Excerpts from Part Two: A Prophet Against the Promise
PART ONE: The Self-Disarmament of God as Evolutionary Pre-Adaptation
Homo sapiens is a self-domesticating species whose aptitude for domestication is as innate as any other genetic given. Religion, historically, has been a major form of human self-domestication or acculturation, and myth has been universally a key part of religion. To say even this much is to suggest that change in a major human myth may legitimately be considered under the heading of evolutionary adaptation in the part of the human species that is affected by the myth. As David Sloan Wilson writes in Darwin’s Cathedral: Evolution, Religion, and the Nature of Society (University of Chicago Press, 2002):
...people who stand outside of religion often regard its seemingly irrational nature as more interesting and important to explain than its communal nature. Rational thought is treated as the gold standard against which religious belief is found so wanting that it becomes well-nigh inexplicable. Evolution causes us to think about the subject in a completely different way. Adaptation becomes the gold standard against which rational thought must be measured alongside other modes of thought. In a single stroke, rational thought becomes necessary but not sufficient to explain the length and breadth of human mentality, and the so-called irrational features of religion can be studied respectfully as potential adaptations in their own right rather than as idiot relatives of rational thought. (pp.122-3).
When the Christian revision of Jewish myth is regarded in this way, when it is regarded, namely, as part of “the length and breadth of human mentality” in the process of endless evolution, the revision is problematized in a new way. Rather than ask “Is it true?” or, much less, “Did it happen?” a questioner working within Sloan Wilson’s problematic would ask of this revision “How, if at all, was it more adaptive than what preceded it?” or, more loosely, “What was or still is its point?”
The Bible—comprising both Christianity’s edition of received Jewish scripture (the Tanakh as edited into the Old Testament) and Christianity’s epilogue to scripture (the New Testament as appended to the Old)—has as its point that God has saved mankind from its sins and bestowed upon it the boon of eternal life. To use Milton’s never-surpassed summary of the Christian myth, paradise lost has become paradise regained. Did such an event ever occur? Is it true? Rather than ask these questions, we may prefer to ask in what way it might ever be or have been adaptive to tell such a story week after week, year after year, and to assimilate it to the point that it could influence everyday behavior. The terms of the claim, death as punishment and life as reward, are sufficiently close to evolution’s extinction and survival to suggest that the underlying concern is identical or at least related. Assuming that much, the question that comes to the fore is: From just what sins does this alleged salvation save? What is the behavior that the myth intends to proscribe and thereby eradicate or repress? What is the (presumptively adaptive) behavior it intends to impose?
Torah, the opening five books of the Bible, imposes the death penalty for a long list of offenses, but all of theses offenses—even those that seem to refer only to relations among human beings—are religious as well as ethical in character. They are understood to constitute infidelity to God if only because God himself has given them this meaning. In imposing his covenant on Israel, God presents the choice between obedience and disobedience to his commandments as, in the most personal way possible, a choice between fidelity and infidelity to himself. To be sure, apostasy, the actual worship of another god is the supreme offense and the one most frequently mentioned, but all other offenses are understood to imply apostasy and therefore to be not just unethical but also irreligious. Every sin is simultaneously itself and the sin of disloyalty to or betrayal of God.
Putting theological betrayal into anthropological terms, the meaning of the covenant is that any unlawful act is a seditious act to the extent that it undermines national solidarity. When God warns that he will punish the disobedient with death, his threat extends, significantly, not just to sinful individual Israelites but also and even preeminently to Israel as a whole. He has made Israel into a nation, God warns, and he can unmake it at will. Empirically, his statement may be understood to mean that without a tribal law commanding the widest and deepest assent, Israel will not survive attacks by its many enemies.
The context, in other words, is endless war. Though famine, pestilence, and plague are all mentioned, war is clearly the preeminent peril. It is from war, above all, that God saves whomever he saves and through war that he punishes his enemies, domestic or foreign. “Natural” disasters do occur at his behest, but the context is almost always military. One need only recall the “ten plagues” of the Book of Exodus. Enmity between Israel and its neighbors is expressed mythologically as God’s bitter resentment of his divine rivals. Accordingly, if peace between God and his rival gods is simply not an option, if he cannot “live and let live” in the heavenly realm, then Israel must not be more tolerant than he. The alternatives are victory and defeat. Peaceful accommodation short of either extreme is envisioned only rarely and then not as mutual tolerance but only as the voluntary acknowledgment by Israel’s neighbors of the supremacy and benevolence of Israel’s God—the joyous eschatological vision of Isaiah 56 and kindred passages.
Now, in the conscienceless terms of evolution, war has often been a highly adaptive behavior. Nations that win their wars tend to survive, and those that lose theirs tend to die out. In the wars that European immigrants to the Americas waged with the natives, the natives lost, and many of the native nations are now extinct. The Europeans won, and their proportion of the overall world population through their New World descendants has greatly increased as a result. In the early portions of the Old Testament, the wars of Yahweh are seen as wars of this adaptive sort—wars whose real results are survival and national success in the form of spectacularly successful reproduction.
Yet war is not always an adaptive behavior. There are Pyrrhic victories. There are stalemates that leave both sides ravaged and exhausted. There are wars in which everyone loses. There are military uprisings doomed from the start. How does Homo sapiens, the self-domesticating animal, respond to the threat of imminent but lethally maladaptive war? One way may be by creating religious myths—myths to which existential rather than merely aesthetic assent is given—in which God or the gods eschew violence as the proper resolution of rivalry or as the uniquely adequate response to oppression or the threat of oppression.
In the New Testament, the dissident Jews who founded Christianity at a time of extreme peril for their nation created such a myth. They did not found a wholly new religion with a new central myth and a new God. Instead, they took the God-story they had inherited and gave its plot a revisionist conclusion by turning its divine protagonist from a warrior into a pacifist. The Lamb of God, executed by the empire he was expected to overthrow, the empire that by the terms of the received myth he surely would have overthrown, is a defeat in historical terms. God wins a cosmic victory, to be sure, but the substitution of cosmic for historic victory makes for a decidedly revisionist tale. Two examples of contrasting texts from the Old Testament and the New Testament must suffice to suggest the character of the revision.
In 2 Kings 1, Ahaziah, King of Samaria, suffers an accident and sends to inquire of the god Baalzebub whether he will recover. Yahweh, God of Israel, is offended by this act of homage to a rival god and sends his prophet Elijah to rebuke the king. A confrontation ensues between Elijah and a captain in the king’s army.
But Elijah answered the captain of fifty: “If I am a man of God, let fire come down from heaven and consume you and your fifty.” Then the fire of God came down from heaven and consumed him and his fifty.
(2 Kings 1:12)
This is ordinarily how Yahweh wins when challenged. In Luke 9:54-55, however, this strategy undergoes the mentioned revision. Jesus’ disciples, James and John, facing religious opponents (in Samaria, just to make the contrast harder to miss) ask their master:
“Lord, do you want us to bid fire come down from heaven and consume them as Elijah did?” But he turned and rebuked them, and he said, “You do not know what manner of Spirit you are of; for the Son of Man came not to destroy men’s lives but to save them.”
To save them from what, exactly? Perhaps to save them from a mistake. This highly self-conscious and highly literary juxtaposition of two instances of religious rivalry and two different responses to it suggests a comparably self-conscious determination to proclaim that violence—perhaps particularly in the name of religion—can be lethally maladaptive. Do thus, Jesus says, and men’s lives will not be saved but destroyed.
A second, more striking example of the same revision involves a famous line from St. Paul: “O Death, where is thy sting? O Grave, where is thy victory?” A fuller citation, in the King James Version familiar to many from Handel’s Messiah would be:
Behold, I tell you a mystery;
We shall not all sleep,
But we shall all be changed
In a moment,
In the twinkling of an eye,
At the last trumpet.
The trumpet shall sound,
And the dead shall be raised incorruptible,
And we shall be changed.
For this corruptible
Must put on incorruption
And this mortal must put on immortality.
Then shall be brought to pass
The saying that is written:
Death is swallowed up in victory.
O Death, where is thy sting?
O Grave, where is thy victory?
The sting of death is sin,
And the strength of sin is in the law.
But thanks be to God,
Who giveth us the victory
Through our Lord Jesus Christ.
(1 Cor. 15:51-57)
If the entire Bible, Old Testament and New together, were to be reduced to just one word, the word, in my opinion, would be victory. But the nature of the victory in the Old Testament and in the New Testament differs crucially. In Paul’s vision of resurrection to immortality, the victory will not be won until time—that is, history—has ended. When the trumpet sounds to end history, Christians who have bound themselves to Christ sacramentally in his death will find themselves bound to him as well in his glorious resurrection. Their victory and God’s will be over death itself rather than over any one death-dealing human enemy. God will have achieved this victory for them not by defeating his human enemies but by allowing himself to be defeated by them and then triumphing impersonally over the defeat itself rather than personally over the enemies who inflicted the defeat. Were it not so, then Christ’s resurrection would be nothing more than a triumph over Pontius Pilate.
The one personal element that does remain in this victory is also cosmic rather than historic. The restoration of human immortality—a gift that God took back when he cursed Adam and Eve—is God’s final, definitive victory over and recovery from Satan, whose deception led to that curse and to the blighting of God’s creation through all of human history.
Lost in all the excitement of Paul’s language is the plain fact that until Christ came, God had endlessly promised imminent victory over human enemies rather than ultimate victory over Satan as the original merchant of death. The paired apostrophes at the climax of Paul’s prose poem—“O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?”—are lines from the prophet Hosea that boil to the surface of Paul’s Jewish memory at just this peak moment. Paul doesn’t have them verbatim. What Hosea actually said was, at least in the text that has come down to us: “O Death, where are thy plagues? O Grave, where is thy scourge?” (Hosea 13:14; my translation). But as God spoke these lines to Hosea, they are not a promise but a threat. We might better catch their sense if we translated “O Death, bring on thy plagues! O Grave, lay on thy scourge!”
The lines come near the end of a poem in which God is seething with fury and prepared to tear Israel limb from limb for sinning against him. “I will destroy you, O Israel,” he says, “Who can help you? Where now is your king, to save you?” (13:9). The Children of Israel are doomed to a ghastly death:
I will fall upon them like a bear robbed of her cubs,
I will tear open their breast,
And there I will devour them like a lion,
as a wild beast would rend them.
Because she has rebelled against her God,
they shall fall by the sword,
Their little ones shall be dashed in pieces
and their pregnant women ripped open.
