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. Wow, that was unexpected – thanks for the visit, just wish you’d have left a comment, I live for those.

    Clearly, you’re referring to the first chapter, gods “r” us – I just wanted to give Theists a chance to laugh at other whacky religions before I demonstrated that their own is no exception from the wonderful world of whacky. I later do the same with flood stories, when we come to that little old winemaker, Noah.


  2. All good questions and excellent points made in several comments. I would just like to point out that you are right that this is a difficult section but it needs to be balanced by the very next chapters, Romans 10-11 where Paul proclaims God the lord of all, wants to bless all who call upon him, and that eventually salvation will come to Israel too. Thus, when you look at these three chapters together in conjunction with the overall rhetorical strategy of the book (explaining how Gentile and Jewish Christians should relate to each other), I think Paul is trying in Romans 9 to make sense of the fact that most Jews of the day rejected their long awaited savior which to him was inexplicable.


  3. Whenever you get a Christian commenting on your blog they invariably come across as ignorant of the fact you were a practicing full blown fundamentalist…for YEARS.
    This is why I find myself shaking my head when I read nonsensical comments from the likes of (Not so ) humblesmith.

    His vitriol smacks of exactly the apologetic tone you, Nate, must have back in the day. I’ll bet you smile inwardly when reading some of these comments.
    On Marcus’s blog another critic used the term “we Christians” as if Marcus had never been there and must therefore be completely unaware of how Christians think and approach their faith.

    This type of blindness illustrates how inculcation works. Simply dismiss the deconvertee as never really having been a Christian in the firs place. The personification of arrogance.

    Your final paragraph, ”asked and answered”.

    The final few lines of dialogue in the movie, Hear no Evil., See no Evil come to mind.

    ”Why can’t I shoot em? I wanna shoot em. Please let me shoot ’em. 😉

    Oh, and happy new year and complaints of the season and all that… 🙂


  4. As I was reading, Hitchens’ phrase “we are created sick and yet commanded to be healthy” came to mind.

    I’m surprised I hadn’t seen that chapter in this light before–we’re told straight out that god just decided to choose this one or that one and make some for mercy and others for not. I never realized there was such a good biblical argument for Calvanism, as Alice said!

    Someone said that Ch. 10 and 11 say something about god wants ALL to be saved. It might do, but that doesn’t fix this chapter, merely contradicts it.

    Another thing that came to mind was that 9-10min clip from the movie God On Trial, about Jews in the Concentration Camps; after almost every Plague, Pharaoh Relented–the plague had done its job! As Clausewitz says, “war is politics by other means”. The Plague was, I thought, to punish Pharaoh/Egypt and get him to relent. But then god HARDENED pharaoh’s heart (you know, “god”, according to the OT)!

    There’s no good word for that.


  5. Thanks for all the comments!

    @Sabio — unfortunately, the Christian I’m having this correspondence with won’t comment here — I think he knows I run a blog, but he doesn’t know the address. He did respond to my email, which made similar points to what I said here. He pointed out that in Exodus, sometimes it says God hardened Pharaoh’s heart, and other times it says that Pharaoh hardened it. He said that he views this chapter as dealing with the clashes that occur between God’s sovereignty and our free will, hence the complicated language.

    @humblesmith — I’m actually using verse 3 in my next post, which I wrote at the same time I wrote this one. I didn’t intentionally leave it out of consideration here. As to the outline of Romans, I’m sorry you feel I missed the context so completely. Feel free to offer corrections.

    @bburleson — Hi Ben! Thanks for the comment. I think you’re right about Paul’s goals for this chapter. Your point actually ties in well with the other article I’ve written about this, which I’m about to post. Even though I agree with you on the overall point of this chapter, I still feel it’s significant that Paul’s defense of God is to say that God doesn’t need a defense at all, since he’s the boss. It’s similar to God’s position in Job. Personally, I think this was a behavior that people in that time expected of their gods, though it seems immoral to us today. For me, that’s more evidence that the Bible is simply another cultural writing from its time, and not an actual divine revelation. But I’m aware that others aren’t as bothered by these cultural influences.

