The Cruel God of the Hebrew Bible
This is a response to Hank Pellissier’s essay on the cruelty of God. My friend Lincoln has already written a response about theism in general, but I wanted to say something about the portrayal of the Hebrew scriptures as a testament to bloodlust.
I am a Christian, and a lot of my Christian friends simply dismiss the Hebrew scriptures (the “Old Testament”) out of hand. So there is no need for me to defend it, no need for me to present it as something other than the record of a primitive tribe’s violent impulses.
So this is not apologetics, but something I truly and deeply see:
The Hebrew scriptures are one of the most beautiful and nuanced collections of literature the world has ever produced.
Yes, much of it is violent. It records the history of a violent world, and of a necessarily violent people within that world. There is no excusing that violence. There is no minimizing the horror of that violence.
But to stop with that realization is to miss what these people, in the midst of dark and hopeless circumstances, did. Most of them were writing from the position of slaves, exiles, or vagabonds. Most of them were in the position of looking at power from the outside. And so, as they wrote and collected their histories and genealogies, they wove together the most thorough indictment of violence and corruption the world has ever seen.
Like all great literature, these stories don’t tell, they show. They pull back the curtain and show us the truth - and they expect us to be able to come to our own conclusions.
One of the most obvious examples of this is the story of Abraham and the sacrifice of Isaac.
Up to this point, Abraham had seen his god as being like every other god in the world - petty, demanding, and hungry for blood. And so when Yahweh asked Abraham to sacrifice his son, Abraham knew that this was the cost of having divine protection.
The scene had played itself out a thousand times. A father leads his son to the altar, raises the knife, and strikes. The body is offered to the god, and the god is pleased.
But when Abraham raised his knife, God stopped him.
The ancient Jews would have read this as a rejection of human sacrifice. Their God had refused to accept human flesh. Not only that, but Abraham had been stopped at the point of the kill - the point where he could see and contemplate just what he had been about to do. This was not an intellectual rejection of human sacrifice - it was a rejection that was supposed to sink deep into the psyche of every parent in Israel.
But more than that, they would have understood that Isaac, their father, was the one almost killed. Every other deity championed the strong, the warriors, the ones who held the knife. Every other people claimed descent from someone who had murdered his way to the top. But the Jews claimed descent from someone who was almost the victim.
This story served to generate empathy. Every time a Jew raised a knife, he could not help but see himself as potentially killing the chosen son. And every time a human was led to the slaughter, a Jew could not help but think about their own origins, and how that could have easily been them.
For this reason, the Hebrew scriptures give us some of the most sober story-telling anywhere. Rather than glorify and exaggerate the qualities of their leaders, they systematically unveil their flaws, corruption, and crimes. Rather than suggesting that the victims “deserved it”, they show us that the ones being killed by Jewish heroes were actually innocent.
The more we look into this, the more amazing it is. Moses, Solomon, David - all of their sordid affairs, murders, and conspiracies are clearly laid out. The more highly regarded a figure is in Jewish culture, the more the text focuses on their corruption. Rather than justifying their actions or their violence, the text lays out just how bad it really was. Rather than suggesting that these leaders were “in the right”, it shows us that they were unquestionably in the wrong.
Thus the profound irony of seeing the Hebrew bible as a book of violence and bloodlust. All of these things are there because the authors are trying to capture and expose the unflinching truth of their world - a world in which everyone was involved in murder and scapegoating. They include violence not to condone it, but to reflect it back, so that the world could see its horror.
I find this deeply inspiring. In the midst of immeasurable violence, they dared to think that humanity was not meant to live in violence. Instead, they gave us a mythology in which humans were made to live in peace and in ongoing creation and innovation. They asserted that the world of human sacrifice and warfare was temporary and unnatural.
This is the true basis for the “unrealistically” loving God of the New Testament. It is what Jesus saw when he read the scriptures - what convinced him to completely reject violence himself. And this is why he went to the cross - not to appease an angry god, but as an attempt to overpower the imperial system of violence with his own compassion.
Within a few hundreds years, both crucifixion and the system of ancient human sacrifice were completely gone. And humanity was on the way to realizing what the Hebrew scriptures had asserted: that violence was not an inescapable part of the human condition, but something to be rejected and pushed back as humanity moved forward.
It is unfortunate that Christians have done so little to publicize these characteristics of the Hebrew bible. But this is not an isolated or new understanding. René Girard has done a great deal of scholarly work on it. Jesus himself made clear that this is how he read the scriptures.
While the New Testament says what it means “out loud”, the Hebrew scriptures show us the truth in a way that has the power to change our mentality, to generate empathy and compassion.
And this is the final irony. Many modern readers, upon confronting the Jewish text, recoil in horror at the violence they see there. The irony is that this is exactly what the original authors intended.