You Down With O.T.G?

Question from Joseph:
Hey, I’m an undergrad at a Christian college and my major is Biblical studies. I was raised an evangelical Christian but have been an agnostic for about a year now.

I have a lot of respect for the Bible and think it is under-studied and under-appreciated by atheists.

Anyways, here is one question I’ve thought about. If the OT prophets were misinformed and delivered messages from a figment of their imagination, then why were their messages so self-critical of their people and generally doom-and-gloom messages? You would think if someone wanted to imagine a God, they would make him a lot more compassionate and less vengeful and jealous. Also, where the heck did they actually get their oracles from? Most people don’t discourse with their imaginations to the point of writing out lengthy books about them. The prophets also performed object lessons to demonstrate God’s messages. For example, Ezekiel laid on his side for over a year!

The prophets also predicted a lot of events (usually vague, but still…) that came true. I wonder if this is the same type of trick that fortune tellers use, where they give a vague answer that will inevitably be manifested at some point in time, while those with a confirmation bias will end up being convinced of divine foreknowledge. But some of the prophecies were quite specific…where did the prophets come up with these?

Answer by SmartLX:
To address a couple of things very quickly:
– The Bible is classical literature, certainly. Like all classical literature it’s underappreciated as such in today’s world, and not just by atheists. That said, given that atheists reject the central claims of the Bible, they’re not usually motivated to delve into the nitty-gritty. See my piece on theology.
– Someone advocating the fulfilment of a prophecy wants you to consider only two possibilities: that it was pure coincidence and an impossibly lucky guess, or it was genuine divinely bestowed foreknowledge. There are many other possibilities, some of which I’ve named and numbered in my earlier piece on prophecies.

Now as for the character of God in the Old Testament, let’s continue to assume that the stories were made up, as you posit, for the sake of argument. God does not have a likeable personality because the purpose of the stories is clearly not to make people feel good. (There’d be a lot less genocide in it if that were the case, for one thing.) The purpose of the stories is to inspire awe and fear of God, to influence people’s behaviour as per the Commandments (not just the Ten, either) and to drive people to spread the Word. Like in any narrative, the characters need to be what they are for the author to deliver his or her message, not just for their own sake.

You do get the impression that people did some extraordinary things to receive their messages from God and to get the books written, but that doesn’t really speak for their veracity. Some of their actions, like Ezekiel’s marathon reclining session, could be exaggerated accounts themselves – or even if they’re genuine they could have degraded these people’s mental states to the point where they heard from the God of their day without any real divine communication at all.

We’ll never really know what happened to people like Ezekiel, but an extraordinary story hardly warrants jumping straight to a specific supernatural explanation.

2 thoughts on “You Down With O.T.G?”

  1. I understand your points, and they are good. Especially saying that God wasn’t supposed to be portrayed in a positive light all the time because He needed to deliver difficult messages to the people.

    But as for the OT “stories” being made up, I wasn’t trying to posit that at all. I wasn’t even talking of narrative, but of prophetic works, which involve very little storytelling.

    (On a side note, I think that if the narratives of the OT/NT were mythological, then the authors did a very good job of making them historically contextualized…that is, making the stories appear as if they really were a part of Israel’s history. I mean, specific places, names, and dates are all provided. Do we take the “non-supernatural” accounts at face value, and just throw the supernatural in the garbage because it’s non-plausible?)

    My main question wasn’t necessarily impressed with the accuracy of the prophecies, as that evidence is contrived and patchy at best, but was more impressed with the actual inspiration of the OT prophets. I haven’t studied other world religions extensively, but it seems to me that the Hebrew written prophetic tradition has a much deeper, more complex, and less self-serving body of oracles than other faiths. And to claim that the prophets themselves had “degraded mental states” as the best explanation for where they got such extensive inspiration from, well to me that seems unfair and overly simplified.

    I think a better answer to my own question (no offense =D ) is 1) that faith is a powerful thing, and 2) we are all products of our own historical and cultural realities. Maybe the prophets weren’t insane in their conversing with an imaginary God, but were writing based on the convictions of their faiths and also trying to make sense of the historical realities around them. Of course, I think they also had an agenda: that is, they genuinely believed in Yahweh and in His ability to bless/curse the nation of Israel, and thus they wrote down the “messages” of God which were actually messages from their //belief// in God.

    Thanks for your answer, and your website is a breath of fresh air in the sea of militant and disrespectful atheism on the internet =)

    Joe
    Joe

  2. Sorry it’s taken so long to get back to you, Joseph, I was overseas.

    What you say is all very reasonable. And of course my response is overly simplified; it would take a much longer piece than anyone would bother to read on a blog to go into proper detail.

    I didn’t mean to imply that all the prophets were significantly and permanently mentally damaged; just that what they did to themselves might have brought them to very unique mental “places”, where they were liable to experience just about anything. If this occurred, once they were themselves again they could use their full faculties and resources to chronicle and contextualise their experiences.

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