From September 10-12, Notre Dame held a conference called “My Ways Are not Your Ways: The Character of the God of the Hebrew Bible”. The focus of the conference was on the”hard passages” from the Bible, particularly from the Old Testament: instances where God seems to command genocide, rape, child sacrifice, and other such things. I can’t remember a conference that I was more excited to see. And it didn’t disappoint–it may have been the most rewarding conference I’ve attended.
Originally, I thought I would live-blog the conference, but because I fell under the impression both that the presentations, along with their responses, would be collected into a book, and that videos of at least the Q&A sessions would eventually be posted to the website (don’t quote me on that, though), I decided I would instead post something more impressionistic.
Before giving my own impressions, though, I think it helpful to describe what problem the hard passages from the OT (and, arguably, the NT) are supposed to pose; after all, why worry about these passages if you have a defense against or a theodicy for the problem of evil? What is left to explain once you give God’s reasons for creating a world that contains so much human and animal suffering?
I think there are two issues with regard to (what I’ll unimaginatively and inelegantly call) the “Hard Passages Problem”: first, in the hard passages, God doesn’t just permit evil or create a world that contains evil, it seems He commands it directly. Not only may these passages give one the impression that God is a moral monster, it also leads one to worry that God’s servants–those who carry out genocide, rapes, etc.–have no moral bearings. This leads to the second problem: what relevance do the hard passages have for us today? Or, to put it another way: would a religious theist of today–would any of us Christian philosophers–ever carry out what appeared to be a hideous command? If so, what does this say about our morality? If not, what does this say about our reverence for the inspiration of the Bible? Finally, to make this second challenge even more pointed: wouldn’t any religious philosopher who today saw someone preparing to sacrifice his son to God think that person insane, and a danger to society?
One of the things I learned about this problem is, first of all, how creative were some of the Christian responses to it. I was particularly impressed by those of Peter van Inwagen, Eleonore Stump, and Richard Swinburne. Swinburne gave a sophisticated account of what it means for a text to be divinely inspired, as well as a (to me less convincing) justification for the moral permissibility of God’s commanding genocide; and van Inwagen explained how you could regard the whole Bible as divinely inspired and yet nonetheless regard the claims made about God’s commands in the hard passages as false (unfortunately, I don’t remember Stump’s right now).
Another feature that struck me was how much Bible and near eastern scholarship one would have to know to really understand these passages. Some people–for instance, Alvin Plantinga–claimed that it’s possible that many of the mentions of genocide may not have been referring to genocide at all, but rather may have used a metaphor to describe the routing of an opponent (e.g., the coach says to her basketball team, “kill the opposing team!” without wanting her players to in fact murder all the opponents). I don’t know if he was right about his specific exegetical claim, but I was often left with a feeling that some who criticize Christianity and Judaism on the basis of these passages don’t properly contextualize them.
But rather than delve too deeply into those particular points, I want to state a couple of my own feelings about the hard passages.
First, they seem to me to have a certain kind of power: the God who would make such commands is terrifying and hard for me to understand. He seems untamed and ready to upend my life at any moment. I worry that some explanations of those passages may be “too good”–they may domesticate the Biblical God in a way that makes Him less impressive, and so less attractive to worship. I don’t quite know why these feelings hang together like this for me–if God is perfectly good, then why would I want anything else but a full explanation of the passages such that God comes out as as perfectly good agent?
Second, even though I don’t–for whatever reason–want too tidy an explanation of the passages, I also can’t take them at face value. That is, I think if God literally commanded the Israelites to murder all the Amalekites–men, women, and children–then it would be rather hard to find that God worthy of worship. If that’s true, though–if the Bible is inspired, but God doesn’t want us to take the passages of commanded genocide literally–, then what is the point of those passages?
At any rate, I’ll leave it at that.