Recently I watched an episode of a television series in which the main character was shown doing something that seemed totally out of character. My immediate thought was that the portrayal was not of an actual event, but was likely a dream or something the character was imagining. In other words, I used what I had learned about this character to judge that the portrayal was not an accurate representation of real events.
I want to suggest that good reading of the Bible sometimes calls for something similar. God is portrayed in some biblical accounts as doing things that strike us as inconsistent with the way we have learned to conceive God’s nature. For example, God is said to command the slaughter of whole populations, including women and children, and to be angry when the extermination is not complete enough. Or God is described as sending a plague in which thousands die because one person has done something displeasing. Christians from the earliest centuries who recognized that some biblical accounts were problematic tended to suggest that some accounts should not be understood literally, but should be taken as conveying allegorical meanings. Modern readers are generally not inclined to take this approach, but does that mean they have to acknowledge that God does terrible things?
Some readers insist that if the Bible gives us a description of God doing something, the description must be exactly what happened. But it is hard to take this approach consistently. Some scriptural texts portray God as subject to human imperfections. For example, in Exodus 32 God is described in ways that sound very much like having a temper tantrum after the Israelites make a golden calf. God expresses the intention to destroy the nation and start over with Moses. Moses is then described as reminding God of various considerations that weigh against such a rash action, and God is persuaded by Moses not to execute the plan. To take this account as an exact portrayal of what happened, we would need to accept that God, like human beings, is sometimes overcome with emotion that clouds better judgment, that God needs to be reminded of things, and that God sometimes has to alter ill-conceived plans. In other words, you have to imagine that God is subject to the kinds of imperfections that humans regularly exhibit.
To deny that God has these imperfections, you have to say that at least some aspects of the account should not be understood literally. Many Christian readers, of course, more or less automatically filter out anthropomorphic elements of biblical portrayals on the basis of their belief that they are inconsistent with God’s perfection. They view them as picturesque ways of thinking about God that are not really accurate. In other words, they use their conclusions about God’s nature to overrule descriptions that seem to them unworthy of God. But how can they overrule what the text explicitly describes? I think that the most plausible way to do so is to say that a biblical author’s anthropomorphic ideas of God are a product of the time that should be recognized as inadequate in the light of fuller revelation.
But if a reflective understanding of God as lacking human imperfections can be used to reject anthropomorphic portrayals, shouldn’t a reflective understanding of God as completely good be a basis for rejecting portrayals of God as behaving in ways that seem grossly immoral? Some people say no. When God is described as doing something that seems bad, they try to offer a defense that shows why God was justified in doing it. It might be surprising, but atheist critics of biblical religion agree with the conservative approach of accepting whatever God is said to do at face value. They just give a different assessment of it. Richard Dawkins, for example, takes biblical accounts of what God does literally and condemns God as “the most unpleasant character in all of fiction.” The deity described in these texts, he says, is vindictive, jealous, bloodthirsty, genocidal, and so on.
There is a better way than adopting the literalist readings of either Dawkins or conservative defenders of everything ascribed to God in biblical stories. Just as we might acknowledge that a biblical writer can have an overly anthropomorphic view of God, we can say that a biblical writer can have a view of God that is morally deficient, which comes from common ways of thinking about deity at the time. The biblical tradition will eventually affirm that God is morally perfect, and this understanding of God’s character can be used to correct accounts that portray God as morally deficient.
Some will object that accepting ways of reading the Bible that allow us to judge some parts as not fully accurate results in losing confidence in everything in the Bible. That is surely a rash conclusion. If you think of divine revelation as a process in which deficient understandings connected with cultural assumptions of the time are replaced with better understandings, the process may lead to some things that you can say with confidence are high points of revelatory truth. For Christians, the revelation of God in Jesus can be used to correct prior understandings that do not measure up. The God Jesus revealed who tells us to love our enemies can’t be simply identified with the deity of biblical portrayals who seems not to care about Israel’s enemies. The authors of those earlier portrayals were working with partial understandings that would eventually be corrected. Insisting that some parts of the Bible should be corrected need not mean rejecting biblical revelation; it can be a way of being attentive to a process in which truths that are hard for humans to comprehend gradually become clearer.
For a fuller discussion of this issue, see chapter 5 in Changing Your Mind Without Losing Your Faith (Disturbing Portrayals of God).