Christian Deceptions: Case Study: Rebranding a Sky God


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    Beware the man whose god is in the skies.
    George Bernard Shaw, Man and Superman, Maxims for Revolutionists


    When facts contradict one's favourite beliefs, the choices are stark: one must change one's mind, find some sort of rationalisation, or deny the facts. In this section we will take a single example of a case where Christians are faced with just such a problem. The problem is that God is presented today as wise, kind, gentle, merciful, all-powerful, and all-knowing. Yet the God of the Old Testament is not at all like this. Worse still, he seems to belong to a once-popular class of gods called sky gods, whose characteristics appear controversial from a modern moral perspective. How can this be reconciled? First we look at the evidence.

    Primitive societies often invented stories to explain aspects of the world that seemed mysterious to them. Indeed, almost all cultures have generated such stories. The ones most familiar to Europeans are those of Classical Greece and Rome, and to a lesser extent those of northern Europe. Their myths sought to explain things such as the origin of mankind, the reason for the existence of evil and suffering, the meaning of natural phenomena, and the origin of language. Invariably these myths called upon gods for explanations.

    One of these gods, according to many ancient peoples, was a particularly powerful sky god, responsible for many natural phenomena. Familiar European sky gods include the Greek Zeus, the Roman Jupiter and the Teutonic Tew. Such gods lived in the sky beyond the clouds or on mountain tops. They demanded respect and expected blood sacrifice from humankind. When angry they caused floods, earthquakes or volcanic eruptions. They controlled the weather: they brought the sun and the rain, they concealed themselves behind clouds, their breath was the wind, and their voices thunder. Their weapons were thunderbolts. Despite such great powers, these gods behaved much like human beings. They took human forms, possessed human weaknesses and exhibited human failings. They displayed human duplicity, gullibility, capriciousness, spite and blood lust, and of course they had the same outlook and prejudices as those who invented them.

    So which paradigm does the God of the Bible match? Is he a sky god, or is he the beneficent, all-powerful, all-knowing supreme deity of modern theologians? The rest of this section looks a little closer at the God of the Old Testament, with a view to establishing whether he is really a sky god. In particular we will look at the propositions that will help establish his identity, namely that he:

    • has a human form and experiences human emotion.
    • causes natural phenomena.
    • is fallible — neither omnipotent nor omniscient.
    • is spectacularly unmerciful.
    • appreciates blood sacrifice.

    In doing this we will rely on the Bible itself, not because it can be regarded as historically true, but because it reveals the beliefs of the people who wrote it, and also because the evidence adduced can easily be checked. For those who regard the Bible as literally true, the case made will be even stronger.

    Bible illustration by Gustave Dore showing one of God's Chariots of Fire (2 Kings 6:17) in the sky



    God Has a Human Form and Experiences Human Emotions

    On a number of occasions the Old Testament impresses on us that God has a human form. He is sometimes mistaken for a man, for example in Genesis 18:1-3 and 32:24-32. He is referred to explicitly as a "man of war" (Exodus 15:3). Old Testament writers refer to his arms, face, nostrils, mouth, lips and eyes. He has bowels and a heart (Jeremiah 4:19). He walks (Genesis 3:8), wrestles (Genesis 32:24-32) and enjoys certain smells (Genesis 8:20-21, Leviticus 1:9,13 and 17). For fundamentalist Christians none of this is surprising, since man was made in God's image (Genesis 1:27). Neither is it surprising to anthropologists, since sky gods are invariably made in man's image.

    In the Bible God suffers a range of human emotions including love and hate. He experiences pleasure (Leviticus 1 ff.), remorse (Genesis 6:6, Exodus 32:14, 1 Samuel 15:35), grief (Genesis 6:6), anger (Deuteronomy 3:26, 2 Samuel 6:7), and jealousy. ".... the Lord, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God" (Exodus 34:14). He is also vengeful, even in the New Testament (Romans 12:19).

    God Causes Natural Phenomena

    God walks Earth's high places and creates the wind (Amos 4:13). He causes other natural phenomena too. In Psalm 18 God is called upon for assistance and makes his presence felt just like Zeus, Jupiter or Tew:

    ...the earth shook and trembled ...There went up a smoke out of his nostrils, and fire out of his mouth ...yea, he did fly upon the wings of the wind ...The lord also thundered in the heavens ...Yea he sent out his arrows, and scattered them; and he shot out lightnings ...

