Why Richard Dawkins Needs Sunday School

Richard Dawkins made big waves years ago with his book The God Delusion. This quote in particular struck a chord with many people,

The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.

Dawkins arranges all of those words in a way that is very compelling, but they are compelling because they are simplistic. It’s easy to critique Dawkins’ biblical scholarship. In fact, when it comes to the Bible, Dawkins is no scholar. He’s a living example of the adage, “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.”

And that’s okay. He just hasn’t been taught. I get that because I’m ignorant about many things, too. I’m completely ignorant about medicine, which is why I have a great doctor whom I trust.

Dawkins’ ignorance about the Hebrew Bible leads him to proclaim a partial truth as the whole truth, and that’s a dangerous thing.

For example, is the God of the Hebrew Bible genocidal? It sure seems that way in the book of Joshua. Joshua tells the story of the Israelites entering the promised land. But there’s a problem. Other people live in the land. So God makes a second promise to drive out the Canaanites, Hittites, Hivites, Perizzites, Girgashites, Amorites, and Jebusites.

God promises to be with the Israelites by being against the people already in the land. God calls Joshua to lead the Israelites in a holy war against them. God acts as a warrior along with the Israelites as they conquered the people. The name Joshua comes from the Hebrew word Yeshua, which means rescuer or savior. So Joshua, the savior of the people Israel, would save them through acts of war and murder. Everything, and everyone in the land, was to be annihilated.

I gotta tell you, I agree with Dawkins that the God depicted in Joshua seems like a monster. Maybe the biggest monster of all time. But if Dawkins thinks he and the new atheists are breaking new ground in critiquing the God depicted in Joshua, he’s about 2,800 years too late.

Whenever the Bible tells a story about God’s violence, you can be sure that there is a counter-story. Sure enough, there’s a counter story to the God depicted in Joshua.

Joshua was written during the time of King Josiah, who reigned from 640 to 609 BCE. But the prophetic writings and the Psalm that refer to the story of the entry into the promised land were written around 950 BCE, almost 300 years earlier than Joshua. Those writings tell the story differently. They do talk about the miracle of the splitting of the Jordan River before they entered, but none of them mention a violent conquest. None of them say that God or the Israelites drove out the Canaanites or anyone else. None of them even mention Joshua. As Hebrew Bible Scholar Robert Coote states in his commentary on Joshua, “What is most striking about all of these references to the tradition in its archetypal form is that not only do they make no mention of Joshua, but also they imply nothing about conquest or reconquest.”*

In fact, the book of Judges, which comes right after the book of Joshua, says that God intentionally left the Canaanites, Hittites, Hivites, Perizzites, Girgashites, Amorites, and Jebusites in the land in order to teach Israel how to become a nation.

The Bible has differing views on divine violence. As René Girard points out, the Bible is a text in travail. It struggles to bring forth the image of the true God, who has nothing to do with violence, but is revealed as nonviolent Love. But let’s look outside of the Bible. Again, Dawkins may be offended by the violence of God in the Bible, but Jews and Christians have been offended by that violence for thousands of years.

For example, a Jewish contemporary of Jesus, a man named Philo of Alexandria, was offended by the violence he found in the Bible. He decided that the best way to interpret that violence was allegorically. Early Christian commentators made a similar move and interpreted God’s violence in the Bible similarly. One of the most important theologians in Christian history was a man named Origen. He lived around the year 220 of the Common Era. Origen’s allegorical interpretation claimed that Joshua’s war against the Canaanites didn’t actually happen. But, and here’s the paradox, he did say that the story is true. Origen’s interpretation was allegorical because he interpreted the external battles as internal struggles. He said that within each of us there is a battle between good and evil. It’s as if Joshua’s battle is happening within each one of us, and God goes with us as we face our inner demons.**

I don’t know if you find Origen’s allegorical interpretation compelling or not. But here’s the point I want to leave you with. There are two Yeshuas in the Bible, for Jesus’s name in Hebrew is also Yeshua. There are two men who are called Savior. One who believed that God called him to pick up the sword and kill his enemies in holy war. The other believed God called him to pick up the cross and forgive his enemies in holy love.

Jesus says that his followers have one teacher. We have one rabbi. Indeed, Jesus was fully within his Jewish tradition when he worked for justice through nonviolence. The word Christ means King. Jesus wasn’t a king who exalted himself with worldly power and threats of violence. In the face of fear, in the face violence, Jesus didn’t respond in kind with threats of divine violence. Rather, when Jesus hung on the cross, he prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

The only question is, which Yeshua will we follow?


*See Coote’s commentary on Joshua in the New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary, pg 600.

