Agnosticism, Atheism, Bible Study, Christianity

Romans 9: A Divine and Fickle Dictator

It had been a while since I’d read Romans 9, but an email correspondence that I keep with a Christian caused me to read it last night. When I was a Christian, this chapter had always been difficult for me, but that’s because I was trying to fit it within my own theology. Last night, I was struck by several things I had forgotten and thought it would be worth sharing.

For not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel, and not all are children of Abraham because they are his offspring, but “Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.” This means that it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as offspring. For this is what the promise said: “About this time next year I will return, and Sarah shall have a son.” And not only so, but also when Rebekah had conceived children by one man, our forefather Isaac, though they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad—in order that God’s purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of him who calls — she was told, “The older will serve the younger.” As it is written, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.”
— verses 6-13

Here, Paul makes a distinction between those who belong to Israel by birth, and those who are children of Abraham by faith. In other words, just because someone is Jewish does not mean he/she is really God’s child. He then points out that even before Jacob and Esau were old enough to know right from wrong, God rejected Esau in favor of Jacob. That seems a little arbitrary, doesn’t it?

What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means! For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy. For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, “For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills.
— verses 14-18

So is God being unjust in choosing one infant over another? Not according to Paul. Why? Because God can do what he wants.

What kind of answer is that? If Paul’s argument were true, then there would be no such thing as right and wrong. God is always right, regardless of his behavior, because whatever he does is right by default. That flies in the face of what most Christians believe today, yet that’s Paul’s position. And he anticipates an argument about it:

You will say to me then, “Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?” But who are you, oh man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, “Why have you made me like this?” Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use? What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory — even us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles?
— verses 19-24

Paul’s only defense is that we can’t question God. But we’re not questioning God, Paul, we’re questioning you and the authors of the Old Testament.

And don’t miss what Paul says here. He’s saying that God creates some people to show mercy toward, and he creates others that he can use to demonstrate his power. He’s a god with an inferiority complex. Such a god does not actually care for his creation; he uses them as pawns for his own glory. And who is this god trying to impress? Obviously not humans, if he thinks so little of us. And he’s supposedly the only deity, so who’s he putting on the show for?

And what about Paul’s argument regarding the potter and the clay? On one hand, there’s a decent point there. It’s kind of like “don’t look a gift horse in the mouth.” If someone gives you something, don’t be overly critical of it. So if God gave us life, who are we to question him on the quality of it? The problem is Paul is saying more than that. He’s saying if God created you and finds you inadequate, you can’t put that back on God — you can’t complain “why did you make me this way?” But Paul’s wrong about that. If God’s not happy with how humanity turned out, that’s not our fault, it’s his. It would be like a child putting a model together incorrectly and then becoming angry at the model. It’s not the model’s fault that the child built it wrong, so it would be unjust to take that out on the model.

Paul’s God is fickle and arbitrary. He makes people like Pharaoh disobedient, and then punishes them for their disobedience. He picks others for glory and mercy, who have done nothing to merit such favor. The sad thing is that many Christians view this as a good thing and talk about God’s wondrous mystery and mercy. This is not a good thing. Such a God is untrustworthy. Unlimited power and a personality disorder make for a very dangerous combination.

And the description of God in this chapter is at odds with other passages that claim God is the embodiment of love and wants all men to be saved. Both versions can’t be right. In addition to its contradictory descriptions of God, the Bible is filled with all kinds of contradictory accounts, failed prophecies, immoral commandments, bad science, and faulty history. Why do so many people, even after learning about the Bible’s faults, continue to believe that it teaches anything accurate about the supernatural?

184 thoughts on “Romans 9: A Divine and Fickle Dictator”

  1. “God rejected Esau in favor of Jacob”

    If we consider that the Patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac and Jacob) were not actually people rather “peoples” (in the north, the south, and the father, Abraham, in the middle in Hebron) then we have to ascertain which peoples the author was referring to regarding Esau, namely the Edomites. In 2 Kings 8:22 we see why “god” hated Esau: “To this day Edom has been in rebellion against Judah. Libnah revolted at the same time.”

    The true 7th Century geopolitical message is never far from the surface.

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  2. And what I found especially ironic, was that of the two, Esau was by far the more noble and ethical. Notice, as their reunion approached, how Jacob/Israel place his livestock in the foreground, followed by the slaves and hired hands, then his concubines and their children, then his wives and their children, and finally, himself, in hope that if his brother was still pissed, his bloodthirst would be slaked by the time he hacked his way through all of those, and he wouldn’t have anything left for Jake.

    Turned out, he got a hug for his trouble. Who was the more noble?

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  3. “It’s not the model’s fault that the child built it wrong, so it would be unjust to take that out on the model.”

    But the kid does take it out on the model, whether it is just or not.

    Why do so many people, even after learning about the Bible’s faults, continue to believe that it teaches anything accurate about the supernatural?

    I honestly think it is because it is the best answer to them to explain the seemingly fickle nature of life (human behavior, natural processes, a devastating asteroid impact, etc). I guess. Folks just don’t want to own up to the fact that we don’t have as much control as we would like to think?

    Not sure, but thanks for analyzing this passage. Makes me realize that it is not just me who thinks it’s a pointless circular argument. 🙂

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  4. @arch

    I completely agree! And Esau gets tons of grief for selling his birthright, but Jacob was the schmuck that wanted to charge his famished brother for a bowl of soup! There’s some really messed up morality in the Bible…

    @NE White

    I think you’re right about why people still believe it anyway. It’s funny how tragedies can cause some people to pull closer to faith; whereas, they cause folks like us to question why God would allow such things to happen.

