Creation Stories of the Ancient World (Part 1): On Enuma Elish and Genesis 1 Guest Post by Joseph Lam

Here’s the link.

March 16, 2023

My colleague Joseph Lam is an expert on the languages and texts of the Ancient Near East, including the Hebrew Bible.  In terms of languages, he not only teaches ancient Hebrew, but also (brace yourself), Ugaritic, Akkadian, Syriac, Semitic linguistics, and, well, so on.  He is particularly expert in the relationship of the texts and myths other Ancient Near Eastern religions with those of the Hebrew Bible.

Joseph is also a superb teacher, and so he was invited to to a course for the Great Courses (Wondrium) called “Creation Stories of the Ancient World.”  The course just came out, and so I have asked Joseph to do a couple of blog posts for us, to introduce all of you to the kinds of things he covers there.   Here are the links to his course and, then, his first post:

Wondrium link:

The Great Courses link:


Creation stories tell us who we are, where we came from, and where we are going. They not only describe the origins of the world in a distant past, but they encapsulate a culture’s self-understanding in story form, offering insight into how different societies made sense of the human condition across history. In my new course for Wondrium/The Great Courses, titled “Creation Stories of the Ancient World,” I explore a range of creation stories from the great literate civilizations of the ancient Near East and the Mediterranean world in order to illuminate the underlying conceptions they describe—from the nature of reality, to the identity of the gods, to the role of humans in the created order. Among the texts I discuss are myths from Mesopotamia, such as the Babylonian Creation Epic (Enuma Elish) and the Atrahasis Epic; literary traditions from ancient Egypt, including the Pyramid Texts, Coffin Texts, and the Memphite Theology; an early Greek view of creation as represented in Hesiod’s Theogony; lesser known texts such as the Hurro-Hittite Kumarbi Cycle and the Ugaritic Baal Cycle; and, of course, the biblical creation accounts of Genesis 1 and 2.

As an example of the kinds of insights that one can glean from these stories, consider the opening lines of the Babylonian Creation Epic, known in antiquity as Enuma Elish (translation is mine):

When the heavens above had not been named,

nor the earth beneath been called by name,

there was Apsu, the pre-eminent, their begetter,

and creator Tiamat, who bore them all;

they mixed their waters together,

before pastures had formed and reed thickets had appeared.

When none of the gods had been made manifest,

nor been called by name, nor destinies decreed,

the gods were created in the midst of them.

Those who are familiar with the biblical account of creation in seven days (Genesis 1) may already recognize certain broad similarities, such as the pairing of “heaven” and “earth,” the idea of naming as synonymous with creation itself (compare how God speaks things into existence and names them in Genesis 1), and the presence of water in the initial state of the universe. Indeed, on this last point, the two primordial deities in this tale, the male god Apsu and the female goddess Tiamat, are both personifications of water, with Apsu representing the fresh waters and Tiamat representing the salt waters. Note that the name “Tiamat” is actually related to the Hebrew word for “deep” or “abyss” in Genesis 1:2 (Hebrew tehom).

Dr. Joseph Lam

But, while these similarities might suggest that the Mesopotamian and Israelite accounts share a common cultural vocabulary for speaking about creation, they do not imply that the same story is being told. In Enuma Elish, after the gendered pair of Apsu and Tiamat begins the process of procreation of the gods, the story proceeds to describe the two major rounds of conflict that take place among the gods. The resulting battles lead to the deaths of both Apsu and Tiamat—the latter at the hand of Marduk (technically their great-great-grandson), the patron god of Babylon who is proclaimed supreme over the divine pantheon. After Tiamat’s defeat, Marduk severs Tiamat’s body in two in order to make heaven and earth respectively; he also establishes the stars and planets to mark time as well as the other familiar features of the physical world, from mountains to springs to the weather. Most importantly, creation culminates in the founding of the city of Babylon itself as an earthly abode for the gods to be venerated regularly. Humankind is then formed from the body of a sacrificed god—specifically, the god who induced Tiamat to confront Marduk to begin with—in order to alleviate the work of the gods and to maintain the activities of divine worship. Finally, as thanks to Marduk for his lordship, the rest of the gods build the Esagila, Marduk’s temple, in the midst of Babylon. In these ways, Enuma Elish can be seen as an encapsulation of the major points of ancient Babylonian religious and political ideology. It is not surprising, then, that we have evidence that this text was recited as part of the most important festival in Babylon, the spring New Year celebration called the Akitu festival.

By contrast, Genesis 1 describes creation not as a series of battles between the gods but rather as the activity of a single god (Hebrew elohim) establishing an ordered world over the course of six days. Any potentially competing divine forces—whether the “waters” or the “deep” in 1:2, or the sun/moon/stars in 1:16, or the “great sea monsters” in 1:21—are subordinated to this one creator god. In modern times, by virtue of its prominent placement at the beginning of the Bible, this text is often read as a timeless description of how the world came to be. But it would be a mistake to overlook the strong polemical force of the story. I would argue that Genesis 1 is just as historically situated as Enuma Elish, and that its historical setting goes a long way toward explaining the emphases of the story itself. In particular, if we posit the time of the Babylonian exile to be the background for the story, two major features of the text come into alignment. First, its many allusions to Enuma Elish can be explained not only as general reflections of common ancient Near Eastern creation imagery (though that is still a useful fundamental assumption) but specifically as an effort by the Judean literary elite, living as exiles in Babylonia, to articulate an alternative vision of creation in line with their traditions. Second, the lack of an overt mention of a temple in Genesis 1 could be seen as an attempt to make sense of the aftermath of the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple: the Israelite Elohim does not necessarily need a temple, for the entirety of heaven and earth are Elohim’s abode! Moreover, just as every ancient Mesopotamian temple had a cult image of the deity residing in it, so human beings are the “image” (Gen. 1:26-27) of Elohim in the newly-established cosmos.

In my next blog entry, I will introduce another ancient Near Eastern creation text that has often been compared with Genesis 1—the Egyptian text known as the Memphite Theology.

The Martyrdom of Perpetua and the Rise of Purgatory

Here’s the link to this article by Bart Ehrman.

April 1, 2023

I was recently asked about “purgatory, a concept misunderstood by most people I’ve ever met, including nearly every Protestant (!) but also some lifelong Catholics.  I had done a series of posts on the issue years ago, while I was doing research for my book on Heaven and Hell.  I had just read an interesting book that dealt with the “Rise and Function” of the idea of “Purgatory” by Adreas Merkt, Das Fegefeuer: Entstehung und Funktion einer Idee.  Purgatory itself did not become as solid idea until the 12th and 13th centuries, but there were antecedents to it in much earlier times, including in one of the most intriguing accounts of a Christian martyrdom from the early 3rd century.

That is how I started my thread:


Purgatory never made it big in Protestant Christian circles.  But it is an age-old doctrine, the idea that a person needs to suffer for their sins before allowing into heaven for a blessed eternity.  It is kind of a temporary hell.  No one can get off scot-free.  But the saved will be saved.  First, though, for most people, there will be suffering.

