plotting plotz on the bible

From an interview by The Daily Beast with David Plotz on his new book Good Book (which grew out of his original blogging the Bible series).

I’m definitely not a better person by the standards of any rabbi. I never went to synagogue much but I certainly haven’t increased my attendance. But I think I’m a better Jew in one sense. I realized that the God of the Hebrew Bible is a very difficult character. He’s erratic, he’s vindictive, he’s not merciful…. He promotes genocide. He smites often just for the joy of smiting. As a reader and as a Jew it was disturbing to find that this God was not a God of love and mercy and justice.

If that is what God is, then why would you want to have a God like that? If you’re Christian, the New Testament resolves that; God is much more merciful and good and just. But if you’re a Jew, you don’t have that. The tradition in Judaism, and I think Good Book is distinctly part of this, because everything is so difficult and morally confusing, we just spend a lot of time arguing about it. The great tradition in Judaism is all this Torah commentary, the Talmud and stories from the Torah. … That’s why Jews predominate in the argumentative professions. Because we’re given this book which is not obviously a guide to morality and the guide to a loving God.

So in that sense I do think I’m a better Jew. In the sense that I am now on high alert and in a fight with the Bible and in a fight with God and struggling with questions that it raises. Basic fundamental moral questions about what God should do and what’s just, our moral responsibility.

My only real disagreement with what Plotz has here is that he just flatly states, the God of the Hebrew Bible is….as opposed to my [his] interpretation of God is that God is…

I’m not out to dismiss the point Plotz is making, namely the God of the Hebrew Bible as my Old Testament professor was fond of saying, “is not a nice guy.”  All of the references Plotz makes about God at various points advocating genocide and the like are valid. But there are also parts he is leaving out (hence my point that he is mistakingly equating his interpretation with “how God really is” in The Bible).

Perhaps the most classic expression of this dual nature of the God of Israel is from the Prophet Hosea:

6‘Come, let us return to the Lord;
for it is he who has torn, and he will heal us;
he has struck down, and he will bind us up.
2After two days he will revive us;
on the third day he will raise us up,
that we may live before him.
3Let us know, let us press on to know the Lord;
his appearing is as sure as the dawn;
he will come to us like the showers,
like the spring rains that water the earth.’

Except that the Lord coming to us isn’t necessarily always a good thing (“it’s he who has torn”).  But coming apparently whether you like it or not.  In fact the entire book of Hosea is full of simultaneously the most disturbing graphic imagery imaginable as well as some of the tenderest, most loving, most moving.

For example:

2:2

2Plead with your mother, plead—
for she is not my wife,
and I am not her husband—
that she put away her whoring from her face,
and her adultery from between her breasts,
3or I will strip her naked
and expose her as in the day she was born,
and make her like a wilderness,
and turn her into a parched land,
and kill her with thirst.

And from the following section (2:14)

14Therefore, I will now persuade her,
and bring her into the wilderness,
and speak tenderly to her…

18I will make for you a covenant on that day with the wild animals, the birds of the air, and the creeping things of the ground; and I will abolish the bow, the sword, and war from the land; and I will make you lie down in safety. 19And I will take you for my wife for ever; I will take you for my wife in righteousness and in justice, in steadfast love, and in mercy. 20I will take you for my wife in faithfulness; and you shall know the Lord.

Plotz’s wrestling is a good (holy and wholly Jewish) thing.  But (at least in the book tour interviewing I’ve seen) he only so far seems to be wrestling with the dark side of God.  He might also wrestle (like Jacob) with the Light Side of God. iow, The God who is not nice is capable of both total terror and total love.  This is why this God, according to Harold Bloom’s analysis, is the most complex, compelling character in Western literature.

To be fair, Plotz’s blogging series had more in the way of this both/and quality.  But certainly over the course his reading he came to see this character (God) as more despicable, which is undoubtedly his prerogative and God knows there is plenty of evidence to back up his assertion, but it is still an interpretation, his interpretation, not simply the final word on the matter.

I do however radically disagree with Plotz’s characterization of the God in the New Testament.  By his own admission this really isn’t his area of study, but nevertheless since he made the argument he makes I think it’s worth criticizing/correcting it.  Plotz says that God in the New Testament is all lovey-dovey and just and wonderful and cleans up any potential misgivings we would have about Adonai Elohim, the God of the Hebrew Bible.  But this is manifestly wrong.  The God Jesus worshiped as Abba (“Loving Father”) was the God of the Hebrew Bible.  There was no New Testament for Jesus.  Jesus was a Jew not a Christian.  He was worshipping that God.  Plotz is here actually committing an ancient (and weirdly Christian) heresy called Marcionism which says that the God of the (by Christian standards) Old Testament is evil and cruel and the God of the New Testament–who in Marcion’s mind was a different God–is a God of Love and Mercy.