That God can speak this way of his own people Israel is not the point. The point is that his response to their offense, as on other occasions to their enemies’ offenses, is mass execution. Death itself, note well, is not God’s enemy but God’s weapon. Thus, Paul does not just quote Hosea out of context when he makes “O Death...O Grave...” part of a vision of immortality; he quotes Hosea in a diametrically reversed context. But the reversal makes Paul’s moment of ecstatic exegesis, so to call it, a fine microcosm for the larger change I speak of, by which death itself does indeed become God’s enemy and does indeed cease to be his weapon. God has laid down the death weapon. He has disarmed himself.
Did fire actually come down from heaven and consume the soldiers confronting Elijah? I assume not. Did the historical Jesus actually voice the disdain that Luke attributes to him for such religiously motivated violence? Perhaps, but perhaps not. Luke or whoever wrote the Gospel According to Luke may have invented the episode or recorded an oral tradition that was beyond checking at the point when he received it. As for the blood-curdling tirade that Hosea places in the mouth of God or the towering vision of immortality that Paul evokes, the question “Did it happen?” cannot coherently be asked of either one.
The only thing that matters in either contrasting pair is that the sanction once given to violence by the violent character of God has been withdrawn. There are no New Testament Psalms calling on God to rise up and smite Rome. There are, instead, Pauline exhortations to endure under Roman persecution and even Roman martyrdom in the confident hope of resurrection and immortality. Yet if the expression of this change as exhortation is fascinating, more fascinating still is its expression as divine self-characterization. Jesus, according to the Gospel, is the Word of God made flesh. If the character of Jesus-the-Word changes, then God’s message changes. It is indeed that simple. At its deepest level, the Gospel is legislation by characterization.
Jesus’ warrant for withdrawing divine sanction from religious violence, in other words, is his claim that he is God and therefore has the right to say what God wants or no longer wants. Though in the Elijah example Jesus says that God’s character has been misunderstood rather than that it has changed, the effect is the same. A new kind of story is told about God, and in it he wants something new of his creatures. Jesus’ disciples, Jesus tells them, do not know “what manner of Spirit [they] are of,” which is to say what manner of God has created them. But Jesus claims to know what they do not. Referring to himself as “Son of Man,” a title he reserves for his most pregnant comments about himself, Jesus associates his mysterious self with the mystery of God, and then reveals that, in effect, God’s spectacular career as a warrior is over, the consequence being that they must not be warriors either.
In the Torah God is a mythic figure who acts in history. In the Gospel, Jesus is a historical figure who acts in myth. The kind of victory he promises is to be won not over any historical figure—not, most particularly, over Rome on the eve of Rome’s six-decade Jewish War—but, mythically, over death itself and over the Satan who bested God in Eden but will not best him again. As of old, this victory calls for human fidelity and obedience to God; but as God now eschews violence toward his enemies, so fidelity and obedience to him now require that his people eschew it as well. They must do toward their enemies as he does toward his. When Rome comes to crucify him, Jesus—God Incarnate on the terms of the fully developed Christian myth—does not resist. Even after he rises from death to life, turning apparent defeat into redemptive victory, Rome is still Rome, and Caesar still Caesar. And so it was to be when Rome came to martyr his first followers. Unlike God’s signature victory over Pharaoh, God Incarnate’s mythic, pacific victory over Satan entails neither defeat nor mortal danger for any historical adversary.
We may speculate that the historical matrix for this mythological re-vision was a contemporary intuition on the part of some Jews that resistance to Rome would prove futile—as, in the event, it did. Jerusalem did not fall until forty years after the death of Jesus, but serious bloodshed had begun much earlier. At the death of Herod the Great in 4 B.C.E., quite possibly the year of Jesus’ birth, there occurred a violent Jewish uprising and then a mass Roman crucifixion of captured Jewish rebels. During his lifetime and the decades immediately following, Palestine teetered on the verge of war, with recurrent outbreaks of actual warfare, until a climactic mass uprising brought in Vespasian, Titus, and the Roman legions with near-genocidal results. A few decades later, a second, even more desperate uprising under Hadrian brought a second, equally crushing defeat.
Through the onset, duration, and aftermath of this protracted and catastrophic military confrontation, God’s identity as a warrior-judge of ruthlessly violent proclivities seems to have come into question in various Jewish circles, not just in the one that produced Christianity. Was God really like that? Or was he still like that? The Testament of Abraham, a Jewish text contemporary with the rise of Christianity, portrays Abraham and God dealing death to sinners as ruthlessly as Moses and God do in Numbers 16, where the Earth opens up and swallows the rebel Korah and his followers, or as Elijah and God do in 2 Kings 1, the passage cited above. But then comes a surprise: God steps in and stops Abraham, suggesting that their joint violence has really been more Abraham’s wish than his own and inevitably planting the suspicion in readers’ minds that the violence of Numbers 16 and 2 Kings 1 were more Moses’ and Elijah’s wish than God’s. Addressing himself to Michael, the commander of his angelic army, God says:
Michael, Commander-in-Chief, command the chariot to stand still, and turn Abraham back, lest he see all the inhabited world. For if he were to see all those living in sin, he would destroy all the creation. For behold, Abraham has not sinned, and he does not have mercy upon sinners. But I made the world, and I do not wish to destroy any of them. Rather I delay the death of a sinner until he turns and lives. 1
God’s concluding words paraphrase a line from Ezekiel 18:32: “I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, says the Lord God. Turn, then, and live.”
But there was a great deal of scripture, as the Testament of Abraham clearly recognizes, against which that line could be quoted, most notably Genesis 18, in which God destroys Sodom despite Abraham’s intercession. The Testament of Abraham, as Dale C. Allison, Jr., has recently observed:
turn[s] Gen 18 upside down. In the Bible it is not Abraham but God who determines to destroy the wicked; the patriarch, on the contrary, prays for their deliverance and God’s indulgence. So in the Testament God and his human “friend” exchange roles. 2
But if God is prepared to exchange roles with Abraham, then, for the Testament author no less than for Luke, God has changed.
In scripture, when God changes, he always seems to do so in an oblique movement, claiming to have always been what he has just become or rejecting as defective and human behaviors and attitudes he once embraced as divine. Thus Ezekiel 18 begins:
The word of the Lord came to me: What do you mean by repeating this proverb concerning the land of Israel, “The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge”? As I live, says the Lord God, this proverb shall no more be used by you in Israel. Know that all lives are mine; the life of the parent as well as the life of the child is mine: it is only the person who sins that shall die....
But collective punishment has been virtually a signature divine behavior. At Exodus 34:7, in a theophany of maximum solemnity, God boasted of punishing “the parents’ fault in the children and in the grandchildren to the third and fourth generation.” Jeremiah 31:29-30 quotes the same teeth-on-edge proverb but acknowledges, as Ezekiel does not, that God’s conduct had made the proverb quite applicable to the experience of Israel punished by God—until God changed and decided that “Everyone who eats unripe grapes will have his own teeth set on edge.”
The retreat from collective punishment in these texts is scarcely more than an opening, but it is an opening that could be and apparently was seized and exploited later when circumstances were favorable. The Wisdom of Solomon, another pseudepigraphical text, written perhaps a century earlier in Jewish Alexandria and eventually included in the Old Testament (though not in the Tanakh), foreshadowed the New Testament use of God’s rare conciliatory and peaceable moments to gainsay his many violent ones. In this text, Solomon says to God:
...in your sight the entire cosmos is as a turn of the scale, and as a dewdrop in the dawn alighting on the earth. But you have compassion over all, because you can do all, and you overlook the sins of human beings with a view to their repentance. For you love all that exists, and loathe nothing which you have created; for if you had hated anything you would never have fashioned it. 3
Allison speculates about “an oral tradition or...a text no longer extant, a tradition or text that raised a critical question mark over biblical tales in which prophets bring down violent judgment upon human beings and cut short their earthly lives.” 4 What matters from the evolutionary perspective, however, is less the details of the historical matrix than the fact that the myth that emerged by means of it has acquired a wider applicability with each advance in military technology. With each advance, the madness of “militant” pacifism has moved a step closer to sanity and, beyond sanity, to the commonest of common sense.
So it is that the revision of an ancient myth may come to seem an evolutionary pre-adaptation, two millennia early, to conditions that may lie nearer in the future than we think. Pre-adaptation, in evolutionary biology, is the development of traits in one environment that subsequently turn out to be advantageous in quite another environment. An environment may change around an organism as, for example, through climate change, or an organism may migrate into a new, physically different area where a trait that had made little or no difference begins to make a big one. Thus, when bacteria are cultured in the presence of an antibiotic, their surviving descendants commonly have a resistance to that antibiotic. The resistance is adaptation to that initial environment. Adaptation turns out to be pre-adaptation if and when the bacteria prove resistant to other, quite different antibiotics. It is as if they were preparing for something they did not know was coming.
The Christian myth of a God who no longer tries to defeat his human enemies may well be described as a defeatist myth. This is, famously, just how Nietzsche described it. Given a weak nation confronting an invincible empire, this defeatist myth may well have been locally and briefly adaptive, but it would not necessarily be—and for many centuries clearly was not—universally or durably adaptive. However, as the man-made environment for human conflict has changed, what was true for a single weak nation at a single passing moment may become true for all nations all the time.
Writing about “bio-Armageddon” in the Los Angeles Times (October 10, 2002), epidemiologist Scott P. Layne and political scientist Michael H. Sommer wrote as follows:
It costs about $1 million to kill one person with a nuclear weapon, about $1,000 to kill one person with a chemical weapon and about $1 to kill one person with a biological weapon. Low cost alone may dictate that current and future terrorists will opt for the $1 biological killers.
Last year a bombshell of a scientific paper, published in the Journal of Virology, revealed that a bioengineered form of mousepox—a close cousin of smallpox—was vaccine-resistant and 100% lethal. It showed that simply inserting one immune-inhibiting gene into mousepox was all it took....
It’s no longer hypothetical to bioengineer such an agent. And less than $1 million would be required to create deadly and contagious agents.
In the wrong hands, a bioengineered virus could be bottled and used as an insurance policy against invasion and overthrow. And, if unleashed, it could change the very fabric of remaining modern civilization.
As $1 million shrinks to $1, the means for Armageddon are miniaturized and democratized. At these prices, everyman becomes his own military superpower, at which point peace by way of military victory, even the special case of victory by military deterrence, would seem to become impossible. Only universal disarmament would seem to stand a chance of forestalling the self-extinction of the human species, and universal disarmament, in turn, would seem possible, if at all, only by cultural change.
Let me attempt an analogy. Little boys around the world tend to settle their arguments by fistfights, but little boys have little fists that do little harm. Fistfights among older boys and younger men are another matter. In a barroom brawl, the man who takes the punch may end up with a broken jaw, and the man who throws it with a broken hand. As they move from the culture of boyhood to the culture of manhood, males around the world resort less and less to the fistfight as a way to resolve arguments.