    He was responsible for mighty winds, earthquakes and fires (1 Kings 19:11-12). He also caused the flood that killed everyone in the world except a single family. He set his rainbow in the sky and brought the clouds (Genesis 9:13-14). Rays flash from his hand; he scatters mountains and makes the ground tremble (Habakkuk 3:6-10). He lives in the heavens, and tends to make his appearances veiled in clouds and on mountain tops. He kills people by hurling large hailstones down from the sky (Joshua 10:11). When he appears on Earth at ground level, he is generally said to come down to it, often from a mountain*. One of his biblical names, Shaddai, is that of a rain-making mountain god.

    That God personally controls the weather is still popularly believed. Christians frequently offer prayers in times of drought or tempest. Even the Anglican Book of Common Prayer still contains prayers for rain and fair weather.

    A classic sky god parting the clouds




    God is Fallible

    According to the book of Genesis, God told Adam not to eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil because "in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die" (Genesis 2:17). This promised not just death, but immediate death. Adam did eat of the tree, yet he did not die that day. He went on to have three sons and lived for 800 years after the birth of the third of them (Genesis 5:4-5). Either God lied, or else he was mistaken. When he wrestled with Jacob (Genesis 32:24-30) God "prevailed not against him", which is unimpressive for an omnipotent deity. On another occasion he was unable to drive off inhabitants of a valley "because they had chariots of iron" (Judges 1:19). He was wrong when he said that David had kept his statutes and commandments (1 Kings 11:38), for he should have known that David had broken at least three commandments (he had coveted and seduced the wife of Uriah the Hittite, born false witness, and conspired in causing Uriah to be killed in battle as told in 2 Samuel).

    Like any tribal sky god he is also partisan. He is Yahweh Sabaoth, the Lord of Hosts or God of Armies. He fights for Israel. No biblical writer suggests that Israel ought to be fighting for him. Neither are God's plans immutable. By a bit of judicious haggling Abraham induced him to change his mind a number of times (Genesis 18:20-33). Sometimes he is irrational. When Ahab grovels for forgiveness, God decides not to punish him but instead punishes his house (i.e. his family) in the next generation (1 Kings 21:27-29). He also errs. His errors are the only possible reasons for his regret and repentance (e.g. Genesis 6:6, and Exodus 32:14). As a result of Saul's failure to carry out God's genocidal instructions, God repented that he had set up Saul to be king (1 Samuel 15:11).

    Neither is the God of the Old Testament omniscient. He called out to Adam to ask where he was (Genesis 3:9). He did not have first-hand knowledge of what was happening in Sodom and Gomorrah, having heard only reports about it (Genesis 18:20-21). He had to "go down" to see for himself whether the reports were true. In Deuteronomy 8:2, God had to test the Israelites to find out what was in their hearts.

    God is Spectacularly Unmerciful

    The God of the Old Testament takes an active part in battle. On occasion he kills more of the enemy than the Jews themselves (Joshua 10:11). He killed 185,000 Assyrians in a single night (2 Kings 19:35). He encouraged murder and even genocide. In Numbers 31 for example Midianite married women and male children were slaughtered in accordance with his wishes. Helpless captives, they were killed on the orders of Moses, acting on God's instructions. God arranged for Joshua to kill all that lived in the city of Ai, 12,000 men and women (Joshua 8:1-29). Earlier, he had arranged for Joshua to take Jericho, and on this occasion had wanted absolutely everything destroyed. Joshua therefore killed men and women, young and old, cattle, sheep and donkeys (Joshua 6:15-21). At Dabir, Joshua "utterly destroyed all that breathed, as the L ord God of Israel commanded" (Joshua 10:40). Generally, when a city was taken, God wanted all the men killed and the women, children, and animals taken as plunder, but in the case of the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jesubites everything that breathed had to be destroyed completely (Deuteronomy 20:10-17).

    According to the Bible God killed more than 2,270,971 people, many of them innocent of any wrongdoing, considerably more than the 10 killings attributed to Satan.*. (God's tally does not count the large but unspecified numbers such as the Flood and Sodom & Gomorrah, nor Satan's 10 for which he was given permission by God).

