My Ways Are Not Your Ways: The Violent Portrayal of God in the Hebrew Bible

There was a fascinating conference sponsored by the University of Notre Dame Center for Philosophy of Religion at the beginning of September. The title of the conference was, “My Ways Are Not Your Ways: The Character of the God of the Hebrew Bible.”

The conference examined the troubling portrayals of God in the Hebrew Bible — something which I am very interested in since that will be the focus of one of my courses I am teaching next semester. Here is the write up for the conference:

Adherents of the Abrahamic religious traditions contend that human beings are made in the image of God and that modeling the character of God in one’s life represents the pinnacle of human flourishing and moral perfection. Defenders of this tradition commonly point to passages in the canonical texts of the Jewish and Christian faiths that portray God as loving, merciful, patient, etc. in support of such a position. Since the seventeenth century, however, numerous critics of these Abrahamic traditions have argued that God, especially in the Hebrew Bible, is often portrayed as anything but a moral role model. On the one hand, historical narratives in these texts describe God apparently committing, ordering, or commending genocide, slavery, and rape among other moral atrocities. On the other hand, a number of commands purportedly issued by God seem to commend bigotry, misogyny, and homophobia. In recent days, similar criticisms of the Abrahamic traditions have been raised by philosophers (Daniel Dennett), scientists (Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris), social commentators (Christopher Hitchens), and others.

Are these apparent commendations and commands of the Hebrew Bible consistent with the claim that the Abrahamic God is perfectly good and loving? Those defending this tradition have two avenues of response open to them. The first response would be to argue that the aforementioned troubling narratives or commands should simply be rejected. Those taking this approach would have to explain how they think such passages could be rejected without placing in peril the Abrahamic religions, which have traditionally claimed that the Hebrew Bible is, represents, or contains the inspired word of God. The second response would offer explanations aiming to show that the apparently untoward consequences can be avoided without rejecting the narratives or commands. Those taking this approach must explain either why the untoward consequences do not follow, or why they are not, in the end untoward.

However, while defenders of this tradition have both routes available to them, few of these defenders seem to have taken the challenge to heart. Despite these recent, forthright criticisms, only a handful of theologians or philosophers in these traditions have sought to respond to the criticisms.

The present conference aims to remedy this deficiency, taking as its focus the charge that the Abrahamic tradition should be rejected because of its foundation in the Hebrew Bible, which portrays God as immoral and vicious. The presenters and commentators include philosophers—both theistic and nontheistic—as well as Biblical scholars.

The conference had an impressive list of speakers, including Christopher Seitz, Nicholas Wolterstorff, James L. Crenshaw, among others. And if you were not able to attend the conference (as I), we can still enjoy the papers and interaction via the web!

Here is the program with links to the videos:

Thursday, September 10, 2009:

Friday, September 11, 2009:

Saturday, September 12, 2009:

I encourage you to check out the papers!

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