To make sense of the origin of the idea, I have to talk about the dreams of the woman martyr Perpetua, who was executed for her faith in 203 CE in Carthage, North Africa.  And to do that, I need to give you some information on the surviving account of her last days and martyrdom, a book called the Passion of Perpetua.

This a flat-out fascinating book, for all sorts of reasons.  The issue of purgatory is very much a secondary issue for the book.  Less than that.  It’s a tertiary issue.  But since it’s what I want to talk about, I have to say a few things about the book first.

Here I give the Introduction to the text found in my book After the New Testament, and the first few chapters of the book in a modern translation (the book is written in Latin), just to give you a taste of what it is like.  (This opening section does not involve purgatory – the part I’ll be dealing with next does.)



An account filled with gripping pathos, “The Martyrdom of Perpetua and Felicitas” records the arrest, imprisonment, trials, and execution of a young Roman matron, Perpetua, and her female slave, Felicitas. Remarkably, the first part of the account claims to be based on Perpetua’s own diary, kept while she was in prison and edited by the anonymous author who provided the concluding story of the martyrdom itself. The action takes place in  Carthage in 202–203 CE, during the reign of the emperor Septimius Severus. Among the notable features of the report are (a) Perpetua’s familial relations, especially with her infant child whom she must relinquish, her anguished (non-Christian) father who begs her to relent, and her dead brother whom she sees twice in dreams; (b) her vivid night visions, which she narrates as divine predictions of her fate but which also reveal a good deal about her understanding of the world and her own internal struggles; and (c) the explicit details of her prison life and, especially, of the martyrdom she endures along with her slave, Felicitas, who herself has just recently given birth.

The translation I am using is “The Martyrdom of Perpetua and Felicitas,” from The Acts of the Christian Martyrs, trans. Herbert Musurillo. © Oxford University Press, 1972.


2 A number of young catechumens were arrested, Revocatus and his fellow slave Felicitas, Saturninus and Secundulus, and with them Vibia Perpetua, a newly married woman of good family and upbringing. Her mother and father were still alive and one of her two brothers was a catechumen like herself. She was about twenty-two years old and had an infant son at the breast. (Now from this point on the entire account of her ordeal is her own, according to her own ideas and in the way that she herself wrote it down.)

3 While we were still under arrest (she said) my father out of love for me was trying to persuade me and shake my resolution. “Father,” said I, “do you see this vase here, for example, or waterpot or whatever?” “Yes, I do,” said he. And I told him: “Could it be called by any other name than what it is?” And he said: “No.” “Well, so too I cannot be called anything other than what I am, a Christian.” At this my father was so angered by the word “Christian” that he moved towards me as though he would pluck my eyes out. But he left it at that and departed, vanquished along with his diabolical arguments. For a few days afterwards I gave thanks to the Lord that I was separated from my father, and I was comforted by his absence. During these few days I was baptized, and I was inspired by the Spirit not to ask for any other favor after the water but simply the perseverance of the flesh. A few days later we were lodged in the prison; and I was terrified, as I had never before been in such a dark hole. What a difficult time it was! With the crowd the heat was stifling; then there was the extortion of the soldiers; and to crown all, I was tortured with worry for my baby there.

4 Then my brother said to me: “Dear sister, you are greatly privileged; surely you might ask for a vision to discover whether you are to be condemned or freed.” Faithfully I promised that I would, for I knew that I could speak with the Lord, whose great blessings I had come to experience. And so I said: “I shall tell you tomorrow.” Then I made my request and this was the vision I had. I saw a ladder of tremendous height made of bronze, reaching all the way to the heavens, but it was so narrow that only one person could climb up at a time. To the sides of the ladder were attached all sorts of metal weapons: there were swords, spears, hooks, daggers, and spikes; so that if anyone tried to climb up carelessly or without paying attention, he would be mangled and his flesh would adhere to the weapons. At the foot of the ladder lay a dragon of enormous size, and it would attack those who tried to climb up and try to terrify them from doing so. And Saturus was the first to go up, he who was later to give himself up of his own accord. He had been the builder of our strength, although he was not present when we were arrested. And he arrived at the top of the staircase and he looked back and said to me: “Perpetua, I am waiting for you. But take care; do not let the dragon bite you.” “He will not harm me,” I said, “in the name of Christ Jesus.” Slowly, as though he were afraid of me, the dragon stuck his head out from underneath the ladder. Then, using it as my first step, I trod on his head and went up. Then I saw an immense garden, and in it a grey-haired man sat in shepherd’s garb; tall he was, and milking sheep. And standing around him were many thousands of people clad in white garments. He raised his head, looked at me, and said: “I am glad you have come, my child.” He called me over to him and gave me, as it were, a mouthful of the milk he was drawing; and I took it into my cupped hands and consumed it. And all those who stood around said: “Amen!” At the sound of this word I came to, with the taste of something sweet still in my mouth. I at once told this to my brother, and we realized that we would have to suffer, and that from now on we would no longer have any hope in this life.

The Coming Apocalypse and U.S. Foreign Policy on Israel

Here’s the link to this article by Bart Ehrman.

March 29, 2023

One section of new book Armageddon: What the Bible Really Says About the End explains some of the socio-political consequences of the belief that “the end is near.  Here’s a consequence that I bet is not widely known:  U.S. Foreign Policy on Israel.

In my book I emphatically state that I am not taking a stand on U.S. policy per se and certainly not on the Israeli-Palestinian issue itself.  I am interested purely in the historical question: why has the U.S. been (and still is) so invested in supporting Israel in particular?

This is how I explain it in the book (this will take two posts).


Modern Israel in Ancient Prophecy?

Many people – possibly most – hold some beliefs without knowing quite why.  Because of our upbringing, environment, and news sources, certain ideas just seem like common sense.  Those raised in families, communities, and churches that believe the United States needs to provide substantial support for Israel usually know some of the reasons: we need to promote stability in the Middle East, protect American oil interests in the region, and help those who have suffered centuries of oppression.  It is important to realize, however, that America’s concerns for Middle Eastern stability and oil are relatively recent.  American support of Israel was originally, and widely still is, in a certain way of reading the Bible, starting with Genesis “In the Beginning” and continuing to Revelation “At the End.”

Readers of the Bible have always seen the beginning and the end of human history as intimately connected.  Unlike historical scholars who see the Bible as sixty-six books written by different authors at different times with different points of view, these readers see the Bible as a single book with many parts that tightly cohere from start to finish.  It is, in effect, a single grand narrative of God’s working with the human race.  And that narrative has Israel at its center.

In the beginning God created Adam, but he and then his descendants were hopelessly disobedient, so God had to destroy them with a flood – all but Noah and his family.  Then humans started anew, but things still went horribly awry, and so God chose one man out of the whole human race, Abraham, and made a pact with him, “an everlasting covenant” – that is, an agreement that would never, ever end:  “I will give to you, and to your offspring after you, the land where you are now an alien, all the land of Canaan, for a perpetual holding; and I will be their God” (Genesis 17:18)   Abraham became the father of the Jews, and this “eternal covenant” guaranteed the land of Canaan, today comprising Israel and the Palestinian Territories, to his descendants forever; they would be his chosen people and he would be their God.  Forever means forever.  If God favors Israel, followers of God must do so as well.