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  5. So God elects more to go to hell then heaven because that is God’s right as the creator. This should make on evangelical Christians upset. Their god send billions and billions to hell and that’s okay!

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  6. Ah Romans 9 was one of my favorites for “proving” Calvinism.

    You make a good point about why /who is God trying to impress….I never really thought of that.

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  7. But wouldn’t you think, N.E. – and you’re preaching to the choir here, I’m not opposing you – that after a million people prayed for Hurricane Katrina to just go away, and it didn’t, that they’d begin to get a clue that prayer doesn’t work?

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  8. Nate – check out Louis Ginzberg’s “Legends of the Jews,” I have the URL somewhere, but since it’s so easily found on Google, I’m too lazy to give it to you (hey, you want fact, or fiction?). Ginzberg, who as the name might imply, is not anti-semitic, has compiled a book of the legends the Jewish people have concocted about the scriptural characters in the Bible.

    For example, when in Gen 14, Abraham and his army of 300 Ninja-shepherds defeated five trained Mesopotamian armies, chasing them all the way up the Levant to Dan, which wouldn’t even be built until Abe’s great-grandson, Dan, built it, was due largely because Abe grew to 80-feet tall, chased them down with giant steps, and defeated them single-handedly! It’s in the book!

    And there are more attempts to vilify Esau than I could possibly relate, but one stands out. As you may recall, Esau is touted in Genesis as being a hunter, an expert archer, second only to Nimrod. Yet according to the “Legends,” Jacob had enough time to slaughter two lambs, slice and dice them and prepare a “savory stew,” as well as fabricate some hairy mittens, while Esau was out bagging a deer, primarily because instead of relying on his archery skills, Esau decided to run the deer down on foot. Having caught it, and not knowing for certain just how many deer it took to make a bowl of stew (he was never very good at math), he tied the deer up and went after another. While he was gone, Satan untied the bound deer, and poor Esau was left with no option to catch yet another. This went on, until Jacob had gotten his surrepticious blessing.

    Seriously, I couldn’t possibly make this stuff up – check it out for yourself!

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  9. All I’d say is that if that were the God I was raised to fear, I’d have a few problems with him as well.

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  10. But imagine yourself as a genuine god, Kent, superior to everyone – what kind of psychological problems would you have to have, to want anyone to fear you?

    During the warmer months, I see ants by the thousands, who aren’t even aware of my existence, due to the difference in size – I step over them, I feel no need to crush out their lives, simply because I can, with impunity. Think about it —

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  11. @Nate,
    Great sermon — or anti-sermon. Thanks for the tour. Can’t believe I once defended this stuff.
    Curious: Will your Xian-pen-pal read this post and comment?

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  12. So many non-sequiturs that I hardly know where to start. Fickle and arbitrary? Untrustworthy? At odds with love? Rubbish, complete and total. All this shows is that you don’t know the least about the outline of Romans, or where chapter 9 fits into the book. You picked a chapter in the middle and started reading, skipping v.3 and it’s significance. It also shows that you’ve let your emotions get the best of your logic. Sorry Nate, I only come here on rare occasions, and this post shows why. You’re now working from emotion, not logic, and do not appear to want to know the difference.

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  13. I understand your point, Arch. I’ve always wondered if the ‘fear’ in the Bible literally meant an afraid-for-your-life-type-scared or if it implied something more. Your ant example for instance; if the ants were capable of emotion, would they fear you because you could step on them at any moment? Would they be in awe of you because of your sheer size? Would they respect you because, though you could step on them, you don’t? Maybe an amalgam of all three? And, in their feeble attempts to describe that to each other, the best they came up with was “fear”? *shrug*

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  14. Well atheist don’t fear or respect a God they don’t believes exists. The attempts by atheists to interpret the Holy Scriptures are really pretty silly. The Scriptures were produced by the community of Faith (Israel/Church), for the community of Faith. The Ancient Christian Faith has never been about Sola Scriptura even though many sectarian Christian are left with this position because they have rejected the rest of Holy Apostolic Tradition that constitutes the Ancient Christian Faith.

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  15. I guess my point was, what kind of warped, twisted, psychological mindset would I have to possess, to kill an ant that has done no harm to me? If one climbs up my body and for no reason, other than that it can, bites me, it’s dead meat, but to see an ant on the ground, who woke up this morning with no other agenda on it’s mind than running around, doing ant things, and for me to arbitrarily kill it, for no valid reason, would, in my estimation, be not only wrong, but sick.

    Yet the Bible tells us (if it were true) of millions of people its god either killed personally, or ordered killed, yet theists find something from that, worthy of praise – I can’t imagine anything other than fear prompting such behavior.

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  16. Arch,

    Because you believe that the material cosmos and physical life is all that exists, your point of view makes sense. Because many theist believe that a spiritual realm exist outside of time/space and that human being have a spiritual component that can exist there, God’s actions have not caused anyone to perish. This is why the belief in the Resurrection forms the Christian’s point of view.

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  17. I’m sure that at some point in time, that’s likely also been said of the Ancient Zoroastrian Faith, as well as the faiths of all of the rest of the gods of Man’s creation.

    How’ve you been, Marc? Long time —

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  18. It’s been at least since last year Arch, I am surviving the nasty weather of the New Year so far. Btw I really liked the run down on all the religions on your blog site.

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