapolate the principle that Yahweh really, really loves Israel (Deut. 7: 7-8a; 10:15) and cannot tolerate any other lovers. In fact, Walter’s critical sensibility completely collapses when he states: “I have no wish to justify or tone down this violent love which ‘always hurts the one it loves’” (p. 385).

In the end, Brueggemann does not want to “tone these texts down” and leaves us paralyzed and bewildered before his interpretive permission to even speak of such a thing as “violent love.” We usually call this rape.

Michael Welton retired from Athabasca University.  His recent books include Unearthing Canada’s Hidden Past: a Short History of Adult Education and Adult Education a Precarious Age: The Hamburg Declaration revisited.