… you can’t say you weren’t warned.
I will only say two things at the outset in my defense: (1) being Skeptic-In-Residence, like being a member of SEAL Team 6, makes it impossible to always sing Kumbaya and "play nice with others," founding Skeptics John the Baptist and Jesus having set the precedent by calling people, respectively, “Generation of snakes” and “Sons of your father, the Devil”; and (2) crucial parts of this column are phrased, not as declarative sentences, but as questions, i.e., as issues to be ruminated upon without necessarily being resolved … and therefore, not as diktats, but as invitations to reflection on the part of religious believers. So with that in mind …
The God of the Hebrew Bible is said to have had a sporadically violent temper, so much so that various texts allege that on several occasions – the Plagues of Egypt, the slaughter of the Amalekites (Num. 24:20; Exod. 17:8-16; Deut. 25:17-19; 1 Sam. 15:2-33), the conquest of Canaan, the fall of Jericho (Joshua chapter 6), etc. – God either slaughtered or ordered the slaughter of numbers of people that today would justify the term “genocide”. (There is more truth in Richard Dawkins' description of the Hebrew Bible's God than most believers are comfortable contemplating.) Did such events really, literally occur in spacetime history? Unknown and irrelevant. (As an atheist, I would say that, even if these events were historical, they would be ascribable to the usual, mundane, prosaic warfare among nations, not to the intervention of any deity.) Questions of historicity aside, we can safely say that the stories illustrate the authors’ concept of certain aspects of God’s character, i.e., the stories are at least theological parables. The story of the young George Washington chopping down his father’s cherry tree was almost certainly not a historical occurrence either. But it likewise illustrates a belief: George Washington was a man of exceptional personal integrity. Fiction is often used as a vehicle to illustrate truth. There is even a technical term for this kind of writing: “literature”. The literature of Divinely ordained genocide – factual or fictitious – illustrates the narrator’s view of the nature of God.
Now, if you buy into the orthodox theological accounts of Who Jesus Christ was, this should give you pause. As I understand it and as I was taught in both Sunday School and in formal theology / Christology classes, the orthodox understanding is that the God of the Hebrew Bible is fully incarnate in the historical, flesh-and-blood Person of Jesus Christ – Who is, in consequence, both fully God and fully human. That is, Jesus is not “half-and-half”. There is no such thing as the “human part” of Jesus and the “Divine part” of Jesus. Rather, in the orthodox understanding, Jesus was wholly God and wholly man, in fact, “one in being with [God] the Father”. As a “first approximation”, this means that the God of the Hebrew Scriptures, Whose character is depicted as being sporadically both jealous and vindictive, is the God Who is incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth. We are all familiar with the Gospel story of the little children playing with Jesus (Luke 18:16). Would you be comfortable allowing your children to play around the Jesus Who was the incarnation of the God of Exodus Who slaughtered the firstborn Egyptian children? Yet – if we credit orthodox theology and orthodox Christology – that is what the logic of belief requires believers to do who accept the orthodox understanding of the Incarnation. “Gentle Jesus meek and mild” may be half the truth. But only half the truth. Yet most Christian believers at least act as if “gentle Jesus meek and mild” were the whole truth, not half.
My question: why?
