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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24 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
            • Adam Ericksen
              Adam Ericksen says:

              The Bible never says it is the Word of God. The Bible does say that Jesus is the Word of God. For me, as a Christian, the measuring stick for deciding if something is of God is whether it reflects Jesus.

              I would never say that the whole Old Testament is wrong. There are parts of the Old and New Testaments that get God right and get God wrong. Again, my measuring stick for that is Jesus.

              I did not change the meaning of the Sodom and Gomorra story. The story in the Gospel is midrash about that story. The people who wrote the Sodom and Gomorra story believed that God was like that. But Jesus didn’t. If he did, he would have said, “Yes! Call down judgment on those people just like that story Soddom and Gomorra!” But he didn’t because Jesus didn’t believe God was like that, which is why he refused to act like that kind of god. Jesus, like all ancient rabbis, was in conversation with his scriptures.

              Jesus says God desires mercy, not sacrifice. You ask, “Why had God to sacrifice himself…?” I disagree with your premise. God didn’t sacrifice himself. Humans sacrificed Jesus. The Gospels are so clear that humans nailed Jesus to the cross. God did not. If we talk in any way about God sacrificing God’s self in Jesus, it is only in the sense that God gives Jesus to humanity. It was up to humanity to either follow Jesus or sacrifice him. They decided to sacrifice him. But Jesus responded with forgiveness in the hopes that we would stop sacrificing people. I hope one day we will follow him.

              Grace and peace,
              Adam

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

                „The Bible never says it is the Word of God. The Bible does say that Jesus is the Word of God.“

                Actually Jesus says he is the word of God. And he says that the OT/Scipture/Bible is the word of God. He says the word of God/OT has to be taken as it is. No word can be changed. Are you saying that these parts of the gospels are wrong? You cherrypick what you like, for that it sounds good to you, because science would otherwise prove you wrong. (Genesis/Noah/etc)

                „I did not change the meaning of the Sodom and Gomorra story.“

                Well, yes you did. Or better Jesus did. Contradicting himself(see above). Of course that means its the error of the writers. I get it.
                Do you wanna hear my interpretation of Sodom and Gomorra?
                Poeple couldn‘t understand why an asteroid destroyed their city. They didn‘t know what an asteroid is, because lack of knowledge. So they blamed God, and in extend themselves. Simple as that. If you wanna know how the flood legend came about. Check this out. New discoverys about the end of the last iceage. Its a bit long but very interesting, if not to say mindblowing. (Skip the ads 7:35)

                https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R31SXuFeX0A

                „Jesus, like all ancient rabbis, was in conversation with his scriptures“

                Why does God make it so confusing? Why does God need a second attempt, to explain his will to us? Why use a book anyway, when it is so easy to get wrong? Why send his son/self just to the middle east and not come as a revelation to everybody?
                Its all so contradicitve and unclear, if you have to cherrypick everything. Because anyone can come to different conclusions. You cherrypick the things you like, no matter if Jesus actually meant it. Because you can always say, well it was the error from the writers, if there is something that doesn‘t fit your understandig of morality. Why do you still cling on to that ancient story. Why do you insist that Jesus is God, when it is clear that he was not.

                „If we talk in any way about God sacrificing God’s self in Jesus, it is only in the sense that God gives Jesus to humanity.“

                That makes absolutely no sense. But Gods ways, right? Or yours?
                Was that not for forgiving our original sin? Of course not, because cherrypick.

                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
            • Adam Ericksen
              Adam Ericksen says:

              Hi God himself speaks through me,

              My argument does not say that the Bible isn’t true. I think there are aspects of the Bible that are true, and aspects that miss the mark. It was written by humans who were trying to figure out how God was working in their lives. Sometimes they got it right and sometimes they didn’t.

              I think the Gospel writers did get the essence of Jesus. He taught his followers to love their neighbors, who include their enemies, to turn the other cheek, and to live a life of forgiveness. Jesus lived out his teachings – he didn’t lift the sword to defend himself and he forgave his persecutors even when they nailed him to the cross.

              Yes, there are contradictions between the Gospels. They don’t tell the story in the same way, but they get the story essentially the same. That’s why I trust them.

              You are right that retelling a story of many years/generations can distort the story. This is especially the case in the modern world when we write things down. But there’s a problem when we use this argument to discredit the Gospels. Ancient cultures were oral cultures. They knew how to transmit stories from one generation to the next without much distoration. Now, are there some distortions? Sure. But the differences in the Gospels have much more to do with differences in the way different authors experienced Jesus and the different ways the authors experienced the followers of Jesus. And yes, the Gospel writers had an agenda. That’s neither a good thing nor a bad thing. It’s a human thing. We all have agendas – things we want to get across and things we might leave out. So, did the Gospel writers get every Jesus did objectively correct? No. But that’s a standard that’s impossible for any writer, ancient or modern, to achieve.

              So, yes, I do trust that the Gospel writers got Jesus essentially correct. That’s a matter of belief/trust, but I find the story very compelling and the greatest hope for our world.