    @Ark — Happy New Year to you too! 😉


  6. “He said that he views this chapter as dealing with the clashes that occur between God’s sovereignty and our free will, hence the complicated language.”

    Of course, the complicated language couldn’t have anything to do with the fact that the first four books of the Torah were written by three distinct groups, separated by time and location, then pieced together by a redactor.


  7. The Bible is about God making God’s love and salvation understood to people. God hoped that would happen through the Jews, and God elected them for that purpose. God didn’t always choose what we would think of as the best – or at least, the most obvious – people for the job. As someone pointed out in an earlier post, Esau seemed more noble than Jacob – moreover, he was the first-born. But God chose the least likely – Jacob – ancestor of the Jewish people.

    By the time Romans 9 was written – hundreds of years later – Paul (himself a Jew) was dealing with an attitude among his fellows that, rather than being outward-focused, was exclusive. In fact, the early Christian movement, in reaching out to Gentiles (non-Jews), was going against the grain of the majority Jewish sensibility. But the reception of the good news of Jesus by the Gentiles did not invalidate God’s justice – rather, this was God’s plan to begin with.

    Romans 9 does not reflect an arbitrary (or fickle) God, but rather One who, like a potter with clay, can make a new creation if the first one doesn’t turn out so good. God is willing to change God’s mind in response to changing hearts, and Romans 11:22-24 summarizes God’s purpose and kindness well.

    Was Paul making the argument not to question God, when he said, “who are you… to talk back to God?” (Romans 9:20). It looks like it, if it’s read out of context. But within context, Paul was inviting his fellow Jews to consider that just because they were born into “the chosen people,” did not mean they would forever be “the chosen people.” Instead, Paul concluded this particular chapter with an appeal to faith – which Gentiles had come to, and Jews seemed to have rejected. Even with that, a statement of God’s mercy for all is how this entire section, chapters 9-11, ends.


  8. I get what you’re saying, and assuming he existed, Paul likely sincerely meant what he was saying, but as far as a sales technique is concerned, letting in the Gentiles, free of the thousand-year old baggage of Jewish law, was a great idea to build a flock quickly. Everyone wants to use a product that 4 out of 5 Gentiles recommend.


  9. i think only 1 out of 100 wound up using it, but that’s still pretty good.
    i think i get what you are saying, too, but really is the essence of the good news as i understand it. in one of the new testament books (hebrews), there’s a list of people “justified” by their faith. so abraham, without the benefit or burden of law, was embraced by God – and not because he was good (clearly, he was not good in several areas of his life). and i think that’s what paul was trying to get across in romans 9 – justification not by self-righteousness, but by God’s mercy.


  10. Herodotus was a 5th century (BCE), historian, and in a political speech about monarchy, said this about kings, which could easily be extrapolated to apply to gods, of whatever flavor:

    “How could a monarchy ever be suitably arranged – with someone who is unaccountable to anyone else, being able to do whatever he likes? For even the best of men, placed in such a situation, would not be able to maintain his normal character. He would become arrogant, due to his current good fortune.”

    He went on to say:

    “Respect him appropriately, and he is irritated because he is not being fawned over sufficiently. Fawn over him, and he is irritated because you are a flatterer. But the greatest perils I will mention are that he disrupts the laws of the land, violates women, and murders men without trial.”

    In short,

    “Power corrupts,
    Absolute power corrupts absolutely.
    God is all-powerful.
    Draw your own conclusions –”
    ~ Anonymous ~


  11. I also think there are some contradictions between what Jesus said, what Paul taught, and what James wrote (i.e. the way to Salvation: loving your neighbors vs. by faith alone vs. by deeds and faith). But I also understand (or I think I do) what Paul meant by us not questioning God. Even if his views of God are different from ours, I can appreciate not questioning what cannot be explained by our limited minds, such as why there are earthquakes and wars. The world is what it is, and all we can do is try to make sense of it, and try to learn and grow from the unfavorable circumstances, not question if there is really a God.


  12. “Tide goes in, tide goes out – you can’t explain that –“

    Is that what you’re trying to say, Noel? Earthquakes CAN be explained, as can wars – you can choose to hide your head in the Bible if you like, I want to be out there, learning how things work, rather than satisfying myself with, “Goddidit!”


