David Plotz is guest-blogging for MyJewishLearning and the Jewish Book Council.
There are the writers who succeed by arguing evolution exists and God doesnâ€™t, and there are the writers who succeed by arguing God exists and evolution doesnâ€™t. And then thereâ€™s Robert Wright, whose new book is The Evolution of God.
Anyone whoâ€™s had the pleasure of reading Wrightâ€™s earlier booksâ€”the monster bestseller The Moral Animal and Nonzero — wonâ€™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 donâ€™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.
Iâ€™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 Bibleâ€™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 Bibleâ€”and Iâ€™m looking at you Joshua, Isaiah, Ezra, and Josiahâ€”are the most enthusiastic warriors for Yahweh. Make no mistake: These guys are insanely devoted to God. They topple the altars of idolators, banish
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 Godâ€™s name. I found them horrifying, and shameful. Why should I be expected to cheer while Joshua commits genocide?