In this reading of the biblical narrative, even though God is on the side of the Jews as a people, he is not necessarily on the side of Jews as individuals.  That depends on obedience.  When individuals within Israel disobeyed God’s laws, he punished the nation; eventually the northern part of the kingdom was destroyed by the Assyrians (721 BCE) to be followed a century and a half later by the southern part, destroyed by the Babylonians (586 BCE).   But God was faithful and he restored the southern half, Judah, now called “Judea” (home of the “Jews”), with Jerusalem its capital.   Even so, Jews continued to disobey, and when God sent them their messiah to provide salvation, they rejected him. God punished the nation not long after Jesus’ death.  The Romans conquered Jerusalem, burnt the temple, and sent Jews into exile, this time for over eighteen centuries.

But God remained faithful. He had promised the Jewish people the Land, and that promise was fulfilled recent times.  The Balfour Declaration of 1917 set the stage; the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948 was the fulfillment, predicted repeatedly by prophets over the centuries.  As the great prophet Isaiah declared:

On that day the Lord will extend his hand yet a second time to recover the remnant that is left of his people, from Assyria, from Egypt, from Pathros, from Ethiopia, from Elam, from Shinar, from Hamath, and from the coastlands of the sea. He will raise a signal for the nations, and will assemble the outcasts of Israel, and gather the dispersed of Judah from the four corners of the earth.  (Isa. 11:11-12)

When read in its historical context, this passage is predicting a return of Israelites from exile after the Assyrian invasion of 721 BCE.  But for most evangelical readers, it is referring to modern history, to the Jews scattered throughout the nations in the centuries after the Roman destruction of Judea.  It is a prediction fulfilled in 1948.

So too the prophet Ezekiel predicts a return of Jews to the land:

They shall live in the land that I gave to my servant Jacob, in which your ancestors lived; they and their children and their children’s children shall live there forever; and my servant David shall be their prince forever.  I will make a covenant of peace with them; it shall be an everlasting covenant with them and I will bless them and multiply them, and will set my sanctuary among them forevermore.  (Ezek 37:25-26)

The patriarch “Jacob” (also known as “Israel”) was the grandson of Abraham; he had twelve sons from whom sprang the “twelve tribes of Israel.”  These tribes conquered the Promised Land centuries later, but they were driven from that land as punishment for their sins. Ezekiel insisted God would restore them.  And importantly, he would “set my sanctuary among them forevermore.”  Ezekiel is referring to things that would transpire in his own day, soon after the Babylonians conquered Judah, destroyed the temple, and sent many Jews into exile (586 BCE).   Ezekiel predicts this exile would end and that the sanctuary (that is, the Jerusalem temple) would be rebuilt.  As it was.   But evangelical readers can point out that Ezekiel indicates the sanctuary will stand “forevermore.”  The second temple built after Jews returned from exile in Babylon was destroyed 500 years later by the Romans.  And so, in the evangelical reading, the prophecy has not been fulfilled.  That must mean that it will be fulfilled in our own future.

Now it has started: the Jews have indeed returned to Israel, in fulfillment of prophecy, and they will remain there forevermore, even if that requires foreign assistance.  Soon the temple will be rebuilt, as Ezekiel clearly indicates.  This belief in the rebuilding of the temple is key to understanding evangelical support of Israel.

I’ll continue here in my next post.

Of COURSE the Rapture is in the New Testament — There for all to see! Right?

Here’s the link to this article, the second in this series by Bart Ehrman. Here’s the first article (I encourage you to read first).

March 25, 2023

In my new book Armageddon (see below for additional information)which saw the light of published day just a few days ago, I talk about where the “rapture” came from, the evangelical belief that Jesus was soon to return to snatch his followers out of this world before a horrible time of Tribulation hits the earth.

That too will be the subject of a lecture, with Q&A, that I will be giving (unrelated to the blog) on April 15.  For information about THAT, go to my website

I left off yesterday with a bit of a tease, indicating that the following passage, one of the main prooftexts for a rapture, is in fact not about the rapture at all.  Here’s the passage, and then my explanation:

For we tell you this by a word of the Lord: we who are living, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not go before those who sleep. For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry, with the voice of an archangel, and with the trumpet of God—and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are living, who remain, will be taken up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will always be with the Lord. (1  Thessalonians 4:15–18)

How can this not be referring to the rapture?

To begin with, it is important to read the passage, and all passages of the Bible, in context—a point I will be beating like a drum throughout this book. Paul certainly did believe Jesus would be returning from heaven and it would be soon. The key, though, is to understand Paul’s explanation of what will actually occur at that second coming.

Throughout his writings Paul insists that Christ will return in judgment. Jesus was crushed by his enemies at the crucifixion, but he is coming back to annihilate them. His return will bring destruction to everyone who has not accepted the good news of his salvation. The “saved” will survive the onslaught and be rewarded with glorious bodies that will never again be hurt, sick, or die; they will then live forever with Christ in the coming kingdom (see 1 Corinthians 15 and 1 Thessalonians 1:9–10).

I want to pause here to discuss something seemingly small that will help us understand this passage, and every other passage in the Bible. Our Bibles today have chapter and verse divisions. These are extremely helpful, of course, since without them it is very hard indeed to tell someone where to find a passage. But the authors did not write in chapters and verses. One problem with our having them is that they make us think that the next chapter (or even verse) is changing the subject. But Paul would have written the first sentence of what is now 1 Thessalonians 5 right after the final sentence of what is now chapter 4 (quoted above) without skipping a beat. In these next words, he indicates that the coming of the Lord (4:13–18) will bring “sudden destruction” for those not expecting it (5:3). Christ will be like a “thief in the night” (5:4). This is not a reassuring image. The robber comes to harm, not to help. But the good news for Paul is that this harm will come only to those who are not among Jesus’s followers; his faithful will survive the onslaught, “For God has not destined us for wrath but for salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ” (5:9).

So what does Paul mean in 4:17 when he says that Jesus’s followers will “meet him in the air”? It can’t be a “rapture” that removes his followers from the world before the long-term tribulation. Jesus is not coming to provide an escape for his followers but “sudden destruction” for his enemies. Then why are his followers floating up to meet him?

Thessalonians, reading this letter in 50 CE, would have had no trouble understanding it. As scholars have long suggested, Paul’s description of Jesus, the “Lord,” coming to his “kingdom” uses an image familiar in antiquity. When a king or high-ranking official arrived for a visit to one of his cities, the citizens would know in advance he was coming and would prepare a banquet and festivities. When the long-awaited king and his entourage approached, the city would send out its leading figures to meet and greet him before escorting him back to their town with great fanfare.

For Paul in 1 Thessalonians, that’s what it will be like when Jesus comes. He is the king coming to visit his own people, who will go out to greet him. In this case, though, he is not coming with his entourage on horses; he is coming with his angels from heaven to destroy his enemies. And so, to greet him, his followers—all of them, not just the leaders—will be taken “up” to “meet him in the air.” But this escort will not remain in the air any more than, on earth, the king’s welcoming committee would remain outside the city walls. They will accompany him back to earth, where he will enter his kingdom and rule forever, in a paradise provided to his chosen ones, now that all others have been suddenly destroyed.

