The Savage God

During the SBL meeting in San Diego, I attended a conference on the characterization of God in the book of Hosea. One of the speakers called the God of the Old Testament “the Savage God.” According to the speaker, the savage God is the God who is cruel and violent, unjust and harsh in his dealing with the Israelites and with peoples from other nations. The notion of the savagery of God arises when people are unable to reconcile the love of God with God’s demands for righteousness and justice. The God of the Bible is merciful and loving, but he is also a God who requires justice from people.

According to some people, the savage God of the Bible is the God who arbitrarily demanded the destruction of entire cities and the killing of men, women, and children. The savage God is the God who allows drought, hurricanes, tornados, and other natural disasters to cause havoc to cities and to bring misery to thousands of people. If God is a merciful and loving God, how could this God allow the destruction of innocent people?

The reason people believe that the God of the Bible is a savage God is because God exercises divine justice when people fail to meet divine standards. As the prophet Jeremiah wrote: “I am the LORD who demonstrates unfailing love and who brings justice and righteousness to the earth, and I delight in these things” (Jeremiah 9:24). God delights in justice and justice is what God demands from Israel and all peoples.

The reality of divine justice does not mean that there is a standard of justice for Israel and one for the rest of the world. On the contrary, there is a single standard of justice for all. God’s judgment falls not only upon Israel but also upon other nations when they fail to meet the moral standard set by God. In order to dispense justice, God intervenes in human history to redress injustice and restore the moral order of society.

When one considers the theme of justice in the Hebrew Bible, one encounters a different perspective from that which appears in the popular understanding of justice. Justice means a restoration of normalcy in society, a return to a condition where human rights are recognized.

One good example of divine justice at work is found in the book of the prophet Amos. Amos proclaimed that since God was the sovereign Lord over all nations, his demand for justice was universal and that it applied to all. To Amos, God was not only the guarantor of Israelite laws, but also of the entire moral order. God’s universal requirements applied to Israel and included the conventional norms of international behavior. Amos saw God’s universal requirements as justice, and his judgment as a punishment for injustice against members of the community.

God’s universal requirements demand right conduct of individuals and nations. God’s righteousness is manifested not only in the judgments which he brings to individuals and nations, but also in his acts of mercy and salvation toward Israel and, eventually, towards all peoples.

In Amos’ oracles against the foreign nations, we see divine justice at work.

In Amos 1:3, God spoke through Amos and said:

“The people of Damascus have sinned again and again, and I will not let them go unpunished! They beat down my people in Gilead as grain is threshed with iron sledges.”

The principal transgression of the Aramean kingdom was the threshing of the people in Gilead with iron threshing-machines. When the Arameans conquered Israel, they crushed the prisoners to pieces with iron threshing-machines. This act of cruelty against the people of Gilead reflects a barbarous war-practice that was prevalent in the ancient Near East.

Since no one could bring Ben-Hadad to justice, God intervened and caused the invasion of Damascus by the Assyrians and the deportation of the Arameans to Kir (Amos 1:5; 2 Kings 16:9).

In Amos 1:6, God spoke through Amos and said:

“The people of Gaza have sinned again and again, and I will not let them go unpunished! They sent whole villages into exile, selling them as slaves to Edom.”

The captives of war mentioned here were sold as slaves by the Philistines to the Edomites, the arch-enemies of Israel. According to Amos, the captivity was so devastating that not a single captive remained. Entire villages were taken away and none of them ever returned to their land.

Since there was no way the people taken as slaves could obtain redress in a court of law, God intervened and the Philistines were threatened with divine retribution for having plundered the land and sold the captives as slaves. To vindicate the oppressed slaves, God promised that the king of Ashdod would be destroyed (Amos 1:8). The divine judgment came by the hands of Sargon, king of Assyria, and his army after Assyria conquered Ashdod (Isaiah 20:1).

In Amos 1:9, God spoke through Amos and said:

“The people of Tyre have sinned again and again, and I will not let them go unpunished! They broke their treaty of brotherhood with Israel, selling whole villages as slaves to Edom.”

The people of Tyre are charged with selling people to Edom, but not by having conquered them. This implies that Tyre bought war prisoners from an enemy of Israel, and then sold them as slaves to Edom.

Tyre was a nation known by its trade and commerce, thus, it is possible that Tyre carried out an extensive slave business and that they probably purchased prisoners from different nations and sold them as slaves to more nations than just Edom.

