The God of the Bible
I am always a bit perplexed by those troubled by the passage in this week’s Torah portion where God is depicted as hardening Pharaoh’s heart. People ask, “Isn’t the God of the Bible supposed to be fair? Hardening Pharaoh’s heart and then punishing him and Egypt does not seem fair.”
In the beginning of Exodus chapter 7, God is shown as explaining why he will harden the heart of Pharaoh when he does: to multiply signs and wonders, so the Egyptians will know that the Lord is God. God’s aim is not fairness. God’s aim, as depicted in the Bible, is “shock and awe.”
I believe that taken as a whole, the God depicted in the Hebrew Bible often does not seem fair, for example, in our terms of proportionality in punishment. I am not saying we should not be troubled when the God of the Bible is not fair. I am saying we should not turn this being troubled into theological angst. As I have often taught, we ought not try to derive a personal theology from the depiction of God in the Hebrew Bible.
This idea startles people when they hear it from me or from others for the first time. The question usually goes something like this: “Aren’t rabbis supposed to believe in the Bible?” I have read my ordination certificate carefully, and I can’t find any condition that says I have to accept a literal interpretation of the Bible or that I am required to “believe in the God of the Hebrew Bible.”
I recommend again and again that readers of the Bible should stop reading the Bible, read Jack Miles’ God: A Biography and Yoram Hazony’s The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture, and then go back to reading the Bible. From Jack Miles’ book it is clear that there is no one depiction of God in the Bible. I don’t think anyone who has read Miles can possibly ask the question about “believing in the God of the Bible.” Which one? The God who torments Pharaoh as a way to humble him and bring the Egyptians to know God? Or the God of Psalms who cares for our hearts and souls when all others have abandoned us?
(Sometimes when people say we should act in “Godly ways” I hope they have not read all of the Hebrew Bible; just the good parts, I hope.)
When one reads Miles and Hazony, unless one is ideologically committed to some kind of orthodoxy, one can see that the Bible was not written to offer a theology. Even to say “the Bible was written” is to profoundly misunderstand the text, from a non-orthodox perspective. The books of the Bible came together over centuries, some early in the biblical period, and some, like the book of Daniel, around the time of Judah Maccabee.
I think that every person serious about Judaism as a source for spiritual theory and practice has to contemplate seriously two questions. The first is: what is your theory of the divine, as tentative and incomplete as it may be.
My starting place is: The being that created the universe had the power to bring into being a universe – the one we know of – with the energy and mass of 140 billion galaxies. This being created the laws of the universe that scientists and mathematicians have discovered. I am committed to believing that the God who created the laws of light, energy and matter also created a moral law, that reveals itself to those who study it, just as scientists have discovered the laws of nature. I am a moral realist – there really are better and worse answers to moral problems.
Second, any person who is serious about Judaism as a spiritual theory and practice has to have a theory of the soul, and especially how our souls and the Soul of the universe are related. As you may know, I am mostly guided by the Chasidic understanding of Lurianic Kabbalah.
From my second theory, I have thoughts about the soul, morality, consciousness, language, narrative, interpretation, poetics, rituals, and the depths and levels of spiritual experience. From that second theory, about the soul, I revere the Bible.
I don’t seek in the Bible for a theology. To be honest, I arrive with a theology that shapes my inner experience. With that theology in place, I read the sacred narratives, the laws and the morals of the Bible. I read its poetry. I read its theology, though it is not my own.
The Bible reveals itself to be a text, even the parts that disturb me, that is sewn with the presence of the Divine.