A kinder gentler Old Testament


I think Richard Dawkins called the UK’s “Chief Rabbi” (whatever that is) a very nice man somewhere on RDF before their BBC debate. I thought at the time that that was dubious, and it seems all the more so now that the CR, Jonathan Sacks, has said RD’s description of the Old Testament god in The God Delusion is “profoundly anti-Semitic.”

Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe Sacks really is a nice guy, and just says and does and thinks some nasty things. That can be the case, obviously. But enough quantity or quality of nastiness and you no longer have a nice person.

The thing I dislike about Sacks is his boast about being glad his dying father didn’t have the option of assisted suicide, because the long time it took him to die gave Sacks the opportunity to show his father compassion. He didn’t say anything about what his father might have preferred – it apparently never crossed his mind that what his father wanted should trump what he wanted in that situation. That level of self-absorbtion makes real niceness difficult.

The dispute began with Prof Dawkins’ claim that a controversial passage from his 2006 book was intended to be “humorous”.

“The beginning of chapter two, which says the God of the Old Testament is the most unpleasant character in all fiction, that’s a joke,” he said in the early stages of the debate.

Later Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks said that Dawkins had misunderstood sections of the Hebrew Bible, which are also part of the Christian Old Testament, because he was a “Christian atheist” rather than a “Jewish atheist”.

It meant that Dawkins read the Old Testament in an “adversarial way,” he said, something that was “Christian” because the faith’s New Testament was believed to have “gone one better”.

“That’s why I did not read the opening to chapter two in your book as a joke, I read it as a profoundly anti-semitic passage.”

The text was read out loud by Lord Sacks at the debate.

It described “the God of the Old Testament” as a “vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser” as well as “misogynist”, “homophobic”, “racist”, “pestilential” and “infanticidal”.

“How you can call that anti-semitic, I don’t even begin to understand. It’s anti-God,” said Prof Dawkins.

I suppose I can begin to understand it, because there are such things as tropes and stereotypes, and they can be dangerous…But then the Old Testament can be dangerous too.

 

Comments

  1. Rodney Nelson says

    I have to disagree with Dawkins:

    “The beginning of chapter two, which says the God of the Old Testament is the most unpleasant character in all fiction, that’s a joke,” he said in the early stages of the debate.

    But the Old Testament god is a monster who orders genocide and rape, kills people because he’s annoyed with them, wipes out the whole world (except for one family and a boatload of animals) on a whim, and otherwise behaves in a thoroughly unpleasant manner.

    I would have understood if Dawkins had said the comment was hyperbole, but a joke? A god who kills innocent children to get Pharaoh’s attention is no joke.

  2. rowanvt says

    The old testament is the main factor that led to my atheism. I was so horrified that *this* was supposedly the God I worshipped that I felt nauseous. I had better morals than my ‘perfect’ deity! And once you hit that realisation, worship is almost impossible. And thus the long journey began.

  3. Nathair says

    “The beginning of chapter two, which says the God of the Old Testament is the most unpleasant character in all fiction, that’s a joke,” he said in the early stages of the debate.

    I can’t really swallow that one. I read it. I’ve heard Dawkins say it. I’ve heard the roar of approval from the audience whenever he has done so. This “just kidding” defense when someone objects to it is just pusillanimous. He said it. He meant it. He should stand up and own it.

    “The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.”

    That’s not a joke. That’s a pretty fair diagnosis.

  4. says

    Later Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks said that Dawkins had misunderstood sections of the Hebrew Bible, which are also part of the Christian Old Testament, because he was a “Christian atheist” rather than a “Jewish atheist”.

    It meant that Dawkins read the Old Testament in an “adversarial way,” he said, something that was “Christian” because the faith’s New Testament was believed to have “gone one better”.

    “That’s why I did not read the opening to chapter two in your book as a joke, I read it as a profoundly anti-semitic passage.”

    Is the good Rabbi saying that Christianity is inherently anti-semitic? Because that’s how it reads to me.

    If RD is anti-semitic because he views the OT in the light of Christianity, then all Christians must necessarily be anti-semitic.

    Am I reading this wrong?

  5. says

    But then there is William Lane Craig’s comments on the killing of the Canaanites.

    So whom does God wrong in commanding the destruction of the Canaanites? Not the Canaanite adults, for they were corrupt and deserving of judgement. Not the children, for they inherit eternal life. So who is wronged? Ironically, I think the most difficult part of this whole debate is the apparent wrong done to the Israeli soldiers themselves. Can you imagine what it would be like to have to break into some house and kill a terrified woman and her childre/n? The brutalizing effect on these Israeli soldiers is disturbing.

    Pity the poor killers.

  6. stevebowen says

    Once again, RD lets himself and the argument down. He really should not engage in live debates as he is not good at delivering the obvious argument without either using innaproptiate language for the occasion, or opening an unnecessary gap for cleverer debaters to wriggle into. Hitch he isn’t, and it’s time he stopped believing he can be.