Analogously, then, when America had the atomic bomb and Japan did not, America used the bomb on Japan. America, in that moment, was like a man in its power, and Japan like a boy. When America and Russia both had the atomic bomb, neither used it on the other. They were now the adults, and the rest of the world—where hot wars still took place—was like a pack of unruly boys. As the nuclear club has grown larger, wars among its members have so far not occurred. Does it follow that the path to world peace is rampant nuclear proliferation? This is clearly a path that the world—at least the major world powers—would never choose. But if it comes about anyway, then either the erstwhile nuclear "children"—those nations that, lacking weapons of mass destruction, were at the mercy of those that had them—will become "adults" and refrain from their use like grown men declining to settle arguments with their fists or the most unthinkable kind of all-against-all war will ensue. And to recur to the point earlier made, proliferation is no longer to be construed as just proliferation to recognized nations but also to diffuse movements and militant individuals: Everyman his own military superpower.
Under such circumstances as these, the defeatist Christian myth as a counter-intuitive cultural artifact, bizarre and unworkable as it has been under hitherto normal human conditions, may begin to seem an unintended spiritual pre-adaptation to the maximally hazardous environment into which we are all now moving.
Obviously, this environment was not in place for the entire human race and the entire human planet at the time when, by the terms of the myth, God Incarnate chose to die without a fight. For this reason, when Christianity became the state religion of the Roman Empire, its pacifist revision of the epic of God the Warrior could be was re-militarized with a vengeance, yet the texts that express the original revision survive and, taken at full strength, can still intrigue and give pause, just as they have done, at least intermittently, from the very start.
Early in the second century C.E., before Christians and Jews had defined one another dialectically into two distinct religions to be known thenceforth by different names, before either the Mishnah or the New Testament had taken clear shape, and before the notion of an authoritative and exclusionary canon of scripture had taken hold, a Christian bishop, Marcion of Sinope, pursued just the sort of disparity that I write of above in a now lost, reportedly voluminous work of comparative exegesis called Antitheses. In it, he concluded that the God of whom Jesus spoke and the God who had created the world had to be two different gods, so different were their respective characters. Marcion’s ditheism, like his rejection of the Hebrew Scriptures, was rejected by the more Judaic Christianity that lived on to become orthodoxy. But the fact that Marcion’s answer was rejected does not mean that Marcion’s problem was entirely resolved. For if there are not two gods, then—for anyone who accepts the premise that the Old and the New Testament speak of one and the same God—God must have undergone a radical change. The characterological differences between God and God Incarnate, divine father and divine son, are simply too salient to ignore.
Two gods or a changed God? Tertium non datur. For much of Christian theology, the notion of change in God has been unacceptable, and those parts of scripture that suggest change have been a scandal to be accommodated rather than an advance to be celebrated. In my own opinion, it is because the scandal of change is unavoidable and yet finally manageable within the canonical text that the greater scandal of ditheism could be rejected as heresy. Allison comments:
In some Christian circles, the implied critique of 2 Kgs 1:9-12 in Luke 9:51-56 made it, at least by Marcion’s time, part of a case for distinguishing between the God of the Jews and the God of the Christians. But the problem of conflicting theologies was not born with Christianity. That predicament was already internal to Judaism. The indiscriminately compassionate God of Ezek 33 and Wis 11 is not easily thought of as heeding a pitiless prayer for fire, and some Jews saw this plainly enough. 5
Allison is right that the problem of conflicting theologies was not born with Christianity, but the matter can be stated even more sharply: Christianity itself was born of the problem of conflicting Jewish theologies. Rabbinic Judaism sought to resolve this conflict by midrash, expanding scripture in the middle in a way that muted and minimized the violence of God. In Lamentations Rabbah, for example, God expresses dismay and regret and even laments his own condition after seeing what he has done to Jerusalem through the Romans.
Christianity, founded by Jews and reading a New Testament written by Jews, sought to resolve the conflict by expanding scripture at the end, continuing God’s story through an epilogue in which he becomes a human being who goes as a lamb to his own slaughter. The result, in either case, is a revision—relatively radical or relatively conservative—of the identity of God and, of greatest eventual consequence, a relative disarmament of God.
Or so I would contend. Theologians, whether Christian or Jewish, may disagree; but when change in myth is understood as adaptation in the interest of survival and when, furthermore, God’s repudiation of violence in a given myth is viewed as a move toward the same repudiation in a species with a unique capacity to exterminate itself, then anthropology may embrace what theology resists.
The irony of the Christian myth as an epilogue to the received Jewish myth can scarcely be exaggerated. "Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's," Jesus says, "and to God the things that are God's" (Mark 12:17). Can one imagine Moses saying, or God saying to Moses, "Render unto Pharaoh the things that are Pharaoh's, and to God the things that are God's"? In Jesus' willingness to accommodate to Rome, he is radically unlike Moses and Moses' God and ironically close in his political philosophy to Caiphas, the collaborationist high priest whose case for Jesus' preemptive execution was that "If we let him go on in this way, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our Temple and our nation" (John 11:48).
The story of this ironic change, the Lion of Judah becoming the Lamb of God, remains compelling as literature even if it is not relevant or “salvific” as proto-pacifist myth, but surely the one possibility need not preclude the other. Both, in any case, were among my motivations for writing the exploratory Christ: A Crisis in the Life of God (Alfred A. Knopf, 2001), a work that takes its modest place among a number of other “Marcionite” works produced in the twentieth century by writers of a sociological turn of mind as well as by social scientists working within a literary no less than a societal frame of reference. Particularly in the German Kultgurgebiet and under the impact of Adolf Harnack’s Marcion: Das Evangelium vom fremden Gott (1921), the allusion to Marcion could be quite explicit. It is so, for example, in Ernst Bloch’s Geist der Utopie (1923). Similarly, in Thomas Mann’s post-World War II novel Doktor Faustus, Simon Magus, the ancient gnostic sometimes seen as archetype for Faust, becomes the occasion for a meditation on mingled national and civilizational, human and divine failure—as Karen Grimstad has demonstrated in her noteworthy The Modern Revival of Gnosticism and Thomas Mann’s Doktor Faustus (Camden House, 2002).
In the wake of the mid-century Nazi Shoah, Thomas Mann was not alone in raising the question of the goodness of God—a question that often seemed to take priority over the existence of God. This question was raised with new insistence in many quarters, and with it the question of the goodness or the life-worthiness of the human species. Does this species deserve to survive? Can the man or woman who has survived Auschwitz and learned from it the true character of Homo sapiens be expected to resume normal life thereafter? In this form, the question of the goodness of God was raised with great poignancy by the apparent suicide of Primo Levi.
The same question appears again in Oscar Hijuelos’s recent novel A Simple Habana Melody (From When the World Was Good) (HarperCollins, 2002). In this paradoxically enchanting work, an émigré Cuban composer, a bisexual voluptuary who is also a devout Catholic, is interned at Buchenwald because of the accident of his Jewish-sounding name. Israel Levis survives the war and makes his way back to Cuba, but until the last pages of the novel he is sunk in a deep and bitter depression. Not only has he lost his faith in the goodness of God, he has also lost his appetite for music. Why bother with it? The piano in his house sits silent. His former captors’ cruel indifference to human life survives, by a final cruelty, as his own indifference to everything, including even music, that once made his life so richly humane and rewarding.
It is no insult to Hijuelos to say that his is one of many post-Shoah attempts to engage the goodness of God and the viability of the human life-project as related questions. Only a minority of those many efforts has engaged this question by way of a re-reading of the Bible; few, for that matter, have drawn evolutionary biology into the argument. Of the few that have turned to the Bible, most have gravitated not to the Gospel but to the Book of Job as the biblical text that seems most radically to problematize God himself. But in all of these few, it is easy to hear the ghost of Marcion walking.
“If God is good, he is not God,” Archibald MacLeish wrote in his J.B.; “If God is God, he is not good.” Marcion would have had an answer for MacLeish. Marcion lives on as well, acknowledged or not, in critic George Steiner’s discussion of Job in Grammars of Creation (Yale University Press, 2001):
If the Maker is such as his motiveless torment of his loving servant suggests, then creation itself is in question. Then God is guilty of having created. [Emphasis added.]
Marcion had no difficulty at all in conceding that God had created the world. God and God’s world were both terrible, and terrifyingly inconsistent, in just the same way. Literary figures have been drawn to Marcion and to Gnosticism more generally because the fact that God is life-like in this larger sense—wonderful and terrible in the way that life itself is wonderful and terrible—constitutes the very core of his appeal on the literary page.
But there are times when an appealing page is not enough. There are historic moments when the survival of a nation or of the human species itself seems to hang in the balance. Such are the moments that yield speculations about a god beyond God and daring stories about unthinkable change in God. Carl Jung, personally and professionally interested in Gnosticism as he was, pursued this question in his Answer to Job. My own book Christ: A Crisis in the Life of God is a different but related answer to Job and, in effect, to Marcion as well. No, there are not two gods, I maintain, but the one God has repented and changed.
Or, as we may now choose to put it, God has adapted.
1 Dale C. Allison, Jr., “Rejecting Violent Judgment: Luke 9:52-56 and Its Relatives,” Journal of Biblical Literature 121/3 (2002), pp. 459-478.
2 Ibid., p. 474.
3 Ibid., p. 471.
4 Ibid., p. 468.
5 Ibid., p. 478.
PART TWO: God repudiates his warrior past
The scene: Because of Jesus’ fame as a healer, a great crowd has gathered “to hear him and to be cured of their afflictions. People tortured by unclean spirits were cured as well, and everyone in the crowd was trying to touch him since a power came out of him that healed them all” (Luke 6:18-19). They have come from as far south as Jerusalem and as far north as Phoenicia. In all their distress, these people have been on the road for days. A great crowd of such sufferers not patiently waiting their turn but all trying to touch Jesus at once makes for a scene of extreme emotional and physical agitation.
Mingling with these suffering pilgrims is the growing number of Jesus’ local disciples. Just before addressing the throng, he has spent a night praying in the hills and then selected from among them twelve whom he calls “apostles,” or emissaries, recalling—inevitably in this Jewish context—the twelve sons of Jacob for whom the twelve tribes of Israel are named and thereby endowing his personal vocation and this already charged moment with national significance.
Earlier, in a Nazareth synagogue, the prophecy of Isaiah that Jesus said was being fulfilled even as he spoke was:
The spirit of the Lord is upon me,
for he has anointed me
to bring good news to the afflicted.
