Should God be obeyed?
Should the state? How to argue with God and Caesar
Robert A. Burt
A. Burt is a law professor at Yale University
Throughout the Bible, God repeatedly doubts
humanity’s worth. We see these misgivings in the book of Genesis, when God
decides to kill nearly all of humanity in a great flood because of our evil
proclivities. Or when He destroys Sodom and Gomorrah because of their
residents’ sinfulness. Or in Exodus, when God resolves to kill the Israelites,
whom He has rescued from slavery in Egypt because of their idolatry of a golden
calf, until Moses persuades Him otherwise.
The biblical narratives also record doubts on
humanity’s side — doubts about the worth of obeying God and about his plans
for us. By highlighting this aspect of humanity’s relationship with God, the
Bible reveals itself in an unexpected light: as a guidebook for confronting
authority — secular political authority as well as religious authority.
Try reading the Bible as if you didn’t know
the endings to its stories. The book is filled with gripping accounts of people
facing crises, with resolutions that are far from clear. When Abraham, in
obedience to God’s command, binds his son, Isaac, on an altar and raises his
knife over him, neither knows that the killing will be interrupted. When
Jesus’s disciples learn of his death and are overwhelmed by grief and fear,
they don’t know that He will return to them. When Jesus himself utters his
last words from the cross — “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?,”
according to the Gospels of Mark and Matthew — He doesn’t know that God will
welcome Him in Heaven.
Whether we approach the Bible as believers in
its truth or solely with an appreciation of its literary qualities, we cannot
accurately understand the text if we overlook the deep doubts and fears of the
characters, including their doubts about God’s wisdom. A close reading reveals
many instances when human beings withhold allegiance from God — and seemingly
with good reason.
One obvious example is in the book of Job, in
which God authorizes the infliction of suffering on an innocent man to prove to
Satan that Job will be loyal to Him. Job responds, however, by cursing the day
he was born and threatening suicide, which he imagines would somehow punish God
for the injustice he is suffering. “Soon I’ll be lying in the earth,” Job
says. “When you come looking for me, I’ll be gone.”
There are other notable occasions. After
Abraham is held back at the last moment from fulfilling God’s command to kill
Isaac, he and God never speak again. Genesis does not proclaim this fact; it
simply gives no record of any further communication between them, in contrast to
the constant interactions between God and Abraham before this climactic event.
There is also no record of any further
conversation between Abraham and Isaac. The implications are tantalizing: Isaac
has lost faith in his father’s paternal benevolence, and in parallel, Abraham
has lost faith in God’s beneficence toward him after being subjected to this
Similarly, in the Christian Bible, Jesus’s
disciples abandon Him as He faces death. Peter denies knowing Jesus when
challenged in the high priest’s courtyard, while other disciples flee after
his arrest. Their actions might have been motivated by fear and
self-preservation. But it is also plausible from the narrative that the
disciples broke off their relationship with Jesus because they felt abandoned
by his refusal to use his powers to resist his crucifixion.
These stories — and many others involving
Cain, Noah, Jacob and Moses — underscore a question that quietly pervades
the Hebrew and Christian Bibles: Does God deserve humanity’s obedience, its
God has overwhelming power that He can use
to destroy us. This may be a reason for believers to fear Him, but it hardly
establishes legitimate authority or provides a reason to love Him.
Is God worthy of humanity’s allegiance
because He created us? Abusive or neglectful human parents don’t deserve their
injured children’s loyalty. Is there not good reason to expect more from God
— to expect nurturing and protection?
But would accepting some standard of justice
— for example, that He keep his promises to humanity — limit God? In the
biblical narratives, this possibility is raised but never resolved. When God
appears to Job in the whirlwind, He seems to mock Job for daring to see any
limitation on his power. But later, God seems to acknowledge the truth of
Job’s claim by restoring his previous fortune twice over. God thus paid double
indemnity, in effect, pleading guilty in Job’s lawsuit against Him for
The truly stunning element in the Hebrew and
Christian Bibles is not that they answer the question of the legitimacy of
God’s authority over humanity, but that they raise the matter at all. If we
overlook the persistent accusations of betrayal and abandonment — both by God
against humanity and by humanity against God — we not only miss a central
contested issue in the narratives, we also miss the lessons they teach about
secular political authority.
Even today, secular authorities often demand
acquiescence simply based on their say-so. It is a president waging war without
congressional approval or indefinitely imprisoning alleged terrorists without
permitting civil court review; it is a Supreme Court overturning laws that
regulate campaign financing or, as now appears likely, that provide access to
health care for all. In these instances, the imperial president or the imperious
Supreme Court mimics one style of God’s authority in the biblical narratives,
one based on command and coercion.
There is, however, another style of divine
authority that can be seen in the Hebrew and Christian Bibles. It is bilateral
rather than unilateral, based on mutual recognition and soliciting consent
rather than commanding obedience. This style can be seen with particular clarity
when God offers a special covenant to the children of Israel in the Sinai desert
after rescuing them from Egyptian slavery. He does not command the Israelites to
accept a special relationship with Him. He does not threaten punishment if they
do not consent.
These two forms of divine authority —
unilateral and bilateral — recur throughout the biblical texts. But both sides
clearly seem to prefer the bilateral relationship, one based on mutual regard
and good faith.
Whenever God veers toward a command approach,
humanity pushes back: Abraham’s withdrawal from God, Job’s protests,
Moses’s reminder to God of his past promises to Abraham, Isaac and Israel that
their descendants would be a great nation.
Of course, no one has effective coercive
authority over God. But in the biblical texts, God is continually reminded —
by Abraham, Moses, Job and Jesus — that coercion cannot pry loose what He
truly wants from us: not just obedience but loyalty, allegiance and love.
It is also hard to exercise coercive authority
over our secular leaders — the president during his term in office or
life-tenured Supreme Court justices. Political leaders may want our love (or at
least our votes), but it may be that, unlike God, they are content to settle for
our sullen, enforced obedience.
Still, it remains in our power to persistently
and insistently remind them that a different kind of relationship — a mutually
attentive and bilateral one — is more desirable. Even God seems to prefer it.
with consent Ex-Minister.org
May 5, 2012 All rights reserved