  13. Archaeopterynx1, sorry about the misunderstanding… I did not mean we do not understand what causes earthquakes or war, but “why” God would permit it.


  14. “[W]e’re not questioning God, Paul, we’re questioning you and the authors of the Old Testament.”

    I’m hoping you realize, Nate, that I share comments with you and your ‘site visitors — not so much because I’ve got an axe to grind or a point of view to promote — but because I’m trying to figure out how to place what it is that I believe within the context of your “Atheist” vs. “Christian” debate.

    I read this post when you first published it, so I’ve had a while to consider it. My overall reaction is to announce to you that you’re expecting much too much out of the Bible, much too much out of Paul and much too much out of the letter to the Romans.

    My approach, upon reading your selected passage from Chapter Nine, is to begin by putting Paul’s comments within the context of something far larger than the specific topic he’s addressing. I think it’s important to acknowledge the “question beneath the question”. THAT question isn’t a ‘Christian’ question or a ‘believers’ question — it’s a human question. It’s a question we’re all stuck with. It’s a question I can’t side-step by identifying myself as an atheist.

    That’s the question I want to look at with you.

    An observation we ALL come to at some point in our lives is this: “Some guys have all the luck.” And, I dare say, the very fact of our being human impels us to ask “why.” I can knead my ideas about God into my response. I can fashion some sort of response that doesn’t rely upon the existence of God. I can reference the scriptures of any of the religions that humanity has ever developed, I can rely upon the words of a philosopher, or humanist, or scientist. I can ‘wing it’ and pull an answer “out of my ass” as it were.

    What I can’t do is pretend that the question means nothing to me.

    Why oh why is everything so unfair? Why oh why is it impossible for me (or anyone else, it seems) to sit comfortably in this world of unfairness?

    It’s an extraordinarily important question, it’s an extraordinarily difficult question and it’s the question that Paul has taken up in this passage.

    You’re dissatisfied with his response, I suspect, because you’re looking for him to provide the ‘final word’ on the matter. I’m not so hard on him. I’m looking, only, for him to provide a thoughtful, honest and heartfelt step along the path of the human conversation about what it means to be human. Because I use the standard do, I’m satisfied with Paul. Because I use the standard I do, I feel no compulsion to contort my thoughts into conformance with his. My job, as I see it, is simply to attempt to be understanding and accepting and — if you will — forgiving of Paul and his words.

    After I do that, I can offer a thoughtful, honest and heartfelt step of my own as a contribution to the discussion (which, we all realize, has been going on for millennia) without finding myself either on “Paul’s side” or the “other side.”

    I’ve got much more to say — but I’m very curious to know what you, and your readers, have to say about what I’ve said already.




  15. “Why oh why is everything so unfair? Why oh why is it impossible for me (or anyone else, it seems) to sit comfortably in this world of unfairness?”

    My response, Cap’n, would be quite close to what you would expect – “fair” and “unfair” are human concepts, promulgated by those who envision an imaginary scale and expect everything to balance. The Universe, on the other hand – to use the technical term – doesn’t give a rat’s ass about fairness, and doesn’t even recognize the concept. I sit quite comfortably in that Universe, because it’s the only one I have.


  16. I have to agree with Arch. Without waxing too philosophically, I think we just have to accept that “it is what it is” (to use a rather jaded saying). Most of the time there is no rhyme or reason why things happen the way they do. And, IMO, you will drive yourself “bonkers” trying to figure out the fairness or unfairness of life.

    I realize this doesn’t directly reflect on the topic of the original posting, but I felt it needed to be said after reading both Arch’s and the Captain’s comments.


  17. After Nan’s comment, regarding “the topic of the original posting,” I decided maybe I’d better go back and reread it, as to be honest, I’d lost all track, and was simply responding to the comments of others, regardless of how on- or off-topic those were.

    But in doing so, I reacquainted myself with this:

    “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.

    Does anyone not really look at what “heaven” is about? It’s not about strolling under the shade of olive trees with your loved ones, it’s about praising god, 24/7, for eternity! What kind of supreme being needs that?


