God Doesn't Break Bad in the Old Testament

Every semester I teach the first required course in theology to our incoming students. My habit has been to use the book of Genesis as a window into the Old Testament. But as soon as we reach the story of Noah and the flood, my audience grows restless. God sees how wicked humankind has become and promptly declares: “I will blot out from the earth the human beings I have created, for I am sorry that I have made them” (Gen 6:7). “What kind of God would wipe out every living thing with one sweep of his hand?,” my students ask. Can I put my faith in such a vindictive figure? I do not need Richard Dawkins to raise the problem; students at Notre Dame see it with their own eyes. The Lenten season’s Old Testament readings ensure that the rest of you will see it too.

Things do not get much easier as the story moves forward. About a dozen chapters later we come to the story of Sodom and Gomorrah and are faced with another episode of wholesale destruction: “Then the Lord rained on Sodom and Gomorrah sulfur and fire from the Lord out of heaven; and he overthrew those cities, and all the Plain, and all the inhabitants of the cities, and what grew on the ground” (Gen 19:24-25).

If things are not bad enough already, there is always the book of Exodus. After God has witnessed the Israelites build the idolatrous Golden Calf immediately after bestowing the Ten Commandments, he flies into a rage: “Now let me alone,” he says to Moses, “so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; and of you I will make a great nation” (Exod 32:10). This proposal sounds eerily close to what God did in Noah’s day. Though God had sworn never to repeat such wholesale destruction, he escapes that requirement by a legal technicality. In this instance, God will destroy only a single nation rather than the whole world. Yet the similarity is sufficient to shock the sensitive reader.

The picture is not pretty. It is not just the judgment of the flood that creates a challenge, but its repetition. Genesis 6 is not some rare or random act but appears to be something constitutive of God’s character. Ironically, in the repetition we will find a solution to this challenge. But let us not get ahead of ourselves. Let me make a few observations about the nature of interpretation first.

Hans Gadamer once noted that the interpretation of a text is never governed by its manifest content alone. No text is an unambiguous set of signs that imprints the same meaning on every reader. There is rather a “fusion of horizons” every time a text is read. The horizon of meaning provided by a text engages that of the reader. Readers, however, are not always aware of what they bring.

Part of the reason that modern persons are so bothered by these biblical stories is that their understanding of mercy and justice is naive. We have been deeply shaped by what Phillip Reiff, Christopher Lasch and others have called a “therapeutic” mindset. One of the effects of this cultural demeanor has been a wariness of making strong moral claims about the nature of good and evil, specifically, the notion that the good should be rewarded and evil punished. A world shaped by the therapeutic process recoils at moral absolutes. In the theological sphere, this has resulted in the soft-pedaling of stories like the flood and setting at center stage stories such as the prodigal son. In short, elevating the “merciful” God of the New Testament over the “vindictive” God of the Old.

Now I have nothing against the mercy displayed toward prodigal son. But, as surprising as it may sound, too much mercy can be as dangerous as too much judgment. In order to see this, we must enlarge our “horizon of meaning.” An excellent place for that is the award-winning television series, Breaking Bad. The show is about a high-school chemistry teacher who is suffering from terminal cancer and enters the drug world to support his family. He partners with Jesse Pinkman, a former student of his, who is familiar with the local drug networks.

By dint of circumstances we need not explain, Jesse is compelled to fire a bullet into the head of an innocent man. As the episode unfolds, we see that this act of cold blooded murder is deeply disturbing to Jesse. Not only does he struggle mightily to pull the trigger, but in the days that follow, the specter of his deed continues to haunt him. It is in the wake of this profound emotional crisis that he returns to his twelve-step program. The therapist asks Jesse how he is doing and Jesse confesses that he has “killed a dog”—obviously a euphemism for his crime. Some members of the group try to soothe his conscience. The dog was suffering, they suggest; putting it down was a kindness. But Jesse waves off all attempts to soften the crime; he insists that he killed an innocent animal. This honesty alarms Colleen and she sharply rebukes Jesse. The therapist promptly intervenes: “Colleen, we’re not here to sit in judgment!”

Is there really no place for judgment? “Maybe [Colleen’s] right,” Jesse argues, “the thing is, if you just do stuff, and nothing happens, what’s it all mean?” “Kicking the hell out of yourself doesn’t give meaning to anything,” the therapist responds. But Jesse is unbowed: “So, I should stop judging and accept myself, no matter what I do? Hooray for me, because I’m a great guy? It’s all good? No matter how many dogs I kill, I just do an inventory and accept?”

There are a couple of things worth flagging here. Most of us unconsciously presume the rule of law. At the end of the day, criminals will get their comeuppance and we can go about our business without worries. But a very different world exists below this civilized frame of reference. In the drug world, one can kill an innocent man and just walk away. This provokes an existential, not simply a moral, crisis. “The thing is,” Jesse asks, “if you just do stuff, and nothing happens, what’s it all mean? What’s the point?”

