Updated: Nov 11
Question: If the literary character worshipped as God by Jews, Christians and Muslims weren’t such a thoroughgoing asshole, would they behave better toward one another and be less inclined to choose assholes for leaders?
Sorry. If asshole seems blasphemous, how does “practitioner of iniquitous, nefarious, vicious, degenerate, depraved and reprehensible misconduct” grab you?
Despite the marvellous fiction subscribed to by Orthodox Jews and many Christians that it was the historical Moses (Musa or “the Speaker of God” in the Quran) who found the time, no one really has any idea who first took a knife to a leather scroll or a reed pen to papyrus 3,000 years ago to become the original author of what we now call the biblical books of Genesis, Exodus and Numbers.
Literary critic Harold Bloom, who was still scribbling prolifically just before his death in 2019, speculates mischievously that the so-called Yahwist or writer known as “J” might have been Bathsheba, a woman taken by King David after he shamefully arranged for the hapless Uriah, her husband, to die in battle. This would explain the ironic presentation in the text of the Hebrew patriarchs and constitute an exquisite irony if, as Bloom writes in his book The Western Canon, “the inaugural author of what eventually became the Torah was not an Israelite at all, but a Hittite woman.”
His wild conjecture on the authorship seems like a bit of a Hail Mary, you’ll pardon the expression. But if you’re interested in the idea, Bloom really goes to town in The Book of J, where he provides a funny and insightful interpretation of David Rosenberg’s translation of the earliest account we have of the continuing adventures of the Old Testament’s Yahweh (or Jehovah as most call him in English, due to an early spelling error).
As the late, great Canadian literary theorist Northrop Frye noted in his review, The Book of J “clearly highlights one of the major problems in Western culture: the fact that the Jehovah of the Old Testament is not a theological god at all but an intensely human character as violent and unpredictable as King Lear.”
The Yahwist’s original account, recognized by scholars as a source of the Pentateuch (Torah), “was censored, revised, and frequently abrogated or distorted by a series of redactors across five centuries, culminating with Ezra or one of his followers, in the era of the return (of the Israelites) from Babylonian exile,” Bloom writes in The Western Canon:
These revisionists were priests and cultish scribes, and they seem to have been scandalized by Bathsheba’s ironical freedom in portraying Yahweh. J’s Yahweh is human — all too human: he eats and drinks, frequently loses his temper, delights in his own mischief, is jealous and vindictive, proclaims his justness while constantly playing favourites, and develops a considerable case of neurotic anxiety when he allows himself to transfer his blessing from an elite to the entire Israelite host. By the time he leads that crazed and suffering rabblement through the Sinai wilderness, he has become so insane and dangerous, to himself and to others, that the J writer deserves to be called the most blasphemous of all authors ever.
Let that one sink in for a moment while kneeling on a pew cushion sometime.
Despite the best efforts of the scandalized revisionists — the image makers and spin doctors of the ancient world — much of Jehovah’s bad boy behaviour managed to make it into the confused and inconsistent jumble of badly established texts that became the “Authorized Version” of the King James Bible in 1611, the most influential English translation in the Vulgate tradition that was familiar throughout Europe among Latin speakers from the fifth century on.
This is Frye in his great book The Great Code (the title derives from William Blake’s description of the Old and New Testaments as the “Great Code of Art”) :
Thus the tremendous vision of a blood-soaked deity treading the winepress alone in Isaiah 63 is one that has haunted us ever since with its terrible beauty; through “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” it entered the American consciousness, and a title such as “The Grapes of Wrath” testifies to its continuing power. Yet in its original context it is little more than a ferocious celebration of a prospective massacre of Edomites, who were bitterly hated because in the later Old Testament period they had begun to push into the territory of Judah. …
The prophets bring a message that often causes their contemporaries to regard them as traitors, fools, or madmen. Ezekiel may denounce the false prophets who prophesy “out of their own hearts” (13:2), but Ezekiel himself seems to present us with a profoundly neurotic God who keeps desperately punishing his own people in order to reassure himself of the reality of his own existence. He says, for instance, that he deliberately polluted the laws and rituals of Israel, inspiring the Israelites to perform human sacrifices, “that they might know that I am the Lord” (Ezekiel 20:26).
