Teaching the Bible as Literature in Public High School (Part 5) -- The Changing Image of God

Religion The Holy Bible The Book of Ezekiel. (Photo by: SeM/UIG via Getty Images)
Religion The Holy Bible The Book of Ezekiel. (Photo by: SeM/UIG via Getty Images)

During the years I taught this six-week unit on the Bible as Literature, many students were troubled by the behavior of God in the earlier books of the Old Testament, where he is depicted as a cruel Warrior God who commands all manner of horrible things. This image gradually changes until, in the later books and the New Testament, God becomes more forgiving and merciful, more loving and, finally, "Our Father."

Students wondered how one might explain this cruelty, which gradually softens, and then disappears. Other students saw no change whatsoever, but felt that God's actions were always appropriate to what the occasion required. What follows is an extended version of a student handout that describes six theories that attempt to answer this question of God's changing image.

One. The Old Testament God of wrath and vengeance was so different from the New Testament God of love and forgiveness that, according to Marcion (c. 84 - c. 160 CE), they were simply two different Gods. He rejected the Old Testament entirely because, among other reasons, he felt that its negative depictions of God were gravely insulting to the God of the New Testament.

Moreover, he feared that the young would be coarsened by the example of God's violent behavior and so be encouraged to violence themselves. He accepted as authentic only a portion of the Gospel of Luke and 10 Epistles of Paul, purged of their Old Testament references.

His critique of the Old Testament was so radical that it prompted the new Church to rethink its relationship to the Old Testament, which it nonetheless retained for two principal reasons - its messianic prophecies, which it believed were fulfilled by Christ, and its venerable antiquity, which lent the Church much-valued prestige and legitimacy in its mission of converting a world that reverenced ancient religions. He also forced the Church to determine which books were canonical in the slowly emerging New Testament.

Declared a heretic, he founded his own church that continued in existence for a few more centuries.

Two. Biblical passages which depict God performing morally repugnant actions or issuing shocking commands are not to be interpreted literally, but allegorically. Alexandria in Egypt was the center of this allegorical school of interpretation, which was highly regarded in the ancient world.

Two celebrated proponents of this method were Philo, a renowned Jewish scholar, (c. 20 BCE - 40 CE) and Origen, a prolific Christian author and teacher (185 - 254 CE), who defended the Old Testament against Marcion by allegorizing its difficult passages.

God's violent actions were reinterpreted as the struggles of the Christian Church against evil or as symbols of the soul battling sin. As God destroyed the enemies of the Jews in the Old Testament, so too must we show no mercy in combating our evil tendencies.

This was the same solution used by the Greeks in earlier centuries to allegorize those parts of Homer's Iliad and Odyssey which were thought to depict immoral behavior on the part of the gods. These stories were judged as unsuitable for children, who would be scandalized by such offensive actions.

Three. God, at times, did indeed do harsh things, but with justification. The recipients of his divine wrath had been warned by God, yet willfully persisted in their wrongdoing and had to be punished. These were brutal times and man was hard-hearted, so God had to be stern with him.

Although from a human perspective it may seem that God's actions were cruel, we do not know the complete circumstances that prompted God to behave as he did, nor can we see the big picture because we cannot know the mind of God. As creatures, we cannot presume to judge the Creator, the Giver and Taker of life. We must humbly submit ourselves to his inscrutable will.

Four. God's revelation of himself to man was gradual and progressive. In the beginning, God had to deal with man harshly because he was at a primitive stage of development, and harshness was the only language he understood. He could not understand, respect, or take seriously a kind and merciful God, for such qualities would have been signs of weakness in man's eyes.

However, over time, as man became more civilized, God began to treat him differently by gradually revealing the more loving and forgiving aspects of his divine nature made manifest by his prophets and his psalmist David in the later books of the Old Testament.

This theory of Progressive Revelation also explains the seeming moral contradictions in the Bible. The earlier books contain a primitive ethic suitable for man at an early stage of his ethical development, but as man progressed morally, God slowly raised the bar of ethical standards for which man was now ready.

These later commandments were meant to replace God's earlier moral injunctions, which man had now outgrown since he had now reached a more advanced level of ethical conduct. When viewed in this light, there is no moral contradiction between the earlier and later books of the Bible, because the earlier code was no longer in effect in this gradual process of man's moral evolution inspired by God.

Five. The Greek philosopher Xenophanes (c. 570 - c. 478 BCE) once wrote that if horses had hands and could paint, they would paint horses as gods. So, too, man creates his gods in his own image. A primitive warrior tribe creates a primitive warrior god, for this is the only god such a people can understand. As this people matures and becomes more civilized, however, so would its god.

"Theology is anthropology," said the German philosopher, Ludwig Feuerbach (1804 - 1872). The theology of a people directly reflects the moral development of a people which has created its god. Man makes God in his own image. As he morally evolves by listening to his spiritual leaders, prophets and priests, so does his god. Gradually, the primitive qualities of this god disappear, for now such traits are seen as unworthy of him.

Six. God's behavior in the Old Testament is not meant to be taken literally. All such depictions of God are simply anthropomorphic - depictions of God in human form, behaving in human ways with human emotions, which human beings can understand. According to this view, God is so infinitely beyond man's limited powers of comprehension, so ineffably transcendent in nature, that he cannot be captured in language.

Yet language is the only means we have of describing him, but in using words we must also be mindful that they say more about us than they do about God. We see God as "through a glass, darkly," but not as he is. No adequate conceptual or linguistic means exists to do him justice.

Biblical language is, according to this view, but a halting, feeble, futile attempt to grasp what is elusive, so we must make do with picturing him in human ways, which cannot describe his infinite mystery.

It is for this reason that we should never be troubled by unflattering portrayals of God in the Bible. God is not "angry" or "jealous." Nor does he "harden Pharaoh's heart." We become angry and jealous, and harden our hearts.

God is pictured as doing horrible things to describe, as it were, the depths of his "anger" at human transgressions in order that we could imagine in some faint way how we have "displeased" him and repent. God is beyond words, metaphor, or philosophy. He is the Unknown, the Unknowable, the Hidden God, the God of the mystics, and we should not literalize such childish depictions of him.


After having students quietly read and digest these theories, I asked them to comment on each of them in light of the following four questions: (1.) Do you find this theory convincing or not, and why? (2.) What would be the emotional advantages and disadvantages of holding this theory? (3.) How would you go about proving this theory is true? (4.) If the other five theories were persons, how would they respond to each theory?

We spent about 15 minutes discussing each theory in this way. Each theory was preferred by some students and rejected by others, and students were especially attentive to the reasons given. The discussion lasted two or three classes.

Some years there was a clear consensus about which theories students felt would be preferable today, and other years when there was no such consensus. Students were surprised that such theories existed and how they clarified thinking on such questions.