One of the things I’ve tried dutifully to avoid while writing this blog, is rehashing the same nonsense that can be found on hundreds, if not thousands, of atheist blogs across the internet. I’m not really interested in going over arguments that every edgy teenage atheist has used to make their parents clutch their pearls in horror. I have no interest in impersonating Christopher Hitchens in my writings, I’m not nearly as clever or funny to fill those shoes anyway.
Instead, what I do hope, is that my revisiting the good book will unearth some of the core disagreements that underlie the sometimes-venomous conversations between the religious and the irreligious. I’m hoping to find important differences between people who take this book to be holy and the rest of us, so that I might have a better understanding of why people believe.
Here, in Genesis 15, I’ve encountered, what I think, is one of these core differences. At the very least, I’ve found significant differences between myself and Matthew Henry, whose commentary I’ve been reading.
Genesis 15 is often given the title “The Lord’s Covenant with Abram” and that pretty much sums it up. Here we get the famous quote from God in which he guarantees that Abram’s offspring will be as numerous as the stars.
God also promises Abram’s progeny the land of Canaan. However, he doesn’t just promise them land, he also promises them a few hundred years of slavery and oppression. And, just for good measure, God indicates to Abram that he’s going to wipe out the Amorites as well, but we’ll save conversations about God-sanctioned genocide for a later date.
For now, I want to turn to Matthew Henry’s commentary. Henry, upon reading Genesis 15, seems to see God’s covenant with Abram as, on the whole, a good covenant. Not surprisingly, I had a rather different reaction.
In Henry’s commentary on Genesis 15, he says this about the Egyptian slavery:
“They must first be in the horror and darkness of Egyptian slavery, and then enter with joy into the good land; and therefore [Abram] must have the foretaste of their sufferings, before he had the foresight of their happiness.”
Notice that Henry does not try to argue that the Hebrew bondage in Egypt is the result of freely made choices by the Egyptians. In Henry’s mind, Egyptian slavery is part of God’s design for the Hebrews, it isn’t an accident God was powerless to stop. So Henry seems to agree with me that God is ultimately behind the slave driver as much as he is behind the liberator. While God credits himself for the liberation, we must also grapple with the fact that God was cracking the whip that the Hebrews ultimately had to escape.
But here’s the key difference between me and Mr. Henry: when I see God promising Abram that his progeny will be oppressed in Egypt for generations, only to be eventually freed and exalted, I have to ask myself, why did God allow the torment and oppression in the first place? If God loves his people, why not skip to the good part?
This is the disagreement that I was alluding to earlier. When religious folk see their God liberating them from oppression, I tend to see God as the oppressor. In this view, God no longer seems like our friend, but like a sinister manipulator, who torments people only to demand thanks and praise when he finally releases them.
Now, I can already hear the reaction in your mind, so I’ll save you the energy. Life can’t all be flowers! the indignant, conservative evangelical replies after reading my snarky, skeptical commentary, Sometimes, life is hard, God never promised us that it would be easy, but that doesn’t mean He doesn’t love us!
The obvious comparison is to a father who takes away his son’s phone when he gets a bad grade in school as a way of motivating him to work harder. God, in the eyes of many, is a stern but ultimately caring patriarch. The argument would be that God doomed the Israelites to servitude in Egypt as a way of disciplining them. This kind of suffering would ultimately lead to growth that would in the long run make the suffering all worth it.
Indeed, this is the argument Mr. Henry’s commentary makes:
“Holy fear prepares the soul for holy joy; the spirit of bondage makes way for the spirit of adoption.”
But this view is limited here in the case of Genesis 15. It might be that individuals need to suffer in order to become strong, but in Genesis 15 we aren’t talking about individuals, we’re talking about entire nations of people, some of whom likely have no relationship to each other and may even be separated by generations. To see what I mean, let’s take a look at the actual text of the covenant between the Lord and Abram found in Genesis 15:13-16:
“Then the Lord said to him, “Know for certain that for four hundred years your descendants will be strangers in a country not their own and that they will be enslaved and mistreated there. But I will punish the nation they serve as slaves, and afterward they will come out with great possessions. You, however, will go to your ancestors in peace and be buried at a good old age. In the fourth generation your descendants will come back here, for the sin of the Amorites has not yet reached its full measure.””
Notice how God talks about entire nations as if they were people. He talks about punishing the Egyptians for enslaving the Hebrews as if infants in Egypt had any part in determining the social hierarchy of Egyptian civilization. And indeed, we will see that God punishes the Egyptians as a monolith instead of focusing on the political leaders and elites who were largely responsible for the social order of the day. Apparently, God was not a Marxist.
Furthermore, God talks about how the Hebrews will emerge with great possessions, how is this supposed to comfort all of the innocent men, women and children who will die in chains in Egypt? Will they think to themselves: “well at least my ancestors will have lots of livestock” as a brutal slave driver works them to death moving rocks around in the desert? This makes no sense.
That is, it makes no sense, if you look at this through the lens of God as the all-knowing, all-powerful creator of the universe. But from where I’m sitting, all of this makes perfect sense. If God, as presented in the Bible, is a character written and created by human beings, then we should expect him to have all the bizarre and confusing inconsistencies that human beings have. We should expect God to conflate nations with human beings at a time when small, localized nations were fighting for their existence against other sometimes larger nations. We should expect God to be largely unconcerned with the rights of individuals at a time when individual rights were more or less nonexistent.
This is why I find the “stern but loving father” defense of God’s more egregious acts in the Old Testament to be incredibly unconvincing. Because God is not just punishing us to make us stronger, that might be the case in Jonah, but it isn’t the case here. Instead, God is punishing children for the sake of their predecessors, no one is being made stronger in this scenario. There is no justice in that, there is no love in that unless you fail to draw the distinction between a person and their ancestors.