It is striking that Jehovah is constantly causing problems and carrying out severe punishments on individuals and the Israelites as a whole on a regular basis for actions that can’t possibly merit such a reaction. Not only are these actions over-reactive in the extreme, they also don’t have any lasting effect. Jehovah is constantly repeating his routine of punishing by the sword and being disappointed by the outcome. The whole ordeal feels like watching an abusive parent who just can’t understand why their heavy-handed tactics don’t yield positive results.
Many of the big issues that are laid out in the bible and expanded on and emphasized by individual Christian groups are somewhat humorous when we consider what they meant for ancient peoples. For instance, it’s one thing while reading the bible for a Christian to think, “Those foolish Israelites. How can they just keep disobeying god over and over again? I mean, they promised to obey him and entered into a covenant with him at Mt. Sinai. How could they be so foolish!? No wonder the bible calls them stiff-necked and hard-headed…” It is quite another thing though when we think about what the life of a typical ancient Israelite looked like.
Imagine yourself living in the middle of a vast desert nation, very likely raising animals or farming in one of the remote areas that allowed you to do so, in many cases a many day journey away from Jerusalem, the hub of Jehovah worship. This promise that your ancestors supposedly made happened dozens of generations ago. During the long game of telephone that was ancient peoples passing things down to their children, you have been taught many things that weren’t part of that original pact. Is it really a huge surprise that so many Israelites tried to worship god locally at “the high places?” It was common practice in the ancient Near East to do such. Many of these people undoubtedly had no idea that they were supposed to travel all the way to Jerusalem at certain times of the year to go through ritualistic practices and sacrifices. If they had been told about this obligation, what reason did they have to believe that there was any validity to these claims? They hadn’t experienced the purported miracles of their ancestors. Why should they do anything more for this Jehovah than their Canaanite neighbors did for Ba’al? In fact, why not worship Ba’al? He wasn’t asking as much from you in many cases.
All of this is made even worse by the knowledge that for a good long time, the book of the law was actually completely absent. King Josiah’s people didn’t find it until sometime in the 7th century, 700 years after it was written down by Moses. To expect that an Israelite peasant really knew what he needed to do to be straight with god is not reasonable, and the fact that the bible writers are for centuries lamenting the “false” practices of the people shows just how bad they were at keeping the people educated on god’s requirements. And of course all of this supposedly leads to Jehovah’s anger:
“Hey you! Little shepherd family who lives in the middle of nowhere and has no real way of being consistently reminded about the Mosaic law and never signed up to do so anyway! Yeah you! Why did you have to go worshipping me on top of a hill instead of making the stupid-long journey to Jerusalem to have animals slaughtered and cooked for me there! Ugh, now I literally have no other option but to use Babylon to come down and kick you guys around for a while, which is even worse than you realize because I’m going to have to punish them for that afterwards, even though it was me who made them do it. Worse than that, you’ve forced me to make Ezekiel lay on his side for a solid year and change to really make sure I get the point across that you will NOT like what the Babylonians are going to do. Why can’t everyone just obey my book!? Ugh… This is why we can’t have nice things!”
The second problem is god’s responses to the actions of his people. Not only do they evidence his extreme pettiness and sensitivity, they also show that he believes firmly in group punishment, punishment by proxy, the need to pay for suffering with suffering, and the power of blood magic to make recompense for trespasses.
Let’s begin with his pettiness and sensitivity. It is in no way a problem to judge god by human standards. In fact, according to the bible, he invites us to. “Taste and see that Jehovah is good.” This is an invitation to use our own experience and judgment to judge how he acts. When we do, we find that he does not care about human or animal suffering. No amount of suffering is too much if he has been insulted in even the smallest way.
Take, for example, the prophet in 1 Kings 13:1-34. He’s instructed not to return home on the same road he came on and told not to eat or drink while he is in Bethel making pronouncement against King Jeroboam. When an older prophet is told by his sons of the judgment this man has proclaimed against the king, he goes out to meet him and lies to him saying that Jehovah has commanded the older man to show hospitality to the younger. He refuses the invitation once but concedes when he is told that this is a prophecy from Jehovah. After he eats and drinks, the older lying prophet now tells him that because he disobeyed, he will not be buried with his forefathers. He leaves on his donkey but is promptly met on the road by a mountain lion who proceeds to kill him and then sit patiently, not hurting the donkey nor eating the corpse of the prophet. When the old lying prophet hears of this, he goes out to retrieve the body for burial and tells his sons to bury him alongside the slain prophet when he dies since the prophecy he uttered to the king will come to pass.
The absolutely bizarre and macabre nature of this account is difficult to get past on multiple levels, but let’s focus on this: How could it be just and righteous to kill a man for disobeying an order in such a confusing circumstance? How would the younger prophet know that the older prophet was lying? Couldn’t it have been that Jehovah was using this older prophet to update his assignment? In a culture that looked upon the elderly with high regard, wouldn’t it have been improper and disrespectful to accuse an older prophet of telling a lie in the name of god? Couldn’t Jehovah have corrected this entire situation by revealing to the younger prophet that his original order still stood? Shouldn’t the older prophet have been held to account for lying, blasphemy, and manslaughter?