One more quick citation. This is the peerless American humourist Mark Twain in his Letters from the Earth, posthumously published commentaries in which he does some outraged, decidedly unfunny biblical exegesis of his own. Twain wasn’t the fatherly old poop with a twinkle in his eye that so many believe him to have been:
It is more than likely that a Midianite had been duplicating the conduct of one Onan, who was commanded to “go into his brother's wife” — which he did; but instead of finishing, “he spilled it on the ground.” The Lord slew Onan for that, for the Lord could never abide indelicacy. The Lord slew Onan, and to this day the Christian world cannot understand why he stopped with Onan, instead of slaying all the inhabitants for three hundred miles around — they being innocent of offence, and therefore the very ones he would usually slay. For that had always been his idea of fair dealing. If he had had a motto, it would have read, “Let no innocent person escape.”
You remember what he did in the time of the flood. There were multitudes and multitudes of tiny little children, and he knew they had never done him any harm; but their relations had, and that was enough for him: he saw the waters rise toward their screaming lips, he saw the wild terror in their eyes, he saw that agony of appeal in the mothers’ faces which would have touched any heart but his, but he was after the guiltless particularly, than he drowned those poor little chaps.
And you will remember that in the case of Adam’s posterity all the billions are innocent — none of them had a share in his offence, but the Deity holds them guilty to this day. None gets off, except by acknowledging that guilt — no cheaper lie will answer.
Weird scenes inside the gold mine.
Some Midianite must have repeated Onan’s act, and brought that dire disaster upon his nation. If that was not the indelicacy that outraged the feelings of the Deity, then I know what it was: some Midianite had been pissing against the wall. I am sure of it, for that was an impropriety which the Source of all Etiquette never could stand. A person could piss against a tree, he could piss on his mother, he could piss on his own breeches, and get off, but he must not piss against the wall — that would be going quite too far. The origin of the divine prejudice against this humble crime is not stated; but we know that the prejudice was very strong — so strong that nothing but a wholesale massacre of the people inhabiting the region where the wall was defiled could satisfy the Deity.
Take the case of Jeroboam. “I will cut off from Jeroboam him that pisseth against the wall.” It was done. And not only was the man that did it cut off, but everybody else.
The same with the house of Baasha: everybody was exterminated, kinsfolks, friends, and all, leaving “not one that pisseth against a wall.”
In the case of Jeroboam you have a striking instance of the Deity's custom of not limiting his punishments to the guilty; the innocent are included. Even the “remnant” of that unhappy house was removed, even “as a man taketh away dung, till it be all gone.” That includes the women, the young maids, and the little girls. All innocent, for they couldn't piss against a wall. Nobody of that sex can. None but members of the other sex can achieve that feat.
A curious prejudice. And it still exists. Protestant parents still keep the Bible handy in the house, so that the children can study it, and one of the first things the little boys and girls learn is to be righteous and holy and not piss against the wall. They study those passages more than they study any others, except those which incite to masturbation. Those they hunt out and study in private.
No Protestant child exists who does not masturbate. That art is the earliest accomplishment his religion confers upon him. Also the earliest her religion confers upon her.
Rideth the snake. Rideth the snake. To the lake. The ancient lake, baby.
The Bible has this advantage over all other books that teach refinement and good manners: that it goes to the child. It goes to the mind at its most impressible and receptive age — the others have to wait.
“Thou shalt have a paddle upon thy weapon; and it shall be, when thou wilt ease thyself abroad, thou shalt dig therewith, and shalt turn back and cover that which cometh from thee.”
That rule was made in the old days because “The Lord thy God walketh in the midst of thy camp.”
The blue bus is calling us. The blue bus is calling us. Driver, where you taking us?
The observation about the louche behaviour of the Lord having a direct passage to the childish mind “at its most impressible and receptive age” is salient and pertinent. It’s during our formative years, of course, that we’re most susceptible to any sort of indoctrination.
