When we speak of the nature of God, a very popular subject among theologians, it does not work intellectually if we come up with a theology that contradicts the faith that produced it. Every apologist must present something that hangs together; that is why so much time is spent in every faith figuring out what the entity that they worship is like.
The commonly-accepted concept of God in the Old Testament is that he is a righteous, lawful being who notices when his people disobey his Law. He punishes, but in spite of this the early Hebrew position maintained that God is just and loving. And yet from the beginning, in the tales of God working in the Hebrew context of history, we see time and again that God performs acts--or so they believe--that we would call atrocities if the same acts were described in a secular context.
Don't think that this situation has escaped the notice of non-religious people. They do not hesitate to point out the actions attributed to God that are morally reprehensible. It also doesn't help the Christian cause if those who decide to read the Bible begin with the Old Testament. Mark Twain wrote about it: he started reading and became horrified quickly, since no one was sitting next to him, explaining away what his eyes could read and his brain could understand. It took its toll; Twain was permanently put off and spent much of his time refuting the hypocrisy and cruelty of the only faith he knew, un-theological Christianity.
Primitive Judaism, which is now preserved only in the Old Testament, is the background of the First Reading at the Episcopal Church of St. Michael and All Angels in Tucson this past Sunday. It is a perfect illustration of what was written by Eldridge Cleaver in the Sixties, that no slave should die a natural death. That is, it is psychologically impossible for a slave to love his/her master. Love is not the proper response to enslavement, and no one is to be blamed for doing what is necessary to survive when they are helpless. The reading goes like this:
"Oh children of Zion, be glad and rejoice in the Lord your God,
for he has given the early rain for your vindication,
he has poured down for your abundant faith the early and the later rain, as before.
"The threshing floors shall be full of grain,
the vats shall overflow with wine and oil.
I will repay you for the years that the swarming locust has eaten,
the hopper, the destroyer and the cutter, my great army, which I sent against you.
"You shall eat plenty and be satisfied, and praise the name of the Lord your God,
who has dealt wondrously with you, and my people shall never again be put to shame.
You shall know that I am in the midst of Israel,
and that I, the Lord, am your God and there is no other.
And my people shall never again be put to shame." [Joel 23:30]
I am amazed that Christians can read this aloud in their churches with a straight face. This passage is a textbook portrait of slaves trying to love the master. Did their history end this way? No--it ended, if you like, with the Holocaust, when Jewish people all over the world were forced to face the fact that their status as God's chosen people was only in their minds. No evidence can ever be adduced again to verify that God favors Jewish people over others, and there is no lack of disillusioned Jewish unbelievers to keep that subject at the forefront of their theological dialog.
You can torture your theology into a parody of being chosen, but the stiff breeze of common sense will blow it away. In point of fact, when God attributes the suffering of locust attacks to his own will, that he inflicted locusts on the Hebrews for a reason, he is disqualified from the appellation "loving."
But the Jewish theological dialog is beyond my area of expertise. Among Jewish theologians I most admire Rabbi David Kushner, author of the seminal book, When Bad Things Happen to Good People. Kushner knows the topic of innocent suffering that he treats in this book, to say the least, and I recommend it to everyone who deals with the seeming injustice of life, illness and death.
But this is exactly why I believe that to study Christianity you need to begin by reading the Gospels and the Letters of Paul. I write over and over that Christianity supersedes Judaism (especially the early Old-Testament Judaism), and you can see that in Jesus' message about God's nature. His important Parables about the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son take precedence over the Hebrew ideas of God's tormenting of innocents in Joel, and the trail of death and genocide that they carved across the Middle East as they made their way to the Promised Land over the burned-out ruins of settlements who happened to lie in their path.
I do not deny that plagues of locusts, wars, enslavement and finally genocide afflicted the Jewish people. What I dispute is their interpretation of these events. The appearance of a swarm of locusts in a given years is not attributable to God's will; it is a natural event that depends on climatic and ecological conditions rather than an angry God who ought to lose his worshipers if it could be proved that the locusts were something that he "sent against" the helpless Hebrews.
From the stories dealing with the Plagues of Egypt that are interpreted to be God taking sides against innumerable innocent Egyptian bystanders, to the barbarity of the Exodus, to the Crucifixion, we see the lengths that mistaken theologians will go to forestall the wrath of God, lest it fall on themselves and take away their certainty. This is the very reason why that theology fell away from Judaism; today their concept of the nature of God is much less that of an angry punisher than a spirit of love and compassion. After all, what could the Jews of Europe in the Twentieth Century be accused of that justified some kind of divine infliction of the Holocaust? I regret that it cost so many of them their faith, but it also forced a re-examination of their theology of crime and punishment.
The problem with this situation is that very few Christians are actually aware of it. Nevertheless, the evolution of Jewish theology is a real thing and if you want to know about it you ought to speak with a rabbi, who can tell you what comprises Jewish beliefs today. Many Christians are under the impression that Jewish thought today comes out of those first five books of the Old Testament, but that is simply not true. The books of Moses are the basis of the theology of Judaism, and the roots of its history. No one debates whether or not there was a Moses or if the Exodus happened. But Jewish thought evolves like Christian thought evolves; fundamentalism exists but it is a mistake in any faith, as the fundamentalist Taliban Muslims demonstrate to us when they shoot children in the head over their objections to education.
The Gospel reading for last Sunday includes the story of the two men at the Temple. One, a ritually-observant, righteous Jew, uttered the infamous prayer, "God, I thank thee that I am not as other men..." The other, only conscious of his brokenness, would not lift his eyes to the Temple, but stood at a distance, praying: "God, be merciful to me, a sinner." Jesus taught his friends that it was the latter man, not the former, who was "justified" and went home that day in the favor of God. This is a rebuke to the concept that the observance of ritual is more important than consciousness, and that exact dichotomy encapsulates Christianity itself.
Our faith is not a matter of following rules, but a faith based on relationship. We can relate to a being far greater than ourselves, but not if this being is a monster. This concept of God will result in cowering and placating this gargantuan terrorist. There is no room for the love of God in non-existent, made up Old-Testament Christianity.