The History Channel's violent God

April 2, 2013
Still from History's The Bible. Photo credit: Joe Alblas

Without intending to, I turned to the History Channel’s The Bible recently and saw the birth of Moses, the slaughter of Hebrew babies and the rescue of baby Moses from the river. I experienced discomfort bordering on revulsion at the occasional exaggeration of the biblical narrative, yet I kept watching as Moses killed an Egyptian guard who was beating a slave and fled into the wilderness looking like Norman Mailer after a night of drinking, brawling and carousing. There he encountered Yahweh in a burning bush that reminded me of a fireworks display over Navy Pier in Chicago.

Along with millions of other viewers, I saw Moses return to the palace to confront the new pharaoh. The Passover angel of death moved through the city streets in a creeping fog that reminded me of the fog of mosquito insecticide that spewed from city trucks years ago. Then the Red Sea parted in the nick of time for the Hebrews before it flooded back to drown Pharaoh’s pursuing army. There was death and destruction everywhere, all orchestrated and carried out by God.

Who could believe in a God like this? Who could believe in a God who orders his people to destroy the inhabitants of Canaan, making certain that everyone is dead, just to make way for God’s people?

The problem with The Bible and most media representations of the biblical story is that they are so literal. In the effort to get the details of the story right, the storyteller misses the point. Over the years, most of us come to an accommodation with biblical texts that stretch the imagination—particularly those texts that portray God as vengeful, angry and murderous. We parse the Red Sea story as a myth, a story that reveals an important truth about God and human beings. Maybe the Red Sea was a swamp; maybe the pursuing Egyptian chariots became mired in the mud; maybe the people of God told the story of their ancestors’ unlikely escape from Egypt and added details with each retelling. But for most of us the point is not the story; the point is the gracious providence of God, which operates in history as hope and justice and love.

Richard Rohr, a Franciscan who directs the Center for Action and Contemplation in Albuquerque, New Mexico (and writes a fine daily meditation online), offers a working hermeneutic for interpreting scripture. In regard to any text, Rohr proposes: “If you see God operating at a lesser level than the best person you know, then the text is not authentic revelation.” If God is love (1 John 4:16), then no person could be more loving than God, Rohr says. “God is never less loving than the most loving person you know.”

Most of us, like Rohr, do not believe, cannot believe, that God told the Hebrew people to kill everyone who got in their way. No doubt the Hebrews did commit horrible acts; history is full of such stories. But the voice they heard wasn’t God’s voice.

It’s a sad reality that many continue to believe that God orchestrates death, destruction and human suffering and orders people to kill. That, in my mind, is a gross and harmful distortion.


Thank You for Helpful Editorial

I am grateful for Buchanan's comments on the History Channel series.  Surely those among us who follow Jesus and his way cannot say that Jesus is a window to God and at the same time accept the violence attributed to God in such media epics.  The Bible, for Christians, is interpreted through the Incarnation and God is understood by looking at Jesus.  With such lenses, we see the violent god to be function of tribal myth, a warning against religion that embraces nationalism, and a teaching about how not to think of God.  Because an ancient writer attributed such acts to God does not mean that God is responsible for them.

By the way, I agree with Rohr, and the best person I know is Jesus.  God is at least that good.

Interesting thought

Ever since reading Ezekiel 6, I've wondered about the "up close and personal" interaction a prophet receives as a prophet, how it might be a bit overwhelming, and how it might take some getting used to, while at the same time, the mind of the Lord, or at least his direction, would be quite clear.  When Samuel hewed Agag in pieces, it must still be viewed through the lens of Ezekiel 6.  Reading up on Roman history has left me with the impression that a lot of the past was quite brutal, much more than we generally experience in the U.S. and Canada and Europe, though elsewhere in the world we see it still exists, even in places where the veneer of supposed civilization is quite thin.  While I'd agree that the brutality (and evil) then and still in the world is likely to be extremely offensive before God, how is it stopped?  By our turning a blind eye to it, or stopping it (fighting, if need be)?   Good people still need to intervene when necessary.  Regardless of the rhetoric flying around, there is still truly a difference between good and evil.  If the then Egyptian army walked into danger by the leader's will and perished, why is that laid before God as something negative?  When those not of God orchestrate death in God's name, that has to be something venal.  If a prophet is required of God to do something unpopular, he may have to live with the popular consequences (and many had, according to Matthew 24:37). Finaly, since this is about a media presentation, how much over-dramatization was Hollywood?

Latent Supersessionsism and Bad Speculative Theology

Although I usually appreciate John Buchanan's editorials, his adoption of Rohr's interperpretive principle -- “If you see God operating at a lesser level than the best person you know, then the text is not authentic revelation--” is a dangerous combination of latent supersessionism, bad speculative theology and anthromorphic projection.  It is latent supersessionism because it requires labelling those vast portions of Hebrew Scriptures in which God operates "at a lesser level than the best person you know"  as "not authentic revelation", while retaining most of the Christian Scriptures as authentic revelation, since Jesus Christ usually acts much "better" than God does in the Hebrew Scriptures. It is bad, although ancient, speculative theology because it assumes that God must be immutable throughout time despite the numerous passages of the Hebrew Scriptures and New Testament in which God changes his mind and his character over time.  It is anthromorphic projection because it assumes that Buchanan and Rohr's view of "the best person you know" in our particular time, place and culture  is properly projected not only on to past cultures, but on to God.   And, it is even bad for Christian soteriology and hope, for if God has never been violent, how is it possible that he understands our violence and can redeem us?   

