Book Review of Eric Seibert’s Disturbing Divine Behavior

Seibert’s work is divided into three parts, consisting of twelve chapters, and two appendixes. The first two sections outline the problems related to various biblical texts and narratives from the Hebrew Bible regarding “disturbing divine behavior.” Such behavior includes God’s genocide of people, directly killing individuals, commanding others to kill, causing natural disasters, etc. These sections are done fairly well. He then works through some of the approaches that have been proposed throughout church history to explain these portrayals and finds them lacking. In part three he proceeds to give his own explanations by first making a distinction between the “textual” God and the “actual” God, and then proposing a distinctive “Christocentric” hermeneutic.

Seibert argues for a hermeneutic built on the statements of Jesus that he believes advocates for a nonviolent God. With this foundation he reexamines many of the texts and narratives often arguing that the text is simply wrong, that it represents how Israel saw God in terms of their own culture of the Ancient Near East. For Seibert, God is nonviolent and no text or narrative should violate that principle and if it does then it should be rejected. He does argue that even with these rejected verses we should approach the passage with humility and should attempt to find something that is theologically valuable.

There are a couple of problems with Seibert’s specific “Christocentric” approach. One issue regards the question of the historical Jesus and what we can know about what he said and did. Seibert briefly discusses the issue and doesn’t see it as a major hurdle, but the situation surrounding historical Jesus studies is much more complex and nuanced. Without going into a discussion of the various “quests,” I’ll mention just the most recent. This quest often uses what is known as the “criteria of authenticity” to determine what Jesus said and did, the Jesus Seminar is well known for this. This view is coming on hard times and scholars like Anthony Le Donne, Chris Keith, and Rafael Rodriquez are attempting to revitalize the quest by appealing to social memory theory. Even here the best we can do is a general outline of what Jesus may have said and did (and some scholars like Zeba Crook argue that social memory theory actually makes the quest impossible and argues for a no-quest).

Another problem with Seibert’s “Christocentric hermeneutic” is that it privileges the New Testament and leaves the Hebrew Bible unable to stand on its own to explain these various portrayals. I’m sure Jewish scholars would not agree with his explanations nor would this gender him any accolades in current Jewish-Christian dialogues.

What makes Seibert’s “Christocentric” hermeneutic distinctive? He argues that Jesus teaches that God is fundamentally nonviolent and couldn’t have been guilty of any of the violent and immoral acts that the Hebrew Scriptures ascribe to him. He argues for this starting in chapter 10 and then expands on it in Appendix A, “Reexamining the Nonviolent God.” Although some Christians will find this argument persuasive, especially those from a more pacifist/peace tradition, most will not. What I found most unconvincing was his attempt to reconcile the violent portrayals of the apocalyptic passages in the New Testament with his view of a nonviolent God. The author has also written a second volume specifically dedicated to defending this position, it is titled, “The Violence of Scripture: Overcoming the Old Testament’s Troubling Legacy.”

I’m sure a lot of Christians would have a lot of objections to Seibert’s views, most centered on the topic of the Bible’s inspiration. Seibert briefly mentions these issues in the main body of the text but leaves an extended discussion for Appendix B. Here he argues against strict views of inspiration, especially inerrancy and argues for what he calls a “general revelation” view.

Despite the fact that I found Seibert’s solutions ultimately unconvincing I still recommend the volume for those interested in the topic of the Hebrew Bible’s portrayal of a violent God.

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