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Catherine Madsen on God’s Violence

17 November 2007

Ms. Madsen is a wonderful writer; I’m glad that Coop introduced me to her. Here she is in fine form, excerpted from an essay in search of answers to God’s violent maleness.

The Bible is not a work of art in the same sense as a poem. It is not meant primarily to make an intellectual demand in memorable language — or like Greek myth to tell an absorbing story, or like Greek tragedy to purge us by pity and terror. It aims to move us to justice and mercy. It is active art, to which people trust their conduct; moral art, which (rightly or wrongly) designates some forms of violence as necessary for the conduct of ethical social life. If the gratuitous violence of popular culture incites its viewers to mindless emulation, one could say that the violence of the Bible incites its readers to mindful emulation. The Bible acts directly on the conscience, without the filtering process by which art sifts down into our decisions. Even if we arrive at an adequate standard for judging “Leda and the Swan” — or, say, King Lear, which presents another vain and violent old man — the Bible will not submit itself to that standard.

Yet God’s own violence moves quickly beyond mindfulness. If we did what he did or threatened what he threatened, we would be unjust and merciless. God is more like Lear than perhaps any invisible and worshipful creator has the right to be, not least in his misogynist invective and his need for praise. In spite of him — and against the clear intent of some biblical writers, though I think with the clear encouragement of others — the filtering process begins, and we are drawn into reading the story as art. It begins to have an indirect effect on our decisions which may outweigh and counter its direct effect.

God claims to operate out of moral purpose, which is how he is unlike Zeus; children are not brought up to call Zeus good. The Ten Commandments are meant to be followed; God takes an intimate interest in people’s moral behavior. His own utterances and subsequent tradition discourage us from taking an equal interest in his. Pious readers have done mental contortions in order to interpret his rages as good, to exonerate him from the accusations we would incur if we demanded (even as a test) that a man burn his son on a mountaintop, or if we spread plague among an insubordinate people. The effort is exhausting; God seems to resist exoneration. The whole enterprise of theodicy — of justifying God’s ways to man, or rewriting the definition of God such that God can be justified — failed long ago, before feminist theology got hold of it, before Job’s comforters got hold of it. God refuses to fit the mold of perfection.

Why are children brought up to call God good?

Again and again women write — it seems to be especially women — of being told that God watched over them and finding themselves forsaken: of being lonely as children and finding that God did not assuage the loneliness, of living a selfless life as adults and still losing a child or being betrayed in marriage, of following all the rules and still getting cancer. Or simply of reading the Bible and wondering how that God could be trusted in simplicity and sweetness. Why did anyone lie to these women to begin with? Why such a transparent lie, as if doubt and the sense of forsakenness were unusual, as if the dark night of the soul were such an uncommon experience as never to strike a nice girl?

Jeremiah, one of God’s many reluctant prophets, in Abraham Heschel’s translation:

O Lord, thou hast seduced me,
And I am seduced;
Thou hast raped me
And I am overcome. (Jer. 20:7)(3)

Jeremiah was a child of nine when God first spoke to him. Did he put on His knowledge with His power?

Later, she continues with this penetrating question:

What if the alternation in God’s character between tender care and ferocious brutality, between limitless creation and wholesale wreckage, occurs not because the writers of the Hebrew Bible admired brutality or wreckage, but because they could not escape them?

That would at least be consistent with Psalm 139.7-12:

Where can I go from Your Spirit?
Or where can I flee from Your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, You are there;
If I make my bed in Sheol, behold, You are there.
If I take the wings of the dawn,
If I dwell in the remotest part of the sea,
Even there Your hand will lead me,
And Your right hand will lay hold of me.
If I say, “Surely the darkness will overwhelm me,
And the light around me will be night,”
Even the darkness is not dark to You,
And the night is as bright as the day
Darkness and light are alike to You.

We cannot help ourselves when we read the Old Testament, at least without deluding ourselves at the same time.  We stand – or sit, if we are wise – in judgment of God’s motives and his means.  He is ruthless in both self-humiliating good (Hosea) and unspeakable evil (Mt. Moriah), as we see them.

Theodicy.  I will be wrestling with it until the day I die.


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