It is important to note that Jesse’s rebuke of the therapist should not be heard as a broadside against twelve-step programs. Rather, the scriptwriters have used the non-judgmental presuppositions of these programs to criticize what happens when they become a general worldview. It is also important to emphasize that Jesse wants to be forgiven and healed. But for that to happen, his actions must first be condemned rather than waived off. Better than most of us, Jesse knows that the grace of forgiveness cannot be offered on the cheap; those who commit murder must face the consequences of their actions.

If we bear these thoughts in mind, the flood story should look different. What God sees, when he surveys the world at the beginning of the sixth chapter of Genesis, is exactly what Jesse saw after he had committed murder: a world awash in violence with no judicial force sufficient to stem the tide. I think most of us agree that such a world would be unlivable. As a result, God hits the “reset” button, so to speak, and creates a new world from what he imagines will be better moral stock—the loins of Noah.

But all is not well. Just one story later, human beings are back at their mischief, building the tower of Babel. God sees the danger looming, but this time he is unable to send another flood. He does, instead, the next best thing. He mixes up the languages so that no single nation can exercise totalitarian power over the others. This creates a check on unrestrained violence. Human wickedness has been controlled, though not eliminated.

But what about the story of the Golden Calf? However much we can domesticate the wrath of God during the flood, God’s return to such an overly-wrought emotional state would seem to present an insurmountable obstacle. There is, however, a significant difference between these narratives. Though Noah survives the flood, he does so in a more or less passive manner. True, he built the ark, and loaded all the animals onto it—no small feat! But he took no stance for or against what God proposed to do. Not to put too fine a point on it, but he simply went along for the ride. Whereas Noah is simply “remembered” by God (see: Gen 8:1), Moses stridently demands that God remember his prior commitments: “Remember Your servants, Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, how You swore to them by Your Self and said to them: I will make your offspring as numerous as the stars of heaven, and I will give to your offspring this whole land of which I spoke, to possess forever” (Exod 32:13).

Moses has addressed the impending cataclysm very differently from Noah. To explain why, we will need to look a little closer at the text. First of all, from the very beginning, Moses is taken into God's confidence and consulted about what is going to transpire. Had God simply wished to execute judgment, he would have said: “I have seen this people, and behold, it is a stiff-necked people; my wrath shall burn hot against them and I shall consume them.” This sentence describes a unilateral divine action. But note carefully how God expresses himself: “I have seen this people, and behold, it is a stiff-necked people; now therefore let me alone, that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them.” In the clause I have italicized, God requests Moses’ permission before he proceeds. A Jewish midrash (interpretive tradition) nicely captures the surprising character of the proposal:

“Now therefore let me alone, that my wrath may burn hot against them.” To what can we compare this? To a king who being angry at his son placed him in a small room and was about to strike him. But at the same time the king cried out for someone to stop him. The son’s tutor was standing outside, and said to himself, “The king and his son are in the room. Why does the king say, ‘stop me’?” It must be that the king wants me to go into the room and bring about a reconciliation. In a similar way, God says to Moses, “Let Me alone.” Moses said, “Because God wants me to defend Israel, He says, ‘Let Me alone.’” And Moses immediately interceded for them (Exodus Rabbah 42:9).

It is not solely that God has requested Moses’ intervention in this matter, but he has also signaled the manner by which it can be most effective. God tells Moses that should he leave Him alone; He will make of him a “great nation.” This recalls the eternal promise God once made to Abraham, the very father of the nation he is planning on destroying (Gen 12:2). By framing his request this way, God gestures toward the most formidable argument that can be used against him. Moses, recognizing the opening God has provided, reminds God of that earlier promise: "Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, to whom you swore by your own self . . .” When the Lord hears these words, “he renounced the punishment He had planned to bring upon His people.” Moses has gone toe to toe with the Creator of the universe and won!

A key feature of this narrative is the representational role that Moses plays. As Yohanan Muffs has argued, Moses is not simply an exemplary human being standing before God. He, in fact, represents part of God to God. He assumes a part of the divine personality such that one cannot properly pick out the full identity of God by only attending to what the grammatical subject identified as “God” in the story says. The character of God is revealed through this verbal exchange; it is the combination of what both God and Moses say that gives us a proper bead on who God truly is. Muffs words capture the sense of our text: “God allows [Moses] to represent in his prayer His own attribute of mercy, the very element that enables a calming of God’s [angry and vindictive] feelings.” Because Moses is a necessary, non-negotiable element in the rendering of the identity of God, a Jewish midrash can go so far as to say that God wept when Moses was ready to hand over his soul to death.

God said: “Who will stand against Me on the day of my wrath.” This means, “Who shall protect Israel in the hour of My anger? . . . And who will speak up for them when they sin against me?” (Midrash Tanhuma)

Moses is a necessary actor in the narrative that depicts God's character. The identity of God would be different without him.

