The God of the Old Testament

Ch.2, Introduction (pp.51–52).

The argument begins properly in Chapter 2, ‘The God Hypothesis’. Dawkins’ opening riff is to describe the God of the Old Testament / Hebrew Bible, to describe the horrified reactions of decent men to that depiction of God, and then to explain that his argument does not rely on this particular example:

The God Hypothesis should not stand or fall with its most unlovely instantiation, Yahweh…. I am not attacking the particular qualities of Yahweh…or any other specific God….’

We’ll come in the next post to what he is attacking, and the real fun will begin. For now, though, and despite Dawkins’ protest that it is not germaine to his argument, I want to pause with his depiction of Yahweh.

The first level of response would of course be to say, ‘Oh, but what about all the other things that the Hebrew Bible says about God!’ and to chase Dawkins argument on its own territory. There’s a lot that could be said along those lines, but I’ll leave that argument to others. After all, Dawkins clearly does have a point: there’s plenty of unpalatable material to be found in the Hebrew Bible.

I find a second level of response more interesting. It is the response that effectively says, ‘Yes. So what?’ Dawkins’ argument works, it seems to me, if we assume that there is some significant body of religious people for whom ‘God’ means ‘the being whose description can be derived simply by reading the Hebrew Bible through’, or ‘the being whose character description is provided by the Hebrew Bible read as a continuous (picaresque?) novel’. (‘the most unpleasant character in all fiction’, Dawkins says).

Now, some Christians and Jews may say that this is what ‘God’ means, and may say that their understanding of God is derived and supported in this way. It is not true for them, and it is not true for anyone else, nor has it ever been: the role of the Bible in religious identification and description of God is much more complex, and much more interesting.

To put it in Dawkinsian terminology, if Christianity and Judaism are versions of the God Hypothesis, and if one did (unlike Dawkins at this point) want to test those particular versions of the Hypothesis, you wouldn’t discover what those versions of the Hypothesis claimed by sitting down like Randolph Churchill or Thomas Jefferson for a neutral read through and assessment of the whole Old Testament.

(This is one place, by the way, where we see the complex relation between the descriptions of theologians and the practice of ordinary believers. Ordinary believers may – do – claim that something like the ‘neutral read through’ approach is appropriate, and would indeed yield the Christian or Jewish depiction of God. Many ‘sophisticated’ theologians would not. But this is not simply a case of a majority believing one thing and a minority believing another: many such theologians would claim to be providing a description of what ordinary believers do in fact do, and of the traditions of reading to which they are unconscious heirs. Remember what I have said before: ‘What the theologian-botanist thinks he has in his jars…is not God, but what Christians say and believe about God. )

2 Thoughts on “The God of the Old Testament

  1. Isaac Gouy on March 14, 2008 at 5:03 pm said:

    > many such theologians would claim to be providing a description of what ordinary believers do in fact do

    I haven’t surveyed what theologians do, so I make no claim – I can say that the writings I have seen seem to be about what other theologians have written about rather than about what ordinary believers do in fact do (self referential).

  2. Yes, there is a lot of ‘self-referential’ stuff around. But there is also quite a bit of attention to ‘ordinary Christian belief’. It is particularly evident, I suppose, in various forms of liberation theology and various forms of postliberal theology – although you’re quite right that sometimes more such attentiveness is promised than is delivered.

Post Navigation