Why such a mean god?

Back in the days when I went to Sunday school–or religious school, depending on your frame of reference, I remember going over various passages in the Bible. Usually these were passages in some way related to the service the rabbi had given the previous Friday. Now, I don’t recall what sermon the rabbi had given on this particular Friday, but on Sunday, I remember asking during Sunday school, why god was such a mean god.

I wish I could tell you the answer I was given. I have no memory of it. Nor do I have any memory of the Sunday school teacher being shocked at my question. I simple remember asking the question and everything else has been washed away. But clearly, the things that I had read in the Bible passages, or heard in the Friday sermon had led me to this conclusion.

All of this came back to me this morning when I read a fascinating passage in Our Oriental Heritage, in the chapter on Judea. The passage describes the evolution of Yahveh, the Hebrew god, and it shows that my 9 or 10 year old self was somewhat justified in asking the question.

Originally he seems to have been a god of thunder, dwelling in the hills, and worshiped for the same reason that the youthful Gorki was a believer when it thundered. The authors of the Pentateuch, to whom religion was an instrument of statesmanship, formed this Vulcan into Mars, so that in their energetic hands Yahveh became predominantly an imperialistic, expansionist God of Hosts, who fights for his people as fiercely as the gods of the Iliad. “The Lord is a man of war,” says “Moses”; and David echoes him: “He teacheth my hands to war.” Yahveh promises to “destroy all the people to whom” the Jews “shall come,” and to drive out the Hivite, the Canaanite and the Hittite “by little and little”; and he claims as his own all the territory conquered by the Jews. He will have no pacifist nonsense; he knews that even a Promised Land can be won, and held, only by the sword; he is a god of war because he has to be; it will take centuries of military defeat, political subjugation, and moral development, to transform him into a the gentle and loving Father of Hillel and Christ. He is as vain as a solider; he drinks up praise with a bottomless appetite, and he is anxious to display his prowess by drowning the Egyptians: “They shall know that I am the Lord whenI have gotten me honor upon Pharaoh.” To gain successes for his people he commits or commands brutalities as repugnant to our taste as they were acceptable to the morals of the age; he slaughters whole nations with the naive pleasure of a Gulliver fighting the Lilliput. Because the Jews “commit whoredom” with the daughters of Moab he bids Moses: “Thake all the heads of the people, and hang them up before the Lord against the sun”; it is the morality of Ashurbanipal and Ashur. He offers to show mercy to those who love him and keep his commandments, but, like some resolute germ, he will punish children for the sins of their fathers, their grandfathers, even their great-great-grandfathers. He is so ferocious that he thinks of destroying all the Jews for worshiping the Golden Calf; and Moses has to argue with him that he should control himself. “Turn from thy fierce wrath,” the man tells his god, “and repent of this evil against thy people”; and “the Lord repented of the evil which he thought to do unto his people.” Again Yahveh proposes to exterminate the Jews root and branch for rebelling against Moses, but Moses appeals to his better nature, and bids him think what people will say when they hear of such a thing. He asks a cruel test–human sacrifice of the bitterest sort–from Abraham. Like Moses, Abraham teaches Yahveh the principles of morals, and persuades him not to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah if there shall be found fifty–forty–thirty–twenty–ten good men in those cities; bit by bit he lures his god towards decency, and illustrates the manner in which the moral development of man compels the periodic recreation of his deities.

It is the last sentence which seems key to me. If only I had this insight back when I was nine or ten years old!