    God often forbids his followers to show pity or mercy (e.g. Deuteronomy 7:2, Ezekiel 9:5-6). Sometimes, God undertakes the mass killing of children himself (Exodus 12:29). Indeed, children have a particularly hard time of it. Not only are they punished for the crimes of their ancestors, but they are also victims of family cannibalism. To people who fail to meet God's requirements he promises that, amongst many other tribulations, they will have to eat their own children (Leviticus 26:29 and Deuteronomy 28:53).

    In 1 Samuel 15 God instructs Samuel to tell Saul to wipe out all of the Amalekites. Saul makes the mistake of leaving their king, Agag, alive. God is not pleased by this act of mercy and Samuel has to complete the job as instructed. Although Agag was now a helpless captive "Samuel hewed Agag in pieces before the L ord ...". On another occasion 70,000 innocent people were killed by God for the unlikely reason that David had taken a census of fighting men (2 Samuel 24:1-15, cf. 1 Chronicles 21:1-14). God's punishments are astonishingly vicious. When a group of boys made fun of Elisha's baldness, Elisha cursed them in the name of God, and immediately 42 of them were torn to pieces savaged by bears (2 Kings 2:23-24). The author of the psalm that begins "By the rivers of Babylon ..." entertained no doubt that God will be happy for his chosen people to dash enemy babies against the rocks (Psalm 137:7-9).

    The Children Destroyed by Bears by Gustave Doré, 1866.
    Christian illustrators have always been wary of showing the full horror of 42 children
    being torn to pieces at the behest of God's great prophet, as described in 2 Kings 23-24
    Here, Doré shows the children being given a bit of a scare.

    Actions that would seem to most people to be justified may incur severe penalties. For example, a woman who tries to help her husband in a fight by grabbing his opponent by the genitals is to have her hand cut off (Deuteronomy 25:11-12). Muslim-style mutilations are not only permissible, but also mandatory according to the biblical God. He also has some curious scatological tendencies. According to Ezekiel 4:12 God instructed Israelites to bake their food with human excrement, though this was later commuted to cow dung*Malachi 2:3 quotes God as saying "Behold, I will corrupt your seed, and spread dung upon your faces ..."*.

    God also finds it quite acceptable to punish the innocent. He says as part of the second commandment that he will punish the children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren of those who offend him (Exodus 20:4-5 and Deuteronomy 5:8-9, confirmed in Exodus 34:7). And he does so too. A famine caused by God because Saul had killed the Gibeonites was lifted only after seven of Saul's descendants had been handed over and executed by Gibeonite survivors (2 Samuel 21:1-14). Again it is not David, but David's sons who die for a crime of their father's (contriving the death of Uriah). Killing children for the sins of their fathers is perfectly acceptable to God "Prepare slaughter for his children for the iniquity of their fathers.... " (Isaiah 14:21). God seems to have no concept of justice as we now understand it. For example, he kills Uzzah on the spot, merely for taking hold of the ark of the covenant, even though Uzzah apparently did so for the most innocent of reasons (the oxen pulling it had stumbled — 2 Samuel 6:6-7).

    God requires the death penalty for a range of offences. Among them:

    • blasphemy (i.e. profaning the divine name) Leviticus 24:16
    • bestiality (both parties) Exodus 22:19, Leviticus 20:15
    • homosexuality Leviticus 20:13
    • pre-marital sex (women only) Deuteronomy 22:20-21
    • adultery Deuteronomy 22:22 and Leviticus 20:10
    • wizardry Leviticus 20:27
    • witchcraft Exodus 22:18
      (or poisoning or making potions, depending on the translation)
    • spiritualism Leviticus 20:27
    • making sacrifices to other gods Exodus 22:20
    • worshipping other gods, or heavenly objects Deuteronomy 17:2-5
    • cursing one's parents Exodus 21:17, Leviticus 20:9
    • being a stubborn and rebellious son Deuteronomy 21:18-21
    • desecrating the Sabbath Exodus 31:14

    Moses hesitated when a man was brought to him for gathering sticks on the Sabbath, but God had no doubt about what should happen to him. He instructed Moses to have the man stoned to death (Numbers 15:32-36). By Jesus" time, many Jews already regarded this as barbarous, and the law was widely considered to have been somehow repealed, but this does not change what the Bible says about God.

