The Rabbis Wrestle with God

Jacob Neusner, Invitation to Midrash: The Workings of Rabbinic Bible Interpretation (Atlanta: Scholars, 1998) 172, 192.

Like a lot of people, I’ve encountered village atheists in my lifetime. What’s interesting is that, today, I found their objections in some rabbinic writings that I was reading in Neusner.

1. In high school, there was an atheist student who was taking a “Bible as literature” course. He said he was doing so to “learn the other side.” The class got into a discussion about who was at fault in the Adam and Eve story. Was it Adam? Or Eve? Or the deceitful serpent? The atheist student replied, “God, because he put the tree there!”

We see a similar point in Fathers According to Rabbi Nathan 1:13 (fifth-sixth centuries C.E.). A man puts a scorpion in a jar and tells his wife that she is under no circumstances to touch the jar. He leaves, the wife opens the jar and gets stung, then the husband finds out and divorces her. Rabbi Simeon b. Yohai compares this story to that of Adam and Eve eating the forbidden fruit.

Neusner remarks: Simeon’s point is that by giving Man the commandment, God aroused human interest in that tree and led humans to do what they did. So God bears a measure of guilt for the fall of humanity.

That’s what the atheist student was driving at.

2. When I was in college, I encouraged an atheist friend of mine to read the Bible, hoping that the Holy Spirit would speak to him through the inherent power of Scripture. And so he read the Bible that summer, and he wrote me a letter with a list of objections. When we talked at the beginning of the school year, he fleshed some of those out.

One of his objections concerned the flood. In Genesis 8-9, God promises never again to destroy humanity. “But doesn’t that contradict the whole point of the Book of Revelation?,” he asked. When I replied that God won’t destroy all of humanity in the end time but will preserve the righteous people, my friend asked how that’s different from the flood, when God saved the lives of eight people on account of Noah’s righteousness. And when another Christian in the discussion remarked that Genesis 8-9 promises not to destroy the earth with a flood, my atheist friend thought that was a stretch: God promises he won’t destroy the earth with water, but he’ll destroy it with fire? Does that make any sense?

Interestingly, Pesikta de-Rab Kahana 19:3 has the same objection. Pesikta de-Rab Kahana dates to the fifth century C.E. Here is one of its expansions of God’s discussion with Abraham as God prepares to destroy Sodom:

You will find that before the Holy One, blessed by He, brought the flood on the Sodomites, our father Abraham said before the Holy One, blessed be He, “Lord of the ages, you have bound yourself by an oath not to bring a flood upon the world. What verse of Scripture indicates it? These days recall for me the days of Noah, as I swore that the waters of Noah’s flood should never again pour over the earth, [so now I swear to you never again to be angry with you or reproach you] (Is. 54:9). True enough, you are not going to bring a flood of water, but you are going to bring a flood of fire. Are you now going to act deceitfully against the clear intent of that oath?

Abraham says that God’s destruction of Sodom would violate his oath not to destroy the earth with a flood, since God planned to send Sodom a flood of fire.

It’s refreshing that the rabbis could wrestle with the text and ask critical (if not skeptical) questions, all while retaining their faith and commitment to God. This especially stands out to me today, in light of posts by John Hobbins (Why believers must complain about and criticize biblical texts) and James McGrath (Wrestling with the Bible).

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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