There is no “rapture” here, no account of Jesus’s followers being taken to heaven to escape a massive and prolonged tribulation on earth. The same is true of other passages used by fundamentalists who insist that the rapture is taught in Scripture. Another popular verse—we used to love this one—is Matthew 24:39–40:

So too will be the coming of the Son of Man. Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.

We took the verse out of context as a pretty obvious reference to the rapture, where some will be taken out of the world and others abandoned for long-term misery. If we had read it in context, however, we would have seen that this is the opposite of what Jesus was teaching. In the verses right before the passage (Matthew 24:38–39), Jesus likens the coming of the Lord to what happened in “the days of Noah,” when only Noah and his family were saved in the ark when the flood took away—that is, drowned—everyone else. In this passage, then, it is the people who are “taken” who are destroyed; those “left behind” are the ones who are saved.

Both Matthew and Paul warn their readers that they need to be alert because Jesus is coming soon. But how soon? When Paul talks about this coming day of judgment, he speaks about the reward that will come to Jesus’s true followers, both those who have already died, who will be raised from the dead, and those who are still alive. Notice that Paul includes himself among the living at the time. When he speaks of the two groups, he refers to “those” who are dead and “we” who will still be alive. It’s a point worth emphasizing. These New Testament authors who speak of Christ’s return thought it was to happen in their own day.

Bart’s latest book:

Amazon abstract:

New York Times bestselling Biblical scholar reveals why our popular understanding of the Apocalypse is all wrong—and why that matters.

You’ll find nearly everything the Bible has to say about the end in the Book of Revelation: a mystifying prophecy filled with bizarre symbolism, violent imagery, mangled syntax, confounding contradictions, and very firm ideas about the horrors that await us all. But whether you understand the book as a literal description of what will soon come to pass, interpret it as a metaphorical expression of hope for those suffering now, or only recognize its highlights from pop culture, what you think Revelation reveals…is almost certainly wrong.

In Armageddon, acclaimed New Testament authority Bart D. Ehrman delves into the most misunderstood—and possibly the most dangerous—book of the Bible, exploring the horrifying social and political consequences of expecting an imminent apocalypse and offering a fascinating tour through three millennia of Judeo-Christian thinking about how our world will end. By turns hilarious, moving, troubling, and provocative, Armageddon presents inspiring insights into how to live our lives in the face of an uncertain future and reveals what the Bible really says about the end.

Is The Rapture in the New Testament?

Here’s the link to this article by Bart Ehrman.

March 23, 2023

This post is immediately relevant for me in two ways.  My book on Revelation has now appeared (I kept *saying* it was “coming soon”!)  AND I will be doing a lecture soon, April 15, on the idea of the “rapture,” the belief that Jesus is soon to return to take his followers out of the world before the Antichrist arises and all hell breaks out on earth.  You don’t wanna be here for that.  You don’t want to be “Left Behind”!   The lecture is not connected with the blog per se; you can find out more about it on my website,

Here, to titillate your interest on both fronts, is a bit of what I say about the rapture in ch. 1 of my book (I say much more about it in a later section):


Almost everyone today thinks that Revelation provides a blueprint of what is to happen in the near future—at least those who think about it at all. There are, of course, some holdouts, even among conservative Christians, who maintain the book needs to be read another way. But the popular perception is that, whether absolutely right or terribly wrong, the book of Revelation tries to describe what is going to happen to us here in the twenty-first century.

Why does this seem to be the natural, commonsensical reading? Because the fundamentalists have won. It is not that fundamentalists have won over the great bulk of society to the entire panoply of their religious views. The vast majority of the human race decidedly does not think the Bible is completely inerrant in everything it says, that the world was created in six days some six thousand years or so ago, that there really was an Adam and Eve, and that . . . well, make your list. But fundamentalists have succeeded in convincing everyone (or at least those who are remotely interested) that Revelation describes what will happen in our own future, and probably soon. Possibly starting next year, or, well, next Thursday.

But here is a little-known factoid: The word “rapture” never appears in the Bible. Here’s another: Even apart from the actual word, the book of Revelation never says anything about the followers of Jesus being taken out of the world before it all goes up in flames. The idea of the rapture has not been taken from the Bible; it has been read into the Bible.

Here is an even more interesting factoid: No one had even thought of the idea of a “rapture” until the 1830s. Of the many, many thousands of serious students of the Bible throughout Christian history who pored over every word—from leading early Christian scholars such as Irenaeus in the second century; to Tertullian and Origen in the third; to Augustine in the fifth; to all the biblical scholars of the Middle Ages up to Aquinas; to the Reformation greats Luther, Melanchthon, and Calvin; on to, well, everyone who studied or simply read or even just heard passages from the Bible— this idea of the rapture occurred to no one until John Nelson Darby came up with the idea in the early 1800s (as we will discuss in chapter 3).

Even so, back in my fundamentalist days, I, too, was completely certain the rapture was in the Bible, right there in black and white. The key passage was 1 Thessalonians 4:13–18, a letter by the apostle Paul to his converts in the city of Thessalonica, written to provide assurance and comfort because they were about “those who have fallen asleep.” That’s a euphemism in the Bible for “those who have died.” When Paul converted the Thessalonians, he had taught them that the end of the present age was coming very soon: God was about to bring a utopian world to the world, the glorious kingdom of God. Now, some of the Thessalonians had died before this could happen, and the survivors were very upset: Had those who were no longer living lost out on their chance for the coming kingdom?

Paul writes to assure these people that they do not need to “grieve as the others who do not have hope” (that is, the non-Christians; 1  Thessalonians 4:13). When Jesus returns from heaven, the very first to be rewarded will be the believers who have already died. They will be raised up from their graves to meet Jesus on his way down; then those still living on earth will also rise up to meet him in the air.

That’s the rapture, right? It sure seems to be if you read the passage with fundamentalist eyes:

For we tell you this by a word of the Lord: we who are living, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not go before those who sleep. For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry, with the voice of an archangel, and with the trumpet of God—and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are living, who remain, will be taken up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will always be with the Lord. (1  Thessalonians 4:15–18)

How can this not be referring to the rapture?

(I’ll explain in the next post!)

You Have No Right To Question Why You Suffer. What???

Here’s the link to this article by Bart Ehrman.

March 18, 2023

We come now to the conclusion of the dialogues of Job.   His friends have stridently insisted that he is suffering because he has sinned.  He vehemently argues he has not.  As it turns out, he’s right.  Then why is God making him suffer?  Here God himself appears to explain.  Or rather, to insist that he is not going to explain and that Job has no right to ask him to.

Is this an answer to suffering?  Or, well, a satisfactory one?  We can’t even ask?

Decide for yourself.  Here’s how I explain the climax of the book of Job in my book God’s Problem (HarperOne, 2008).