Further, how could a puny human, who is already going to great effort to please god by carrying a dangerous message to a volatile man over great distance at his own expense, possibly offend god so greatly that the only act in the whole universe that could possible atone for it is death, and death by wild animal at that. How unenlightened does a being have to be to think that such a killing solves anything. How sadistic and small-minded does one have to be to resort to such disgusting and creative levels of violence in retribution for an act that has affected absolutely no one. How can an omnipotent being possibly be made to suffer by the acts of that day and how could that suffering possibly be more intolerable than the suffering caused by painfully executing a man and leaving his loved-ones to mourn his loss, very likely never knowing what had happened to their friend and family member?
Another account that deserves scrutiny is that of “David’s census sin.” It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that in our modern times we typically look down upon collective or group punishment. I remember being frustrated as a child of single-digit age in elementary school when a teacher would, after warning us what would happen, punish the entire class for the act of just one or two students. This typically related to the class needing to calm down and be quiet and the inability of a few restless youngsters to do so. It struck me, even at that age, how much control a rebellious student could exercise in that situation. To quote Michael Cain in The Dark Knight, “Some people just want to watch the world burn.” It also was clear to me that even if no student was purposely disobeying, it was still unjust to punish everyone for the actions of an individual.
Jehovah however has no such insight. He has no problem causing mass suffering for the actions of a single individual. In 2 Samuel chapter 24 and the parallel account at 1 Chronicles 21, David makes the decision1 to take a census of the nation, something that supposedly should only be done at the behest of god himself. After 9 months of David’s military personnel traveling the whole country and counting all of the men who could be called on to fight in the event of a battle, David is struck with pangs of conscience when he is given the results. He suddenly recognizes that his new-found ownership of this seven digit number constitutes a grievous sin against god and he prays for forgiveness. He is visited the next day by a prophet who gives him a succinct buffet of options for his punishment: three years of national famine, three months of him, David, being pursued by his enemies (Chronicles suggests that there would be some bloodshed involved in this, probably the blood of his servants and military guards seeing as how David always gets out of tight spots unscathed), or three days of pestilence delivered by angel of Jehovah himself. Instead of choosing the second one which would seem to be of greatest inconvenience to David himself, he decided to go with the third since it was seemingly the punishment most directly under the discretion of Jehovah, the god whose “way is perfect,” the god who is “merciful and compassionate, slow to anger and abundant in loyal love and truth.” How did Jehovah repay this vote of confidence in his character? By killing 70,000 people with disease… DISEASE! This is not a simple taking people out of existence; this is causing unnecessary and most likely excruciating suffering, not just for the tens of thousands who lost their lives but also the hundreds of thousands who had to care for these loved ones suddenly under the grip of a terrible illness and who thereafter had to bury them and bear the grief of their loss. David of course came out of this ordeal without suffering the loss of anyone in his family or close friends. In fact, Jehovah suddenly felt pretty bad about the whole thing when he was about to bring his magic disease spell upon Jerusalem and called the whole thing off.
How can accounts such as the ones above be mapped onto the bible’s teaching that god takes a personal interest in his creation. How do we reconcile these grisly tales with Jesus’ saying that the heavenly father notices every sparrow that dies and drops to the ground? Maybe instead of taking note of their suffering, his attention is drawn to them all as tiny little sacrifices to appease some “sin” that had gone unnoticed by everyone in the universe but himself, the ultimate accountant of misdeed.
This of course has been only a basic discussion of these issues. The bible is littered with examples of Jehovah’s becoming incensed at some action or another and carrying out over-reactive punishments that in no way contribute to the health and harmony of creatures involved. Read for yourself about the punishment of the sons of King Saul, the execution of the youths who insult Elisha, Uzzah’s touching of the ark of the covenant, or the punishment of Lot’s wife. Then add to these all of the terrible events in the bible that he could have prevented or mitigated and it becomes quite clear that Jehovah is not concerned about the suffering of conscious creatures. He’s only concerned about his own private reasons for why we can’t have nice things.
1. In most bible translations at 2 Samuel 24:1, it is clear that god himself incited David to do this.
Again the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel, and he incited David against them, saying, “Go, number Israel and Judah.” ESV The New World Translation reads,
The anger of Jehovah again blazed against Israel+ when one incited David* against them, saying: “Go, take a count+ of Israel and Judah.”+ 1 Chronicles 21:1 however states that
Satan stood against Israel and incited David to number Israel. ESV There is discussion among theologians and scholars as to whether all of this means that god himself incited the act or allowed Satan to do the inciting or if the use of the word satan (the Hebrew word for “resister”) actually means that a human agent was involved. In reality, it doesn’t matter either way as the outcome is equally terrible no matter which way you slice it.↩