Since the base meaning of the word messiah is “anointed,” a defensible translation of Isaiah 61:1 is “He has made me Messiah to bring good news to the afflicted.” Very well, the afflicted have gathered in unprecedented numbers: What good news does this messiah have for them in the public address that Christian tradition regards as the most important statement of his ethical teaching?
The news he has for them, whether it can be called good or not, is little short of astonishing, for it is a virtual repudiation of what on innumerable previous occasions God has taught his people to expect of him. Addressing his disciples directly but surrounded by the diseased and insane, Jesus says:
Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.
Blessed are you who now hunger, for you shall have your fill.
Blessed are you who now weep, for you shall laugh.
Blessed are you when people hate you, shun you, insult you, and slander your name for the sake of the Son of Man. Rejoice when that day comes, and dance for joy, for, lo, your reward shall be great in heaven. This is the way their forebears treated the prophets.
But woe to you who are rich, for you have had your consolation.
Woe to you who are sated, for you shall hunger.
Woe to you who now laugh, for you shall mourn and weep.
Woe to you when all speak well of you, for thus did their forebears treat the false prophets.
In Deuteronomy 27-28, speaking through Moses, God served notice on Israel that if it were obedient, it would be blessed, and if disobedient, cursed. The nature of the blessings and curses, however, could not be more unlike the blessings and “woes” listed above. Obedient Israelites were not to be blessed in the two stages that Jesus speaks of. They were not to be, first, poor, hungry, weeping, hated, shunned, and slandered; then, later, sated, laughing, and joyful. On the contrary, God guaranteed them prosperity and hegemony from the start:
The Lord shall make you abound in possessions: in the fruit of your womb, in the fertility of your herd and in the yield of your soil, in the land that he swore to your forebears that he would give to you. For you the Lord will open heaven, his treasure house of rain, to give your land rainfall in due season, and to bless all your labors. You shall lend to many nations, yet borrow from none. The Lord shall put you at the head, not at the tail; you will always be on the top and never on the bottom, if you heed the commandments of the Lord.
As for the curses on the other side of the ledger, God swore to inflict a blood-curdling assortment of horrors if Israel transgressed against him, and he listed the transgressions he had in mind. To name just a few:
Accursed be anyone who moves a neighbor’s boundary marker….
Accursed be anyone who leads a blind man astray on the road….
Accursed be anyone who violates the rights of the alien, the orphan, or the widow….
Accursed be anyone who has sexual relations with his father’s wife….
The list of possible transgressions was long and detailed, but wealth, satiety, joviality, and good repute—the “woes” of Jesus’ list—were not on it.
Speaking through various prophets, God has decried the abuse of wealth, but he has never denounced wealth itself. Through Amos, for example, God said:
For three transgressions of Israel, and for four,
I will not revoke the punishment;
Because they sell the righteous for silver,
and the needy for a pair of shoes,
They trample the face of the poor into the dust of the earth,
and force the afflicted off the road.
But one may search in vain among all God’s earlier utterances for a statement like “Blessed are you who are poor” without the promise that God will someday make these poor rich. And as for the poor, so, analogously, for the hungry, the mournful, and the scorned. Though smug self-satisfaction and a self-righteous sense that one is beyond the reach of judgment are condemned, usually because they accompany other, more serious offenses, satiety, happiness, and good repute are consistently regarded as blessings.
It may be objected that Jesus does not really invert the traditional values, he simply expands the time frame in which God may deliver good and ill to all according to their merit. Punishment will still be punishment, on this reading, and reward will still be reward; the delivery of each will simply come in heaven rather than on earth. Yet if even this much is true, Jesus must be seen to have sharply revised the emerging meaning of his miraculous cures. The diseased and disturbed have gathered in such numbers because they expect immediate relief. The claim that Jesus has made for himself is that, more than an ordinary healer, he is the fulfillment of the grandest promises that God has made to his people rather than yet another postponement of it. Those already suffering so grievously have surely not come so far simply to be told that their misery is their blessing inasmuch as, further along, their reward will be so great. Can this redefinition of weal and woe really be the fulfillment of the promise that the Lord made through Isaiah?
Jesus, preaching frankly against the promise, does not hesitate to say that it can be and indeed it is. His words serve notice, in effect, that he has not come to perform mass healings or mass exorcisms. With a few exceptions, those who are racked with illness or tormented by demons should not look to him for miraculous healing; rather, they should embrace their affliction as analogous to the mistreatment that his own disciples will encounter for their devotion to “the Son of Man.” Whatever his miracles portend, it is not simple, direct, or, least of all, universal relief from pain.
What follows on this surprise, however, is a far greater surprise:
But to you who are listening I say this: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who scorn you. If someone slaps you on one cheek, turn the other cheek as well. If someone takes your outer garment from you, let him have your undergarment as well. Give to anyone who asks of you. If someone takes your property, do not ask for it back. Treat others as you would like them to treat you. If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Why, even sinners love those who love them! And if you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? Again, even sinners do that much.… Instead, love your enemies, and do good to them, and lend without any hope of return. Then you shall have a great reward, and you shall be children of the Most High, for he himself is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked.
Be merciful as your Father is merciful. Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned; forgive, and you will be forgiven. Give, and it will be given to you…because by the measure that you use will you be measured.
In this sermon, Jesus preaches what he will later practice when his enemies come for him and he does not resist them. “Turn the other cheek” has rightly been taken to be his signature teaching. The phrase is used by millions who might not be able to quote anything else that Jesus said and by millions more who do not know that it was he who first said it. It defines him didactically as the Crucifixion defines him dramatically. Yet the popular reception of this sermon, for all the fame it has conferred upon Jesus, has been such as to obscure his deeper originality and his more radical revision of the tradition he inherited.
This has been so because discussion of his ethic of non-resistance to evil has so consistently focused on the application of this ethic rather than on its premise—namely that human beings must do thus because God does thus. But does God in fact do thus? This is a question that interpretation of this passage generally does not ask. Jesus assumes a positive answer to that question without ever asking it, but his assumption elides a drastic revision of the divine identity. When we recall how God has in fact conducted himself in the face of opposition or insult from past enemies, it becomes clear that though Jesus speaks as if God is now as he always has been, he is in fact revealing (or enacting) an enormous change in God.
God, to repeat, is the model whom Jesus would have us believe that we imitate when we love our enemies, do good to those who hate us, and so forth. If we do all this, he says, we “shall be children of the Most High, for he himself is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked.” When urging mercy, Jesus does not say “Be merciful because mercy is better than vengeance.” What he says is “Be merciful as your Father is merciful.” But how merciful has the Father shown himself to be in his previous career? How kind has the Most High typically been when confronted with the ungrateful or the wicked?
God’s classic early characterization of himself comes at Exodus 34:5-7:
The Lord passed before [Moses] in the cloud and stood with him there, and proclaimed the name of the Lord. The Lord passed before him, and proclaimed, “Yahweh! Yahweh! A god merciful and gracious, slow to wrath, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love unto the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin, but letting nothing pass and visiting the sins of the parents upon the children and children’s children unto the third and the fourth generation.”
In this statement, inasmuch as God’s love abides “unto the thousandth generation,” an unimaginably long time, while his punishment reaches only unto the third and fourth, he may seem to be more loving than wrathful. Even here, however, it is clear that, for him, forgiveness by no means precludes punishment. Sinners may be forgiven, yet their children and their children’s children must pay the price. Punishment is never commuted. God lets nothing pass.
It is not principally, however, what God says but what he does that makes him seem a being other than the one whose benignity and neutrality Jesus invokes. The Lord’s actions speak much louder than his deeds. Between the Israelites’ Exodus from Pharaoh’s Egypt and their entry into the promised land of Canaan, to consider only Israelite sinners and only that forty-year period, the Lord executes at least thirty thousand of them. He sees to it that three thousand of his people are put to the sword after the episode of the golden calf in Exodus 32. Later, in Numbers 16, he buries alive some 250 rebellious Levites and Reubenites, along with their wives, their children, and the other members of their households. At a conservative twelve per household, counting concubines and slaves, the total put to death comes to another three thousand. Later still, the Lord fatally poisons an unstated but evidently large number of Israelites when, angry over their complaints of hunger and thirst, he sends “fiery serpents” against them (Num. 21). Finally, after Israelite men consort sexually with the priestesses of a Canaanite god, he slaughters twenty-four thousand (Num. 25). At no point during Israel’s desert wanderings does the Lord seem slow to wrath. At one point, much to the contrary, he contemplates exterminating ungrateful Israel altogether and beginning a new nation from the loins of Moses (Num. 14:12). Moses shames him out of this by warning him that he will ruin his reputation back in Egypt and by quoting to his face the “slow to wrath” language of Exodus 34:6.
So much for the Lord’s conduct toward his friends. What of his conduct toward his enemies? How does Jesus’ characterization of him square with, for example, his characterization of himself to the prophet Habakkuk? In the timber-rattling battle poem found at Habakkuk 3, the Lord portrays himself as a colossus of war who has turned his powers of creation into weapons of destruction, shaking the mountains, gouging riverbeds into the earth, trampling the sea, and terrorizing the very sky. The prophet who receives this vision of cosmic rampage trembles with fear as he alternately describes and prays to the divine warrior who is allegedly coming to his rescue:
You stave in the sinner’s roof beams,
you raze his house to the ground.
You split his skull with your bludgeon,
His warriors you blast away,
They whose joy it was to take us,
like some poor wretch, to devour in their lair.
With your horses you trample the sea,
you stir the mighty waters.
When I heard, I was shaken to the core,
my lips quivered at the sound;
My bones were wrenched loose,
my legs gave way beneath me.
Numb, I await the day of anguish
Which will dawn on the people now attacking us….
(Hab. 3: 13-16)
Though Habakkuk’s is a uniquely vivid evocation of the divine warrior in action, the Lord offers essentially identical self-characterizations in dozens of speeches to other prophets. And Israel did not fail to take the point but learned to pray to the Lord as just the fearsome warrior he claimed to be. Thus, to choose a typical passage from the Book of Psalms:
God is for us a god of deliverance;
Lord Yahweh opens an escape from death.
God smashes the heads of his enemies,
the hairy head of him who walks in guilt.
My Lord said, “I will bring you back from [the mountains of] Bashan,
will retrieve you from the bottom of the sea;
That your feet may wade through blood;
that the tongue of your dogs may have its portion of your enemies.”
If what Jesus is saying is correct, then such prayers can no longer be offered. The Lord can no longer be praised for smashing the heads of his enemies, for he is no longer a head-smashing kind of god.1But there is no denying that the Lord has been a head smasher—both by performance and in endlessly repeated aspiration. If he is such no longer, then he must have changed, but what accounts for the change?