Job has no time – or need – to reply to this restatement of his friends’ views.  Before he can respond, God himself appears, in power, to overwhelm Job with his presence and to cow him into submission in the dirt.  God does not appear with a still, small voice from heaven, or in human guise, or in a comforting dream.  He sends a violent and terrifying whirlwind, and speaks to Job out of it, roaring out his reprimand:

Who is this that darkens council by words without knowledge?

Gird up your loins like a man,

I will question you, and you shall declare to me.

Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?

Tell me, if you have understanding.

Who determined its measurements – surely you know!

Or who stretched the line upon it?

On what were its bases sunk,

or who laid its cornerstone

when the morning stars sang together

and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?… (38:2-7)

In his anger, God reproves Job for thinking that he, a mere mortal, can contend with the one who created the world and all that is in it.  God is the Almighty, unanswerable to those who live their petty existence here on earth.  He asks Job a series of impossible questions, meant to grind him into submission before his divine omnipotence:

Have you commanded the morning since your days began,

and caused the dawn to know its place?….

Have you entered into the springs of the sea,

or walked in the recesses of the deep?

Have the gates of death been revealed to you,

or have you seen the gates of deep darkness?

Have you comprehended the expanse of the earth?

Declare if you know this….

Have you entered the storehouses of the snow,

or have you seen the storehouses of the hail?…

Do you know the ordinances of the heavens?

Can you establish their rule on the earth?

Can you lift up your voice to the clouds,

so that a flood of waters may cover you?

Can you send forth lightnings, so that they may go,

and say to you, “Here we are”?

Is it by your wisdom that the hawk soars,

and spreads its wings toward the south?

Is it at your command that the eagle mounts up

and makes its nest on high? (38:12, 16-18; 22, 33-35; 39:26-27)

This demonstration of raw divine power – it is God, not Job, who is the creator and ruler of this world — leads to the natural conclusion.  If God is Almighty and Job is a pathetically weak mortal, who is he to contend with God? (40:1-2).  Job submits in humility (40:3-4).  But God is not finished with him.  He speaks a second time from the whirlwind:

Then the LORD answered Job out of the whirlwind:

Gird up your loins like a man;

I will question you, and you declare to me.

Will you even put me in the wrong?

Will you condemn me that you may be justified?

Have you an arm like God,

and can you thunder with a voice like his? (40:6-9)

No, obviously not.  Job had predicted that if God ever were to appear to him, he would be completely overpowered by his divine majesty and driven to submit before him, whether innocent or not.  And that’s exactly what happens.  When God’s thundering voice is finally silent, Job repents and confesses:

I know that you can do all things,

and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted….

I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear,

but now my eye sees you;

therefore I despise myself,

and repent in dust and ashes. (42:2, 5-6)

Readers have read this climax to the poetic dialogues in a variety of ways.  Some think that Job got everything that he wished for – a divine audience – and that he was satisfied with that.  Others think that Job came to realize his inherent guilt before the Almighty.  Others think that once Job has recognized the enormity of God’s creation, he can put his individual suffering in a cosmic perspective.  Yet others think that the point is that God has far too much on his hands – the governance of the entire universe, after all – to be all that concerned about Job’s quibbles about innocent suffering.

I don’t think any of these answers is right.  Job did want a divine audience, but that was so he could declare his innocence before God – and he is never given a chance to get a word in.  Nor is there any sense in which Job comes to realize that in fact he was guilty before God after all: when he “repents” he does not repent of any wrongdoing (he was, after all, completely innocent!); he repents of having thought that he could make his case before the Almighty.  Nor does it seem fair to relativize a person’s suffering because the world is, after all, a very big and amazing place. And it can’t be true that the Lord God has too many other things to worry about than Job’s miserable little life: the entire point of Job’s speeches is not that God is absent from his life but that he is far too present, in punishing him in ways that make no sense, since he has done nothing wrong.

It cannot be overlooked that in the divine response from the whirlwind to Job’s passionate and desperate plea for understanding why he, an innocent man, is suffering so horribly, no answer is in fact given.  God does not explain why Job suffers.  He simply asserts that he is the Almighty and, as such, cannot be questioned.  He does not explain that Job committed sins of which he was simply unaware.  He does not say that the suffering did not come from him but from other humans (or demonic beings) who were behaving badly towards Job.  He does not indicate that it has all been a test to see if he would remain faithful.  His only answer is that he is the Almighty who cannot be questioned by mere mortals, and that the very quest for an answer, the very search for truth, the very impulse to understand is an affront to his Powerful Being.  God is not to be questioned and reasons are not to be sought.  Anyone who dares to challenge God will be withered on the spot, squashed into the dirt by his overpowering presence.  The answer to suffering is that there is no answer, and we should not look for one.  The problem with Job is that he expects God to deal rationally with him, to give him a reasonable explanation of the state of affairs; but God refuses to do so.  And he is, after all, God.  Why should he have to answer to anybody?  Who are we, mere mortals, to question GOD?

This response of God from the whirlwind seems to get God off the hook for innocent suffering – he can do whatever he pleases, since he is the Almighty and is not accountable to anyone.  On the other hand, does it really get him off the hook?  Doesn’t this view mean that God can maim, torment, and murder at will and not be held accountable?  As human beings, we’re not allowed to get away with that.  Can God?  Does the fact that he’s Almighty give him the right to torment innocent souls and murder children?  Does might make right?

Moreover, if the point is that we cannot judge the cruel acts of God by human standards (remember: Job was innocent!), where does that leave us?  In the Bible, aren’t humans made in the very image of God?  Aren’t human standards given by God?  Doesn’t he establish what is right and fair and just?  Aren’t humans to be like him in how they treat others?  If we don’t understand God by human standards (which he himself has given), how can we understand him at all, since we’re human?  Isn’t this explanation of God’s justice, at the end of the day, simply a cop out, a refusal to think hard about the disasters and evils in the world as having any meaning whatsoever?

I’m happy to know what you think.

Fundamentalism and the Truth of the Bible

Here’s the link to this article by Bart Ehrman. It covers something I’d never really thought about. Interesting. Makes sense that it’s non-sense to believe that a Bible with errors precludes someone remaining/becoming a Christian.

May 15, 2017

I have recently received a number of inquiries about why realizing there may be mistakes in the Bible might lead someone to become an agnostic.  Here is one that came a few days ago:


I want to thank you for your extensive work in explaining … your journey from believing that the bible contained no errors to proving the bible is not inerrant and simply the work of human writers. What I would like to be explained is the necessary logic to go from believing that the bible is not inerrant or the “word of God” to believing there is no God.


My view of the matter may seem odd to a lot of people, but it is nonetheless held by most critical scholars of the Bible and trained theologians.  What is the “necessary logic to go from believing that the bible is not inerrant … to believing there is no God?  There is no necessary logic at all.

I have never thought that …

To See The Rest of this Post you need to Belong to the Blog.  If you’re not a member, JOIN!  It won’t cost much, you’ll get a lot of bang for your buck, and every buck goes to fight poverty.  So no one loses and everyone wins — including you.  So JOIN!I have never thought that recognizing the historical and literary problems of the Bible would or should lead someone to believe there is no God.   The only people who could think such a thing are either Christian fundamentalists or people who have been convinced by fundamentalists (without knowing it, in many instances) that fundamentalist Christianity is the only kind of religion that is valid, and that if the assumptions of fundamentalism is flawed, then there could be no God.  What is the logic of that?  So far as I can see, there is no logic at all.

