Tuesday, March 08, 2016

Falling dominos

I'm going to comment on an article by Louise Antony: "Does God Love Us"? M. Bergmann et al eds, Divine Evil: The Moral Character of the God of Abraham (OUP, 2007), chap. 1.

She's a prominent atheist philosopher. Her article is mainly about Gen 2-3, supplemented by Gen 22, Job, and a few other things.

God, I submit, is a terrible parent. He is, in fact, an abusive parent. God does not love his children, and anyone who suggests that we ought to love him is displaying the psychology of an abused child. 

She gets off on the wrong foot with this characterization. To frame the issue that way interjects a systematic error into her reading. 

i) Gen 2-3 presents the relation between God and man as a Creator/creature relation or landlord/tenant relation, not a parent/child relation. Antony is superimposing an alien interpretive grid onto the account. There are, of course, Biblical passages that describe God in paternal terms, but that's not how the dynamic is framed in Gen 2-3. 

ii) Even if it were a parent/child relation, that's equivocal. Antony constantly conflates two different senses of "child":

a) An immature human being

b) A son or daughter

A "child" can be a grown child. An adult. Middle-aged. In that sense, a "child" can be a parent or grandparent in his or her own right. Even if your parents predecease you, you remain their "child".

iii) Once again, even if we cast it in parent/child terms, the relation between God and humans is only analogically a parent/child relation. That's subject to considerable qualification. 

Children are rational-agents-in-the-making, and a parent's role is to guide and support that process of becoming, to provide the child with the physical, emotional, and psychological prerequisites for moral autonomy in adulthood.

Notice the equivocation. The account never presents Adam and Eve as "children" in that sense. 

To maintain that God's authority is unconditional is to say that there is nothing God could do to us, his children, which would be morally illegitimate.

I agree with her repudiation of divine voluntarism. 

There is no indication that God and his two human creatures form a "family" of any sort. 

That's because God isn't human. The garden is not God's home. 

On the contrary, God seems to have created Adam to be a worker or rather, since there appears to be no question of securing Adam's consent to the arrangement, a slave. God, the text tell us, simply needs a gardener. 

i) The text doesn't tell us that God needs a gardner. God doesn't live in the garden. 

ii) God put Adam and Eve in a nature sanctuary with some tame animals and wild fruit trees. A startup situation. They have the raw materials they need to survive and thrive. But there are tasks they must perform to maintain or improve on their environment. It's good, but it could still be bettered through human effort. 

iii) Antony is oblivious to the fact that the account uses double entendres to foreshadow the tabernacle. Not only is Eden a garden, but sacred space. 

Eve, in short, is created not to relieve Adam's loneliness, but to help him carry out his preordained duties.

That overlooks Adam naming the animals, one purpose of which is to accentuate his isolation. His lack of suitable companionship. 

There is, first of all, nothing in the text to suggest that God is thinking about Adam's safety when he issues his command. 

True, but that misses the point. One of Antony's problems is her failure to appreciate how the sin dynamic drives the plot. The occurrence of sin isn't a mistake or oversight on God's part. It has a constructive as well as destructive role to play. Other things happen as a result of evil. 

Human history is like a row of dominoes. If you flick the first domino, all the other dominoes fall, one after another.

Suppose, though, you flick the fifth domino rather than the first. That changes the outcome. All the dominoes after the fifth domino will fall, but none before the fifth domino. If you prevent a prior domino from falling, that prevents subsequent dominoes from falling. 

Although preventing a particular evil is good in itself, that changes the outcome. Some goods result from some evils. By preventing the evil, you prevent the attendant good. Likewise, preventing some evils causes other evils to take their place. 

We are never told that God planned for Adam to live forever, and the early imagery of mortality (Gen 3:7) suggests that Adam was doomed to die all along. 

That overlooks the role played by the tree of life. Immortality is a missed opportunity. 

If the tree has the power to kill, why did God create it in the first place?…Why would he deliberately place within easy reach of his inexperienced children an appalling object that poses a mortal danger? 

Once again, she acts as though Adam and Eve are little kids with no sense of danger. But the prohibition, including the death threat, presumes that they are able to perceive the peril. 

It doesn't require firsthand experience to avoid certain hazards. If that were the case, the death toll would be far higher since we'd never survive to learn from our fatal mistakes. In principle, and often in practice, abstract knowledge is sufficient to avoid certain dangers. If someone tells you not to eat that mushroom because it's poisonous, you heed the warning–unless you're foolhardily. You don't have to sample the mushroom for yourself, which would be counterproductive. 

