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Dark God: Cruelty, Sex, and Violence in the Old Testament

01.03.14 | Denver Journal, Old Testament, M. Daniel Carroll R. | by Thomas Römer

Dark God: Cruelty, Sex, and Violence in the Old Testament

    A Denver Journal Book Review by Dr. M. Daniel Carroll R., Distinguished Professor of Old Testament, Denver Seminary, January 2014

    Thomas Römer, Dark God: Cruelty, Sex, and Violence in the Old Testament. Trans. S. O’Neill. New York, NY: Paulist, 2013.  $19.95. Paperback. vi + 154 pp.  ISBN 978-0-8091-4796-0. 

    Römer, professor at the Collège de France and the Faculty of Theology and Science of Religion at Lausanne University, wrote this book to respond to lay questions about the God of the Old Testament. This volume is an English translation of the third French edition, which appeared in 2009. Its six chapters deal with images of God that trouble believers today. Römer’s purpose, he says in the Preface, is to “show that the Old Testament texts that might shock us have arisen in specific historical circumstances and it is theologically inadmissible to use these texts indiscriminately, whatever the reason” (p. vi). This statement alerts the reader that Römer defines his method primarily as historical: to situate a text in its proper context, he believes, is to understand it correctly and thereby force a rethinking of modern critiques.

    Römer begins the Introduction with a brief recounting of queries of the Old Testament God that can be traced from Marcion in the second century A.D. through the Enlightenment period to the twentieth century. The problem with these interpretations, echoing his earlier words, is that they reflect “an uncritical reading of the Hebrew Bible, a reading that fails to take into account the historical setting and cultural circumstances of the Old Testament itself” (p. 6). Römer proceeds to map out his view of the evolutionary development of Israel’s theology, from polytheism to monotheism. With this, he can say that the Old Testament is a collection of disparate beliefs. Therefore, we should expect to encounter differing interpretations of God in the text, which then must be evaluated for their legitimacy in their time and place and also for today.

    Chapter one deals with the question, “Is God Male?” The author surveys the male images of God: YHWH as king, spouse or lover (Römer inserts a discussion on the Asherah inscriptions of Khirbet el-Qom and Kuntillet Ajrud), and father. With the concept of father and Genesis’s statement that both male and female are created in the image of God, ideas that Römer dates late, the royal ideology of a privileged relationship with the deity is now in the process of being democratized—that is, extended to all. In addition, in later periods maternal images of God begin to surface (even though God is never called “mother”). So, it is not fair to say that the Old Testament has strictly a male definition of God.

    The topic of the second chapter is, “Is God Cruel?” The issue here is human sacrifice that God apparently sanctions. Though forbidden in the Law, God asks Abraham to sacrifice Isaac (Gen. 22). The author explains that this is the only time God demanded human sacrifice, even as he provided a substitute. From the exilic context to which he assigns this passage, Römer says that Genesis 22 actually is a polemic against human sacrifice. Next, he deals with the sacrifice of Jephthah’s daughter (Judges 11). He sees the silence of God in the narrative not as an endorsement, but as God expressing disapproval of such religious aberrations. Lastly, Römer deals with Jacob’s encounter with God in Genesis 32 and Moses’ in Exodus 4. Again, Römer interprets these against the backdrop of the exile or after the return to the land. He places the case of Moses, Zipporah, and the circumcision of their son (by a woman!) within the debates at that time of integrating non-Jews into the people of God. Neither the Jacob nor the Moses story allow for any facile, ‘triumphalist’ views of God. In sum, these passages actually are about human failings and wrong perceptions of God.

    The question for chapter three is “Is God a Warlike Despot?” In the opening paragraphs Römer rejects the options of spiritualizing texts where God is a warrior or pitting them against the supposed New Testament God of love. Dating Joshua and much of Deuteronomy to the seventh century, when Judah was under Assyrian hegemony, he argues that these texts were designed to subvert Assyrian ideology by demonstrating that Yahweh was stronger than the Assyrian gods. They do not reflect historical events. At the same time, these passages are counterbalanced by others that undermine any notion that Israel is capable of saving itself with war. The exclusionary stance of Deuteronomy 7 and Ezra 9 reflects the fear of post-exilic Jews of loss of their identity. In contrast, the Joseph story (Gen.37-50) offers a more conciliatory attitude toward living among others. As in his other chapters, Römer dates passages in such a way to illumine their (unacceptable) views and contrasts them with others that champion more inclusive views.