Christian fundamentalism insists that every word in the Bible has been given directly by God, and that only these words can be trusted as authorities for the existence of God, for the saving doctrines of Christianity, for guidance about what to believe and how to live, and for, in short, everything having to do with religious truth and practice.   For fundamentalists, in theory, if one could prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that any word in the original manuscripts of the Bible was an error, than the entire edifice of their religious system collapses, and there is nothing left between that and raw atheism.

Virtually everyone who is trained in the critical study of the Bible or in serious theology thinks this is utter nonsense.  And why is it that people at large – not just fundamentalists but even people who are not themselves believers – don’t realize it’s nonsense, that it literally is “non-sense”?  Because fundamentalists have convinced so much of the world that their view is the only right view.  It’s an amazing cultural reality.  But it still makes no sense.

Look at it this way.  Suppose you could show beyond any doubt that the story of Jesus walking on the water was a later legend.  It didn’t really happen.  Either the disciples thought they saw something that really occur, or later story tellers came up with the idea themselves as they were trying to show just how amazing Jesus was, or … or that there is some other explanation?  What relevance would that have to the question of whether there was a divine power who created the universe?  There is *no* necessary relevance.  No necessary connection whatsoever.  Who says that God could not have created the universe unless Jesus walked on water?  It’s a complete non sequitur.

The vast majority of Christians throughout history – the massively vast majority of Christians – have not been fundamentalists.  Most Christians in the world today are not fundamentalists.  So why do we allow fundamentalists to determine what “real” Christianity is?  Or what “true” Christianity is?  Why do we say that if you are not a fundamentalist who maintains that every word in the Bible is literally true and historically accurate that you cannot really be a Christian?

Suppose Jesus did not walk on water.  Does that lead to the conclusion that he must not have died for the sins of the world?  Why would it lead to that?  The only connection you can make between the two assertions – Jesus walked on water; Jesus died for the sins of the world – is extremely torturous.   Sure, there are people on the blog right now who are probably concocting some kind of logical connection between these two statements.  But think about it for a second.  What is the necessary connection?  There is none.

If Mark made a mistake when he said that Abiathar was the high priest when David and his men ate the showbread in the Temple, that has absolutely no bearing on the question of whether God exists as a Trinity.  No connection.

You should not think: yes, but the only reason we believe that God is a Trinity (if “we” believe that) is because it’s what the Bible says, and if the Bible contains errors, then it must be erroneous in *that* as well.  Here are several key points:

First, of all, there is no necessary reason why if the Bible makes mistake about one thing it is mistaken in everything.  Even if there are mistakes in the Bible (there are) that doesn’t mean that everything in it is wrong (it is not).

Second, the doctrine of the Trinity is not actually taught in the Bible in the form that theologians came to develop it later and that is believed on by people today.

Third, in fact there are non-trinitarian ways to read the entire Bible, including *all* of the Old Testament and *most* of the New Testament.  What we think of the doctrine of the Trinity was developed on the basis of logical, philosophical argumentation that used scattered verses of the Bible as proof texts for views that developed on other grounds.  There were, and are, non-Trinitarians who base their views on proof texts as well.  It is not a necessary teaching of Scripture.

Fourth, there were Christian believers for centuries before we even had a Bible (the 66 book canon we have today).   Were they not believers because they did not believe in the Bible?  They didn’t have a Bible.  In fact there are millions of Christians in the world today who don’t have the Bible.

Fifth, more important, there are all sorts of Christian denominations, Christian theologians, and just regular ole Christians – in fact, the majority who are walking the earth – who do not think that fundamentalist Christianity is right, or anywhere  near right.

So, is there a logical and necessary connection between the idea that there are mistakes in the Bible and the belief in God.  No, no necessary connection at all.

So why did I become an agnostic once I came to think there are mistakes in the Bible.  Short answer: I didn’t.  Realizing that there are problems in the Bible had almost nothing to do with my becoming an agnostic.  I’ll explain all that in later posts.

Does God Punish Those Who Do *Right*?

Here’s the link to this article by Bart Ehrman.

March 15, 2023

In my last post I began discussing the dialogues at the heart of the book of Job, where Job’s friends declare that hs is simply getting what he deserves because he is so sinful, and he defending himself by saying he has done nothing to deserve this.  It turns out he’s right.  But why then is he suffering.  Here is how the dialogue continues, as the “friends” intensify their attacks on his morals and Job stands firm in declaring his righteousness.


Sometimes the friends bar no holds in accusing Job, wrongly, of great sin before God, as when Eliphaz later declares:

Is it for your piety that he reproves you,

and enters into judgment with you?

Is not your wickedness great?

There is no end to your iniquities.

For you have … stripped the naked of their clothing.

You have given no water to the weary to drink,

and you have withheld bread from the hungry…

You have sent widows away empty handed,

and the arms of the orphans you have crushed.

Therefore snares are around you,

and sudden terror overwhelms you.  (22:4-7, 9-10)

That word “therefore” in the final couplet is especially important.  It is because of Job’s impious life and unjust treatment of others that he is suffering, and for no other reason.

For Job, it is this charge itself that is unjust.  He has done nothing to deserve his fate, and to maintain his personal integrity he has to insist on his own innocence.  To do otherwise would  be to lie to himself, the world, and to God.  He cannot repent of sins he has never committed and pretend that his suffering is deserved, when in fact he has done nothing wrong.  As he repeatedly tells his friends, he knows full well what sin looks like – or rather, tastes like — and he would know if he had done anything to stray from the paths of godliness:

Teach me and I will be silent;

make me understand how I have gone wrong.

How forceful are honest words!

But your reproof, what does it reprove?…

But now be pleased to look at me;

for I will not lie to your face.

Is there any wrong on my tongue?

Cannot my taste discern calamity? (6:24-25, 28, 30)

In graphic and powerful images Job insists that despite his innocence, God has lashed out at him and attacked him and ripped into his body like a savage warrior on the attack:

I was at ease, and he broke me in two;

he seized me by the neck and dashed me to pieces;

he set me up as his target;

his archers surround me.

He slashes open my kidneys, and shows no mercy;

he pours out my gall on the ground.

He bursts upon me again and again;

he rushes at me like a warrior….

My face is red with weeping,

and deep darkness is on my eyelids,

though there is no violence in my hands,

and my prayer is pure. (16:12-14, 16-17)

With violence he seizes my garment;

he grasps me by the collar of my tunic.

He has cast me into the mire,

and I have become like dust and ashes.

I cry to you and you do not answer me;

I stand, and you merely look at me.

You have turned cruel to me;

with the might of your hand you persecute me. (30:18-21)

Job constantly feels God’s terrifying presence, which he cannot escape even through sleep at night.  He pleads with God to relieve his torment, to leave him in peace just long enough to allow him to swallow:

When I say, “My bed will comfort me,

my couch will ease my complaint,”

then you scare me with dreams

and terrify me with visions,

so that I would choose strangling

and death rather than this body.