God never mentions this creature [the "snake"] to Adam, never warns him that there's a liar afoot who'll try to trick him into disobedience…Why doesn't God at least warn Adam not to speak to strangers?

i) Naturally, since that would thwart the test. 

ii) And the business about not talking to strangers once again miscasts Adam and Eve in the role of little kids. 

iii) For that matter, there's nothing inherently wrong or generally imprudent about talking to strangers. 

Indeed, the only thing that would be unusual about God's threatening Adam with death would be the advance notice. 

Exactly. And a threat also serves as a warning. 

My reason for rejecting the threat interpretation of Gen 3:16-17 is that it doesn't fit the rest of the text. If God had been threatening Adam with death, why didn't he kill Adam as soon as the forbidden fruit was eaten? 

i) She doesn't read the account holistically. God intends Adam to father sons and daughters before he dies. The history of the human race would be abortive if Adam and Eve died prior to procreation. 

ii) Moreover, "on the day" is a Hebraic idiom for "when" (cf. Gen 2:4). It doesn't literally mean on the same day. 

As a parent, God is not looking good. If the commandment is a warning, he's a liar; if it's a threat, he's a bully. 

She doesn't understand Scriptural usage (see above). And why would a threat make God a "bully"?

But warning or threat, we still don't know the purpose of the prohibition. If it's not to keep Adam safe, what's it for?…One might think that the hypothesis that God is testing Adam at least answers the question why God put a dangerous tree in the garden. But while it might explain the presence of the tree, it cannot adequately explain its lethality. 

The tree of knowledge isn't toxic. The connection between consuming the forbidden fruit and death is indirect. Adam and Eve were created as mortals, but with the opportunity to gain immortality. When they violate the prohibition, they are denied access to the tree of life. 

The "testing" hypothesis might also seem to explain, at once, both the presence of the serpent and God's failure to warn Adam about him. The idea would be that God intended for Adam (or Eve) to encounter the tempter–the snake as part of the plan…But if the serpent is really evil, and if there is a substantial risk that Adam and Eve will succumb then there's no difference between the "test" and the danger that's supposed to make the test necessary. 

In fact, they were meant to fail, so that the dominoes will fall accordingly. This isn't merely about the fate of Adam and Eve, but the future of the world. If they were to pass the test, the dominoes would fall in a different order. 

If God somehow engineered the encounter between Eve and the serpent, he was engaging in entrapment. The reason that entrapment is wrong when human police do it is that it increases the likelihood that a crime will be committed…The point of "stings" is to arrest people who are anyway engaged in criminal activity, not to generate activity that would not otherwise have occurred. We humans all have our breaking points, and it is unjust for people in authority to push until they find them.

It's silly to suggest a prohibition to refrain from sampling one particular fruit tree pressures them to the breaking point. That's hardly acting under duress or undue temptation. Indeed, Eve is pretty indifferent to the tree of knowledge until the tempter singles it out. 

Another point: God, should he choose to engage in this kind of entrapment, has significantly more resources at his disposal than do mere human beings. While human beings must rely on fallible empirical knowledge about what people are likely to do in the circumstances they have arranged, God can control minds. 
God might have at least allowed that Moses had simply made a mistake about what God wanted him to do…

Notice how her second statement contradicts her first. If God has infallible knowledge of each individual, then it's nonsensical to suggest he should give Moses the benefit of the doubt. For in that event, he knows exactly what Moses had in mind. 

It is particularly chilling to think of a parent entrapping a child. Part of the responsibility of a parent is to shield her child from temptation until the child develops the resources to resist it. 

Once more, this suffers from her systematic equivocation about "children". 

God, however, takes no account of his children's position and limitations. Adam and Eve, although physically mature, appear to be psychological and intellectual infants. They have no knowledge of the world, and no experience to tell them who to trust. They lack "knowledge of good and evil", and so presumably cannot apprehend any duty to God.

i) In the account, Adam and Eve aren't physical or psychological children. Rather, they are created as adults with innate knowledge. They bypass the normal stages of maturation.

ii) The "tree of knowledge of good and evil" is ambiguous–perhaps intentionally so. Because there's not much to go on, scholars disagree on what it means. Exegetical proposals include (a) carnal knowledge (b) a megrims for omniscience; (c) moral discrimination; (d) moral autonomy; (e) moral experience, and (f) divine wisdom. 

