The Leadership Styles of an Angry, Bipolar Deity


Written for my Critical Introduction to Hebrew Bible class taught by Dr. Aaron Brody at Pacific School of Religion, October 7, 2016

“Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; and of you I will make a great nation.”

God, to Moses in Exodus 32:10 (NRSV)

I grew up in the church immersed the stories of the Bible. Later, my kids and the other children in our church grew up hearing me, along with others, teach these stories. We talked about how the God of the Old Testament provided a ram for Abraham, how God rescued Noah and his family and placed a beautiful bow in the sky, and how God delivered the people of Israel across the Red Sea.[1] Reflecting on the memories of the Bible, I have come to realize I looked the other way regarding the nature of this God framed by these stories—truths of questionable leadership tactics I find deeply disconcerting. Genesis tells the story of a God who required his chosen patriarch to kill his son[2]; that God supplied a ram as an “ok I was just testing you moment” is of little consolation. The supposedly benevolent creator of the world who made people in his[3] own image actually drowned all of humanity[4] and later, in Exodus, a large host of Egyptians[5] to save God’s elect, only to want to kill said elect again later[6].

Genesis and Exodus comprise two of the predominate history books that make up the Pentateuch. In his book on the Old Testament, Michael D. Coogan explains what came to be known as the Documentary Hypothesis, a hypothetical process that identifies four different sources—the Yahwist, Elohist, Deuteronomic, and Priestly—used to produce the Pentateuch.[7] Basically, the editors[8] of the Hebrew Bible combined remnants of histories, texts, and oral traditions to create a God who is both creator and liberator but who also seems at once passive-aggressive and bipolar.[9]

For most of my life, I ignored the angry, murderous side of the God of my Old Testament Bible. Instead, I focused on the fact that God kept his promise to Abraham and that God’s great flood was somehow justified because of humankind’s wickedness. [Plus, there was a rainbow!] Ultimately, however, these historical myths assembled by these multiple sources tell the story of a God I find almost hateful if not downright psychotic in nature—far from the kind of leader I want to follow, embody, or uphold as an example of spiritual leadership. While the rainbow symbolizes many positive things, it reminds me of a symbol of genocide, more akin to the actions of a drunken, rageful man who’s asked his abused wife to stay one too many times. Even if I viewed the Hebrew Bible merely as a book of history wherein a God talked directly with some of his people and liberated and punished them, I find this God terrifying and unstable. Although I appreciate both the needs of Jews to create a consolidated book of history after the exile[10] and a way for Christians to link the God of the Old Testament to the God of the New,[11] the God the editors have created in the former exhibits many distressing characteristics.

In many instances throughout Genesis and Exodus, the editors do at least succeed in making God the kind of deity who seems accessible. Early in the Genesis account, God walks through the garden in the evening looking for his two human companions. Later, God appears to maintain a very intimate relationship with a human named Abram, a relationship that God continues with Isaac, Jacob and later in Exodus, Moses. The harmonized narrative reveals a God who goes to great lengths to assure each man in Abraham’s lineage—as well as the mothers of Abraham’s oldest two sons—that their descendants will be numerous and blessed. Once the nation of Israel enters into captivity, this God, in a very personal way, sets about coaching and guiding Moses to become the leader of the Israelite liberation movement. And the images of Noah, who the text says “walked with God”[12] and Moses, who sat on the mountain with God, hearken back to the God who walked in the garden with his creation.

Despite these images of God as an intimate of humans, God’s accessibility is, for me, overwhelmed by the nature of his volatility, rage, and violence toward his creation. Back-and-forth goes the editors’ Hebrew God: create the humans, wipe them out; love them, then curse them; redeem them, then threaten to kill them again. Time and again, this God’s temperament is unstable and volatile. Consider the scene in Exodus 4, where God calls Moses to his role as liberator. Although Moses angers God by continuing to make excuses as they converse, Moses ultimately appears to agree to the plan. Then, as Moses is heading to Egypt as God told him, God tries to kill him![13] Commentaries propose several different reasons to explain this behavior, but what kind of God acts like that? A God who leads with malevolence certainly, but definitely not a God who inspires people through love and kindness. Further, this God kills people—a lot of people! In addition to the people God killed in the flood in Genesis 6-7 and the Egyptians killed in the Reed Sea in Exodus 14, God wipes out the people of Sodom and Gomorrah thusly:

Then the Lord rained on Sodom and Gomorrah sulfur and fire from the Lord out of heaven; and he overthrew those cities, and all the Plain, and all the inhabitants of the cities….[14]

Later in the Pentateuch, God blots out the Amalekites.[15]

This God also seems imbalanced and inconsistent. After the Israelites enjoyed great privilege in Egypt because of Joseph, no excuse is given for why the they fell into captivity—except that they grew too populous and a new Pharaoh felt threatened. It is as if they became enslaved just so the God of these texts could be shown to rescue them. As a result of this grand plan, the Israelites suffered greatly and God appears to toy with and taunt the Pharaoh by what the text refers to as hardening the king’s heart.[16] Like a child stomping on ants on a sidewalk, this God visits terror on the people of Egypt and their animals through a series of cruel plagues recorded in Exodus, including a plague that resulted in the deaths of every firstborn human and animal—all just to make a point of how powerful this God is.

Further, God destroys Sodom and Gomorrah specifically for their great sin yet continues the line of both Lot and Judah through incest with no apparent punishment;[17] lets Jacob get away with deception to secure his blessing; allows Jacob’s sons to avenge the rape of their sister Dinah by murdering not only the perpetrators but all the males in the city (who they had conned into being circumcised prior to their murders!),[18] and afflicts the Philistine kings after Abraham and later Isaac lied about their wives being their sisters.[19] These actions, like the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart in Exodus, hardly resemble the behavior of a steady leader.

The imagery of this kind of powerful God is important to the people assembling the Pentateuch. But upholding this kind of God as an appropriate role model for the behavior of any leader—particularly spiritual leaders!—serves as means to propagate abuse of power, promote unequal power dynamics, and justify abuse and violence so evident in our culture today. The God represented by these texts needs help and any spiritual leader—any person for that matter—who is behaving this way should be forced to enter some kind of treatment or counseling program or resign their position of authority and leadership.

The verse I opened this paper with tells of the conversation between God and Moses immediately after the incident with the golden calf. I can appreciate the editors wanting to illustrate how hurt the liberating God is by his stiff-necked peoples’ disobedience and how a human could actually sit and reason with God. But the notion that this God once again reaches such a rageful state that he not only wants to kill everyone—again—but also threatens to break his covenant with Abraham and supplant him with Moses makes God neither more human nor relatable. Rather, it makes me think this God is in much need of mental health services and counseling—and a long, long Sabbath from his leadership responsibilities.


 

[1] Until this class, I never knew that the name Red Sea was a mistranslation. It may take me a while to break out of the habit of calling it such.

[2] Genesis 22.

[3] Generally, I strive to avoid referring to God with masculine pronouns. For the purposes of this paper, I will suspend this convention to emphasize the notion that the God of the Hebrew Bible was envisioned as male in gender.

[4] Genesis 6.

[5] Exodus 14.

[6] Exodus 32.

[7] Michael D. Coogan, The Old Testament: A Historical and Literary Introduction to the Hebrew Scriptures, 3 ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 51.

[8] Regardless of exactly by whom or when the current canon of the Hebrew Bible was compiled, I shall refer to the team of translators, compilers, proofers, and project managers as “the editors.”

[9] By framing God as bipolar, I certainly intend no insult to anyone who suffers from mental illness. Mental health is a very serious concern and should receive due consideration, especially among clergy and in the church. The news cycles are full of instances of what happens when mental health issues are not addressed and similarly, I believe we possess a canon whose God is suffering just the same.

[10] Coogan, 55.

[11] Coogan, 7.

[12] Genesis 6:9, NRSV.

[13] Exodus 4:24.

[14] Genesis 19:24-25.

[15] Exodus 17:14.

[16] See Exodus 4:21, 7:3, and 10:20.

[17] Genesis 19 and 38, respectively.

[18] Genesis 34.

[19] Genesis 20 and 26.


Bibliography

Coogan, Michael D. The Old Testament: A Historical and Literary Introduction to the Hebrew Scriptures. 3 ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.


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