"Disturbing Divine Behavior" by Eric A. Seibert

Eric A. Seibert, Disturbing Divine Behavior: Troubling Old Testament Images of God. Fortress Press, 2009. 260 Pages. 

(Thanks to a good friend for requesting this review, and even offering to buy me the book!)

The bible has long proved both boon and bane alike for its readers, Christians especially. How do we reconcile contradictions in the gospel accounts? What about scientific errors? And who can trust a God as harsh as that which we find in the Old Testament? In the words of Robert Carroll, "if reading the bible does not raise profound problems for you as a modern reader, then check with your doctor and inquire about the symptoms of brain-death." 

Responses to these problems have varied, with some more extreme examples coming from Marcion and Bultmann (to choose a modern and ancient example). Marcion is (in)famous for excising the entire Old Testament from the Christian canon, as he did not believe the God represented therein was in any way compatible with the God revealed in Jesus.  Meanwhile, Bultmann is equally (in)famous for declaring that "we cannot use electric lights and radios and, in the event of illness,  avail ourselves of modern medical and clinical means and at the same time believe in the spirit and wonder world of the New Testament. And if we suppose that we can do so ourselves, we must be clear that we can represent this as the attitude of Christian faith only by making the Christian proclamation unitelligible and impossible for our contemporaries."

There are many more, less extreme, responses to these questions, and in this book Seibert claims to represent one such response to a specific set of these questions. The set should be obvious from the title; troubling portrayals of God in the Old Testament. Seibert has a moral objection to some of God's behavior as it is presented by the Israelites. To solve this problem Seibert suggests that such accounts do not represent God. For example, when we read the conquest narrative in Joshua 6-11, we should know that not only did events not take place as recorded here, but neither did God actually give genocidal commands. These are false representations of God, words put in His mouth by later authors. 

This begs a question. How can we know when a text truly represents God and when it merely represents Israelite history, propaganda, or wishful thinking? It is insufficient to simply expunge what we find morally objectionable. To do so would make our own morality the determining line for biblical truth. Seibert knows this is a problem, and thus proposes a Christological hermeneutic. Jesus is the fullest and most assured revelation of God and therefore whatever is in line with what Jesus has revealed is acceptable. Everything else must go.  

To this line of argument Seibert completes his book with personal stories from students, Hebrew exegesis, some examples, and finally some practical suggestions in dealing with troubling texts.

Unfortunately, Seibert's 'completed' book is severely lacking. Exegetically and historically, this book is full of holes. This is especially true as Seibert attempts to develop a Christological hermeneutic. In order to come up with a standard he can accept he does to the gospels what he has done to the rest of the bible: remove what he doesn't like. In the case of the gospels this is done without justification or due caution. He quotes a few scholars, notes that no New Testament scholar agrees with his own assessment of Jesus as completely non-violent (a standard he insists God live by throughout his entire book) and then pushes ahead anyway. The end result is that Seibert has indeed used his own morality as the final judgement of scripture, all the while denying it. 

In his arguments Seibert is incredibly sloppy. He asserts his conclusions as if they were arguments, merely begging the question instead of proving his answer. This is evident as he argues against ancient methods of exegesis as well as voluntaristic approaches to power and goodness (both arguments in which I agree with Seibert). He sets up straw men which no theologian would accept, such as in his arguments against progressive revelation, and then assumes his point is made when he knocks them down. while speaking briefly about attending to historical and cultural contexts he fails to acknowledge how these might interact with the problem texts he is studying. 

I sympathize with the aim of this text. There are indeed many troubling texts in scripture, particularly in the Old Testament. I even sympathize with the conclusions; it would certainly be easier to cross out what we don't like. But a bad argument is a bad argument, and a bad book is a bad book. This is both. 

Conclusion: 2 of 5 Stars. Not Recommended. If these questions are of interest to you, I have reviewed one excellent book which briefly deals with them: The God I Don't Understand. I will also be reviewing two other books I have been reading with similar subject matter sometime in the near future; one by Walter Bruggemann and one by Paul Copan. Both are worth reading. This book is not. 

1 comment:

Dana Ouellette said...

this seems to be what a lot of christians do anyway. That is pick and choose passages based on their own morality. Which is why i have concluded that christian's generally have reasons external for the bible and want to hate homosexuals and want to see everyone who thinks differently than them be tortured for all eternity.

This is how christianity is done. I don't hear anyone condemning people to hell for wearing nylon/cotton blends, but there it is in the bible strictly forbidden. Lending with interest is strictly forbidden too, and that is in-line with Jesus' teachings about economic justice. But I've never seen christians standing on the street corners with "god hates bankers" signs (no I am not equating all christians with westboro i assume most christians hate those people too).

Yet christians have chosen hell (which isn't even in the text), and hatred of homosexuality as things that are relevant in the modern church. i know there is tradition behind it. But it is a relatively random choice.

Christians tend to ignore that God used women as property having them get raped to punish their husbands, and that he demanded genocide (saul was punished and David became king because saul showed mercy and did not slaughter every man, woman, child and animal; and god could not tolerate mercy). They ignore those passages because the want to, just like they believe homosexuals are tortured for all eternity because they want to.

it's the only logical conclusion i can come too, well that and they are brainwashed by a tradition that wants all homosexuals tortured for eternity.

The solution is obvious. The bible is not a book. It is a random anthology of Jewish and christian writings written by 40-50 (we don't even know) authors over a 2,000+ year period in different countries, cultures and languages. The texts and beliefs represent the culture and desires of that culture and that time period, and it should not be applied directly to today without care. There is nothing wrong with taking a selection of Jesus' teachings and saying they are meaningful to you or that you want to follow them. But it is not because there is even a hint of divine inspiration in such a random mishmash of contradicting teachings. It is because you personally find a select group of 1900 year old teachings meaningful.