Slaves have no one to fight for them and vindicate their cause. So, God intervened and promised that the fortresses of Tyre would be destroyed. The prophet Isaiah announced the destruction of Tyre: “This message came to me concerning Tyre: Weep, O ships of Tarshish, for the harbor and houses of Tyre are gone! The rumors you heard in Cyprus are all true” (Isaiah 23:1). Whether the destruction was caused by the Assyrians or the Babylonians, Isaiah was clear on who brought the demise of Tyre:

“Who has brought this disaster on Tyre, that great creator of kingdoms? Her traders were all princes, her merchants were nobles. The LORD of Heaven’s Armies has done it to destroy your pride and bring low all earth’s nobility” (Isaiah 23:8-9).

In Amos 1:13, God spoke through Amos and said:

“The people of Ammon have sinned again and again, and I will not let them go unpunished! When they attacked Gilead to extend their borders, they ripped open pregnant women with their swords.”

The ripping up of the women with child was one of the many atrocities that came as a result of the many wars in the ancient Near East (see 2 Kings 8:12; 15:16). This cruel act was practiced by the Arameans, the Assyrians, the Ammonites, and even by an Israelite king. The Ammonites are singled out by Amos for the cruelty which they inflicted upon the Israelites during a time of war.

Since the victims were powerless to defend themselves and bring justice to their cause, God intervened and as a punishment for this cruel act, the Ammonite capital was to be burned, and the king and his officials would go into exile (Jeremiah 27:1-6).

In Amos 2:1, God spoke through Amos and said:

“The people of Moab have sinned again and again, and I will not let them go unpunished! They desecrated the bones of Edom’s king, burning them to ashes.”

According to Amos, the people of Moab opened the grave of one of the kings of Edom and burned his bones. The king’s bones were burned so completely that the bones turned into ashes. This desecration of the dead king was unacceptable to God. Since the dead king was unable to defend himself, God intervened and promised to bring judgment upon Moab by the hands of Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon.

These examples show that the God of the Bible is not a savage God. He is a God of justice who vindicates the oppressed and who acts as the sovereign judge to bring justice to people and nations on behalf of victims of violence and brutality. God acts on behalf of nations other than Israel to bring justice upon evildoers.

Thus, divine justice is the process by which God renders redress on behalf of those who are unable to act on their own behalf. Since God in his nature is righteous, God imposes righteous laws on his creatures and executes them righteously. Justice is not an optional product of his will, but an unchangeable principle of his very nature. As Creator, God requires his creatures to conform to his moral laws. When they fail to do so, God acts and justice is upheld.

What people believe to be divine savagery, it is nothing but God’s dealing with his accountable creatures according to the requirements of his laws.

Claude Mariottini
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

This entry was posted in Amos, Book of Amos and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to The Savage God

  1. fencekicker says:

    Dr. Mariottini,I once gave a very similar explanation to a friend of mine when he asked me how a loving God could demand the slaughter of all the people of the land of Canaan, including the women and children. He said that today we would call that genocide. The answer you gave is the only palatable conclusion anyone can make while maintaining that the Bible is accurate in matters of God and history. However, I now think there could be another answer: He didn’t. Its funny you should write about this because I was thinking about a similar question for my next Bible study challenge. fencekicker

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  2. James Pate says:

    I agree that the Bible certainly portrays God’s “savagery” as an act of justice, but what about the innocent people who get killed in the process?

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  3. Steven Carr says:

    People called Hitler savage, but he was only bringing people to account for not meeting his standards of racial purity.

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  4. Dear Fencekicker,Thank you for your comment. Anyone who knows a little about Canaanite practices and religion also would know that Canaanite religion and society was marked by depravity. In his sovereignty, God makes provision for the righteous, as we see when we study the actions of God in the Bible. Although we may not accept or even appreciate what God does, the God of the Bible is not a savage God.

    Claude Mariottini

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  5. James,Thank you for your comment. Many innocent people die in wars and every case I cited in my post, the action was the action of one nation against another. God makes provisions for the righteous as we see in Genesis 18.

    Claude Mariottini

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  6. Steve,Thank you for visiting my blog. Hitler was a racist and God is not. There must be justice for people and for nations. People and nations cannot go unpunished for crimes committed. Human justice brings criminals to court. However, only a higher power can bring nations to account for crimes they have committed.

    Claude Mariottini

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  7. Steven Carr says:

    I didn’t realise the Canaanites were so depraved.Little wonder that the Israelites were told to kill the Canaanite children.