  7. Rodney Nelson says

    Dawkins, something you might keep in mind. If you have to tell people who aren’t laughing that what you wrote is a joke, chances are good that it isn’t.

  8. anat says

    Is the good Rabbi saying that Christianity is inherently anti-semitic? Because that’s how it reads to me.

    Isn’t it? From a Christian POV the existence of Jews is offensive in so many ways. Jews who insist of remaining Jewish, who insist that the very same god the Christians worship indeed wants Jews (but nobody else) to follow (an interpretation of) Torah law, the same god is one, not three, never had a son, never died on the cross etc. And insist that Jesus was (if he existed) just another human and his death meant nothing more than any other human’s. A believing Christian can’t see a Jew as an equal. Ideally to Christians Jews should admit they are wrong and inferior to Christians and convert, or die – doesn’t matter which, really.

  9. Robofish says

    To be fair, I believe there is some truth to Rabbi Sacks’ point of view. Now I could be talking out my ass here, but as I understand it, taking the word of the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible literally is more of a Christian than a Jewish view. That is, the Jewish tradition is that it should be interpreted with the assistance of explanations and commentaries, and sometimes speaks metaphorically; whereas Christians are more likely to take it to mean literally exactly what it says. In that way, when Dawkins criticises the God of the Old Testament as he does, he is being a ‘Christian atheist’ rather than a ‘Jewish atheist’.

    That doesn’t make him anti-semitic, though. It simply means that his criticisms apply to the Christian version of the God of the Old Testament, rather than to the Jewish one. Arguably Rabbi Sacks should really be focusing his criticism on Christianity, for perpetuating the concept of God which he and Dawkins both find offensive.

  10. Aratina Cage says

    That’s not a joke. That’s a pretty fair diagnosis.

    I thought it was one of those it’s funny because it’s true jokes. Until Dawkins put those words down, no one had described the OT god quite so comprehensively.

  11. says

    That’s true. (God I’m wishy washy. I was telling Cam Larios that the other day and she didn’t believe me, but I am!) It’s deadly serious, but it’s funny in a savage way.

    But it’s funny, but not a joke.

  12. says

    From the BBC article:

    Dawkins read the Old Testament in an “adversarial way,” he said, something that was “Christian” because the faith’s New Testament was believed to have “gone one better”.

    Uhhhhh….and Dawkins didn’t read the NT in an “adversarial way” as well?

    “I was concerned that he was using an anti-semitic stereotype, which has run through a certain strand of the Christian reading of what is called the ‘Old Testament’ as a result of which thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of Jews, died in the Middle Ages because that’s how people spoke about the God of the Old Testament.”

    Persecution of Jews for not accepting Jesus didn’t hinge on the NT being a kinder, gentler version of the OT. It was pure tribalism. Xtians were perfectly okay with hellfire and brimstone, so long as it was directed at people they didn’t like. And not just Jews, but Muslims as well.

    I agree with Anat’s comment, btw.

  13. sc_770d159609e0f8deaa72849e3731a29d says

    From Sacks’ point of view what Dawkins said is antisemitic- he’s talking about what is very specifically a jewish god and the god of the jews- ‘Hate my god and you hate me.’ Sacks probably defines ‘jewish’ only in a religious way.

  14. Rob says

    Is the good Rabbi saying that Christianity is inherently anti-semitic? Because that’s how it reads to me.

    If RD is anti-semitic because he views the OT in the light of Christianity, then all Christians must necessarily be anti-semitic.

    Well I don’t know about inherently anti-Semitic, but Christianity is certainly systemically anti-Semitic. There is too long a history of exploitation, suppression, pogroms and persecution to say otherwise. Even if the CR is not strictly correct he’s so close to the truth as makes no practical difference. That doesn’t make the CR right about anything else in the quote.

    I do get tired of the anti-Semetic card constantly being played. It is possible to disagree about matters of religion and politics without being against a whole race. Maybe that’s one of the problems with racial and religious identity being too tightly linked. All disputes immediately become religious disputes.

  15. resident_alien says

    Well,the good Rabbi has a minor point in that all the nastiness described by RD isn’t exclusive to the God of the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible,but is also found in the New Testament/Chistian Bible,once you look past all the phony hippy-talk.RD even says as much in “The God Delusion”,if I’m not misremembering.The passage quoted by the Rabbi,cherry-picked and taken out of context,could indeed be read as anti-semitic,if one insisted on doing so.
    I myself (atheist,humanist,feminist,socialist)read it differently than a right-wing Fabtist/Sado-Methodist/Jesusbagger would,or a semi-literate neo-nazi or even a Rabbi Who Cried Anti-Semitism because he likes the attention…

  16. Aratina Cage says

    He really should not engage in live debates

    I really cannot agree with that. This is the person who made up “What if I’m wrong?? What if you’re wrong about the Great JuJu of the Mountain?!” on the spot, one of the best retorts to Pascal’s Wager ever! Sometimes he gets it just right.