And if we’re enjoined to emulate the Lord, well, is it any wonder that both sides in the Gaza War claim to have God on their side or that the Patriarch Kirill (not to be confused with “kill”), head of the Russian Orthodox Church, has consecrated Putin’s unholy war in Ukraine with an eye to restoring the power of the Moscow Patriarchate over lands that escaped the Soviet orbit three decades ago.
God works in wondrous ways.
It would be easy to cite more bewildering and bemusing behaviour by You Know Whom, but we’ll let Bloom put an untidy bow on where we’ve been going with this:
The J saga concludes, so far as we can tell, when Yahweh, with his own hands, buries his prophet Moses in an unmarked grave, after refusing the long-suffering leader of the Israelites a glimpse of the Promised Land. Bathsheba’s masterpiece is her story of the relations between Yahweh and Moses, a narrative beyond irony or tragedy that moves from Yahweh’s surprising election of the reluctant prophet to his motiveless attempt to murder Moses, and to subsequent vexations that afflict both God and his chosen instrument.
Ambivalence between the divine and the human is one of J’s grand inventions, another mark of an originality so perpetual that we can scarcely recognize it, because the stories Bathsheba told have absorbed us. The ultimate shock implicit in this canon-making originality comes when we realize that the Western worship of God — by Jews, Christians and Muslims — is the worship of a literary character, J’s Yahweh, however adulterated by pious revisionists.
Bloom’s point about our having absorbed these stories to our marrow, so deeply that we scarcely realize how deeply ingrained they are, echoes Twain’s earlier observation. I repeat: “The Bible has this advantage over all other books that teach refinement and good manners: that it goes to the child.”
British evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins opens the second chapter of his book The God Delusion with the strident claim that the God of the Old Testament is “arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction.”
In his foreword to former pastor Dan Barker’s 2016 exposé that parroted the description, God: The Most Unpleasant Character in All of Fiction, Dawkins, a vocal atheist well known for his blistering attacks on creationism, repeats his list of 19 character traits ascribed to Jehovah “which, if they were all combined in a single fictional villain, would strain the reader’s credulity to the point of ridicule”:
Certifiable psychopaths apart, no real human individual is quite so irredeemably nasty as to combine all of the following; “jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleaner; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.”
Quite the curriculum vitae, a model for the résumé being filled out by growing numbers of far-right autocratic politicians with their fingers firmly clutching a bundle of rods surrounding an axe down here on cloud cuckoo terra firma: Putin, Khamenei, Erdoğan, Modi, Netanyahu, Orbán, Bolsonaro, Milei, Xi, Donald J. Fascist …
Not, Dawkins hastens to add, that the supposedly more restrained Christian God of the New Testament is any more of a goody two-wings:
There’s little in the Old Testament to match the horror of St. Paul’s version of the ancient principle of the scapegoat: the Creator of the Universe and Inventor of the Laws of Physics couldn’t think of a better way to forgive our sins (especially the sin of Adam, who never existed and never sinned) than to have himself hideously tortured and executed in human form as vicarious punishment. As Paul’s Epistle to the Hebrews (9:22) puts it, “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness.”
As for Jesus himself — whom Bloom dismisses as “a literary character largely invented by the author of the Gospel of Mark,” believed by most scholars to have been composed by an anonymous author about the time of the destruction of the Second Jewish Temple during the siege of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 CE — philosopher Bertrand Russell famously argues in his controversial 1927 pamphlet “Why I Am Not a Christian” that even the biblical Christ falls short of being a supreme moral role model.
While praising Christ’s teachings on turning the other cheek and helping the poor, Russell cites the Saviour’s frequent invocations of hell for sinners and such bizarre stories as the Miracle of the (Gadarene) Swine (in which a herd of swine are drowned during an exorcism) and Jesus’s cursing of the fig tree (interpreted all too willingly by antisemites as a symbolic cursing of his fellow Jews) as examples of failures in kindness and wisdom.
Russell closes by concluding that religion — all religion — is the primary obstacle to moral progress and urges humanity to turn to science as our best hope of making the world a better place:
A good world needs knowledge, kindliness, and courage; it does not need a regretful hankering after the past, or a fettering of the free intelligence by the words uttered long ago by ignorant men. It needs a fearless outlook and a free intelligence. It needs hope for the future, not looking back all the time towards a past that is dead, which we trust will be far surpassed by the future that our intelligence can create.
