February 27, 2013
God’s road rage
Parashat Ki Tisa (Exodus 30:11-34:35)
What’s up with God?
One minute God’s up on Mount Sinai giving us laws and teachings to transform our people and the world, and the next, the Holy One is contemplating — no, planning, actually — to destroy the whole Israelite people and begin again with Moses as the progenitor seed. There God goes again, getting pissed off!
God is so angry (dare I say, “Out of control!”?) that it takes a rationally focused Moses to talk God down from the veritable ledge. “Do you want to be known,” Moses calmly asks (I am paraphrasing here), “as the Divine who freed the people from slavery only to take them out to the desert to destroy them?”
“Now that you put it that way,” God responds, “I suppose not. That won’t play well across the generations.”
Uncontrolled road rage
Most of us are familiar with what happens next at Mount Sinai. Upon seeing the Israelites in the act of rejecting their Creator, Moses throws down the Ten Commandments in rage. The breaking tablets destroy the golden calf, and a whole bunch of Israelites along with it. In a classic case of rage transmitted across generations, the child learns from the parent and lashes out harshly.
This is not the first (nor the last) time God expresses uncontrolled “road rage.” In the Beginning, as the world becomes increasingly corrupt, God throws up God’s metaphoric hands and decides it is time to start over. Moments later, Noah is building an ark, the animals are lining up two by two, and Creation faces another anger-induced destruction (Genesis 6-9). After the waters subside, God learns from the experience and faces up to God’s anger-management issue. God sets up a Three-Step addiction recovery program: see rainbow in sky, remember the brit (covenant), don’t destroy world by flood. Creative, hopeful. But ultimately very theologically problematic.
God’s anger-management issues
Just nine generations after God created humanity, God gets fed up with humanity’s predilection for egocentrism, evidenced by its high-rise project (see Tower of Babel, Genesis 11). Today, we guide our children to use their words to express their frustrations, but back then, God just knocks down the whole tower and scrambles everyone’s words. End of game: God 1, Humanity 0.
The trouble with this narrative, and with subsequent bouts of Divine rage, is that we have grown to expect our Divine to be better than that, to be immune to the emotional highs and lows that permeate our less-than-divine human existence. God is supposed to be perfect (and all-good, all-knowing and all-powerful, too); when God flies off into a rage — or seems to act in ways that can hardly be described as good or perfect (see the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 18-19), or the call for genocidal slaughtering of the inhabitants of the land in Deuteronomy 20, 25, or the unnecessary slandering of all homosexual acts as abominations in Leviticus 18, 20 — either we are missing the point, or God is messing up, or ...
Theologically speaking, God just ain’t perfect
American theologian Charles Hartshorne (1897-2000), in his insightful work, “Omnipotence and Other Theological Mistakes” (SUNY Press, 1984), argues just that. God was never unchanging, perfect, all-powerful, all-knowing or all-good. According to Hartshorne, these attributions to God are a later rereading of the Torah by Greek philosophy-influenced rabbinic scholars.
These traits of perfection are not native to the Holy One — at least as far as the Torah text itself is concerned. In Torah, for example, we see God acting imperfectly rashly (in the deaths of Nadav and Avihu in Numbers 3) and evidencing a lack of knowledge about how humans might act (in the near sacrifice of Isaac in Genesis 22).
God learns and grows
So, let’s face it. Our God is an imperfect, growing, changing Divine. As the kabbalists will later insist, God learns from humanity just like a parent learns from a child (and a person learns from a lover) and is able to grow and self-actuate from those interactions.
God may never fully get a handle on the Holy Rage issues, but as the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible) continues, God is quicker to walk back from the precipice.
We humans, created b’tzelem Elohim (in God’s image) and expected to live imitatio Dei (following God’s example), can learn from the Divine. Perhaps therein lie significant lessons from Parashat Ki Tisa: That God isn’t and never has been perfect. That we need to stop holding God up to unachievable, unrealistic theological standards. And coming to terms with these realities are necessary first steps toward developing a healthy, reality-based belief system.