  18. I think it’s those who believe in god(s) that wonder most about fairness, because if god is in control and loves us all, why is he letting some live or die much worse than others? Wouldn’t god be fair and loving, without playing favorites?

    But like others have said, it is what it is – don’t lose any sleep over that.

    Revelation 6:9-11 is interesting to me. It’s a scene in heaven (or at least the afterlife) of martyrs who are complaining and begging god for vengeance, for the blood of those who killed them…. It’s confusing to me because I had always thought that those who died in Christ would be content in death. I thought they’d be happy or whatever – but not bitterly pissed off and blood hungry.

    I don’t find earth that miserable, and at times it is as much as I would ever hope for. Sitting around heaven, angry about being there, singing hymns until god got tired of hearing them…. Eternal bliss…


  19. Hey Paul,

    Piggy backing off what others have said, I believe that this is actually one of several weights on the scales which pushes me toward the atheist versus the theist conclusion. With atheism this kind of random unfairness is to be expected, but with theism I am left with this difficult question that you have rightly attributed to this passage.

    This passage however seems even more insidious to me, because it seems clear to me that Paul is talking about not only difficulties in life but also determination of our eternity. His answer is that God determines from the start who is bound for destruction and who is bound for glory. That’s not only nauseating to me, but it doesn’t match up with the god as described in traditional mono-theism – a god who loves his creation and wants to be in relationship with all of them.


  20. When you really sit down and read all that Paul wrote, I don’t see how anyone can come away without the realization that he had a very strange outlook on God, Jesus, and the afterlife. Of course, believers have been brainwashed — whoops — persuaded that he had all the answers. What he said was the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help him god.


  21. @Nan, @William, @arch, @Howie

    Thank you all so much for your quick response!

    Honestly, arch, I got a laugh out of your comment, “‘fair’ and ‘unfair’ are human concepts”. That’s the whole point, isn’t it?? Where did we come up with those concepts? Certainly not by observing nature which, as you pointed out, is cold, heartless and doesn’t “give a rat’s ass” about any of us.

    As most of you know, my wife kept a blog ( during the last fourteen months of her life. Naturally the whole ‘fair’ question was regularly batted around by her and her readers — and I added thoughts of my own from time to time.

    I knew Pam was doomed from the time her doctor diagnosed her. She had a glioblastoma that was going to eat her brain, she was going to die in a year or two, and there weren’t nothing nobody could do about it. It was obvious to me then (as it had always been, really) that the forces of nature that controlled her cancer weren’t at all constrained by anyone’s concept of fair.

    But “justice” was the driving force behind her care. She “deserved” to be treated well, with dignity. She deserved to be able to make the best use of her body she could. She deserved the best medical treatment and the best emotional support. The cancer didn’t give a rat’s ass, but all of us did.

    This ‘justice’ wasn’t something I dreamed up on my own. Everyone, from what I could see, was ‘on board’ and “everyone” included believers, non-believers, ex-believers and what not.

    Pardon me for selecting a personal example, but I’m pretty sure just about everybody has to deal with a similar situation at some point.

    I claim, and you will all disagree, that my capacity to make sure that my wife was treated justly derived from my faith in a just God. I’m pretty sure that if I doubted the justice or compassion of God I would have had a hard time keeping my spirits up; but I had my eyes on a loving God whom I tried to emulate even as I was being immersed in the effects of natural processes which were undeniably heartless. I rejected the ways of the natural “god” I could see and embraced the ways of the just God I could not see.

    When I talk about ‘faith’, that’s what I’m talking about. I had to decide whether to believe in an invisible goodness or succumb to the despair of the visible cruelty.

    You don’t believe in God, but I’ll bet you believe in enough to believe the same things I believe about just treatment for the sick. Don’t accept my conclusion that these ideas of justice come “from God’ — but propose some sort of theory of your own about where these ideas come from. I’d really be interested.

    “Fair” and “unfair” are human concepts. Not simply human but universally human, pervasively human, inescapably human.

    You know, just as I know, that nature is a frigid bitch — but you’re human, and you long for justice just like I do. How do you explain it?



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s