    In the fourth chapter Römer discusses “Is God Self-Righteous and Humans Mere Sinners?” That is, does the God of the Old Testament limit human freedom? He begins with an analysis of Genesis 3, which he sees as not dealing with what is called ‘original sin’ but rather with free will. He also discusses the strictures on human sexuality, which often seem focused on procreation, but he then presents the Song of Songs as a poem to erotic love.

    In chapter five the author responds to the query “Is God Violent and Vengeful?” The first half of this chapter interprets Genesis 4 as a myth to explain the existence and origins of human violence, as well as to demonstrate God’s desire to forestall its spread. Römer then turns to passages that call out for divine vengeance (e.g., Ps. 137, 58). These, he says, express longings for God’s violent intervention on behalf of the oppressed. While these may be an encouragement for those who live in such situations today, they do not justify a theology of violence. These passages essentially leave vengeance in God’s hands, thereby preventing their appropriation for human violence.

    The sixth and last chapter is titled “Is God Comprehensible?” How can one explain the existence of misfortune in a world that supposedly was created good? To respond to this perennial human doubt the Old Testament presents a theology of retribution, where evil is seen as reward for sin. At the same time, though, Job and Ecclesiastes problematize any absolutizing of this view. We are left with the reality that God and his ways are not completely understandable.

    The Conclusion restates Römer’s main points that problematic concepts of the Old Testament need to be situated in their proper contexts and that God cannot be squeezed into neat categories. The author closes this volume with these words, “The God that the Hebrew Bible presents to Jews, Christians, to the whole of humanity, has not finished questioning us, astonishing us, and calling into question our too-well established theological ideas” (p. 146).

    The topic of this book is timely, and it is interesting to see that the issue of some potentially uncomfortable images of God in the Old Testament is not limited to the United States. Recently several books have presented negative evaluations of the Old Testament, so it is important that there be appropriate defenses of the Bible in response. What needs to be asked, of course, is whether Römer’s work fills that need. To some degree, the success of his project depends on the strength of his presuppositions and dating of texts. Perhaps those who start from a similar framework will find Dark God helpful. For those who do not, however, parts of the argument are problematic. For instance, if one does not agree with Römer’s evolutionary view of God and (hypothetical) dating of texts, then some of his solutions lose their weight—such as, the situating of Deuteronomy and Joshua within the time frame of the neo-Assyrian empire. There is a solid scholarly corpus that takes stances on these issues that are more in line with the biblical presentation of Israel’s history and theology (and still another that would take more radical views on such topics). Römer, in other words, writes from a critical posture that echoes the consensus only in some circles.

    Coupled with this historical-critical matter is the reality that the Old Testament itself places these passages within different literary contexts. That is, they are not presented as texts to be read like a critical reconstruction might have it. Thus, even if what the author says might have merit, the book does not respond to how to deal with the Old Testament as we now have it. The critical reconstruction does not handle the ethics of the canon, which ultimately is what raises the questions of the average reader, both in the past and today.

    In spite of these fundamental drawbacks to Römer’s arguments, there is value to Dark God. To begin with, the author’s commitment to the Old Testament as scripture is clear and his conviction that the God of the Bible is complex and not totally knowable is laudable. Throughout Römer states that there is a continuous thread of divine nonviolence, justice, and love across the Old Testament. This reviewer also did find some of the points interesting (the critical stance aside), such as the suggestion of considering Genesis 22 (at least in part) as a polemic against human sacrifice, and helpful, like the summary of the maternal images of God.

    At a time when the Old Testament is under so much scrutiny, Römer’s Dark God is a solid contribution to a more sympathetic perspective, even if it works from a set of assumptions with which not all will agree. Still, this volume is another voice in this ongoing contentious conversation, worthy to be heard and gleaned for insights.

    M. Daniel Carroll R., PhD
    Distinguished Professor of Old Testament
    Denver Seminary
    January 2014