One possible answer is that there will be no answer because the Lord intends that there should be none. Though he insisted, when speaking to Moses, on the clarity and transparency of his words and intentions (Deut. 30:11-12), God has grown more remote and more mysterious as the centuries have passed. During Israel’s Babylonian Captivity, he began saying for the first time things like “As the heavens are high above the earth, so are my ways above your ways, my thoughts above your thoughts” (Isa. 55:9). Often enough, Jesus talks the same way. And whether or not God Incarnate will choose to make himself humanly comprehensible, God has certainly never acknowledged at any earlier point any slightest obligation along those lines. If we grant that Jesus is God Incarnate, then we must grant as well that he has the right to announce a deep change in God—which is to say, in himself—without quite calling the change by that name and without otherwise troubling to explain it. The Lord of All the Earth does as he pleases.
Yet there is no mistaking—particularly in Matthew’s version of the sermon quoted above—that Jesus does indeed intend to claim the authority of God for what he is saying, and in his own way he does indeed wish to explain himself. If Jesus were merely a prophet speaking by divine authorization, we would expect to read: “And then the Word of the Lord came to Jesus of Nazareth, saying, ‘Say unto the people of Israel, “Thus says the Lord….”’” But both Matthew and Luke read otherwise. On no authority but his own, Jesus boldly characterizes God and proceeds to derive an arresting new morality from his characterization. The crowds are understandably “astonished at his teaching, for he taught them as one in authority, and not as their scribes” (Matt. 7:28).
Jesus emphasizes that his authority is his own by his repeated contrastive use of the phrase “But I say this to you” to underscore the fact that what he is announcing is an unabashed revision. He says, for example:
You have heard how it was said, “You will love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I say this to you: Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you; so that you may be children of your Father in heaven, for he causes his sun to rise on the wicked as well as on the good, and he sends down rain on the just and the unjust alike.
(Matt. 5:43-45, italics added)
In Leviticus 19:18, part of which Jesus cites in the passage just quoted, God does not in fact say “you will hate your enemy,” but neither does he say “you will not hate your enemy.” What he says, to quote the verse in full, is “You shall not take vengeance on or bear any grudge against your countrymen. Love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord.” The context is clarifying. Directly contradicting what Jesus implies about him, the Lord most certainly did take vengeance and bear grudges against his enemies, his enemies being in every case Israel’s; and he both expected and, on various occasions, directly commanded Israel to do the same, imposing obligations upon them that were consistent with his vengeful and grudge-bearing character.
The point may be illustrated from the story of the Lord’s long-running grudge and ruthless vengeance against Amalek. When Moses led the Israelites from Egypt to Canaan, Amalek was the first of several nations to attack Israel en route. After the attack was repulsed, the Lord swore to Moses: “Record this in writing, and recite it in Joshua’s hearing, that I will utterly wipe out the memory of Amalek from under heaven” (Exod. 17:14). Moses built an altar to witness the oath, saying: “The Lord will be at war with Amalek from generation to generation” (17:16). What the Lord swore and Moses solemnly witnessed was, in more modern language, an oath of genocide. The Lord swore that he would exterminate the Amalekites, however long it took. Over the ensuing two centuries, far longer than the four generations of Exodus 34, the Amalekites and the Israelites were, as predicted, repeatedly at war with each other, but Israel gradually grew stronger. Finally, the Lord decided to fulfill his ancient vow to the letter. He summoned King Saul: “I intend to avenge what Amalek did to Israel—laying a trap for him on the way as he came up from Egypt. Now, go and crush Amalek. Put him under a curse of total destruction, him and all that he possesses. Do not spare him, but slay man and woman, child and babe, ox and sheep, camel and ass” (1 Samuel 15:2-3). Saul carried out the order without hesitation, sparing only—for later demonstrative execution and ritual sacrifice in the Israelite shrine city of Gilgal—Agag, king of Amalek, and the prize livestock of the slaughtered tribe. The Lord, however, was indignant that anything Amalekite had been left breathing. He wanted his vengeance enacted exactly as ordered. In his wrath, the Lord stripped Saul of his kingship, leaving the prophet Samuel to complete the genocide:
Samuel then said, “Bring me Agag, king of Amalek!” Agag came forward on unsteady feet, saying, “And now, the bitter taste of death!” Samuel replied:
“As your sword has left mothers bereaved, so shall your mother be left bereaved among women.” Samuel then butchered [that is, dismembered] Agag before the Lord at Gilgal.
(1 Samuel 15:32-33)
The Lord did to the last Amalekite (the mother who would have been left bereaved is already dead) only what Amalek would presumably have done to the last Israelite, given the chance. The point to be made is that when the Lord said, through Moses, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” he was not saying anything that Moses or he thought incompatible with the Lord’s earlier vow “I will utterly wipe out the memory of Amalek from under heaven.” The story of Amalek from first attack to last defeat can quite coherently be read as a gloss on Leviticus 19:18, demonstrating, among other things, that the reference group for the word neighbor in that verse is Israel alone. Leviticus 19:34 graciously widens the circle to include aliens peacefully resident in the Land of Israel, but enemies are another matter.
The story of Amalek need not necessarily mean, of course, that Israel is allowed, much less that it is commanded, to hate its enemies to quite the violent extreme that God hates his. The Lord concludes his “love your neighbor” commandment, as typically in the Book of Leviticus, by saying, “[you will] love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord.” He does not say: “you will love your neighbor as yourself because I, the Lord, love my neighbors as myself, and you must be like me.” Conceivably, Israel could be held to a stricter standard of forbearance than the Lord intends to impose on himself. The more natural assumption, however, given the fact that Israel’s friends and enemies are essentially indistinguishable from the Lord’s, has to be that the Amalekite principle is no less valid for Israel than it is for the Lord.
This would seem to be the point of a revealing episode in 1 Kings 20. The Lord has promised Ahab, the king of Israel, victory over Ben-Hadad, the king of Aram. The battle goes just as promised, but aides to Ben-Hadad advise him: “We have heard that Israelite kings are merciful. Let us dress in sackcloth with cords around our heads [the traditional garb of penitence] and go out to meet the king of Israel; maybe he will spare your life” (1 Kings 20:31). Ahab shows himself merciful indeed, making a generous peace settlement and sparing Ben-Hadad’s life. The Lord, however, is furious at this conduct. “You will pay with your life,” he tells Ahab, “for having set free a man who was under my curse of destruction. It will be your life for his life, and your people for his (1 Kings 20:42).
From this, it would seem to follow that God wants his people to be no more merciful (or no less vindictive) than he is. In the Books of Samuel and Kings, no less than in the Gospels, God is the model. And it would seem further to follow that Jesus captures the spirit of the ancient commandment accurately enough when he says: “You have heard how it was said: ‘You will love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’”
What Jesus would substitute for this conduct, which at its root is no more than the spontaneous and natural discrimination that everyone past early childhood learns to make between friend and foe, is an unspontaneous and unnatural refusal to discriminate. His followers are called on to treat everyone alike, taking the sun as their model, which God makes to shine without discrimination “on the wicked as well as on the good.” If this noble refusal to discriminate would be problematic anywhere in the world, it is doubly so in Israel, for Israel was brought into existence as a nation by an act of undisguised and, in fact, proudly proclaimed discrimination on the part of God. What Moses held up as the pinnacle of divine greatness could not be more remote than it is from the indifferent shining of the sun:
Did ever a people hear the voice of a god speaking from the heart of fire, as you have heard it, and yet live? Has it ever been known before that a god intervened to bring one nation out of another by such trials, signs, and wonders—war waged with mighty hand and outstretched arm, horrendous terrorism—as the Lord your God has done for you in Egypt before your very eyes? … But he loved your forebears and, after them, chose their descendants, and for their sake he personally conducted you out of Egypt, showing forth his mighty power, dispossessing for you nations who were larger and stronger than you, to make room for you and to give you their country as your inheritance.
(Deuteronomy 4:33-34, 37-38)
God’s covenant with Israel is this act of discrimination, and he never equates Israel with other nations except when afire with rage.
Yes, rarely, as through Amos, he may snarl in his fury something like:
“Are not you and the Ethiopians all the same to me, children of Israel?
“I brought Israel up from Egypt, oh yes,
and the Philistines from Caphtor,
and the Aramaeans from Kir.
“Beware! Lord Yahweh’s eyes are on the sinful kingdom.
I shall wipe it off the face of the earth!
(although I will not destroy the House of Jacob completely),” declares the Lord.
When he talks this way, the Lord aggressively and insultingly secularizes what Moses has declared sacred. He normalizes what Moses has declared exceptional. Did God bring Israel out of Egypt? Yes, but so what? God is always bringing somebody out of somewhere, is he not? Are the Israelites so vain as to think that they are his special favorites because of a mere population transfer?
But when the Lord talks this way, he taunts Israel only to make a point. The idea that the Exodus was just another population transfer is not one that he entertains for long. As the half-retraction of the closing parenthesis shows, the idea that Israel might be for him just one among the peoples of the world is finally not one he is prepared to act upon. Even on this occasion, even pushed—as he imagines himself—to this extreme, he cannot bring himself to present perfect neutrality as his own behavior in its ideal form. And on innumerable other occasions, he boasts of himself as by no means neutral but, on the contrary, openly and passionately discriminatory.
So, then, what has come over him, now incarnate as Jesus of Nazareth, that he presents himself so differently? As God Incarnate, Jesus surely remembers quite well what he once did to the Amalekites. Surely he remembers as well that he promised no less to Israel’s later oppressors. What has driven him to forswear those oaths and assume so utterly different an attitude? The root of the change, as we have seen, is something more radical than an intensified commitment to the mercy, patience, and steadfast love of Exodus 34:6-7, something more than a mere muting of trans-generational revenge. No, Jesus exhorts his hearers to a profoundly counterintuitive, cost-what-it-may disregard for the most basic of human differences, the difference between amity and hostility. What makes this ideal inherently and massively disruptive for God no less than for Israel is the fact that at the time when Jesus preaches it, he has behind him a two-thousand-year career based on acknowledging and exalting one difference above all others—namely the difference between Israel, the people with whom he has established his covenant, and all other peoples. Israel has been everything to the Lord. Since the time when he first narrowed his focus from mankind in general (“Be fruitful, and multiply”) to Abraham (“I will make your offspring like the stars of the sky”), his every word, his every action has revolved around his chosen people. What could possibly induce him to level to nothing a distinction upon which he has based so defining a personal commitment?
