The Human Faces of God: diversity in the theologies of biblical authors

Review: The Human Faces of God: What Scripture Reveals When It Gets God Wrong (and Why Inerrancy Tries to Hide It)
Author: Thom Stark
Wipf and Stock, 2010
Chapter 1: “The Argument”

“To put it bluntly: the Bible is an argument–with itself.”

This is what I understand to be the theme of The Human Faces of God; it’s certainly the theme of chapter 1, “The Argument”.

I was glad to see that chapters have been helpfully broken up by headings and subheadings. This should make the thorough argumentation more accessible, although I found the logic of his prose sufficient to keep me afloat.

The first main section of this chapter jumps right into the fray, making an extended example of an ethnocentric, nationalistic Yahwism vis-à-vis the inclusive, universalistic vision of some other Old Testament writers. For the former he evinces the disturbing reforms of Ezra set in the aftermath of the Assyrian-forced transplant of many Israelite and northern groups into one another’s territories: any Judean who had married and/or procreated with non-Judeans was required as an act of obedience to Yahweh to send his family away in order to purify the land and keep it that way (Ezra 10.2-11). Against the Persian-backed Ezra’s politically empowered policy that intermarriage and interbreeding with non-Jews was impermissible on the grounds that it would taint and compromise the Judeans’ cultural integrity, Stark pits clear examples in the Pentateuch (Num 31; Deut 20) in which the opposite was explicitly commanded, ostensibly as a way of subjugating non-Yahwists and watering down the indigenous pagan cultures.

One of Stark’s interesting contentions here is that those transplants of northern heritage who offered to help Ezra’s group rebuild were actually devout Yahweh worshippers but were spurned simply because of prejudice against their ethnicity. I cannot determine if Stark is claiming that they were essentially monotheists, especially knowing the arguments later in the book that it was not long before this that true monotheism came even to Israel. The typical lay Christian understanding is that Ezra’s commanded separation was a result of the pluralism of the non-Judeans and a fear of the bad apple spoiling the barrel, but here I predict Stark’s assertion that racial supremacism was the source of Ezra’s separatism rather than its ugly result (or at worst an accompanying emotion) was too little substantiated to convince them (or me, just yet) otherwise. I suspect his position is informed by the literature, but we see none of it referenced here.

No matter how we interpret the specific motivations behind them, I think Stark makes it clear enough that much of Israel’s later “chosen people” nationalism finds an ancestor in Ezra’s reforms. The other side of the argument is a universalistic vision that affirms that God is sovereign and at work among all nations; in sharp contrast to Ezra’s apartheid, Jonah seems to have been written specifically to critique such a lack of concern for people of other nations. “One of the key messages of the book is that Gentiles can worship Yahweh too,” Stark writes (p. 5). As another example of a “clash of ideologies” over this issue, Stark points out the contrast between the perspective behind Deuteronomy 20.16-19, which shows Moses sarcastically sparing trees from the total destruction commanded upon untold numbers of humans, and the Lord’s closing, resounding remarks in Jonah 4.10-11,

You have been concerned about this plant, though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up overnight and died overnight. And should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left—and also many animals?

Amos as well, though less concerned with that humanitarianism, shows a God who is responsible for the good that comes over every nation, and Israel’s deliverance was “nothing special”. Stark evokes the parable of the Good Samaritan to show which side of this debate a certain prophet of a later time took, presumably settling the argument for those who think of themselves as followers of that prophet.

The next example of competing theologies that Stark addresses is over the causes of suffering and prosperity. “Traditional Hebrew wisdom looked at suffering and attributed it to sin,” in contrast to the righteous, who “prosper on account of their righteousness” (pp. 6-7). In this perspective, good and bad are rewarded in this life; fortuitous and negative life circumstances are diagnostic of one’s good or bad deeds. One can, as Stark makes a start doing, make quite a list of Proverbs based in this belief, and he also suggests that prophetic books that prescribe and blame national calamities on unrighteous behavior seem to show this theology at work as well. This theology, then, seems to have been dominant within the OT canon. The much greater part of Stark’s discussion of this controversy however is spent on the other side, as noted especially in the books of Job and Ecclesiastes.

The authors of these “subversive” books emphasize just the opposite: the wicked prosper and the righteous suffer. And worse still, God cannot be held accountable for it. Stark suggests that Job is an indictment not only upon the habit of “lying for God” by glossing over such inequities, but upon God himself, full-throated in the boldness of desperation from people who had as yet never conceived of a time of recompense beyond the grave. It is the voice of someone who was struggling with what we all now recognize as the grim reality that life is not fair and only meagerly manipulable by wise choices: even the best plans laid by the best people we know may end up after all in shambles, perhaps for no better reason than an upstairs game of one-upsmanship. “Yahweh gives and Yahweh takes away” is not, contends Stark, a statement of triumphant hope in God’s wisdom and lovingkindness, but a “sigh of resignation” to the fact that there is no appeal to God’s rulings (pp. 8-9). Similarly, Ecclesiastes’ Teacher notices the “emptiness” of any expectations of karma in this life – certainly not afterwards – and ends up essentially advocating hedonism, if perhaps only in exasperation (8.14-15).

The voices of Job and the Teacher did not have the last say, however: their devastating critique of what Stark identifies as a precursor of today’s prosperity gospel soon gave rise to an answer that conceded life’s injustices but projected God’s righteous jurisdiction further than the authors of Job and Ecclesiastes had, all the way beyond the grave. It was late in OT Judaism that there arose the idea of a resurrection of the dead, which Stark suggests was at least partially inspired by an extension of Ezekiel’s vision of revivification of the dry bones of national Judah, as an explanation of how their God could manage to show Himself faithful and just despite undeniable injustice in this world.

The final section, headed “Manufacturing Conformity”, looks at how these tensions were gradually smoothed over in late Second Temple Judaism. Stark contends that it was in the interests of the ruling class to present a more or less unified religion to solidify their power base focused in Jerusalem and thereby build a tighter hegemony. Anticipating the inerrantist objection that the conflicting theologies claimed in this chapter would have been weeded out under such a scenario, Stark explains that slowly, the more popular “subversive” religious texts were retrofitted and put in the service of those texts’ original opponents, not forcibly removed from public memory. This explains the surprisingly “mainstream” (my word) endings of the overall discontent books of Ecclesiastes and Amos, added in later to “redeem those texts and slant them toward the desired direction.

That whole line of argumentation is wholly plausible and makes great sense of the data. I am convinced. But the problem with this section is that Stark’s view is by no means the only scenario that covers the facts presented in the chapter, facts with which this book’s targets will be familiar and for which they already have more comfortable explanations. If there are other facts that come into play and tip the scale toward the critical view Stark is presenting, then this section needs at least some notes sourcing those facts.

My impression based upon the first chapter is that this book would have been so much more useful for those likeliest to be persuaded by Stark’s critical view of Scripture if it had included a chapter-by-chapter bibliography and, at least in his arguments about Ezraite racism and propagandized redactions, a few more footnotes. I understand and applaud him if he did not wish to scare off those who would be intimidated with too much academic material, but my guess is that by and large those are exactly the people who would be least satisfied with those under-sourced claims I have pointed out. When an idea is presented in a weakly evidenced manner, one increases the risk of inoculation.

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