**For more on this, see Gregory Boyd’s Crucifixion of the Warrior God, 437 ff.

This article was adapted from a sermon I preached at Clackamas United Church of Christ, just outside of Portland, Oregon. You can watch the sermon “For God So Loved the Canaanites, Too” on the CUCC youtube channel.

Image: Flickr, Richard Dawkins and Jesus, by Surian Soosay, Creative Commons License.

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14 replies
    • Adam Ericksen
      Adam Ericksen says:

      Hi Riekus. I have the book, but haven’t done a deep dive yet. I really like how he goes through the history of interpreting God’s violence, especially how Origen interpreted it. But I think Boyd holds to a view that God changes over time. Kind of like Bruggeman’s idea that God is recovering from violence. I take a Girardian approach, which is different and more anthropological. The Bible shows how the human understanding of God changes over time. We thought God was violent, but really we were projecting our own violence onto God. Violence is human, not divine. God was never violent. The Bible, over time, leads us to the nonviolent God seen in Jesus. So, God isn’t recovering from violence, but we humans are recovering from a violent view of God. We see this recovering process in the OT into the NT.

      Take care,
      Adam

      Reply
      • God himself speaks thru me
        God himself speaks thru me says:

        @Adam. God was never violent? According to the bible a flood happend, right? so was that not god beeing violent? What about Sodom and Gomorra? Not violent? Poeple can see the stangest things, when their believe or worldview is threatend.

        Reply
        • Adam Ericksen
          Adam Ericksen says:

          Hi God himself speaks thru me,

          That’s correct. Jesus is the full revelation of God, not the Bible. So, when the Bible tells stories about God that look different from Jesus, it isn’t correct. Take Sodom and Gomorra, for instance. When Jesus sends his disciples out to the towns, they wonder what they should do if a town doesn’t accept them. They ask Jesus if they should call fire and brimstone from the skies, like Sodom and Gomorra. Jesus says they should not do that, that they should shake the dust off their feet and move on. Jesus reveals a nonviolent God, a God as Hosea says, desires mercy, not sacrifice.

          Thanks for the question!
          Adam

          Reply
          • God himself speaks thru me
            God himself speaks thru me says:

            You wrote:
            “Jesus is the full revelation of God, not the Bible”
            – But isn’t Jesus only described in the bible? so we only know through the bible that he existet? How can you without the bible, prove that he is the revelation or son of God?

            ” So, when the Bible tells stories about God that look different from Jesus, it isn’t correct.”
            – so basically the hole old Testament is wrong. But wasn’t Jesus necessary because of the old testament? To get rid of original sin. To forgive us the sin of Adam and Eve.

            About the story with the town of nonbelievers: does that mean, because brimstone from the skies is mentioned in this, that you can trace it back to Sodom and Gomorra and change the meaning of that story completely to your liking? That doesn’t make any sense.

            “…a God as Hosea says, desires mercy, not sacrifice.”
            – But why had God to sacrifice himself, in form of Jesus his son to himself to forgive humanity for original sin. your logic makes absolutely no sense at all. I get a headache by all these contradictions you have to come up with, that your believe(meaning no proof) is true.

            Reply
  1. justin synnestvedt
    justin synnestvedt says:

    Adam, Thanks for that. I forced myself to read The God Delusion, and found it suprisingly narrow and even childish in its shallowness (for instance, leaving out all those interpretations you mention, and ignoring the Eastern philosophical traditions).
    If you check out Emmanuel Swedenborg, you’ll find his major thesis is that the whole of scripture (old and new testament) have an inner, allegorical meaning, which he calls “correspondence”. It isn’t ever obvious on the surface, literal texts, even where they do have historical truth. Ancient peoples knew how to ‘read nature’ so to speak, and see how everything in it corresponds to something spiritual. They could also write mythologies which knew these correspondences, but that skill was lost as humans became more and more natural-minded.
    Girard and Swedenborg have much in common. Here’s a piece I wrote on the topic
    https://justinswebsite.org/2017/09/23/girard-swedenborg-desire-humannature-theword/
    Yours truly, Justin

    Reply
  2. God himself speaks thru me
    God himself speaks thru me says:

    Talk to Matt Dillahunty. He was a Christian and followed the ministry. He will say the same thing. And where did you disprove, that god is not a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully. I kind of missed it. And when you say, it’s a case of Interpretation; how can anyone be sure they use the correct one? My Interpretation is that the hole bible is an ancient fantasy story. So am i correct? How do you know?

