David Plotz: Is Monotheism for Jerks?

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David Plotz is guest-blogging for MyJewishLearning and the Jewish Book Council.

There are the writers who succeed by arguing evolution exists and God doesn’t, and there are the writers who succeed by arguing God exists and evolution doesn’t. And then there’s Robert Wright, whose new book is The Evolution of God.

jewish book council my jewish learning authors blogAnyone who’s had the pleasure of reading Wright’s earlier books—the monster bestseller The Moral Animal and Nonzero — won’t be surprised by the ambition of The Evolution of God. The book aims to do nothing less than reframe the entire history of God in terms of game theory: Wright argues that ideas about god changed and evolved based on how much a society perceived it needed to cooperate with rival groups.

This is a blog post, so I don’t have time to do justice to his very rich, sophisticated, and witty elaboration of this theory. Instead, I just want to linger on his Jewish chapters, which I found both satisfying and deeply disconcerting.

I’ve just written a book about reading the Bible (Good Book: The Bizarre, Hilarious, Disturbing, Marvelous, and Inspiring Things I Learned When I Read Every Single Word of the Bible, since you asked), and while I was doing it, I had to wrestle with a series of soul-disturbing questions. Why is God so awful most of the time? Why are the Israelites so stupid? Perhaps the most perplexing one was: Why are so many of the Bible’s heroes so unpleasant?

There was one kind of hero in particular who bugged me: The rabid monotheist. I realize that this is a peculiar thing to admit, given that Judaism did, after all, invent monotheism. Still, the nastiest Jews in the whole Bible—and I’m looking at you Joshua, Isaiah, Ezra, and Josiah—are the most enthusiastic warriors for Yahweh. Make no mistake: These guys are insanely devoted to God. They topple the altars of idolators, banish
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Baal-worshiping wives from Jerusalem, put to the sword every single man, woman, and baby in a Molech-loving enemy town, etc. The Bible clearly admires these zealots for their savagery in God’s name. I found them horrifying, and shameful. Why should I be expected to cheer while Joshua commits genocide?

Posted on July 15, 2009
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