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. “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….”

    arch, i appreciate the honesty of your comment. bottom line, who determines “fair” and “unfair” if not God? and if there are no God or gods, then the fact that thousands of people die from hunger each day, or human trafficking is thriving, or someone just cut in front of me in line at the supermarket – there’s really no “right” judgment we can make against those people or those things, is there?

    as far as paul goes, he gets to his bottom line at the end of this section (chapters 9 thru 11 as a whole, not just chapter 9 out of context): 30 Just as you who were at one time disobedient to God have now received mercy as a result of their disobedience, 31 so they too have now become disobedient in order that they too may now receive mercy as a result of God’s mercy to you. 32 For God has bound all men over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on them all. (romans 11:30-32; NIV) (NIV uses non-inclusive language, but “men” should be read “people.”)


  2. “Where did we come up with those concepts?”

    They, much like gods, are not based on what there is, but rather what we wish there were.

    “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.”

    It may surprise you, but I don’t disagree at all – your capacity did indeed derive from your faith in a just god – not from the god, but from the faith.

    Just treatment for the sick” certainly has nothing to do with a god, but rather with what we would wish for ourselves, the source of all empathy.

    I am deeply sorry about the loss of your wife, I was totally unaware of that. I am presently losing someone who lives in Australia, to cancer, about whom I care deeply, and I do understand the feeling of helplessness.


  3. The concept of an afterlife came late in Judaism . It came about as a result of the Jews getting their butts handed to them time and time again. Since it didn’t look like they were going to get their just rewards here on earth for the constant persecution they received from the Babylonians amongst others, the concept of rewards after they were dead was born.

    When we witness persecution of our own or of loved ones and we realize it’s not going to get any better in our lifetime , for some, their only hope is it will be better in their afterlife.

    If people wish to believe in a God during those perilous times , it’s not for us to judge whether this God is real to us or not. He is real to them and is a coping tool for them.

    It matters not if I agree with Captain, this was his private tragedy and he dealt with it in a manner which gave him the most strength and peace.

    My debate(s) with Captain will remain with Christianity and the Bible. but not with his personal tragedy .

    I think most of you here feel the same way. That’s one of the many things I like about this group. Compassion usually prevails here no matter our beliefs.



  4. Hey Paul,

    Your question is a common one from theists. The more I discuss it the more I realize that it is really the same question (although it is hard to realize it) as “why does anything exist at all?” Feelings of justice, fairness, and morality are all things that have been and could be explained as naturally arising from evolutionary processes as Arch has said. Sharon Street, Richard Joyce and Michael Ruse are authors who could expound further on this. While I don’t see Occam’s razor as a perfect rule it is at least a general guideline and in this case I can see it being applied here in this sense – since we can explain these feelings by natural causes there is no need to posit invisible agents to further the explanation.

    There are other atheist philosophers who do go further and believe in some kind of moral laws which exist necessarily somehow as brute facts of reality (sort of like Platonic abstracta). Shelly Kagan, Erik Weilenberg, and Michael Martin are just some atheists who have expressed this idea.

    Lately the following has been a response I’ve been giving to express my own feelings about this subject: I want life on earth for everyone to be as positive an experience as possible. It is simply a desire of mine and that desire would remain no matter if there are moral rules that exist or not. My gut feeling is you feel the same. I actually would like it if there were moral truths, and would even prefer there to be gods that existed that are somehow helping us in achieving this. I say people like you and I should simply shake hands and make our best effort to work together to make our world a better place and if there are any gods that want to help out then I say “the more the merrier!!”.

    You are so right that nature seems like a frigid bitch. The story of your wife and so many others like it attest to that and it saddens me. I’m sorry to hear about your story.


  5. Oh, I do agree Ken, with one minor exception, the Captain seems to think that the compassion you speak so highly of, comes from an outside, spiritual source, while I maintain it emanates from within.

