Wednesday, May 2, 2007

One serial killer on another?

The god of the Old Testament time and again killed thousands upon thousands of men, women, and children. . . .It eludes me how humans can worship such an evil, vindictive creature.
— Robert Charles Browne, from "The Confessor," by Chip Brown, in the current New York Times Magazine on the web [Browne claims to have killed 48 people in nine states over the past 30 years.]
It might seem outrageous to quote a convicted, confessed serial killer on anything, let alone quote his incendiary opinion of God, which he might hold out of a self-serving need to justify himself. After all, he seems to say, if God killed thousands, then....

Actually, Browne's opinion raises a couple of points we would do well to consider. First, he's talking not necessarily about "God," but about "the god of the Old Testament." If the Old Testament should, as I tend to think, be considered a work of literature, then the god it portrays may be no more than a literary character. That is, Browne's assessment doesn't bear on actual God. And his attempt to justify himself fails.

Second, Browne is of course right that humans actually do worship the character portrayed in the Old Testament. Those humans apparently don't think, however, that he's just a literary character, but really God (or Allah—see below). It may elude Browne how humans can worship God as so conceived (apparently Browne can't). But I think I can see how they manage it. They frame God's "vindictive" acts as morally justified retribution or punishment for disobedience. That is, the people whom God killed deserved it. But, worshippers believe, we won't deserve it so long as we're obedient and continue to worship.

And they do believe in God. That's their response to the natural human lust for more (their consciousness of transcendence). But how they come to think of God as "the god of the Old Testament" is more complicated. That "god" was conceived by the ancient Israelites, who considered themselves to be God's chosen people. Over time they developed a strong sense of community around their received oral and written traditions. And then along came Jesus, who was himself a Jew and endorsed those traditions at the same time updating it, thus ensuring that the Old Testament would become part of the Christian canonical scripture. Further, I understand that the Prophet Muhammad (an Arab related to the ancestor, Abraham, in common with the Jews) said that his message came from the same god, although the Qur'an refers to him as "Allah."

In other words, "the god of the Old Testament" is readily available to believe in, and humans around the world not only share the lust for more, they also tend to think and believe as their parents and their immediate neighbors do. Hence, most of them believe in "the god of the Old Testament."
The painting below (by Rembrandt) shows Father Abraham being prevented from sacrificing his son Isaac. (The Jews decended from Isaac, and the Arabs from Abraham's other son, Ishmael.)


  1. Hmmmm.

    On matters far less controversial, we usually fail to see eye to eye. Should I really tackle this one?

    Sure, why not. Otherwise, as we've discussed before, we all become people who are merely preaching to the choir.

    It may help to view life not so much as a right (which is how people usually think of it) but a privilege. The fragility of life itself would argue the "privilege" point of view, I would think. All of our lives can so easily be snuffed out and not necessarily with dignity. Even in the best of circumstances, we live a pathetically short time.

    Even so, the OT contains some very harsh passages, I grant you. Don't press me to try to justify every battle. I wouldn't attempt to do it. Yet here and there are glimmers that help put matters in a different light. See, for example Leviticus 18 with verse 27 as the particular punch line.

    In general, I don't think it that outrageous a concept that the Maker of humans should know how they ought to live and have some requirements that they do so. And consequences for not doing so. [yes, yes, who's to say who our maker is or even that we have one, I can hear you say now]

    Just yesterday the papers here told of a man released after 15 years (for biting off a woman's finger to steal her ring) who within days kidnapped and raped another woman, at random, in the most vicious manner possible. We may think God harsh from these OT passages, but it's clear we haven't come up with any way to ensure a safe society.

    Incidentally, this "angry god of the OT" line I only hear in connection with Christians, who also have the NT and tend to stress the latter over the former. I never hear it in connection with Jews, even Orthodox Jews, for whom the OT is the only sacred book. (supplemented with the Talmud, I know) I'm not entirely sure why that is, but I have noticed it.

    If nothing else, Moristotle, you must admit I am brave, taking up the opposing argument on this one. But I hope you won't think "stupid" is the more apt word.

  2. Hey, I just spotted another good place to comment, on your April 24th post.

    You really do have an interesting blog.

  3. Hey, Tom, good to hear from you. I rather like your careful, hesitant manner. Very becoming of you. (And thanks for not trying to "justify every battle"!)

    I certainly agree with you that life is a privilege. My "waking dream" at age twenty-two confirmed for me that I didn't and couldn't have created myself and couldn't even ensure that I might live another instant. (I think that that knowledge was one of those things that Muhammad Asad refers to on p. 184—see my May 4 post—as "something that I had always known without knowing it...")

    I am reminded by your "concept that the Maker of humans should know how they ought to live and have some requirements that they do so. And consequences for not doing so" that I need to complete my translation of the original manuscript that has come into my possession of an eye-witness account of Jesus's parable of creation as God's personal zoological garden. But the translation is coming along slowly owing to the rustiness of my New Testament Greek.