Beware the man whose god is in the
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.
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
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 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 ...
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
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
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.
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
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
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
- 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
- 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.
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
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
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
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
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.
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.