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  8. Steven Carr says:

    The story does teach us that if you think a whole group of people is depraved, then you are justified in wiping them out , man, woman and child.This is what Hitler was trying to teach a disbeleiving world.

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  9. fencekicker says:

    Dr. Mariottini,In reply to your comment addressed to me…Years ago, when I first debated this with my friend, I gave a similar argument. One can even argue that terrorism today is partly or even fully due to the fact that the Isrealites did not wipe out the inhabitants. Hence, God foresaw what would happen if any inhabitants remain, and all of Israel’s current problems are a result of the failures of her founding fathers (the human ones). When a man commits a crime, is it just to also kill his wife and children? Should they not be judged by their own deeds? Justice in this world does not exist in this present life. It is only when this life ends that justice can be found. Or at least that is my hope. I don’t know why God made the world the way he did, but ALL nations are depraved. People use the names of powerful people and the names of gods, and the name of God, to persuade others and justify their actions. It is an easy thing for a person to write, “Thus saith the Lord.” In fact, the prophets complain of how people were prophesying lies in His name. Did God really command Israel to wipe out the Canaanites? Or, did a man command Israel to wipe out the Canaanites in the name of God? By the way, I have the new question on my blog, I’d be interested in hearing your answer. Sincerely, fencekicker

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  10. Despite the admirably attempted strides in an essay such as this, these are ultimately perplexing and troubling questions to which only God has the total answers, while faith meanwhile tends to the rest. What everyone must fundamentally decide is whether to believe a real God actually gave these commands, just as the accusation that one necessarily believes so minus any rationally defensible foundation can be plausibly challenged. Moreover, there's infinitely more actual let-alone possible moral redemption, in the very nature of things, to the alternative that a real God had His own righteous reasons for such commands; than there is to the notion that an atheistic worshipper of the Darwinian Doctrine of "Survival of the Fittest" can by nature have any objectively, categorically moral foundation for saying anybody is obligated, duty-bound, to doing or not doing anything other than what he sees fit, particularly if it "works," and regardless of whom it callously victimizes in a strictly natural pattern where life inherently, amorally, victimizingly feeds off other life. In the Spirit of Elijah, Richard O'Donnell

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  11. Richard,Thank you for visiting my blog and for your comment on this post.The Bible clearly affirms that God is the righteous judge of all the earth. There is earthly justice and divine justice. The problem is that some people may not accept the fact that God is the judge of all nations and that all are responsible to him as the creator.

    Claude Mariottini

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  12. Thank you, Dr. Mariottini, for the rare courtesy and consideration, even among professing Christians, in your having responded to my response. I highlight the fundamental Mystery of how an Infinitely Loving God could have ordained the very nature of the life process as it is, for whatever rationally coherent reasons which nevertheless secondarily stand, in light of the intrinsically nauseating as well as instrumentally damaging nature of the usual tendency of professing Christians to instinctively need to pretentiously, unconvincingly feel they have either all the answers, more than they actually do or can, or else necessarily none at all. Correspondingly, unbelievers are the first to just as instinctively demand that all the answers be provided, if any are to be credibly received at all. However, even as a believer, I'm deeply troubled about the extent to which God only seems to glory in pain and anguish, to no apparently constructive end, just as I am firmly convinced that only a liar, even and especially to himself, would ever dare, as is quite typical among the believing, to insist he's not troubled in the least by such a thing. In fact, I would be among the strongest unbelievers, were it not solely for my own direct experience of the reality of the Divine Love, nevertheless, coupled with the incalculably greater implausibility, in either case, of the only other possible conclusion, as atheistically delineated above, along with its NECESSARY axiological implications. I don't have all the answers, and I don't pretend to have them. Likewise, I make no apologies to unbelievers for this, or for God, as though He owed them, upon insolent demand, any let-alone every answer in the world, to the exclusion of the way He also has of emphasizing that we all have an Unconditional Moral Duty to Him, which speaks self-evidently, irreducibly, just as He has His Mysteries in the process, and, in any particular instance, will even go out of His way, in the face of any really stiffnecked opposition, even among believers, to drive home the point that, like it or not, He does what He wills, just as no such excuse can ever exist for a man's denial of his basic Moral Accountability to his Creator (Deuteronomy 29:29) (Ecclesiastes 12:12-14), the only Being, if any at all, toward whom any absolutely categorical kind of accountability can be rationally claimed, and the very kind only an inexcusably culpable criminal can ever consider seriously denying in practice, for any "reason" at all. In the Spirit of Elijah, Richard O'Donnell

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