    “The song is in the tree,
    the skeptic showeth me.
    No Sir! In Thee –”
    ~ Emily Dickenson ~


  6. “The concept of an afterlife came late in Judaism .”

    ken, i don’t think this is true. the torah certainly does have a focus on this present life. and yes, various ideas of the afterlife began to emerge more and more in later judaism. one theory is that after escaping from slavery in egypt, in order to distinguish themselves from the egyptians who focused so much on life after death, the hebrew people turned to – and were given – laws for living well “here and now,” and came only gradually to further developing afterlife theology. but the concept was born long before the babylonian persecution (i’m guessing you mean the exile).


  7. I’m inclined to concur with Ken, Dave – I use several Jewish sources in my writing, including, and from all indications, there is no belief in an afterlife within the Jewish faith. I suspect we can look to Mithraism, from the captivity, or later, the Greeks, after Alexander’s conquest of the Levant c.300 BCE.


  8. For the most part, the Torah describes the afterlife in vague terms, many of which may simply be figurative ways of speaking about death as it is observed by the living.

    Later in the Torah, the concept of conscious life after death begins to develop. Daniel 12:2 declares, “And many of them that sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life and some to reproaches and everlasting abhorrence.” Neh. 9:5.


  9. I don’t have it at my fingertips, Marc – much of it comes from a Rabbi – I’ll have to check and get back to you.

    You know, don’t you, that if your child loses a puppy or a kitten, it’s not the same, if you rush out and buy him another one – right?


  10. It appears to me that Job through his trials and tribulations had a “Desire” for an afterlife. I’m not sure that I find God validating his desire in the Book of Job. I will defer to Dave if he can provide scripture in Job to validate this.


  11. The Oxford Bible Commentary says about Job, “In Job’s view, death is final. Not everyone in Ancient Israel shared his opinion, and gradually a belief in an afterlife emerged (Isa 26:19, Dan 12:2, Ps 73:23-8)


  12. The Oxford Bible Commentary goes on to say, “It seems almost certain for most of the period of the Old Testament no happy life after death was envisaged. It was only with the Maccabean martyrs and the apocalypses that hopes of a resurrection appeared (cf. Dan 12:2)


  13. @Arch

    “[Concepts], much like gods, are not based on what there is, but rather what we wish there were.”

    I kind of think you”ll agree with the following point once you’ve read over your sentence.

    A god, as you point out, may or may not exist; but a CONCEPT exists simply by us imagining it. To elaborate unnecessarily, you can argue that God doesn’t exist; but you have to concede that the concept of god exists simply by the fact that you’re talking about it.

    To be unnecessarily nerdy, until something exists as a CONCEPT it can’t even have the characteristic of non-existence.

    As to the concept of justice…

    You’re probably familiar with Dr. King’s stirring comment, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” I’m hearing a voice in my head retorting, “Who’s justice? King’s justice?? Baptist justice??? Christian justice????” It’s the kind of comment that gets trotted out relentlessly by non-believers and provokes believers to go off on rants about the perils of relativism.

    Do you agree with me when I say that even after you’ve eliminated God, religion, scripture and ecclesiastical authority you’ve still got the human personality and, from everything I’ve heard from others or felt in myself, real happiness is impossible without some degree of justice. Not only that, but we humans seem to be universally convinced that whatever society we happen to be living in could potentially become MORE just, and more justice would lead to more happiness — and people seem to be able to agree that we all want happiness.

    Before there is justice there is the CONCEPT of justice and it seems to me that Dr. King’s arc of morality can only bend once a sufficient number of people buy into that concept.

    Any agreement?



  14. It’s evident that the concepts of Heaven and Hell as afterlife destinations occurred late in Judaism. The Book of Job and parts of the Torah speak about sheol as a “realm of the dead.” Whether this was an afterlife or just a reference to death itself isn’t always clear. What is clear is that there was no real difference between where the righteous and the unrighteous would end up.