The answer is, in two words, extreme duress. In the greatest crisis of his life, God makes heroic virtue of dire necessity. To appreciate what he faces and how he responds to it, we may consider first how he conducted himself during a similar if somewhat less life-defining time—namely, the time leading up to the destruction of Jerusalem by Babylonia and the abduction of much of his people to their infamous Babylonian Captivity. This was an event that, in principle, could have left Israel without a god, and God without a people. The covenant between them, having been established by God’s victory over Pharaoh, was predicated on God’s guarantee that no other king or god-king would do as Pharaoh had done: subjugate Israel. By rights, then, once Babylonia did just that, the covenant should have become moot.
It did not become moot because God had made his protection conditional. It was guaranteed only if Israel would “listen to the commandments of the Lord your God, which I lay down for you today, and then keep them and put them into practice, not deviating to the right or the left from any of the commandments that I impose upon you today, by following other gods and serving them” (Deut. 28:13-14). If Israel was guilty of any deviation, then “the Lord will raise against you from the far ends of the earth a nation like a raptor in flight, a distant nation strange of speech, grim of face, ruthless toward the old, and pitiless toward the young” (Deut. 28:49-50). By the time of the alien eagle’s final victory, the besieged towns of Israel, God warned, would be so desperate for food that “the most dainty and fastidious of your women” would be reduced, after giving birth, to eating their own afterbirth (Deut. 28:56-57).
Israel did indeed deviate from fidelity to the Lord. According to the sixth-century prophets and the Books of Kings, most Israelites were worshiping other gods at the time of the Babylonian Conquest. The fall of Israel, then, did not reflect negatively on the power of God. This was what he had said would happen. God did not simply withdraw his protection and allow Israel’s enemies to have at her. The Babylonian victory, like the earlier Assyrian victory, was not something that had simply befallen Israel, and therefore him. No, it was something that he had actively and purposefully inflicted on Israel using these seeming conquerors as means to his end.
The Babylonian Captivity was a calamity, then, for which theoretical provision had been made; yet it still felt like something new, unprecedented, and terrible when it finally came about, scarcely less so for the Lord than for Israel. Speaking to the prophet Habakkuk, God said in wonderment at his own employment of Israel’s enemies:
Cast your eyes over the nations,
gape and be amazed to stupefaction.
For I am doing something in your own days
Which you would not believe if told of it.
Behold, I am stirring up the Chaldeans [Babylonians],
That fierce and fiery nation
Who march across miles of countryside to seize the homes of others.
Later in that brief but scathingly eloquent book of prophecy, the Lord sends Habakkuk a second vision, in which, as we have seen, the divine warrior marches back into Canaan to wreak vengeance on these very marching and pillaging Chaldeans. The Lord’s intent was to establish beyond any shadow of a doubt that both ends of this transaction—both Israel’s initial, crushing humiliation and her ultimate, glorious vindication—were his doing and no one else’s. But in taking this means to his end, he had to wonder at himself.
Did he achieve his goal? Not necessarily, or entirely, or permanently. True, it may be more painful to imagine that there is no god or that, if there is, you are beneath his notice than to imagine that your god is ruthlessly punitive. After all, a god who punishes may later reward. A god who is in control of the world order, whatever it is, may someday improve it. If this is comfort, however, it is cold comfort; and there were clearly some in ancient Israel who were not willing to wait for it indefinitely. To say this is to recall that the second half of God’s punishment-and-rehabilitation promise was never kept. He never delivered the reward that he said would follow on punishment. Yes, some of the Babylonian exiles returned to Israel, but many did not. Yes, a very limited kind of national sovereignty was re-established, but it did not even include all of traditional Judea, much less all of Israel. In due course, a modest new temple was built, but the divine giant never came striding forth from the mountains of the south, shaking the earth and terrifying the sky as he had said he would. Despite an interlude of relative independence, Israel seemed to be on a road leading downward toward permanent subjugation, worsening, at the whim of its rulers, into outright and brutal oppression.
The psychological cost of this state of affairs, as decades lengthened into centuries, is set forth with grim and grieving clarity in Psalm 44:
You are my king, my God,
who decreed Jacob’s victories;
through you we conquered our opponents,
in your name we trampled down those who rose up against us….
Our boast was always of God,
we praised your name without ceasing.
Yet now you have abandoned and humiliated us,
you no longer take the field with our armies,
you leave us to fall back before the enemy,
those who hate us plunder us at will.
You hand us over like sheep for slaughter,
you scatter us among the nations,
you sell your people for a trifle
and make no profit on the sale.
You make us the butt of our neighbors,
the mockery and scorn of those around us,
you make us a by-word among nations,
other peoples shake their heads over us.
All day long I brood on my disgrace,
the shame written clear on my face,
from the sound of insult and abuse,
from the sight of hatred and vengefulness.
All this has befallen us though we had not forgotten you,
nor been disloyal to your covenant,
our hearts never turning away,
our feet never straying from your path.
Yet you have crushed us in the place where jackals live,
and thrown over us shadow dark as death.
Had we forgotten the name of our God
and stretched out our hands to a foreign god,
would not God have found this out,
for he knows the secrets of the heart?
For your sake we are being massacred all day long,
treated as sheep to be slaughtered.
Wake, Lord! Why are you asleep?
Awake! Do not abandon us for good.
Why do you turn your face away,
forgetting that we are poor and harassed?
For we are bowed down to the dust,
and lie prone on the ground.
Arise! Come to our help!
Ransom us, as your faithful love demands.
(New Jerusalem Bible; Psalm 44: 4-5, 8-26)
The remnant that re-established a national life in Israel was a genuinely faithful remnant; and the greater its fidelity, the less plausible the interpretation of continuing foreign oppression as divine punishment. If the congregations that recited or perhaps sang the poignant words of Psalm 44 knew this, then did God not know it as well? And as he heard it, did it not remind him of his own broken promise, made through so many different prophets, that he would restore Israel to its former glory?
How could it not? But if we imagine that God was not, as Psalm 44 imagines, asleep but simply too weak or that he was for some other, still more mysterious reason no longer willing to impose his will on history, then we have in hand a motive for Jesus’ revolutionary sermon. The prospect facing God is that if, on the one hand, he cannot defeat Israel’s enemies and, on the other, he can no longer claim that when they slaughter his sheep they are doing his bidding, then he must admit defeat. He must admit that, because of his failure rather than Israel’s, the covenant between him and his people has definitively lapsed. His failure will be only the more ignominious for his many boasts that Israel’s enemies are nothing more than a pack of dogs he has whistled up for his hunt (Isa. 5:26). If those boasts are now exposed as vain, then God may, at most, be honored for his past services. He can no longer be respected for his present power.
God does have, however, one alternative to simply bringing his storied career to an ignominious close. Instead of baldly declaring that he is unable to defeat his enemies, God may declare that he has no enemies, that he now refuses to recognize any distinction between friend and foe. He may announce that he now loves all people indiscriminately, as the sun shines equally everywhere, and then urge—as the law of a new, broadened covenant—that his creatures extend to one another the same infinite tolerance of wrongdoing that henceforth he will extend, individually and collectively, to all of them.
Gentiles may imagine that their own goodness, their own attractiveness, was a sufficient motive for God’s decision to bring them into the covenant that he had once reserved for the Jews. But if we approach this change from God’s side, taking seriously a Bible that presents his covenant with Israel as dwarfing all else in its importance to him, then we must seek the reason for the eventual expansion of the covenant in the troubled state of his role within it. The covenant had to be changed because God could not keep its terms and because, on the eve of a new national catastrophe for Israel, he chose to stop pretending that he could.
The objection may be raised—indeed, must be raised—that it is one thing for God, safe in heaven, to resolve his dilemma by declaring that his erstwhile enemies are now friends, and quite another for human beings, imperiled on earth, to be required to do the same. Clever though it may be for God to excuse himself from the chore of defeating his enemies by declaring that he has none, this is cleverness on the cheap, or so the objection must insist, for it costs him nothing while imposing an unbearable burden on his creatures.
This objection is beyond logical refutation. The radical rejection of human difference, including the difference between friend and foe, does come on the cheap for God—unless and until God becomes a human being and suffers the consequences of his own confession. But in the story we are reading God has become a human being, and we may now begin to see why he has done so. Israel will be slaughtered like sheep, but God has become a lamb. He has made virtue of necessity, yes, but the virtue is real virtue. It is the heroic ideal of universal love.
1 If the distinction between friend and foe were to be abolished to such an extent that God could no longer be said to have enemies and his worshipers could no longer ask him for help in defeating their own enemies, then the Book of Psalms would have to be retired almost in its entirety, for there are very few Psalms that do not, at some point, allude to a fight in progress and ask God’s assistance in winning it. This is true even of the most poetic and meditative of the Psalms. Psalm 139, for example, contains these beautiful quatrains
Whither shall I go from thy Spirit?
Or whither shall I flee from thy presence?
If I ascend to heaven, thou art there!
If I make my bed in Sheol, thou art there!
If I take the wings of morning
and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,
even there thy hand shall lead me,
and thy right hand shall hold me.
If I say, “Let only darkness cover me,
and the light about me become night,”
even the darkness is not dark to thee,
the night is bright as the day,
for darkness to thee is as light.
But the same Psalm, before it concludes, presents the Psalmist urging that God become the enemy of his enemies because he himself has so assiduously been the enemy of God’s enemies:
Do I not hate them that hate thee, O Lord?
And do I not loathe them that rise up against thee?
I hate them with perfect hatred;
I count them my enemies.
Search me, O God, and know my heart!
Try me and know my thoughts!
And see if there be any wicked way in me,
and lead me on the path everlasting!
To the modern sensibility, hatred and contention come jarringly in after “the wings of morning,” but such juxtapositions of delicate sentiment and virulent hatred were familiar and indeed almost conventional when the Psalms were written, or so we must infer from their extreme frequency. That modern readers have the reaction they do is one measure of the historic success of Jesus’ radical “pacification” of the image of God. There are times, of course, when Jesus speaks in a more warlike way, not to mention innumerable times in the course of history when warlike Christians have embraced the bloodiest verses of the Old Testament precisely because they were bloody. Nonetheless, the incongruity between Jesus’ inaugural sermon and a very long list of earlier biblical texts cannot be gainsaid even after all necessary lexical and anthropological qualifications have been made.
PART THREE: The Roman shoah and the disarmament of God
Why did God become a Jew and subject himself to public execution by the enemy of his chosen people? He did so in order to confess that, by choice or of necessity, he was a god disarmed. He knew that genocide against his chosen people was imminent and that he would do nothing to prevent it. The one thing he could choose to do, as the Jew he became, was to break his silence about his own scandalous inaction.