I loathe my life; I would not live forever.

Let me alone, for my days are a breath….

Will you not look away from me for a while,

Let me alone until I swallow my spittle? (7:13-16, 19)

In contrast, however, those who are wicked prosper, with nothing to fear from God:

Why do the wicked live on,

reach old age, and grow mighty in power?

Their children are established in their presence,

and their offspring before their eyes.

Their houses are safe from fear,

and no rod of God is upon them…

They sing to the tambourine and the lyre,

and rejoice to the sound of the pipe.

They spend their days in prosperity,

and in peace they go down to Sheol. (21:7-9, 12-13)

This kind of injustice might be considered fair, if there were some kind of afterlife in which the innocent were finally rewarded and the wicked punished, but for Job (as for most of the Hebrew Bible) there is no justice after death either:

As waters fail from a lake,

and a river wastes away and dries up,

so mortals lie down and do not rise again;

until the heavens are no more, they will not awake

or be roused out of their sleep. (14:11-12)

Job realizes that if he tried to present his case before the Almighty, he would not have a chance: God is simply too powerful.  But that doesn’t change the situation: Job is in fact innocent, and he knows it:

God will not turn back his anger…

How then can I answer him,

choosing my words with him?

Though I am innocent, I cannot answer him;

I must appeal for mercy to my accuser.

If I summoned him and he answered me,

I do not believe that he would listen to my voice.

For he crushes me with a tempest,

and multiplies my wounds without cause…

If it is a contest of strength, he is the strong one!

If it is a matter of justice, who can summon him?

Though I am innocent, my own mouth would condemn me;

though I am blameless, he would prove me perverse. (9:13-20)

In this, Job is prescient.  For at the end of the poetic dialogues God does appear before Job – who is innocent and blameless – and cows him into submission by his fearful presence as the Almighty Creator of all.  Still, though, Job insists on presenting his case before God, insisting on his own righteousness and his right to declare his innocence: “[M]y lips will not speak falsehood; … until I die I will not put away my integrity from me” (27:3-4).  He is sure that God must agree, if only he could find him to present his case:

Oh that I knew where I might find him,

that I might come even to his dwelling!

I would lay my case before him,

and fill my mouth with arguments.

I would learn what he would answer me,

and understand what he would say to me.

Would he contend with me in the greatness of his power?

No; but he would give heed to me.

There an upright person could reason with him,

and I should be acquitted forever by my judge. (23:3-7)

Would that it were so.  But unfortunately, Job’s earlier claims turn out instead to be true.  God doesn’t listen to the pleas of the innocent; he overpowers them by his almighty presence.  Still, at the end of the dialogues Job throws down the gauntlet and demands a divine audience:

O that I had one to hear me!

(Here is my signature! Let the Almighty answer me!)

O that I had the indictment written by my adversary!

Surely I would carry it on my shoulder;

I would bind it on me like a crown;

I would give him an account of all my steps;

like a prince I would approach him.” (31:35-37)

This final demand receives a divine response.  But not before another “friend” appears to state still more forcefully the “prophetic” case against Job, that he is being punished for his sins.  Elihu son of Barachel appears out of nowhere and enters into the discussion, delivering a speech that separates Job’s demand for a divine audience and the appearance of God himself on the scene.  In this speech Elihu rebukes Job in harsh terms and exalts God’s goodness in punishing the wicked and rewarding the righteous.

My next and final post on Job will discuss the denouement of these back-and-forths, one of the most stunning passages of the entire Bible.

Job and His “Friends.” With Friends Like These…

Here’s the link to this article by Bart Ehrman.

March 14, 2023

I have been doing a series of posts on the views of suffering in the book of Job.  I quite intentionally use the plural “views” because, unlike what most people think or assume (those who have any opinion on the matter) the book of Job does not present a solitary view but several views that are at odds with each other.  One of those views is opposed by the author.  But two of them – that are at odds! – are embraced by the author.  Or, rather, we need to use the plural again: by the “authors.”   As I point out, there are at least two authors behind our book of Job, writing at different times, in different places, for different audiences, and setting forth different views.  Only later did some unknown third person combine the writings – one of them a narrative folk tale told in prose (chs. 1-2, 42) and the other a set of dialogues presented in poetry (chs. 3-42).

If you haven’t read the previous posts, no worries.  This one and the ones that follow will make sense on their own.  These will be on the view of suffering found in the main part of the book the poetic dialogues.  They again will be drawn from my book God’s Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer our Most Important Question – Why We Suffer (HarperOne 2008).


The view found in these dialogues is very, very different from the one in the narrative framing story of the prologue and epilogue.  The issue dealt with, however, is the same.  If God is ultimately in charge of all of life, why is it that the innocent suffer?

For the folktale it is because God tests people to see if they can retain their piety despite undeserved pain and misery.  For the poetic dialogues, there are different answers for different ones of the figures involved: for Job’s so-called friends, suffering comes as a punishment for sin (this view appears to be rejected by the narrator).  Job himself, in the poetic speeches, cannot figure out a reason for innocent suffering.  And God, who appears at the end of the poetic exchanges, refuses to give a reason.  It appears that for this author the answer to innocent suffering is that there is no answer.  That, in itself, is obviously very interesting!

The Overall Structure of the Poetic Dialogues

The poetic dialogues are set up as a kind of back and forth between Job and his three “friends.”  Job makes a statement and one of his friends replies; Job responds and the second friend replies; Job responds again and then the third friend replies.  This sequence happens three times, so that there are three cycles of speeches. The third cycle however, has  become muddled, possibly in the copying of the book over the ages: one of the friend’s (Bildad’s) comments are inordinately short in the third go-around (only five verses); another friend’s (Zophar’s) comments are missing this time; and Job’s response at one point appears to take the position that his friends had been advocating and that he had been opposing in the rest of the book (ch. 27).  Scholars typically think something has gone awry in the transmission of the dialogues at this point (i.e., in the copying of the text).

But the rest of the structure is clear.  After the friends have had their say, a fourth figure appears; this is a young man name Elihu, who is said to be dissatisfied with the strength of the case laid out by the other three.  Elihu tries to state the case more forcefully: Job is suffering because of his sins.  This restatement appears to be no more convincing than anything the others have said, but before Job can reply, God himself appears, wows Job into submission by his overpowering presence, and informs him that he, Job, has no right to challenge the workings of the one who created the universe and all that is in it.  Job repents of his desire to understand, and grovels in the dirt before the awe-inspiring challenge of the Almighty.  And that’s where the poetic dialogues end.

Job and His Friends

The poetic section begins with Job, out of his misery, cursing the day he was born and wishing that he had died at birth:

After this Job opened his mouth and cursed the day of his birth.  Job said:

“Let the day perish in which I was born,

and the night that said ‘A man-child is conceived.’…

Why did I not die at birth,

come forth from the womb and expire?

