Speaking (not so) well of God
he God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.”1 So says Richard Dawkins, for whom God is a “moral monster.” Christopher Hitchens echoes the claim, entitling his own book God is Not Great.
One expects such bluster from over-confident atheists. More troubling are Christian biblical scholars and theologians who similarly stumble over biblical passages that speak of God’s jealousy, anger, grief and other emotions, and who speak of God not as a moral monster but as an emotional wreck.
How can pastors and others speak well of God in the light of biblical texts that depict God as having emotions, especially “negative” emotions? May we depart from the classical tradition’s affirmation of God’s divine impassibility (i.e., his imperviousness to suffering), as many today are inclined to do, and say instead that God suffers change? Or does this move confuse the God of the Old and New Testament with the gods of pagan myths, or worse, ourselves?
For various reasons, the doctrine of God is once again center Evangelical stage. This time the problem is not divine foreknowledge (as in Open Theism) but divine emotion, though the underlying issue is still the nature of the God who is love (1 Jn. 4:8). Does God’s love entail emotional change (i.e., suffering)? Contemporary opinion is divided. Hence the perennial challenge of theology: to speak well (i.e., truly; biblically; coherently; intelligibly) of the God of the gospel.
What biblical authors say
Last year’s Society of Biblical Literature annual meeting featured a provocative session on “The God Ezekiel wants us to meet.” Like Dawkins, a number of the scholars in that group view the God of Ezekiel as a narcissistic, self-absorbed, and ruthless deity – a jealous husband marked by an obsessive fear “that no one is going to know who he is.”2 Some go even further, viewing God as an abusive husband so jealous of his holy name (Ezek. 39:25) that he is willing to punish Israel.3 Consider, for example, God’s promise to spare a remnant so that they would remember “how I was crushed by their unfaithful heart that has departed from me” (Ezek. 6:9).
The second commandment forbids idolatry because “I the Lord your God am a jealous God” (Ex. 20:5). Jealousy is a passion aroused when a loving relationship is threatened. This is why it is deeply woven into the story of God’s covenant with Israel. The Hebrew term for jealousy (qanna) is based on an Arabic root qn that means “to become intensely red” – no doubt a reference to the effects of anger or deep feeling on one’s facial complexion. Hence my question: is being jealous — red-faced — a divine perfection?
The New Testament does not say whether or not Jesus was ever red-faced, but it does attribute emotion to him: “he was deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled.… Jesus wept” (Jn. 11:33, 35). The eternal word of God has a human face. We don’t know what his face looked like as he cried “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me,” but it could well have been flushed. Scripture thus depicts both Yahweh and Yeshua as red--faced: in turmoil, even, in Jesus’ case, on the verge of despair. We can understand that: he was about to be crushed for our iniquities (Isa. 53:5). But can God himself – immortal, invisible – be crushed as well and, if so, does this mean that God despairs? Does a red--faced, jealous God sing the blues?
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