The reader will naturally ask why the story has depicted God’s identity in this particular manner. The answer is that our author wants to establish the necessity of intercessory prayer. If one thinks about it, intercessory prayer is odd. Does God really need to be reminded that my Aunt Myrtle is having surgery tomorrow? Would he not prefer that I do something more useful with my life than running over to the Blessed Sacrament and kneeling in prayer? Evelyn Waugh captured this problem beautifully in his Sword of Honor trilogy. During his father’s funeral Mass, Guy Crouchback reflects on the problem of his own spiritual lethargy:

For many years now the direction in the Garden of the Soul, “Put yourself in the presence of God,” had for Guy come to mean a mere act of respect, like the signing of the Visitors’ Book at an Embassy or Government House. He reported for duty saying to God: “I don't ask anything from you. I am here if you want me. I don't suppose I can be of any use, but if there is anything I can do, let me know,” and left it at that.

“I don't ask anything from you”: that was the deadly core of his apathy . . . That emptiness had been with him for years now even in his days of enthusiasm and activity for the Halberdiers. Enthusiasm and activity were not enough. God required more than that. He had commanded all men to ask.

Waugh hits the nail right on its head: God has commanded us to ask. In other words, in his handbook for administering the providential order, God has assigned a crucial role for human beings. He “needs” our prayers. And it is this “need” that is on display in the story of the Golden Calf.

With this in mind, I think we can cast new light on the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. In this text, Abraham, like Moses, is troubled by what God is about to do. He asks whether 50, 45, 30, or even 10 righteous persons will be enough to spare the cities. God assures Abraham that even 10 will be sufficient. Later, after God has destroyed the cities, we can assume that not even ten righteous persons were to be found. But the story does not end there. In Genesis 19:29 we read:

So it was that, when God destroyed the cities of the Plain, God remembered Abraham, and sent Lot out of the midst of the overthrow, when he overthrew the cities in which Lot had settled.

The fact that God “remembered Abraham” recalls both God’s remembering of Noah and Moses’ prayer that God remember his promises to Israel. But what has God remembered? He was attentive to the one matter which Abraham did not mention in his supplication: the safety of his immediate kinsmen, Lot and his family. In other words, God “remembered” what Abraham was too humble to utter out loud.

Before closing, let’s take a look at what Benedict XVI says about Moses’ intercessory prayer:

As with Abraham in regard to Sodom and Gomorrah, so also now God reveals to Moses what he intends to do, as though not wanting to act without his agreement (cf. Amos 3:7). He says: “Let me alone, that my wrath may burn hot.” In reality, this “let me alone, that my wrath may burn hot” is said precisely so that Moses might intervene and ask him not to do it, thereby revealing that God’s desire is always to save . . . Intercessory prayer makes divine mercy so active within the corrupted reality of the sinful man, that it finds a voice in the supplication of one who prays and through him becomes present where salvation is needed . . .

As with the two cities in the time of Abraham, punishment and destruction . . . point to the gravity of the sin committed; at the same time, the intercessor’s request is meant to manifest the Lord’s will to forgive. This is the salvation of God, which involves mercy but together with it also exposes the truth of the sin, of the evil that is present, so that the sinner, aware of and rejecting his own sin, can allow himself to be forgiven and transformed by God. (italics mine)

In this excerpt from his weekly address, we see the theme of Breaking Bad return with a vengeance. Though Benedict understands the back and forth between God and Moses as a form of intercessory prayer, he also recognizes that the threat of divine wrath reveals the true character of the evil that has been perpetrated. God’s grace, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer so profoundly knew, is not cheap. It can only be offered once an honest appraisal of sin itself has been made.

Let me conclude by reviewing the three texts with which we opened. The story of the flood put us back in an era of “time before time.” This is not a historical narrative in the simple sense of that term. Rather, in this story, we see how God puts in place the conditions in which human life can flourish—one of which is the establishment of the rule of law. The episode from Breaking Bad revealed how important that is.

Second, we saw that the story of Golden Calf was both similar to and different from the flood. Although it appeared as though God wanted to destroy Israel, what he really wanted was Moses’ intercession. And that intercession, I emphasized, should not be understood as an act of opposition to God but rather as a participation in the mystery of his character. We must avoid the error of Guy Crouchback and think that our service of God consists of simply “signing the guest book” and then being on our way. God, Waugh is careful to note, “commands us to ask.” And finally, we saw that the story of Sodom and Gomorrah is simply a variation on the issues presented in the Golden Calf.

Is the God of the Old Testament evil? I think we can answer that question with a resounding “no.”

Featured Image: John Martin, The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, 1852; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100.


Gary A. Anderson

Gary A. Anderson is Hesburgh Professor of Theology at the University of Notre Dame. His many books include the award-winning Sin: A History, Christian Doctrine and the Old Testament.

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