(a) fails in part because it has no godlike counterpart (Gen 3:22) to carnal knowledge. In addition, that would contradict the command to reproduce in Gen 1. Even if you think these were originally independent accounts (I don't), they function as a conceptual unit when edited into a continuous account. 

(b) fails seems to fail because eating the forbidden fruit doesn't have that noetic effect. 

(c) fails because it would subvert the verdict. If Adam and Eve were in a state of diminished responsibility, how can their infraction be blameworthy? Yet the account makes them culpable.

(d) If you combine (b) with (d), that might have some merit–to the degree that moral knowledge depends on revealed norms, because infallible moral discrimination requires omniscience.  

(e) Another attractive possibility is a combination of (e-f). In the account, Adam and Eve have abstract understanding of right and wrong. They know their duties. And they experience good. But they are morally inexperienced with respect to evil. So they are morally innocent, not morally ignorant. They experiment with evil by breaking the command.

In a sense, the tree represents divine wisdom. They aspire to godlike knowledge. However, the mode of acquisition is different. God doesn't know by learning. 

The tree is forbidden knowledge because they can only acquire what it represents through disobedience. The tree doesn't confer knowledge. Rather, their action reflects and effects what the tree represents. Their very action becomes the realization of what it stands for. 

How is Eve supposed to know who is lying?

i) She should believe the God who made her and sustains her. 

ii) In addition, people can be willingly deceived because their desire overcomes their judgment. They know better than to do something, but do it anyway for instant gratification. 

When people do wrong, it's not uncommon for the full significance of their misdeed to hit them only after they fact. "My God, what have I done!" But by then it's too late for them to turn back the clock. 

Eve is suddenly transfixed by the forbidden fruit now that she sees it through the rose-tinted lens of the Temper (Gen 3:4-5). Only after she and Adam go through with the misdeed is the spell broken. 

God throws the children out of their home.

i) Antony acts as if Adam and Eve were little kids who can't fend for themselves. These are adults in the prime of life. 

ii) There's nothing inherently wrong with evicting a delinquent. 

iii) It's not as if Adam and Eve had an inalienable right to live in Eden. God is the landlord and they are tenants.  

iv) Even if Adam and Eve hadn't been banished from Eden, their descendants would eventually outgrow the confines of the garden. It would be necessary to colonize other parts of the earth. 

Having created beings with the power of reason, God perversely withholds reasons, and delights in setting tests of loyalty that require his children flout logic, prudence, and sometimes even his own laws. The most notorious of these arbitrary tests is, of course, God's command to Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac. This is a monstrous and utterly outrageous order. 

i) That's not "perverse" or "arbitrary". Remember that in earlier episodes, Abraham betrayed a lack of faith in God.

ii) This isn't primarily for Abraham's benefit, but for the reader. The unseen audience for this event. 

iii) As a noted philosopher observes:

An elder sister left in charge of her little brother may have to enforce certain restrictions on his behavior; her parents have told her that certain things are forbidden; and the parents, let us suppose, had good reason for their prohibitions. If the young brother now says "Why shouldn't I?" and argues the matter, the sister's attempt to find a rationale for the prohibitions may be a failure, and the young brother may be sharp enough to detect this; but he would be a young fool if on this account he decided to ignore the prohibitions. To use another comparison, there is the familiar story of the wise old Judge telling his younger colleague to begin by not giving legal reasons for judicial decisions; the reason for this was that he thought the younger man had enough knowledge of and feeling for the law to be mostly right in his decisions, but was likely to muddle things if he tried to spell out the reasons for his decisions. P. Geach, The Virtues (Cambridge University Press, 1979), 141-42.  

Back to Antony:

And it is not only Abraham who is tortured. 

i) There's nothing in the text to indicate that Abraham was in a state of emotional turmoil. That reflects Kierkegaard's influential misreading. 

ii) Even if Abraham was distraught, that's not a factor in the narrative. The emphasis in the narrative is not on the conflict between Abraham's religious duty and his paternal duty, but the conflict between God's promise and God's command. How can God make good on his promise to multiply Abraham's posterity if his son dies without issue? The suspense is due to the fact that Abraham won't know how to relieve that conundrum in advance of the fact. It is only relieved after the fact by God's last-minute intervention.  