Why were there knees to receive me,

or breasts for me to suck?…

Or why was I not buried like a stillborn child,

like an infant that never sees the light?” (3:1-3; 11-12; 16)

Eliphaz is the first friend to respond, and his response sets the tone for what all the friends will say.  In their opinion, Job has received what was coming to him. God does not, they claim (wrongly, as readers of the prologue know), punish the innocent but only the guilty:

Then Eliphaz the Temanite answered:

“If one ventures a word with you, will you be offended?

But who can keep from speaking.?…

Think now, who that was innocent ever perished?

Or where were the upright cut off?

As I have seen, those who plow iniquity

and sow trouble reap the same.

By the breath of God they perish,

and by the blast of his anger they are consumed.”  (4:1-2; 7-9)

All three friends will have similar things to say throughout the many chapters of their speeches.  Job is guilty, he should repent, and if he does so God will relent and return him to his favor.  If he refuses, he is simply showing his recalcitrance and willfulness before the God who punishes those who deserve it.  (These friends seem well versed in the views of the Israelite prophets we considered in chapters 2 and 3)  And so Bildad, for example, insists that God is just and seeks Job’s repentance:

Then Bildad the Shuhite answered:

“How long will you say these things,

and the words of your mouth be a great wind?

Does God pervert justice?

Or does the Almighty pervert the right?

If your children sinned against him,

he delivered them into the power of their transgression.

If you will seek God

and make supplication to the Almighty,

if you are pure and upright,

surely then he will rouse himself for you

and restore to you your rightful place.

Though your beginning was small,

your latter days will be very great.” (8:1-7)

Zophar too thinks that Job’s protestations of innocence are completely misguided and an affront to God.  If he is suffering, it is because he is guilty and is getting his due; in fact, he deserves far worse (one wonders what could be worse, if the folktale is any guide)

Then Zophar the Naamathite answered:

“Should a multitude of words go unanswered,

and should one full of talk be vindicated?

Should your babble put others to silence,

and when you mock, shall no one shame you?

For you say, ‘My conduct is pure,

and I am clean in God’s sight.’

But O that God would speak,

and open his lips to you

and that he would tell you the secrets of wisdom!

For wisdom is many-sided.

Know then that God exacts of you less than your guilt deserves.” (11:1-6)

And this is what Job’s friends are saying!   I’ll continue in the next post.

Is the God of Job Worthy of Worship?

Here’s the link to this article by Bart Ehrman.

March 11, 2023

Is there any way to consider the God portrayed in Job as a morally upright being who deserves complete devotion?  Read the account yourself.  I have summarized the “folktale” of Job (found in Job 1-2, 42) in my previous post.  This is a tale that portrays God, Job, and the reason for human suffering very differently from the (different) composition of Job 3-42, a set of dialogues between Job and his friends and eventually God that I will discuss in my next posts.  For now I’m interested in the reasons God crushes the righteous Job with suffering in the tale.

The overarching view of suffering from the story is clear: sometimes suffering comes to the innocent in order to see whether their pious devotion to God is genuine and disinterested.  Are people faithful only when things are going well, or are they faithful no matter what the circumstances?  Obviously for this author, no matter how bad things get, God still deserves worship and praise.

But serious questions can be raised about this perspective, questions raised by the text of the folktale itself.  For one thing, many readers over the years have felt that God himself is not to be implicated in Job’s sufferings, since after all, it is the Satan who causes them.  But a close reading of the text shows that in fact it is not that simple.  It is precisely God who authorizes the Satan to do what he does; Satan could not do anything without the Lord directing him to do it.  Moreover, in a couple of places the text indicates that it is God himself who is ultimately responsible.  After the first round of Job’s sufferings God tells the Satan that Job “persists in his integrity, although you incited me against him, to destroy him for no reason” (2:3).  Here it is God who is responsible for Job’s innocent sufferings, at the Satan’s instigation.  Moreover, God points out that there was “no reason” for Job to have to suffer.  This coincides with what happens at the end of the tale, where Job’s family come to comfort him after the trials are over, showing him sympathy “for all the evil that the LORD had brought upon him” (42:11).

God himself has caused the misery, pain, agony, and loss that Job experienced.  You can’t just blame the Adversary.  And it is important to remember what this loss entailed: not just loss of property, which is bad enough: but a ravaging of the body and the savage murder of Job’s ten children.  And to what end?  For “no reason” – other than proving to the Satan that Job wouldn’t curse God even if he had every right to do so.  Did he have the right to do so?  Remember, he didn’t do anything to deserve this treatment.  He actually was innocent – as God himself acknowledges.  God did this to him in order to win a bet with Satan.  This is obviously a God above, beyond, and not subject to human standards.  Anyone else who destroyed all your property, physically mauled you, and murdered your children – simply on a whim or a bet– would be liable to the most severe punishment that justice could mete out.  But God is evidently above justice and can do whatever he pleases, if he wants to prove a point.

What then are we to make of this view of suffering, that it sometimes comes as a test of faith?  I suppose people who have a blind trust in God might see suffering as a way of displaying their devotion to him, and this could indeed be a very good thing.  If nothing else it can provide inward fortitude and a sense that despite everything that happens, God is ultimately in charge of this world and all that occurs within it.  But is this really a satisfying solution to the pain and misery that people are compelled to endure?  Are we really to imagine a divine being who wants to torment his creatures in order to see whether or not he can force them to abandon their trust in him?  What exactly are they trusting him to do?  Certainly not to do what is best for them: it is hard to believe that God inflicts people with cancer, flu, or AIDS in order to make sure they praise him to the end.  Praise him for what?  Mutilation and torture?  For his great power to inflict pain and misery on innocent people?

It is important to remember that God himself acknowledged that Job was innocent – that is, that he had done nothing to deserve his torment.  And God did not simply torment him by taking away his hard-earned possessions and physical health.  He killed Job’s children.  And why?  To prove his point; to win his bet.  What kind of God is this?  Many readers have taken comfort in the circumstance that once Job passed the test, God rewarded him – just as God rewarded Abraham before him, and Jesus after him, just as God rewards his followers now who suffer misery so that God can prove his case.  But what about Job’s children?  Why were they senselessly slaughtered?  So that God could prove a point?  Does this mean that God is willing – even eager – to take my children in order to see how I’ll react?  Am I that important, that God is willing to destroy innocent lives just to see whether I’ll be faithful to him, when he has not been faithful to me?

Possibly the most offensive part of the book of Job is the end, when God restores all that he has lost as his reward.  Including additional children.  Job lost seven sons and three daughters, and as a reward for his faithfulness, God gave him an additional seven sons and three daughters.  What is this author thinking?  That you can replace children?  That the pain of a child’s death will be removed by the birth of another?  That children are expendable and replaceable like a faulty computer or DVD player?  What kind of God is this?  Do we think that everything would be made right if the six million Jews killed in the Holocaust were “replaced” by having six million additional Jews born in the next generation?

As satisfying as the book of Job has been to people over the ages, I have to say I find it supremely dissatisfying.  If God tortures, maims, and murders people just to see how they would react – to see if they would not blame him, when in fact he is to blame – then this does not seem to me to be a God worthy of worship.  Worthy of fear, yes.  Of praise?  No.