Eric A. Seibert is Associate Professor of Old Testament at Messiah College and author of Subversive Scribes and the Solomonic Narrative. Being qualified in Old Testament literature, Seibert's most recent book, Disturbing Divine Behavior, addresses the troubling images attributed to God in the Hebrew Scriptures. As Seibert beings questioning God's behavior, he picks up the abandoned mantle as he wrestles with these texts. Contrary to contemporary Evangelicalism, Seibert resolves to confront and explain these troubling passages in order to liberate Christians "from the need to defend all of `God's actions' in the Old Testament," (p 179).Implementing a new methodology to properly understand these texts, Seibert promotes a Christological approach to the Old Testament. Using the statements of Jesus to qualify who the actual God of the Old Testament is, he believes this is the key to a proper hermeneutic.
In the first section of his book, Seibert highlights problematic passages from Genesis, Numbers, 2 Samuel along with many others which depict God as a mass murderer, a genocidal general and a dangerous abuser. The concern of the believer should be on high alert since the ramifications of these passages not only affect core Christian doctrine, but are "problematic for individuals from all walks of life," (p. 51) Seibert explains the diverse methodologies implemented by the Church to resolve this problematic issue, yet he rejects them all, claiming that they fall terribly short of what the scriptures truly communicate (see p 53-88)
In section two of his book, Seibert begins by introducing his own methodology in attempting to explain the God who is revealed in the Old Testament. He begins by undermining the authority of the Hebrew Scriptures. Claiming that they are in conflict with history and archeology, he calls Christians to abandon the notion of true historicity in the Old Testament. Seibert claims that Old Testament narrative was used to promote a political agenda or to give an explanation for events in nature. The primary thrust of the narrative was to communicate a message, but not to render facts of history. Therefore, "some of the things Old Testament narratives claim happened never did," (p. 112). Seibert then begins to encourage an "alternate approach to dealing with disturbing divine behavior," (p. 128).
To support his understanding of the Old Testament, Seibert explains Israel's worldview and their assumptions regarding God's control over the natural world, fortunes and misfortunes, and punishments, (see p 145-161). It is for this reason that God is depicted as a judging, unethical, war-lord. The Scriptures are merely national Israel's attempt to "explain what God was doing and why," (p. 162) However, just as mankind has now abandoned the Israelite worldview of cosmology and polygamy, it is time we "advance beyond this prescientific worldview" and abandon the notion that the Old Testament truly depicts the God of this world (p. 163)
With the divine authority of the Old Testament nullified, Seibert still claims that there is a positive and accurate revelation of God in the Old Testament (see p 213-15) To properly differentiate between the actual God and the textual God of the Israelites, Christians must engage in a "dual hermeneutic." This is done by comparing God, as revealed by Jesus, to the one described in the Old Testament. Only those traits in the Old Testament which consistently mirror Jesus' New Testament revelation are to be adopted as valid and a true reflection of God's nature. "God's moral character is most clearly and completely revealed through the person of Jesus," (p. 185).
While Seibert quickly admits that Jesus, too, spoke of judgements and eternal damnation, he excuses this by claiming that the New Testament has "distortions between the textual Jesus and the actual Jesus," (p 187). Still, Jesus' revelation is more authoritative and accurate. Seibert claims that Jesus rejected "the notion that all tragedies are the direct result of divine judgement," and that He taught a non-violent approach to life (p 201). This proves that "applying a christocentric hermeneutic to our reading of the Old Testament requires us to say that, regardless of the text's claims, God never commanded the Israelites to commit genocide by slaughtering Canaanites or annihilating Amalekites," (p. 204) Seibert concludes his book by encouraging his audience to communicate this approach to the scriptures in their churches and academic circles in order to liberate Christians from the need to justify the God of the Old Testament.
Whether or not one agrees with Seibert's approach to the Old Testament text, Christians cannot dismiss his effort on addressing this very challenging issue. Since most Evangelicals hold to a verbal plenary view of inspiration, we can no longer ignore the tension between God of the Old Testament and the God of Jesus. One major strength of Seibert's book is his bold address on these difficult issues as he picks up this mantle and contributes to a much-needed theology on God in the Old Testament.
Another strength of Seibert's work is his use of contextualization when reading the scriptures. Since one of Seibert's essential points is to undermine Israel's theological worldview, he speaks about the need to contextualize their statements in light of common ANE beliefs. While I do not believe this proves his conclusion, which imposes a "dual hermeneutic" and nullifies Old Testament theology, contextualization is an important practice which sheds light on the historical background of the scriptures. Without contextualization, a lot of beauty in the Hebrew scriptures would be lost and reinterpreted in a 21st century context.