              What about the Gospels that didn’t make it into the Bible? I think they are interesting and much can be learned from them. The problem with many of them is that they are influenced by Gnostic tradition, which emphasized the spirit over the body. There was an early Gnostic idea that Jesus showed up as a sort of hologram and wasn’t a real body. Why? Because God can’t suffer. The Gospels, even John, emphasize the humanity of Jesus to counteract this Gnostic idea. So, when it comes to the Biblical Gospels or the Gnostic Gospels, I think the Gnostics have interesting things in them, but I’ll take the Biblical Gospels over the Gnositc ones every time.

              Grace and peace,
              Adam

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

                „Yes, there are contradictions between the Gospels. They don’t tell the story in the same way, but they get the story essentially the same. That’s why I trust them.“

                What about if i would say, i believe in Scientology because i think that L. Ron Hubbard got something right. And his books got reality essentially right. Therefore it trust him and his teaching? Isn‘t that wrong? You cannot prove me wrong. If you don‘t like Scientology(like i do), substitute it with any other religion. There is no way, that your statement makes it trustworthy. How do you know that not Zeus or Odin are the real God and you would get punished at the end of your life, because you are a christian and didn‘t believe in them?
                You have to justify your trust. And not just with saying that Jesus got something right, therefore he is the ultimate truth and the right God.

                You do know that the first gospel was written ~20 years after the death of Jesus? And the last was ~80 years after? With each iteration Jesus became more godlike. Isn‘t that more proof, that those oral civilisations where not as reliable as you say. Otherwise that would mean that Noahs flood would have been retold correctly. And you have no proof that they where better in this oral process, than we are today. I say it is actaully the exact opposite. But you like to cherrypick, i know. Maybe even making stuff up. Sorry, it‘s of course your interpretation. You are right and i‘m wrong.

                The truth has no agenda. If it is true it does not need one.

                „Hologram“
                now you completely lost me.

                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
        • Adam Ericksen
          Adam Ericksen says:

          Hi Tom. A few points I want to make. Judaism has a long tradition of teachers who interpreted the Bible. Judaism and pre-Reformation Christianity didn’t think that the Bible objectively said very much. Rather, the Bible had to be interpreted. That was the role of Rabbis and the clergy. The Bible needs to be interpreted. It was after the Reformation that Christians began seeing the Bible in a more “objective” way. That grasp for objectivity led to literalism and fundamentalism that Judaism/Christianity never emphasized before the Reformation. To claim that the Bible just says what the Bible says without any need to interpret it is a modern heresy. It came about at the same time scientists were making truth claims. And thank God they made those truth claims! They have made the world so much better! Now, some Christians felt threatened by science because it contradicted many of the literal claims that the Bible makes. You provide one example – the Genesis account. But here’s the deal, most ancient Jews and Christians didn’t take creation in 6 days as literally 6 days! The word for days refers to ages. So, most ancient Jews and Christians interpreted that section in Genesis not as a literal 6 days but as over a really long period of time. My problem with most atheistic interpretations of the Bible is that it mirrors the interpretation of a fundamentalist. So, if anyone wants to critique a fundamentalist interpretation of the Bible, I’m with them! Just realize that the Jewish/Christian tradition has been doing the same thing for thousands of years.

          To your question about not trusting everything in the Bible but trusting in Jesus, so how can we trust what the Bible says about Jesus? I trust that the Gospels got something right about Jesus – they got right that he taught his disciples to love their enemies, turn the other cheek, work for a world where everyone is fed and cared for, and live a life of forgiveness. I trust the writers got that right about Jesus because it is the opposite of how we usually behave. The world was often run back then on revenge, as it so often is now. But Jesus infused the world with forgiveness, even when he was dying on the cross he prayed for his persecutors to be forgiven.

          I am not against the Hebrew Bible, neither was Jesus. He picked up on a nonviolent strand within his scriptures that claimed God wanted “mercy, not sacrifice.” (Hosea 6:6) That was the lens through which Jesus lived his life and through which he interpreted his scriptures. Jesus, like other ancient rabbis, did cherry pick. He said that the most important commandments were to love God and love your neighbor. That’s cherry picking. The point for Christians is to follow Jesus, to cherry pick like Jesus cherry picked.

          Grace and peace,
          Adam

          Reply
          • Tom
            Tom says:

            So you already believe in something and somethings you don‘t. Why do you still believe any of it. If science contradicted a lot of it, why do you still believe? i don‘t get it.

            Do you have any proof that the ancient people(Jews and Christians) didn‘t take the bible literaly before science came along? The interpretations came along with science, in order to save their religon. Without that it would‘ve be gone a long time ago. And wheren‘t they killing heretics before that? Without science we would still take the bible literaly.

            Against fundamentalists you agree with Dawkins? Nice. Now its just a small step, to see whats wrong about your believe. Come to the real light and release yourself from your religious bondage, in order to realy make a difference in the world. (2000+ years of biblical teachings didn‘t make this world a better place. Science and humanism did. And will continue to do so.) Sounds like a devils proposal right? Trust me i‘m the devil. Hahaha.

            Take the good stuff from the bible(what you already do) like love your neighbor, ditch the rest of the stuff and move on.

            Reply

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