This nice vs. evil God is far too simplistic and wrong in just about every way possible.  What Christians call The New Testament is actually best thought of as a series of commentaries on what for them was The Scriptures or if you like The Bible (what Christians today call The Old Testament).  They did not think that their writings were going into something called a canon or a Bible or would be called a New Testament–which as you can see therefore is horribly misnamed.  It’s not a New Testament but more like the Epilogue to The Testament.  The Marcionist tendency is symptomatic of Christians misnaming their Scriptures a “New” Testament (and hence creating an “Old” one).

Taking up a Harold Bloom thread again (with a theological assist from Margaret Barker), Jesus is the recapitulation/re-telling of the story of Adonai (Yahweh) Elohim.  He is the re-telling of the God of the Hebrew Bible.  He is God “coming” in the Prophet Hosea’s words, again to the people.  Who will similarly tear up some aspects of our being (e.g. injustice to the poor) and bind up others (desire to be with God).

When Christians say “Jesus is Lord”, the word Lord is the word used of God in the Hebrew Bible (“Lord Yahweh”).  Jesus then (if only in a literary sense) then should display the same dual-sided characteristics as Yahweh God.

As a very simple example,  Matthew Ch. 23:

15Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you cross sea and land to make a single convert, and you make the new convert twice as much a child of hell as yourselves.

25 ‘Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and of the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. 26You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup, so that the outside also may become clean.

27 ‘Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and of all kinds of filth. 28So you also on the outside look righteous to others, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.

Or Revelation 14:14

14 Then I looked, and there was a white cloud, and seated on the cloud was one like the Son of Man, with a golden crown on his head, and a sharp sickle in his hand! 15Another angel came out of the temple, calling with a loud voice to the one who sat on the cloud, ‘Use your sickle and reap, for the hour to reap has come, because the harvest of the earth is fully ripe.’ 16So the one who sat on the cloud swung his sickle over the earth, and the earth was reaped.

Not exactly Jesus meek and mild to say the least.

The reason I think this sense of struggling into both sides of the depiction of God in The Bible is that (by my lights) many if not most of the most cruel and abominable acts committed are committed by people invoking religion (particularly this God of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) as well as the most transcendent, mystical, and saintly beings in the history of humanity. The most pioneering, prophetic, wondrous, and enlightened souls also invoke religion and of the Abrahamic lineage, The God of The Bible.  Somehow that paradox seems wrapped up in the very depiction (if not nature) of God.  Others will come to a different view, but I think the fairest read of the data is that both are always operative (if not sadly in equal measure).

If we want to slacken and misunderstand that terrible paradoxical mystery, then like Christopher Hitchens we would just take the first half of that previous sentence and spend the rest of our lives on quixiotic adventures to prove that the Mother Theresas of the world were actually quite sinister beings at worst and at best didn’t believe in God anyway.  He has to explain away the saints in other words to prove his thesis.  Plotz is far far more subtle than a Hitchens,  he has a better sense of the language and the possibility whatever one’s view of the God image for The Bible to contain some of the most profound artistry and literary achievement as well as being at the core of so much of Western culture (politically, legally, historically, artistically, spiritually).

The battle that Jews have with God is, contra Plotz, the same battle Christians should have, since this is the same God.

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2 thoughts on “plotting plotz on the bible

  1. I have a friend who is reading the Bible for the first time and is consistently amazed at the cruelty displayed by God. She points to God hardening the heart of Pharoah, for example. Pharoah says “fine, leave, fine”, then God says “wait, we’ve only done half the plagues!” and then Pharoah says “nope, you guys are staying”. Crops die, animals die, children die.

    “Why would you worship a God like that?” she asks.

    I tried to tell her that she probably shouldn’t read The Bible with the mindset of a 21st Century post-theistic, post-feminist, post-racial transnationalist. It’d be like reading Beowolf and thinking that it was awfully callous toward the welfare of animals.

    (Unnecessary disclosure: I am an atheist.)

    God is a reflection of life and the people who worship. When life was much, much closer to the Hobbesnian state of nature (Genesis), God was seen as capricious but mostly good. When governments got into the picture, God became a bit of a jerk. Once government bureaucracy the size of Rome entered the picture, not even God could handle the evil and they had to go dualist and invent a devil who could explain exactly the depth and breadth of wickedness that committees were capable of committing.

    God’s evolution in the Bible is half of the story of Western Civ.

    I still think that the parts of the Bible that blow me away are not the ones where God is partisan on behalf of the Israelites (or against them) but the parts in Genesis 1 where he looks upon Creation and calls it “Good”. Wow. What a wonderful building block upon which to found a civilization.

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