    God Appreciates Blood Sacrifice

    It is clear from the Old Testament that God expects blood sacrifices. That he prefers animal sacrifice to agricultural sacrifices is clear from the story of Cain and Abel (Genesis 4:1-8). God was pleased with Abel's animal sacrifice but not with Cain's crop sacrifice. This was the reason for Cain's jealousy, which led him to murder his brother.

    As in many primitive religions, God wanted blood. Blood was far more important than the flesh. It was the life force, the seat of life itself (Genesis 9:4, Leviticus 17:11). Anyone might eat the flesh but the blood belonged to God himself. It was for this reason that the Jews thought it wrong to drink blood or to consume it with the flesh. Great efforts were (and still are) made to drain the blood from animals killed for food.

    The point that God prefers animal sacrifices is reinforced when God lists the types of animal that are suitable as sacrificial offerings (Leviticus 1-2). He confirms his position again:

    And the Lord called unto Moses, and spake unto him out of the tabernacle of the congregation, saying, Speak unto the children of Israel, and say unto them, If any man of you bring an offering unto the Lord, ye shall bring your offering of the cattle, even of the herd, and of the flock. Leviticus 1:1-2

    The details given are rather gory, involving killing, sprinkling blood, disembowelling, dismemberment, and then burning the remains. God repeatedly makes the point that this must be done in frontof him, and that he likes the smell of the burned flesh. Referring to Noah's mass animal sacrifice, Genesis 8:20-22 tells us that “ the Lord smelled the pleasing odour”. On occasion God took an active part in sacrifices. In 1 Kings 18:17-40 Elijah calls upon God to show his power by sending down lightning to consume a sacrificial bull and a huge libation. God obliges and, in triumph, Elijah causes 450 rival prophets of Baal to be slaughtered.

    The Prophets of Baal Are Slaughtered (1Kings 18:20-40), from Doré's English Bible, 1866
    "Hear me, O Lord, hear me, that this people may know that thou art the Lord God, and that thou hast turned their heart back again. Then the fire of the Lord fell, and consumed the burnt sacrifice, and the wood, and the stones, and the dust, and licked up the water that was in the trench. And when all the people saw it, they fell on their faces: and they said, The Lord, he is the God; the Lord, he is the God. And Elijah said unto them, Take the prophets of Baal; let not one of them escape. And they took them: and Elijah brought them down to the brook Kishon, and slew them there".
    450 priests were killed for the crime of chosing the wrong god.


    Although he generally expected animal sacrifices, God did not seem to be averse to the occasional human one. Human sacrifice does not seem to be unequivocally prohibited anywhere in the Old Testament*. According to the book of Judges, Jephthah killed his only child in fulfilment of a promise made to God (Judges 11:29-40). As the narrative points out God was taking a personal interest in Jephthah at the time yet he did not attempt to stop him. Nor was Jephthah regarded as acting excessively. He was well regarded as a judge and was mentioned with approval in the New Testament*.

    Some biblical passages look as though they have been mistranslated to disguise their true meaning. Leviticus 27:29 for example appears rather cryptic: "None devoted, which shall be devoted of men, shall be redeemed; but shall surely be put to death". The Hebrew word translated as devoted here really denotes the irrevocable giving over to God, generally by complete destruction. When the word is applied to animals it combines the concepts of sacrifice and total annihilation, but here it is being applied to both animals and humans. Exodus 22:29-30 (cf. 13:1-13 and 34:19-20) seems to leave no doubt:

    ...The firstborn of thy sons shalt thou give unto me. Likewise shalt thou do with thine oxen, and with thy sheep ...

    An episode described in Exodus 4:19-26 may suggest that circumcision is a substitute for human sacrifice, but the meaning is not at all clear. Even when God declined a human sacrifice as a burned offering he seemed to need an appropriate substitute such as a ram, as in the case of Abraham and Isaac (Genesis 22:13).

    Biblical characters certainly understood that God had required human sacrifice, though they were not sure exactly why, or in what circumstances*. As society progressed, people were puzzled as to why God had required human sacrifice and developed stories as to how the requirement could be commuted. Thus for firstborn children and for firstborn unclean animals, one isexpected to pay a ransom or redemption fee of five shekels instead of killing them (Numbers 18:15-16). (The Christian Church later found an alternative interpretation, namely that people ought to give their first or second born child to the service of the Church.)

