How God Behaves

The Book of Genesis tells stories that concern a time before the existential events that make up the Book of Exodus where, among other things, the idea of law as providing guidance for how people are to conduct themselves makes its entrance. The Book of the Covenant had indeed provided a kind of international compact whereby families that resembled those of the patriarchs were supposed to regulate their relations with one another through establishing rules of compensation for damages, but the editors of the Five Books of Moses chose to include this passage in Exodus, as if to indicate that the Book of Genesis was to be truly prior to the concept of law. But if that were the case, how were the people of the Book of Genesis “supposed” to behave, that term itself rushing us to impose the imperative of law--”should”-- on the pre-legal condition. Was it supposed to be that mere custom and godly edict would be enough to explain how people behaved and behaved themselves? Not so, because the pre-legal people of Genesis used their minds to consider their interests, however difficult it may be not to assume that they were making legal type judgments. When Jacob learns that his sons had killed the people who had offered to circumcise themselves as well as intermarry with Jacob’s tribe because one of them had taken one of their sisters for a wife, Jacob does not excoriate his sons for having been vengeful or otherwise done evil, but simply concludes that the tribe will have to move on now rather than settle there. That can be taken as an ironic understatement, meant to foretell that those descended from the Old Testament  families would always, sooner or later, have to move on, or that Jacob was making a silent judgment about their actions-- though I have done so myself in an earlier reading of this story of the rape of Dinah-- but, rather, that Jacob was simply not given to the moral reasoning that would come with the arrival of law.

What the patriarchal tribes had instead of law was the image of the way God operated, the ways in which he behaved when dealing with the creatures He created. There are two ways in which people can think about God. They can think of Him as so different that they cannot understand His motives or else they can think of Him as very similar to them so that they can understand at least His habitual way of behaving, whatever His actual motives might be. Curiously enough, religions do not as a rule follow the first course, perhaps because to do so would leave one with very little to say about God. And indeed, the Greek gods are remarkably like ordinary people, with the same tendencies, such as lust, or playing favorites, or being self-centered. And the angels said themselves, after Adam and Eve were expelled from Eden, that people would have been just like them, the angels, if they had bothered to eat from the Tree of Life as well as from the Tree of Knowledge, which is to say that Adam and Eve already have, as a result of their sin, the attributes of the angels, and that might extend to their emotions as well as to anything else. So the question to ask is what are these habitual emotions that God holds that people also hold, God thenceforth to be conceived of as a projection of people onto a more absolute scale of emotions and thoughts that they themselves feel are to be the habits of the Ruler of the Universe rather than the habits of someone who is merely another one of the rulers who live in the Mideast at the time.

People are grateful to God, as a matter of course and later as a matter of principle, when He is nice to them, as when He saves them from a catastrophe, and they are non-judgmental towards God when He is not nice to them, something Job was prized for when he had become afflicted. It is in that sense that people continue to thank God when their children survive a disease, and do not curse God, or are not supposed to feel that way, when their children do not survive a disease, but instead thank God for having taken the child to His bosom early. For a rationalist, such a double standard is a contradiction or, worse, a kind of fawning before God so that He cannot be held in the wrong because all He wants is praise and flattery. This moral posture makes eminent sense to the religionist as a befitting and noble way to act rather than a slave’s posture to adopt when someone considers oneself in God’s presence. And that happens whenever something momentous happens and one must come to terms with falling in love or risking the loss of a job on a matter of principle or when one considers whether one has betrayed a friend even if only by thinking less of him than he deserves. Those are what would become moments of moral choice, but before that, are moments when one acts towards people in a way that would make sense if one were acting that way in the presence of God.

God is also to be understood as a personage quick to lose his temper and then regret having done so, and after that seek to make amends. That happened when God expelled Adam and Eve from Eden, only to send his own Son to redeem them. It happened when God decided to destroy mankind in a flood and then found a way, through his instrument Noah, to undo what he had done. And God treats people as he would have them treat him: he accepts that they are hot tempered and then to be forgiven. They worship a Golden Ass when Moses is away on Mount Sinai, and so Moses, playing God’s agent, destroys the tablets, only to return to the mountain so as to get another copy. (It is an interesting question whether the second list was different from the first one offered. Were penalties laid out, or was there a requirement that education and health services are human rights included in the first list of however many commandments?)

Now people can take God as having the psychology which they not so much emulate as but cannot help but duplicate, being that they are the same kind of creature as the angels, who are not much described, and so like God Himself. They are at their most gracious, at their most understandable, when they too are grateful to those around them for the nice things that happen to them and are not judgmental when things go wrong or when fellow humans do not come through for them. Some neighbors help you when you are in trouble, and they are therefore nice people, while people who are not helpful are just going about their lives, not treating your emergency as theirs, and so cannot be judged badly for doing so. And when people fly off the handle, the thing is to manage them until they calm down, if they ever do. That is why there are prisons and homeless shelters. That is how God treats people and the way people, in God’s name, find it sensible to treat one another, and also how to treat God, when he does or seems to be violating his own prime directive, which is to be grateful for good things and find ways to overlook or put aside or repair bad things. There is no need to go beyond this simple pre-morality that is so straightforward that it does not rise to being a morality, something that happens only in Exodus.

Is what I have said too Christian a conception of the relation between God and His people in that it focuses on the difference between pre-Exodus people and post-Exodus people in the same way that Christians focus on the difference between pre-lapsarian people, which means only Adam and Eve as they were while in the Garden of Eden, and the sinful, post-lapsarian people who Jesus had come to save from their deserved fate? Well, I am suggesting perhaps that the idea of a state of simplicity that existed in an earlier stage of human development should not be credited to the Early Christians but was already there in the early sections of the Old Testament, and I am also suggesting that this prelapsarianism was different because it does not involve paradoxes about how people could choose to sin if they did not yet have moral judgment, not yet having eaten from the Tree of Knowledge. Rather, it suggests that the invention of the law was indeed a crucial matter in that it unleashed the possibility of people ruling themselves rather than taking their rulers as the models for how they were to behave. It is an argument for a kind of evolution of the human spirit in a progressive direction, “progressive” a term that applies not only to contemporary politics, but a term inherent in the human project, at least as far as the Old Testament is concerned.