God revealed to the seer Daniel at the court of the king of Babylon that when Babylon fell, the kingdom of God would not come immediately. Instead, there would come—in a succession symbolized by a series of beasts in Daniel’s vision (Dan. 7)—the kingdoms of the Babylonians, the Medes, the Persians, and the Greeks of Alexander the Great. Only then would God’s kingdom come, symbolized in the vision by “one like a son of man.” But as the Gospel opens, instead of God’s kingdom, there has come the kingdom of the Romans, and the iron fist of this new Babylon is tightening around Judea in the last decades before a catastrophic rebellion. If, as the Book of Daniel makes clear, God foresees the historical future in detail, then he knows that he will not rescue his people from the defeat that lies ahead. Rome, enraged by Jewish rebelliousness, will perpetrate genocide, and God will do nothing. The one thing he can do—and does do as Jesus of Nazareth, God the Son—is break his silence about his own inaction.
The word genocide above refers to the ferocious escalation of violence that took place in the generation immediately after the execution of Jesus, an escalation that came to its first climax with a Jewish revolt against Rome in 66-70 C.E. The Jews were a formidable opponent for imperial Rome. They were, more than is sometimes remembered, populous, well organized, well financed, and passionately motivated. Rome did not finally defeat them and suppress their revolt until after it peaked for a second time, in 132-135 C.E. After this final Jewish revolt, an uprising led by another Messiah, Simon Bar Kokhba, Rome changed the name of Jerusalem to Aelia Capitolina and made it a capital offense for any Jew to set foot in the erstwhile City of David. Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel then came to an end for fully eighteen centuries.
Rome’s imperial agenda did not extend to the extermination of all the Jews of the empire. In that one regard, the Roman suppression of world Jewry’s bid for freedom differed from the Nazi “Final Solution” of 1941-45. In two other regards, however, Rome’s victory in its sixty years war with the Jews may plausibly bear the grim designation genocide. First, the Roman intent in destroying the Jewish Temple was to end the distinctive national life that the Jewish people had led as an empire within the empire. Second, the portion of the world Jewish population that perished in the first of the Jewish Wars alone is comparable to the portion that perished in the Nazi shoah.2
Contemporary estimates of the world Jewish population in the first century 3 range from a low of 5.5 million to a high of more than 8 million. Of these, 1 million to 2.5 million lived in Palestine; 4.5 million to 6 million lived in the diaspora. In the years before the doomed uprisings, the Jews of the Roman Empire, notwithstanding worsening oppression within their homeland, were more numerous, more powerful, and better organized within the greater multinational social order of their day than were the Jews of Europe before the outbreak of World War II. Their remarkable unity—all Jews looking to Jerusalem as their spiritual capital and all supporting the Temple by the payment of a Temple tax—mimicked the organization of the Roman empire itself. This political coherence was admired by the other, less autonomous peoples of the empire, but it was understandably suspect in the eyes of the imperial authorities themselves.
Perhaps because of latent Roman resentment of Jewish success within the empire, not to mention various officially conceded Jewish legal exemptions and privileges, the Jewish revolts were put down with exceptional violence. The first-century historian Josephus, a Romanized Jew, reports 4 that 1.1 million died in Titus’s siege of Jerusalem in 70 C.E. The Roman historian Tacitus estimates six hundred thousand dead. Though many modern historians have regarded these numbers as exaggerations, Josephus in reporting his figure recognizes that it will seem incredible and explains that Passover pilgrims from the diaspora had swollen the resident population of Jerusalem to a degree that, though not out of the ordinary for this pilgrimage city, might well seem unbelievable to outsiders. He then engages in a surprisingly modern back-calculation from the number of animals slain for the feast—256,500—to a Passover population of 2,700,200 at the time the siege began.
Jerusalem in that era, it must be remembered, was like Mecca in our own: the site of an astounding annual concentration of pilgrims, overwhelmingly male, for whose ritual purposes an equally astounding number of animals were slaughtered. When the Roman siege began, the temporary population of Jerusalem was further swollen by refugees from parts of Palestine where Roman forces had already, and with great force, been putting down the Jewish rebellion for three full years. In view of all this, the large casualty figures quoted by Josephus and Tacitus are not as implausible as they might otherwise seem. 5
Even adjusting those figures downward, however, it seems clear that the first-century slaughter of the Jews of Palestine was large enough to be comparable in its impact to the twentieth-century slaughter of the Jews of Europe. The destruction of the Temple in and of itself would have had a major psychological impact, but this loss came coupled with staggering casualties; mass enslavements and ensuing depopulation in the promised land; and, not least, the memory of hideous atrocities. Generally faulted for obsequiousness toward Rome, Josephus does not flinch from reporting terror-crucifixions outside the walls of Jerusalem—mass crucifixions aimed at driving the defenders of the city to despair and panic—or from reporting that when some of the defenders did flee, Roman mercenaries took to disemboweling them in search of swallowed gold coins until stopped by the Roman commander himself.
Tales like these bear comparison with the grisliest from the Nazi concentration camps. The memory of them, combined with so devastating a loss of life in the promised land and with major pogroms against the Jews in a number of Roman Empire cities, can scarcely fail to have raised many of the radical or desperate questions about God that, to some, seem to have arisen for the first time in the twentieth century. As for radical or desperate answers to those questions, one seems to have been the Christian vision of the divine warrior self-disarmed.
Historically, there is little doubt that the Jews who rose against Rome expected that their God would come to their assistance, as he had in the historic victories whose celebration remains central to Judaism. There can be equally little doubt that these rebels, as they imagined the God who would assist them, imagined him as knowing the future in detail. This is the image of God expressed so vividly in the Book of Daniel. Literary criticism attending to the character of God within the Old Testament and the New is free to accept this understanding of God (as well as the time and place of the Book of Daniel as given in the text) and then to stipulate about God, as we have done earlier in this book, that, from the Babylonian exile onward, his character is such that he knows the future in the detailed way that human beings know the past.
Yet to imagine a first-century Jew imagining God in this way, even before the disastrous Jewish Wars, is to imagine a Jew in distress. Instead of the predicted kingdom of God, there has come the kingdom of the Romans, and its oppressiveness dwarfs that of all previous oppressors. What was a devout first-century Jew reading the Book of Daniel in a trusting, straightforward, pre-critical way to think as he or she noted its disconfirmation by events? Had God been mistaken? Had he failed to foresee the rise of Rome? Some such crisis of faith could easily have occurred. What the radical reversal in the divine identity implied by the pacifist preaching of Jesus suggests is that a Jewish writer of powerful imagination projected this crisis of faith into the mind of God transforming it into a crisis of conscience. God had broken his own covenant, and the fact that he had broken it had to matter to him. He knew he should have stopped Rome. He knew he had not done so. From that simple notion, a composition of enormous complexity could be derived.
A good many historical critics, it should be noted, have based their reading of the Gospels on speculation about the historical consciousness of Jesus. Beginning with Albert Schweitzer in 1901, many have believed that Jesus—living under Roman rule, intensely aware of Jewish tradition, and experiencing what we would now call cognitive dissonance between the two—inserted himself into the received mythology of his day by personifying the “Son of Man” image of Daniel 7 and then identifying himself as the personage in question. Jesus believed, Schweitzer concluded, that by his own agency and, finally, his own death, Rome would fall, history would end, and God’s Kingdom would be established for all time.
More recent scholarship tends to believe that this and related, more or less learned scriptural identifications were made not by Jesus during his lifetime but only about Jesus after his death. So it may well have been, yet the protagonist of the Gospels as we encounter him on the page acts as if he has made these identifications himself; and on this literary datum may be grounded an interpretation in which historical speculation about the remembered mind of Jesus yields to literary speculation about the imagined mind of God at that historical juncture. For literary purposes, in other words, it does not matter whether the historical Jesus referred to himself as “Son of Man” or not, so long as the literary character Jesus Christ does so on the page. Nor need it matter that the effect this character produces on the page, as the page is read today by some contemporary interpreter, may not have been intended by all or even by any of the writers who produced the Gospels. It is proper to a literary classic that it touch readers generation after generation, century after century, in ways that transcend the intentions of the originating author or authors.
But having gone thus far in claiming proprietary space for a literary reading of the Gospels, let me immediately concede that nonhistorical readings vary in the degree to which they are informed by history. A fantastical or mystical or morally didactic reading, for example, might prescind almost entirely from historical information. The reading offered here admits history roughly to the extent that it is admitted in the interpretation of a historical novel. Moreover, though one does not read a historical novel in order to extract history from it, a general awareness of historical time and geographic place colors and contributes to the aesthetic effect, which, as interpreted, may be historically suggestive without entailing any outright historical claim.
Against the usual Christian spiritualization of the Old Testament, the interpretation offered here is a relative materialization of the New Testament, in which God’s land-and-wealth-and-offspring promises to the Jews are expected to remain on his mind—which is to say, on Jesus’ mind—and in which they are allowed, without shame, to remain on his hearers’ minds as well. What such an interpretation of the Gospels suggests about the historical situation behind them is that a theodicy—a moral justification of the behavior of God—whose plausibility had survived several centuries of fluctuating foreign oppression finally came into crisis under the steadily worsening Roman oppression of the first century.
According to the received theodicy, first formulated after Israel was conquered by Assyria and Babylon, that double defeat did not mean what it seemed to mean. The Lord’s victory over Egypt had been a real victory, but his apparent defeat by Assyria and Babylonia was not a real defeat. No, Assyria and Babylonia were actually tools in the hands of the Lord, who, far from defeated, was in perfect control of events and merely punishing Israel for its sins. Painful as it might seem to accept the claim that a national god who had once been so favorable had now turned hostile, the alternative was the loss of that god as a potential future support and protection. Since Israel’s sense of itself as a people had become inseparable from its sense of covenant with the Lord, life with him even in an angry and punitive mood was preferable to life altogether without him.
By the expedient of attributing its enemies’ victories to the action of its own god, Israel saved that god from suffering the same kind of defeat that Israel itself had suffered. But the price of this expedient was high. It required a massive inculpation of the people of Israel—a blaming of the victim, if you will—and an uncomfortable emphasis on anger and vindictiveness in the characterization of the god. Even at the start, these features of the theodicy were felt to be so costly that it was necessary to add, when presenting it, that God would not always conduct himself thus. Israel’s national good fortune would be restored before long, and with it a much happier relationship between the god and his people.