It seems to me that several alternative hermeneutic strategies are possible: 1)  God's appearance as love in the form we now know him -- Jesus--, would not have been recognized in ancient times as "love," but as immorality and weakness, at least until the prophets and other scriptures against unjust uses of power in the Hebrew Scriptures had developed; 2) that, as Jack Miles has argued his works, the God of the Hebrew Scriptures changed his mind about violence as he saw the harm his authorized violence inflicted on innocents, which although initially for the greater good in his covental love with Israel, no longer was when Israel's power became greater, the propthets' critiques more trenchant and Job's questions of God about justice more probing; or 3) God wants us to blame him for judgment and violence if it "saves" us from inflicting it on one another and creation in a never-ending cycle of revenge.  

In any event, the flawed editorial indicates just how much the church needs, as former Archbishop Rowan Williams stated (in particular reference to debates on human sexuality and committed gay relationships in the Anglican communion), to focus its efforts on developing hermeneutic principlesof Biblical interpretation and application to modern theology, ethics, economics and politics.  We must move beyond Biblical "proof-texting" (or "delete-texting" in Buchanan and Rohr's case) to support our own individual predilections about what the Bible means, what God is like, and the pursuit of God's will for all of creation.  Only the church, and God, can help us do that together.

Dan Orfield

Houston, TX



Letter from Frank C. Senn

John Buchanan “cannot believe that God told the Hebrew people to kill everyone who got in their way” (“The Bible’s violent God,” April 17). Apparently, neither could the Hebrew people believe it.

According to the Deuteronomic history, the problem was that the Israelites did not totally annihilate all the Canaan­ites in the promised land as ordered. As a result they settled down among them and fell into syncretism that violated the covenant with Yahweh, drew the wrath of God’s prophets and led to their dispersion and exile. That is the biblical story, and we need to deal with it, perhaps using the spiritual interpretations developed by the church fathers. They at least took God seriously.

The problem with Richard Rohr’s hermeneutic is that his standard is “the best person you know.” Isaiah said that our best is but a filthy rag compared with God’s holiness. If the text is hard, dig deeper.

Frank C. Senn

Evanston, Ill.

Letter from Stuart Gordon

Buchanan chooses one proof text as his hermeneutical principle, 1 John 4:16. A good rule it is; but he ignores the scripture principle (openness to the whole Word of God, not just selected parts of it) and the christo­logical principle (God’s self-

revelation in Christ). Surely there is more to Christ than “God is love.” The Beatles could have told us that. Is God not just?

Buchanan also ignores the rule of faith, the respect for the church’s past and present interpretation of scripture. If “most of us” means “today’s people who are right about these things,” then he dismisses not only the saints of the past but those who disagree with him today. In effect, he elevates his own personal convictions above the witness of the church universal.

Stuart Gordon

Nashville, Tenn.

Letter from Freda Scales

Your re-creation of God is of a God who is insipid and spineless, a God whose chutzpah is no greater than a wet noodle.

Freda Scales

Valparaiso, Ind.

Letter from Dan Orfield

Although I usually appreciate John Buchanan’s editorials, his adoption of Richard Rohr’s interpretive principle about understanding violence in the Bible (“The Bible’s violent God,” April 17)--“If you see God operating at a lesser level than the best person you know, then the text is not authentic revelation”--is a dangerous combination of latent supersessionism, bad speculative theology, cultural hegemony and anthropomorphic projection.

It is latent supersessionism because it requires labeling those substantial and significant portions of Hebrew scriptures in which God operates “at a lesser level than the best person you know” as “not authentic revelation.” It is bad, although ancient, speculative theology because it assumes that God as love is immutable throughout time, based on his “perfection,” despite the numerous passages of the Hebrew Scrip­tures and the New Testament in which God changes his mind and the nature of his “love” over time in response to human concerns and problems. It reinforces Western cultural norms because it assumes that “the best person you know” in our particular time, place and culture is the minimum standard for God, even though “the best person you know” would likely share few if any qualities with the best person an ancient Israelite or members of some other culture would know. And it is an anthropomorphic projection contrary to Genesis, for God declared his creation “good” even though violence has been an essential element of creaturely existence since well before humans appeared on the scene. 

The editorial thus points to the church’s need, as former Archbishop Rowan Williams stated (referring to debates on human sexuality), to develop hermeneutic principles and apply them to modern theology, ethics, economics and politics. We must move beyond biblical “proof-texting” (or “delete-texting” in Buchanan and Rohr’s case) which merely supports our own individual predilections about what the Bible means, what God is like, and what the pursuit of God’s will for all of creation entails. We need the church, and God, to help us do that interpretive work together.

Dan Orfield

Houston, Tx.

Letter from Jenny Hawkins

I  thought the atheist scientists had the corner on arrogance these days, but you prove me wrong: Christians still have a sufficiency of their own. “The Bible’s violent God” proves that. Is it not one of the basic tenets of Christianity that God meets us where we are and not where we should be? The world of 4,000 years ago was a different, more violent place--one we cannot fully understand from our modern, relatively secure position. Even beginning history students know not to judge the past based on modern standards, because we are all influenced by our times, and we do not have the knowledge of that location in time to fully understand them: we have not walked in their shoes. Yet you judge the “authentic revelation” of those you never knew based on who God

is allowed to be for you and who he is

not allowed to be for you.

When speaking of the veracity of the man who claimed to have gone to heaven, Paul said, “I don’t know, only he knows.” There is humility in that admission of a limit to human understanding and there is acknowledgment that God is beyond our ability to categorize by human standards. Perhaps Rohr and Buchanan should focus more on that.

Jenny Hawkins

Mobile, Ala.