    Reply
    • Adam Ericksen
      Adam Ericksen says:

      Hi again, God himself speaks thru me,

      The answer, as I say near the end of this article, is Jesus. As Christians tradition claims, he is the full revelation of God. So, Christians should interpret the Bible through the lens of Jesus, and specifically through the lens of the cross and resurrection. Jesus offers forgiveness to those who persecuted him on the cross, and in the resurrection he offers peace to those who betrayed him. There is not violence in Jesus on the cross or in the resurrection. There is no violence in God. Christians believe in Jesus, not the Bible.

      Peace,
      Adam

      Reply
      • God himself speaks thru me
        God himself speaks thru me says:

        The christians tradition claims… everybody can claim anything. doesn’t make it true.

        If christians believe in Jesus, not the bible. How can you then believe in Jesus? SInce all of what we know about him, is from the BIBLE!

        Reply
        • Adam Ericksen
          Adam Ericksen says:

          I believe that the New Testament, specifically the Gospels, tell us something true about Jesus. The Gospels say that Jesus is the Word of God that became flesh. The Gospels do not say that the Word of God became a book that is called the Bible. It says the Word of God became flesh. So Jesus is the criterion by which Christians should interpret all of life, including the Bible.

          Grace and peace,
          Adam

          Reply
          • God himself speaks thru me
            God himself speaks thru me says:

            So, believe is the keyword. You believe. You don’t know. How can you then be sure, that the gospels are correct and true? Therefore Jesus beeing real, correct and true? You can’t.
            If i boil your argument down it goes like this. I don’t believe the bible is true. But i believe Jesus is real, because the bible is true. And i know Jesus is real, because the bible is true.

            And the gospels are in the bible, right? You learn about them in the bible. They where writen years after those things with Jesus happened. Are you aware how a retelling of story can distort it, so far that the original source would not recognize it anymore? That’s why the gospels contradict each other. What about the gospels that din’t make it into the bible?

            To me it’s like saying, the Matrix isn’t true. But i see the movies and if i look through the eyes of Neo, then i can say the Matrix is true.

            <a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PK7P7uZFf5o&quot;

            <a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2MFmC6BD1B4&list=PL7420408E36541DA4&index=5&quot;

            Reply
  3. Tom
    Tom says:

    So, you are sayin’ that the bible contradicts itself and that you have to interpret it? So, how can you tell the right interpretation from the wrong? And does everyone come to the same conclusion? Why not set the record straight from the beginning? Why do the writers of the bible, not know the “real”, non violent god, if their writing was divinely inspired? And then write it for the reader, as if god would be violent? Only to let them find out for themselves, that he is not? So basically you can see the bible like you want it to see? That is kind of crazy. Because you want to keep your delusion no matter what. With wathever excuse you can come up with, will strengthen your deslusion.

    Reply
    • Adam Ericksen
      Adam Ericksen says:

      That certainly could be the case, Tom. But Jesus is the full revelation of God, not the Bible. I don’t think that every writer of the Bible was inspired by God. I think they were sometimes inspired by their cultural and relational circumstances and they were trying to discover what God had to do with it. Sometimes they were right, sometimes they were wrong. What’s my criteria for making that judgment? Jesus. Jesus is the interpretive lens through which I try to read the Bible. God is like Christ. That’s the point.

      Grace and peace,
      Adam

      Reply
      • Tom
        Tom says:

        Ok, Adam. Thank you for your answer.
        You admit, that the bible isn’t true all the time. So how can you tell, that the story of Jesus is true at all? How do you know, that you use the lens correctly? Could it be, that the story of Jesus is wrong aswell? The probability of it is pretty high, since you admit that the bible isn’t correct all the time. Where does anybody(present time) first hear about Jesus? The bible, right? How did you come to conclusion, that Jesus is the full revelation of God, without the bible?

        Furthermore didn’t Jesus say to follow the teachings of the old testament? To take it at face value? If he was like God, why didn’t he set the record straight about slavery or not killing gays. Or how earth was created and that it is actually a 4.5B year old spinning ball in space? No, he can’t do that, because it would contradict the story of genesis and Adam and Eve. That would made the reason why he came to earth to forgive us our original sin, in sacrifice himself (to himself), obsolete.
        You have to actually believe in genesis to make sense of the hole story. If you don’t, then you cherrypick what you think is right. With other words you have to come up with this “lens”. For which you still haven’t explained to me, how you find out objectively whats true and false.

        To me the bible is a allegory for how poeple came to the conclusion, of how to live with each other in a socially correct manner. It’s basically social evolution told in a story. That’s why God gets more peacefull over the time of the bible, because the humans get a better understanding, through experience, what is a moraly better way to live with each other. This is an ongoing process, which is delayed by religion, because it thinks it has it all figured out allready. Please try to listen what Richard Dawkins has to say, without the baggage of your believe. Look at it with an logical and open mind.

        Reply

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