After reading the autobiography of John Stuart Mill, his secular godfather, Russell became an atheist at 18, happily shedding the Anglican dogma and irrational fears that he says religion had inculcated in him as a boy.
But no one living in 2023 could view the development of science and technology with the naive equanimity and optimism of a bright young man from a century ago. Russell himself became an outspoken proponent of nuclear disarmament in the 1950s and ’60s, and one can well imagine the similarly urgent warnings he’d deliver today about such existential threats as malign artificial intelligence or genetically engineered viruses.
Still, it makes eminent sense to have more confidence in leaders who make evidence-based decisions based on real science rather than relying on interpretations of Bronze Age texts written by tribal nomads who were far more ignorant about the world three millennia ago than the educated people of today.
Opinion polls consistently show more than 40 per cent of Americans think God created the Earth and man in his present form within the last 10,000 years, beliefs that require a staggering, wilful incomprehension of basic biology, physics, chemistry, geology, archaeology and history.
Teachers throughout the West — which for all its faults bestowed upon humanity the progress of the Enlightenment, now being derided and undermined in the so-called “woke” world as a racist tool to promote colonialism — are increasingly “harried and stymied, hassled and bullied, even threatened with loss of their jobs” simply for trying to present simple, easily understood facts about the evolution of life, Dawkins observes in his book The Greatest Show on Earth.
It’s a terrifying travesty that an extremist theocrat like Mike Johnson — who played a central role in attempts to overturn the 2020 U.S. presidential election, remains adamantly anti-abortion and opposed to LGBTQ rights, and is actively promoting the teaching of the Bible in U.S. schools as a history book — is the Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, a commanding position that puts him third in line for succession to the presidency.
The rising power of the Christian right — whose central tenet is that all authority flows from their conception of God and that no civil government has the right to interfere with their inviolable right to impose their beliefs on everybody else — menaces anyone who stands in their way. (Witness today’s failed attempt by 106 House Republicans to revoke the salary of Vice President Kamala Harris.)
A “misundereducated” America — as the misunderestimated war criminal and deep Christian thinker George W. Bush demonstrated in his cataclysmic wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — has the untrammelled military might to drag all of humanity to the edge of the abyss.
And there’s a reason a bottomlessly insecure, sociopathic, quasi-Pentateuchal trickster like Donald J. Trump — a 50-50 shot to be re-elected as president a year from now — declares his love for “the poorly educated.”
They’re so easy to con. No one ever went broke, as H.L Mencken, the curmudgeonly sage of Baltimore, is often credited as saying, by underestimating the taste of the American people.
The antics of volatile, ill-tempered sky gods like Yahweh, Zeus, Thor and Indra (the original toxically masculine, let-the-bad-times-roll party deities) set the bar pretty low for early societies interested in developing moral codes. If cleanliness is next to godliness and those are the gods we’re emulating, no one will need to take a bath or trim their toenails any time soon.
“I am neither a believer nor a historian,” Bloom writes in The Book of J, “but the dilemma I cite seems to me as much theirs as mine. Why does Yahweh attempt to murder Moses? How can God sit under the terebinth trees at Mamre and devour roast calf and curds? What can we do with a Supreme Being who nearly goes berserk at Sinai and warns us he may break forth against crowds, who clearly fill him with great distaste?”
Agnosticism and atheism are understandable reactions to everything described here, but neither is inevitable.
Second question: What would happen if our conception of a sane celestial deity, a Great Spirit, an infinitely wise and just God of Love steeped in a peace that “passeth all understanding” — a still small voice — weren’t marred by all the lunatic delinquency and outright criminality?
Would we be inclined to behave better ourselves and ensure that we chose better men and women as our leaders? Would we cherish the lives of innocent hostages, women and children or still be willing, regrettably, to rationalize their slaughter as part of a greater good? Are we all simply assholes? Up Sinai all the way?
There’s no way of knowing, but on a planet where the blood-dimmed tide is loosed, we could scarcely do worse. And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?