  17. satanaugustine says

    Don’t know how kosher (heh) it is to reproduce this in full here, but Dawkins left the following comment regarding the debate with Sacks on Jerry Coyne’s Why Evolution Is True site (link here: http://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2012/09/15/britains-chief-rabbi-calls-richard-dawkins-a-christian-atheist/#comments, regarding his debate with Sacks):

    I wrote the following at RichardDawkins.net, just reproduce it here.

    The Chief Rabbi telephoned me yesterday and I now understand a little better where is coming from. When I said “The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction” I could just has happily have said “The God of the Bible”. In Lord Sacks’ ears, however, the one word that stood out was “Old”. He thought I meant the God of the Old Testament AS OPPOSED TO the God of the New Testament. That sounded anti-Semitic to him, because there has been a centuries-long tradition of Christian apologists attacking the Old Testament God as COMPARED with the New Testament God. I was able to reassure the Chief Rabbi that, in my opinion, the God of the New Testament was in some respects even worse, and I adduced the obscene idea that God deliberately had his son (alias himself) tortured and executed as a scapegoat for our sins. This cheered him up greatly.

    The relevant part of The God Delusion, where I deal with the God of the New Testament is this:

    So far, so vindictive: par for the Old Testament course. New Testament theology adds a new injustice, topped off by a new sadomasochism whose viciousness even the Old Testament barely exceeds. It is, when you think about it, remarkable that a religion should adopt an instrument of torture and execution as its sacred symbol, often worn around the neck. Lenny Bruce rightly quipped that ‘If Jesus had been killed twenty years ago, Catholic school children would be wearing little electric chairs around their necks instead of crosses.’ But the theology and punishment-theory behind it is even worse. The sin of Adam and Eve is thought to have passed down the male line – transmitted in the semen according to Augustine. What kind of ethical philosophy is it that condemns every child, even before it is born, to inherit the sin of a remote ancestor? Augustine, by the way, who rightly regarded himself as something of a personal authority on sin, was responsible for coining the phrase ‘original sin’. Before him it was known as ‘ancestral sin’. Augustine’s pronouncements and debates epitomize, for me, the unhealthy preoccupation of early Christian theologians with sin. They could have devoted their pages and their sermons to extolling the sky splashed with stars, or mountains and green forests, seas and dawn choruses. These are occasionally mentioned, but the Christian focus is overwhelmingly on sin sin sin sin sin sin sin. What a nasty little preoccupation to have dominating your life. Sam Harris is magnificently scathing in his Letter to a Christian Nation: ‘Your principal concern appears to be that the Creator of the universe will take offense at something people do while naked. This prudery of yours contributes daily to the surplus of human misery.’

    But now, the sado-masochism. God incarnated himself as a man, Jesus, in order that he should be tortured and executed in atonement for the hereditary sin of Adam. Ever since Paul expounded this repellent doctrine, Jesus has been worshipped as the redeemer of all our sins. Not just the past sin of Adam: future sins as well, whether future people decided to commit them or not!

    As another aside, it has occurred to various people, including Robert Graves in his epic novel King Jesus, that poor Judas Iscariot has received a bad deal from history, given that his ‘betrayal’ was a necessary part of the cosmic plan. The same could be said of Jesus’ alleged murderers. If Jesus wanted to be betrayed and then murdered, in order that he could redeem us all, isn’t it rather unfair of those who consider themselves redeemed to take it out on Judas and on Jews down the ages?

  18. The very model of a modern armchair general says

    No, it’s not exactly a joke. But Dawkins wrote, quite early on, that he intended the cumulative effect of all those cumbersome, latinate, oddly precise adjectives to be humorous. It worked better when read aloud.

  19. says

    “…the God of the Old Testament is the most unpleasant character in all fiction, that’s a joke.”

    Joke as in ‘pathetic’ maybe, but not as in provoking the ha ha ha response.

    Whoever it was who wrote the Books of Moses, he (or maybe she) did not have much of a sense of humour.

  20. earwig says

    Dawkins is wrong. Sacks is not a nice man.

    I heard that Thought for the Day from Sacks and have never felt the same way about him since. What a falling off since the days of the wonderful Hugo Gryn! The BBC link is no longer available, but here is the B&W reference. His self-centredness and complacency are unforgivable. I am an accommodationist. I know and like many people of goodwill who profess one faith or another, and none of my Jewish friends would have any time for the revolting sentiments expressed there by Sacks.

    And Dawkins shouldn’t backtrack like that. The God of the OT is exactly as he so wittily describes.

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