I can think of at least 2 possible reasons. The first potential reason, the less likely of the two, lies in an orthodox – and quite technical – theology of the Incarnation. In the Roman Catholic understanding of the Incarnation, there is something called the communicatio idiomatum (literally, the “communication of idioms” or the “interaction of selves”). This is a way – theologically sophisticated and exquisitely subtle – of accounting for the interaction of the Human and the Divine natures in the Person of Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is affirmed to be one Person with two Natures – not two sides, least of all two halves, but two Natures, i.e., two sets of potentialities – in such a way that the two Natures – Human and Divine – intimately interact, without, for all that, becoming confused or conflated with each other. So when Jesus died on the Cross, an orthodox theologian would say, not that God died on the Cross, but that Jesus in His human Nature died on the Cross. (Years ago, Jurgen Moltmann wrote a powerful book of Christology entitled The Crucified God. The title is deliberately transgressive, because strict Catholic orthodoxy would require that Moltmann say, not that God was crucified, but rather that Jesus Christ, in His human Nature, was crucified: God qua God cannot be crucified. Not to insinuate that Moltmann was Catholic: he wasn't.) So, vis a vis the genocide narratives, the orthodox response, appealing to the communicatio idiomatum, might say something like this: prior to His Incarnation in historical spacetime, Jesus Christ, in His Divine Nature as the eternally pre-existent Second Person of the Holy Trinity, did indeed slaughter people in industrial-strength quantities, but that Jesus, in His historically incarnate Human nature, never slaughtered anyone. This is quite a mouthful. But it is formally irreproachable and pristinely orthodox, arguably too much so – to the point of clinical sterility -- to be quite satisfying. The cerebral cortex may be satisfied, but the glands cry out for more.
Instead, I think believers’ willingness to gloss over including the God of genocide in the Person of Christ is ascribable to at least one of two much more prosaic, and much more human, tendencies. The first is just to … not think about it. Humans are very proficient at compartmentalizing. That is why so many conservatives can express outright revulsion, morally and politically, at the prospect of a Donald Trump candidacy … yet still affirm their support if Trump is the GOP nominee: they compartmentalize Party loyalty and patriotism. (Sen. Marco Rubio – granted, with great reluctance – did so just recently.) Each affirmation – love of country and support for Trump -- may be equally sincere individually – only the person doing the affirming can know for sure – but like matches and dynamite, both affirmations are carefully kept separate. So we think of the Jesus who played with children to the compartmentalized exclusion of, e.g., the children slaughtered at Jericho.
Or we say people in the Bible – the characters depicted therein, and the people who wrote and redacted the stories – were, as the saying goes, just “people of their time”, whereas Jesus lived at least a couple millennia later, when the human race generally was – so we like to think -- “higher on the learning curve”. So, of course, the “slaughter coefficient” is lower today because people, in the intervening time, had learned -- maybe even God had learned – more finesse in dealing with others. In 980, President Reagan and Speaker "Tip" O'Neill would probably have crossed swords. But in 1980, they only clinked tumblers of good bourbon. We often employ this latter rationalization to salvage our deference for the Founders of the American Republic and the Framers of its Constitution. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison were among the biggest slaveholders in the United States. The aggregate number of slaves owned by all three numbered roughly 600. Yet we remember all three as the preeminent architects of American liberty. Why? Well … because, we sigh gently and tell one another and ourselves, they were “just men of their time”, whereas we are more enlightened today.
On this account, one’s Christology becomes a kind of Freudian psychology born out of due season: yes, the genocidal God of the Hebrew Bible was incarnate in Christ, but … gosh! … the people in the Hebrew Bible were people inhabiting a lawless time who worshipped a God subject to fits of rage. But in the intervening couple millennia, God had managed to grow Godself a “superego” – the historical Jesus Christ Himself – that moderated God’s archaic tendency to slaughter people. (Interesting to compare this to C. G. Jung’s account in Answer to Job.) The chthonic old “id” was still there, incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth, but now restrained by a more fully articulated “ethical monotheism” … resulting in a “kinder, gentler”, perhaps even more domesticated, Yahweh, manifest as the Jesus Christ Whose resurrection believers celebrate at Easter. So the Latter is “safe” in a way the Former never was.
But what do I know? Don't interrogate me too closely about this: personally, I prefer a clean shave with Ockham's Razor.
Anyway, have a happy Easter!
James R. Cowles
Resurrection: public domain
Jesus blessing the children: public domain
Slaughter of the Amalekite king by Gustav Dore: public domain
Donald Trump: Michael Vadon under Creative Commons BY-SA 2.0