But for how many centuries of continuing oppression, especially as different oppressors succeeded one another, could this revision of the covenant remain adequate? The historical suggestion implied by the literary reading of the Gospels offered here is that for a significant segment of the Jewish population, a further revision came to seem necessary. It became necessary to concede the obvious and to redefine the Lord as a god whose return to action as a warrior was not just delayed but altogether canceled, and then to adjust his warlike character accordingly. Not the least part of this adjustment was a revision of his relationship to the other nations of the world; for if the Lord could no longer function effectively as anybody’s enemy, then he was necessarily everybody’s friend. And if his covenant love was now indiscriminate and universal, then so also must be the love of his covenant partner.
Israel, as God’s partner in the original covenant, was expected to demonstrate its status as such by its exclusive devotion to the Lord. As the new covenant is proclaimed, Israel’s sin, its infidelity and failure to be exclusive in its devotion, is more forgotten than forgiven. The God who will no longer reward or punish his covenant partners as he once did can no longer require of them what he once required. Henceforth, it is not their devotion to him but their devotion to one another and, even more remarkably, to strangers that will signal their status as his. To the extent that they keep this one commandment, to that extent the divine warrior will be excused from ever again taking up arms. Israel will have no enemy because no one will have an enemy other than Satan, the enemy of all.
God Incarnate does indeed understand himself to be, as to his human identity, the “Son of Man” of Daniel 7. But in this capacity, rather than establish the Kingdom of God by military force, he preaches military renunciation: He urges his followers to turn the other cheek. Going dramatically beyond even that, he reveals what he will not do—what no one must any longer expect him to do—by going without protest to his own execution on the gallows of the oppressor. The covenant revision is communicated, in sum, not only by prophetic preaching but also by a traumatic, cathartic, climactic, and, not least, ironic sacred drama in which the central role is played by God himself.
Did the historical Jesus actually foresee the worst for his nation, despair of anything like divine rescue, and then—by a bold but conceivable modification of Israelite prophecy—infer that, rather than the prophet of God, he was God himself become incarnate to turn the bad news into an ironic kind of good news? As noted, the all-but-universal assumption on the part of contemporary historical critics is that others turned Jesus into Christ and then into God after his death.
I myself, rather than suppose that Jesus was a simple preacher drafted, as it were, against his will into a larger role, find it historically more plausible to suppose that he was complicitous in his own mythologization, a messenger who intended somehow to become the message, a provocateur who stimulated others to further provocation. Israel Knohl in The Messiah Before Jesus: The Suffering Servant of the Dead Sea Scrolls (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000) and Michael O. Wise in The First Messiah: Investigating the Savior Before Christ (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1999) claim, on evidence from the Dead Sea Scrolls, to have identified historical figures who, before Jesus, believed themselves or were believed by their followers to be divine, suffering messiahs. One need not accept the exact identifications they propose to recognize that, on the evidence they adduce, the idea of combining these elements—divinity, suffering, and messianism—had grown religiously plausible in Palestinian Jewry well before its Christian enactment.
The new research has attracted as much attention as it has because a chasm separates the claim that the Messiah must suffer from the far bolder claim that the suffering messiah is God Incarnate. And, to be sure, even though Jesus makes this claim in the Gospel of John and notwithstanding the new historical evidence, it remains possible that the idea behind this claim may not in fact have emerged until decades after his death—that is, until closer to the time when the Gospel of John was written. A careful and conservative scholar, the late Raymond E. Brown, asked forty years ago in his great commentary on John
whether there is any likelihood that Jesus made such a public claim to divinity as that represented in [John 8:58, “Before Abraham was, I AM”], or are we dealing here exclusively with the profession of faith of the later Church? As a general principle it is certainly true that through their faith the evangelists were able to clarify a picture of Jesus that was obscure during [his] ministry. However, it is difficult to avoid the impression created by all the Gospels that the Jewish authorities saw something blasphemous in Jesus’ understanding of himself and his role. There is no convincing proof that the only real reason why Jesus was put to death was because he was a social, or ethical, reformer, or because he was politically dangerous. But how can we determine scientifically what the blasphemous element was in Jesus’ stated or implied claims about himself? In the clarity with which John presents the divine “I AM” statement of Jesus, is he making explicit what was in some way implicit? No definitive answer seems possible on purely scientific grounds. 6
There, as it seems to me, the matter still rests. I am content, however, to leave further discussion of this point to the historians, for the myth of God’s turning material defeat into spiritual victory is no less remarkable as the creation of Jesus’ Jewish contemporaries after his death than as his own creation. The spectacle of the Lord of Hosts put to death by the enemy ought, in principle, to have ended forever a covenant predicated on the Lord’s ability to protect his friends and defeat their foes. In practice, for those who made the commemoration of that awful spectacle a covenant ritual, its meaning was that a new covenant between God and mankind had taken effect that was immune to defeat, a covenant that could withstand the worst that Satan, standing (as in the Book of Revelation) for all historical enemies past or future, could inflict. Whatever provoked this adjustment of the idea of covenant (and scholars, significantly, are unanimous that the Gospels were written after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 C.E.), it is a theodicy conceptually analogous to the adjustment made when the victories of Assyria and Babylonia were defined as the punitive actions of God. What the revision creates, in the end, is a new theodicy, a new way of maintaining that there is still a god and that he still matters in the face of historical experience to the contrary.
While I was at work on this book, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the spiritual leader of Israel’s right-wing Shas party, created a scandal by suggesting in a sermon that the Jews who suffered and died in the Nazi Shoah may have died because of Jewish sin.7 When this statement came up in conversation in Los Angeles, a friend of mine recalled with anger and sadness that, as a boy in the 1940s, he had heard the rabbi in his orthodox shul preach this interpretation of the Shoah not just once but repeatedly. Reactions against such statements—my friend’s sorrow and the scandal that erupted in Israel over Ovadia Yosef—are, of course, as much a part of contemporary Jewish thought as are the statements themselves, but the sorrow and the scandal are instructive for anyone attempting to make sense of Jesus.
How did the divine warrior end up preaching pacifism? Christian theology has tended to speak of this change as spiritual growth in God, though rarely using a phrase like “spiritual growth.” The answer suggested here is that God made a new human virtue of his divine necessity. God was under spiritual duress. He found a way to turn his defeat into a victory, but the defeat came first. For some, to be sure, no divine defeat is so devastating as to extinguish forever the hope of victory. But for others, considering the number and magnitude of the defeats, a different conclusion has seemed inevitable: If God must be defined as a historical-time, physical-world warrior whose victory has simply been postponed indefinitely, then there might as well be no such god. Indefinite postponement is tantamount to cancellation. Effectively, after such a conclusion, the only choices left are atheism or some otherwise unthinkably radical revision in the understanding of God.
This is a question that is called with devastating starkness in Elie Wiesel’s Night:
The SS hanged two Jewish men and a youth in front of the whole camp. The men died quickly, but the death throes of the youth lasted for half an hour. “Where is God? Where is he?” someone asked behind me. As the youth still hung in torment in the noose after a long time, I heard the man call again, “Where is God now?” And I heard a voice in myself answer: “Where is he? He is here. He is hanging there on the gallows…” 8
If God will not rescue us, then is there a god? If there is and he still will not rescue us, then is he a weakling or a fiend? It should go without saying that Wiesel did not write this scene as an apology for Christianity. But the scene cannot fail to evoke the Crucifixion for Christian readers, and Wiesel cannot have failed to notice and intend this.
In sum, the disarmament of the divine warrior in the first century mirrors, though with different consequences, his disarmament in the twentieth century. The epigraph to The Prophets, 9 the most widely read of the books of the late Abraham Joshua Heschel, the most influential Jewish theologian of the twentieth century, is:
To the martyrs of 1940-45
All this has come upon us,
Though we have not forgotten Thee,
Or been false to Thy covenant.
Our heart has not turned back,
Nor have our steps departed from Thy way…
…for Thy sake we are slain…
Why dost Thou hide Thy face?
--from Psalm 44.
Heschel had every reason to think of these lines—from the earlier quoted Psalm 44—when thinking of the martyrs of 1940-45, but other Jews nineteen centuries before him, thinking of other martyrs, had no less reason to turn to the same Psalm; and what one of them, whether or not the one in question was Jesus himself, may have gone on to imagine was a scene like the gallows scene in Night, a scene in which the Jew on the gallows, this time, was truly God himself.
2 I use this Hebrew noun, which means simply “catastrophe,” by preference to the more usual Holocaust, a word which some find offensive because its original setting is in the Jewish religion itself. Shoah is the noun most commonly used in Israel to refer to the slaughter of the Jews of Europe during World War II.
3 Estimates have been lowered somewhat in the past generation, but not in a way that would affect the claim that the Roman and the Nazi shoahs bear comparison. Writing in 1971, Salo W. Baron estimated the Jewish population within the borders of the Roman empire at just under 7 million, with slightly more than a million others living outside its borders, mostly to the east; the Jewish population of Palestine he placed at not higher than 2.5 million (Encyclopaedia Judaica [New York: Macmillan, 1972], vol. 13, p. 871). Paul Johnson writes “Though it is impossible to present accurate figures, it is clear that by the time of Christ the diaspora Jews greatly outnumbered the settled Jews of Palestine: perhaps by as many as 4.5 million to 1” (A History of Christianity [New York: Athenaeum, 1976], p. 12). Subsequent estimates generally fall between these extremes. Thus, Wayne Meeks in The First Urban Christians (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1983) estimates 1 million Jews in Palestine, 5 million to 6 million in the diaspora.
4 Josephus, The Wars of the Jews, book 6, chapter 9, section 3.
5 Cf. Salo W. Baron:
“The figures transmitted by such distinguished historians as Josephus and Tacitus ranging between 600,000 fatalities and 1,197,000 dead and captured are not quite so out of line as they appear at first glance. Jerusalem’s population had been swelled by countless numbers of pilgrims from all over the Dispersion and refugees from the provinces previously occupied by the roman legions.” (Ibid.)
6 Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John I-XII, Anchor Bible Series, vol. 29 (New York: Doubleday, 1966), pp. 367-68.
7 John F. Burns, “Israeli Rabbi Sets Off a Political Firestorm Over the Holocaust,” The New York Times, August 8, 2000, sec. A., p.100.
8 Elie Wiesel, Night (New York: Bantam Doubleday Dell, 1982), p. 79; originally published in 1958.
9 Abraham J. Heschel, The Prophets, Volume II (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1975, © 1962). A more recent, psychologically shaped Jewish theology is found in David R. Blumenthal, Facing the Abusing God: A Theology of Protest (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press, 1993). Theological reflection on these passages seems almost inevitably, in our day, to yield a theology of protest. Literary reflection on them in the first century may have yielded at least a protest in pantomime.