[EDITOR'S NOTE: The following six-part series of blogs are adapted from a paper I wrote this year in my Pentateuch class with Dr. John Goldingay at Fuller Theological Seminary. These thoughts are not meant to be the final word on the matter, nor to form a sort of apologetic against atheists. This is not material for an argument. It is simply a response based on a closer reading of the Torah-- the first five books of the Bible. My hope is that it will help Christians avoid simplistic views about the "God of the Old Testament."]
Richard Dawkins, perhaps the most influential atheist of our generation, wrote in his book, The God Delusion:
“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."
Dawkins’ claims are bold and sweeping, but we will deal with them one by one. Before doing so, however, we must deal with how Dawkins names the God revealed in the Old Testament. To Dawkins, He is simply “The God of the Old Testament,” but within the Old Testament this is not how He is named. Such a name, for obvious reasons, would not make any sense. “God” in the Old Testament is not a generic, abstract, absolute deity. He is the revealed God, the Creator-God, the God who made a covenant with Abraham and Israel, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. His covenant name—His revealed identity—is YHWH, not simply “Elohim.” This, I think, is the point Goldingay is trying to make when he refuses the term “mono-theism” to describe Israel’s faith. What God commands in the Torah is not simply monotheism—the worship of one god—but YHWH-sim—the worship of YHWH and YHWH alone. Every one of Dawkins impressions about YHWH, then, must be examined not in the abstract, but in the context of YHWH’s covenant relationship with Israel.
The Torah—or Pentateuch—provides the perfect environment for this exploration because in it we find information about YHWH the Creator-God and YHWH the Covenant-God. Moreover, the stories are not tame. The Torah does not give us air-brushed stories of how lovely the world is, nor does it give us morality tales of how the world should be. It simply shows us the world as it is, with all the ugliness of hatred and murder, lust and envy, adultery and seduction, betrayal and manipulation. Genesis 1-11 show all these elements at work, as if to show that from the beginning humanity rebelled and brought the infection of sin into the world, and that the infection spreads quickly. But the Torah also shows how the Creator-God is working in the midst of it, calling a people for Himself, working in them to redeem them, and working through them to redeem the whole world. Genesis 12 and 15 form the hinge-point in the story and foreshadow this hope of redemption in the calling of and covenant with Abraham. We will explore Dawkins claims, then, in the light of what the Torah reveals about YHWH, dealing with each claim separately.
Claim #1: “God of the Old Testament is... jealous and proud of it..."-- Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion
Is God Jealous and Proud of It?
The first is that God is “jealous and proud of it.” To tackles this claim, we must first explore what we mean by “jealousy.” When humans speak of being jealous, they think of a boyfriend or a girlfriend who does not like it when their partner spends time with anyone other then them; or they envision a stalker ex-boyfriend or girlfriend who wants them back and resorts to all sorts of crazy and manipulative tactics to do so. In short, human jealousy is wanting what we do not have.
For YHWH—the Creator-God and Covenant-God—jealousy is wanting what He already has. Israel is His people twice over. The point of the Genesis narrative is to demonstrate that Israel’s God is the one who made everything. Genesis 1 and 2 set out to show YHWH as the good, loving creator who made the world on purpose and for His pleasure. When Genesis records the account of God’s calling of Abraham, we are meant to see that this choosing of Abraham is so that God can have a people for Himself. Moreover, this choosing is a gift. It rescues Abraham from what seems to be a lost and ignorant state, and sets him on a trajectory. For this reason, we cannot simply explore divine jealousy as simply the “God of the Old Testament” being jealous; we must see it as Israel’s God being jealous for Israel, His Israel. The Torah tells us that YHWH created Israel, YHWH chose Israel, and YHWH made covenant with Israel, binding himself to them and them to Him. In that light, God’s jealousy is a display of faithful, loyal love—which is, indeed, something of which to be proud.