A third strength of Seibert is his willingness to impose a dual hermeneutic approach in lieu of abandoning the entire Old Testament. Though I do not agree with his approach to the scriptures or his new methodology, it is encouraging that he at least retains a certain commitment to the authority of the Old Testament. Claiming not to be as pessimistic as those who are "convinced that the Old Testament portrayals of God are virtually useless for Christian theology," Seibert still finds value in an inaccurate Old Testament (p. 180).
Seibert's book has many weaknesses, particularly in the section regarding his methodology. The first flaw is his inconsistent Christocentric approach. Though he states that Jesus' revelation of God gives us concrete guidelines to the Old Testament and prevents us "from simply making choices based on our own preferences," he simultaneously acknowledges that one form of Jesus in the New Testament is inaccurate (p. 185). Agreeing that "some portrayals of Jesus in the Gospel do not reflect what Jesus actually said or did," one must question how to qualify the real Jesus in order to properly understand the real God of the Old Testament (p. 187). Using Seibert's subjective methodology, it would be just as justifiable to claim that God is a God of hatred and anger by highlighting the statements which reflect this, and dismiss all other statements regarding love and forgiveness. Seibert's first weakness is his lack of guidelines to properly implement his methodology onto the scriptures.
Seibert's second flaw is his argumentation from silence. Claiming that Jesus is revealing a new God in the New Testament, Seibert substantiates his claim by saying that "Jesus never speaks of God as one who commands genocide. Nor does he describe God as one who abuses, deceives, or acts unjustly. These unsavory characteristics which are evident in certain Old Testament portrayals of God do not factor into Jesus' description of God," (p. 190). However, just because Jesus did not reiterate all aspects of God from the Old Testament does not mean that He rejects the reality of them. Instead, Jesus frequently appealed to the authority of the Old Testament, identifying Himself with the God of Israel (Jn 8:58). Also, when speaking with people, He assumed they already had a certain amount of knowledge of the scriptures (Matt 5:17; Luke 23:13-32). Jesus is building on the Old Testament understanding of God rather than creating a new one.
A third flaw in Seibert's book is his approach to Jesus' eschatological statements. Since Seibert is attempting to depict Jesus as a pacifist, he attempts to dismiss problem passages which record Jesus speaking about a pending judgement (Matt. 10:11-15; 11:20-24) and eternal damnation (Matt. 8:11-12; 13:41-42; 18:9). In order to juxtapose these verses with his understanding of Jesus, Seibert claims that God still remains non-violent since these judgements are "outside the space-time continuum [and] only for a limited period of time...Therefore, it is still possible to maintain that the God Jesus reveals acts nonviolently in historical time," (p 253-54). First, it is very difficult to understand how Seibert developed this notion of "space-time continuum" which would exempt God from any actions. This explanation seems random, evasive, and unsatisfactory. Second, this approach defies the second presupposition of his book which "assumes the consistency of God's character," (p. 186). If God defies His own actions outside of the space-time continuum, God is still inconsistent and destroys Seibert's presupposition.
A fourth flaw found in Seibert's defense is in his appendix where he speaks about the book of Revelation and the war predicted in there. Promoting a non-violent God, he states that "numerous interpreters have argued that what is being described [in Revelation] is not a literal battle but rather a symbolic victory over evil. This interpretive approach makes good sense given the genre of Revelation," (p. 256). While this approach is common, it is surprising that he resorts to this understanding since, earlier in his book, he critiques the hermeneutic of allegorization, saying that "most modern readers find Origen's allegorical readings quote fanciful. This is not surprising since the Achilles heel of the allegorical method is the lack of controls governing how correlations are made between details in the texts and the meanings assigned to them," (p. 64). Seibert employed a hermeneutic he himself earlier dismissed as too subjective. Seibert's lack of consistency when implementing this new methodology is disconcerting.
Eric A. Seibert's Disturbing Divine Behavior provides a much-needed dialogue about the disturbing behavior of God in the Old Testament compared to the loving God presented in the New Testament. Abandoning previous attempts at explaining this dilemma, Seibert introduces a dual hermeneutic of the Old Testament God. Undermining the authority of Israel's theological worldview and scripture, Seibert encourages a Christological approach to the Old Testament which would teach those scriptures pertain to the actual God. Seibert's approach is new and innovative, yet unconvincing. Within his methodology, there remain too many conjectures and presuppositions for this to be a proper approach. In order to substantiate his point, Seibert makes arguments from silence as well as jeopardizes his own hermeneutical principles through allegorizing the book of Revelation.
While I appreciate Seibert's attempt in tackling this issue, there are too many loop holes in the solution he is proposing. Instead, may Christians take up the challenge to view God in the Old Testament in a serious light, and begin wrestling with the implications of His actions. Affirming the view of verbal plenary inspiration, God has communicated His Word for a reason, and we must study to understand Him more (2 Tim. 2:15).