Imagine Isaac's terror as he realizes what his father has in mind. 

It doesn't even occur to her that by this stage in the ongoing narrative, Isaac is a strapping teenager. He can easily outrun or overpower his geriatric father. She isn't paying attention to the implicit passage of time. 

Imagine Sarah's horror when she learns what Abraham has set out to do. 

There's no indication that Abraham tipped her off. What would he? Antony is making stuff up.  

According to the medieval Jewish commentator Rashi, Sarah actually dies from the shock.

Once again, that's entirely extraneous to the content of the actual narrative. 

God apparently wants Abraham to know that rules are only rules because God says so. If God changes his mind, then the rules change…God's laws really do have a degree of moral arbitrariness to them, he doesn't so much care whether murder occurs as he cares about whether murder is authorized.

i) Which completely ignores the fact that the command is a counterfactual command. God has no intention of letting Abraham go through with the deed. But, of course, Abraham can't be privy to that for it to be a real test. 

ii) But as far as that goes, it isn't "murder" for God to order the execution of sinners. 

We want our children to internalize the bases of moral judgment, and not just to do what we say because we say it. We want them to become morally independent of us. 

i) But humans can't be morally independent of their Creator. For one thing, personal and social ethics are grounded in God's design for human nature. 

ii) As an atheist, Antony has no basis for objective moral norms. Furthermore, humans are just fleeting and fortuitous clouds of atoms. 

Abusive human parents are also overly concerned with their children's deference. Abusive fathers, in particular…Once again, this "display behavior" of God has a parallel in the behavior of abusive human parents, especially abusive fathers. 

Now she's indulging in sexist generalizations about men. Making invidious comparisons between men and women–to the detriment of men.

God takes the bait, and sets out to prove to Satan that Job is perfectly abject…

"Taking the bait" reflects the viewpoint of a hostile reader (Antony), not the viewpoint of the pious narrator. 

If there's anything that gets God angrier than disrespect, it's loss of face…Moses understands this: when God threatens to destroy the ever-complaining Israelites, Moses persuades him to relent by appealing to his vanity–what will people think? 

The Pentateuch often depicts God in anthropomorphic terms. Since we can't relate to God on his level, he must relate to us on our level. For someone who constantly pushes the parent/child paradigm, it's odd how that frame of reference suddenly deserts her at this point. Parents adapt to the cognitive development of their kids with age-appropriate explanations. 

The serpent, on the other hand is not so clearly evil…In contrast, every detail in Genesis, if taken at face value, testifies that the serpent tells the truth.

i) To begin with, half truths are more persuasive than outright lies.

ii) Antony is recasting God as the villain and the tempter as a Promethean anti-hero. That, however, reflects the viewpoint of a hostile reader, not the viewpoint of the pious narrator. 

Antony lacks critical sympathy. Her animosity towards the text inhibits her from reading the text on its own terms, as the original audience would understand it. Her interpretations cut agains the grain of the text through a moral inversion in which God is evil, the tempter is good, while Adam and Eve are innocent dupes or hapless victims. Although that reaction makes sense from the belligerent perspective of a secular feminist, it's inimical to the outlook of the pious narrator. That's not exegesis. That's not endeavoring to offer an interpretation consistent with the narrative assumptions. Rather, it defies original intent. She lacks the critical detachment to listen to the account from the viewpoint of the narrator and the implied reader.


  1. I'd like to see Lydia McGrew in an intellectual Thunderdome cage match with Antony.

    "Two women enter, one woman leaves..."

  2. "Adam and Eve were created as mortals, but with the opportunity to gain immortality"

    You mentioned this in another post, and I'm not sure where you're getting this from. Are you deriving this from the Genesis narrative, or somewhere else?

    1. Because they needed to eat from the tree of life to gain immortality. Banishment from Eden was a death penalty because it denied them access to the tree of life.

  3. Thanks for your reply. Do you see any relation between the tree of life in Genesis and the tree of life in Revelation 22? They're both called "trees of life," but the latter seems to have a different purpose (the healing of nations) than the former.

    1. In Genesis, it's about physical life and death. In Revelation, although that's included, it takes that a step further to the "second death" (damnation), of which the tree of life is an antidote (as it were).

    2. That does indeed make sense. Thanks for your reply!