    Sorry I didn’t get a reply to you yesterday, though everyone else here expressed the same basic views that I hold as well. Howie, in particular, has a knack for saying what I’m thinking. 🙂

    I’m very sorry about your wife. I think it’s a wonderful thing that she (and you) chose to blog about her illness. No doubt it was very helpful to others out there, and hopefully cathartic for both of you as well. I haven’t had a chance to read much of it in detail yet, but I will. And I’ll make sure I have a box of tissues handy.

    Thanks, as always, for your great comments.


  15. Do you agree with me when I say that even after you’ve eliminated God, religion, scripture and ecclesiastical authority you’ve still got the human personality and, from everything I’ve heard from others or felt in myself, real happiness is impossible without some degree of justice. Not only that, but we humans seem to be universally convinced that whatever society we happen to be living in could potentially become MORE just, and more justice would lead to more happiness — and people seem to be able to agree that we all want happiness.

    Before there is justice there is the CONCEPT of justice and it seems to me that Dr. King’s arc of morality can only bend once a sufficient number of people buy into that concept.

    I would agree. But usually, this is the point when theists say that God is necessary for those concepts. I don’t agree with that…


  16. Justice: (1) The quality of being just or fair; (2) Judgment involved in the determination of rights and the assignment of rewards and punishments.

    Curious — which definition is the one that brings happiness?


  17. All I’ve been able to locate so far, Marc – and not to be rude, but I really don’t have a great deal of time to spend on it – is that it appears a Talmudic scholar named Raba concluded that Job denied resurrection. I have no details, just that simple statement – it would sound as though denying the prospect of resurrection is not a good thing. I wish I had more time to look, and if I find myself with some, I will and report back. Interestingly, some of the scholars believed Job to have been a Gentile. Oi vey!


  18. Further to arch’s comment re: Job, while doing research for my book, I read that many in the scholarly field contend the Book of Job is nothing more than a type of “folk tale” (parable, allegory, fable) written to assure the Israelites living during the terrible times of the Exile that God remained faithful. If there is any truth to this, then the discussion of his outlook on the resurrection is moot.


  19. You’re asking me to do an awful lot of thinking on very little coffee.

    “To be unnecessarily nerdy, until something exists as a CONCEPT it can’t even have the characteristic of non-existence.”

    CC, not to sound patronizing, but they don’t make numbers large enough to count the things that don’t exist, for which we have yet to formulate a concept, because without a concept of them, we can’t count them, but they still don’t exist. The only difference, is that without a concept, we don’t know they don’t exist.

    Re Dr. King’s morality – and I was with him in Selma, BTW: “Who’s justice? King’s justice?? Baptist justice??? Christian justice????” You have to understand that King was first of all, a Minister, I would expect him to speak in religious terms.

    real happiness is impossible without some degree of justice” – sorry, I just don’t see that there’s a relationship. Would I LIKE to see more justice? Depends on what you’re calling justice this week – tit for tat, eye for an eye? Not really, it certainly wouldn’t increase my happiness. Two nights ago, a young teenage boy (17) walked into a convenience store with a rifle and shot the clerk, a young African man – studying in this country, engaged to be married shortly – just because he wanted to see what it felt like to kill someone. What justice would you recommend here, CC? What kind of justice would give this young man his life back, along with his education, his fiancee, and for that matter, his parents their son back? No such justice exists, so we’d better be ready to find a way to be happy without it, or prepared to live a very sad life.

    The young man who did this was physically a very attractive young man with his whole life ahead of him. He can now look forward to being tried as an adult and spending his life in prison, being sodomized until he’s no longer attractive, then becoming the sodomizer. How will that make me any happier? Or the parents or fiancee of the dead man? Or anyone, really?


  20. Not necessarily, Nan, if it was written in exilic times, then that could well be an indication that the concept came from contact with foreign ideologies, rather than having been in any way inherent in the Hebrew faith.


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