    Abraham, Jews, Moslems and all Christians
    until recent times,
    thought it perfectly reasonable that an all-loving God
    would test men like Abraham by telling them
    to sacrifice their own children to Him

    It now seems primitive and absurd that God might require human sacrifice, but the idea was well accepted in medieval times. Heretics were burned as "a fiery offering and propitiation to God" as one chronicler put it*. Priests and Flagellants encouraged the extermination of Jews specifically to placate God and avert the Black Death. To halt the progress of the Black Death through France, King Philippe VI decreed new bloody punishments for supposed blasphemers - cutting off their lips and tongue. As late as the eighteenth century, Christians were executing their enemies as sacrifices to God. The great Lisbon earthquake, for example, was followed by a burst of ecclesiastically inspired executions intended to appease him. It was this human sacrifice, as much as the earthquake itself, that inspired Voltaire to write Candide.

    In summary, the God of the Old Testament behaves much like a human being. He has a human form, suffers human weaknesses and displays human failings. He lives in remote high places and controls the elements. He is astonishingly partisan and brutal by modern standards, with a taste for blood sacrifice. He is capricious, spiteful, bloodthirsty, and he had the same outlook and prejudices as Jews who lived 3,000 to 2,500 years ago. We might also note that he has no objection to capital or corporal punishment, genocide, mutilation, polygamy, concubinage, slavery or racism. Indeed he encourages all of them. By modern standards he veers between the immoral and amoral, and bears no resemblance at all to the merciful, omniscient and omnipotent God favoured by modern theologians. All in all, the God of the Old Testament is a perfect example of an ancient tribal sky god.

    How do Christians reconcile their merciful, omniscient and omnipotent God with this monster depicted in the Old Testament? One solution is simply to ditch the Old Testament, as many early Christians did, and more recent deists have done. Another solution is to claim that the God of the Old Testament who created the world is not a supreme god, but a flawed subsidiary god — this was the solution adopted by Gnostics, Manichæans, Cathars and Jehovah's Witnesses. A third is to claim that God showed to humankind a face that matched their stage of human development, but this is not a satisfactory solution when the pagan Greeks were far in advance of God's chosen people in their understanding of ethics, morality, philosophy and so on. Another problem for this last explanation is that human mental abilities have changed little in the last 5,000 years, so ancient peoples were as capable as modern Christians in appreciating the God of the modern theologians.

    The remaining option is to ignore the facts. The offending passages are not read in church, God's many failings are not taught to children, and awkward questions are dismissed with the answer that it is a divine mystery. The same carefully selected passages are cited over and over again to portray an acceptable picture of God. So it is that most Christians have not the slightest inkling that their God was ever anything like the one depicted in the Old Testament.


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    §. See for example Habakkuk 3:3.

    §. For a detailed list of people killed by God see For those killed by Satan see the Book of Job.

    §. This is from the Authorised Version. The Jerusalem Bible has bread baked over human dung. The NIV has the dung being used as fuel.

    §. This is from the Authorised Version. The Jerusalem Bible has God threatening to throw dung in priests" faces. The NIV has him threatening to spread offal on their faces.

    §. Deuteronomy 18:10 is sometimes cited as a prohibition against human sacrifice but (a) it applies only to one's own sons and daughters (b) it may refer to sacrifices to other gods, and (c) it may not refer to sacrifices at all. The Hebrew word translated as sacrifice could equally well be translated as "pass through" (see footnote in the NIV).

    §. Hebrews 11:32-34. In the Authorised Version the name is spelled Jephthae, but it is the same person. Modern translations confirm the man referred to is Jephthah.

    §. For various interpretations see Ezekiel 20:26, Isaiah 14:21 and 2 Kings 21:6. God told others that he required sacrifices for other reasons too. The two sons of Hiel mentioned in 1 Kings 16:34 (see NIV) seem to have been killed as foundation sacrifices (an ancient practice which continued into Medieval Europe).

    §. Alberic of Trois-Fontaines, Chronica, pp 944-5, referring to the 183 Bulgarians sent to the stake at Mont-Aime in 1239.

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