Infinitely Entangled: A Story of a Murder and a God Who Cried

She was stabbed to death on a sunny, Saturday morning in a suburb near Austin, Texas. It was April 18th 2014.

Having sold some shares he owned in a company, her husband had just returned from Chicago with a hundred thousand dollars in cash. Allegedly, he wanted to escape somewhere after “the deed.” That morning, he had breakfast with his family, which included his wife and his wife’s sister, who was barely fourteen. Their two little kids were present, probably frolicking around in excitement in the presence of daddy. His wife sat across a dining room table, eating pancakes, while repeatedly stroking her pregnant abdomen. Everything seemed fine. His wife was busy sharing her morning with her friends on social media, putting on display a family committed to an ideal: “those who eat together, stay together.” The world must have thought everything was fine.

The husband, without a sign of disturbance, suggested to his wife, kids, and sister-in-law that they head to a park. You know, “for a morning stroll.” And so, the park it was.

In a matter of minutes, after he placed his two kids in their brand new Lexus, he returned to the house to find his wife alone. (The sister-in-law was probably in a nearby room preparing for the stroll.) Without skipping a beat, he grabbed a kitchen knife, put his pregnant wife in a headlock, and shoved the large knife into her throat. Surprised by this behavior, the wife didn’t seem to fight back.

A small commotion must have disturbed the sister-in-law, since she promptly returned to the dining room only to find her sister covered in blood, being stabbed repeatedly to death by her own husband.

In a state of utter dismay, she called the police.

He didn’t even bother to pull the knife out. He just left it standing there, stuck in her womb, an erect witness to the crime he had just committed.

Calmly, the husband got back into the car and went to the park with his kids.


But the story doesn’t end there. In fact, it hasn’t even begun.


Before Rachel ever married Matthew, she was in love with his cousin, Tim. After things didn’t work out with Tim, she had begun dating Matthew with the hopes that she could get Tim back by the sheer force of jealousy. Things didn’t turn out that way, and so, she ended up marrying Matthew.

Several kids later, Rachel found herself stuck in a marriage she did not want. Oh, her husband loved her—one merely needed to see the large diamond she wore on her ring finger—but it was a love she did not return. The inevitable was to rise to the surface in due time: Rachel was having an affair with Tim.

Now Matthew was not entirely an idiot. He had attended a prestigious university and had graduated with honors. It didn’t take long for him to suspect that his beloved wife (whom he’d casually beat during sex every once in a while) was cheating on him. When his wife announced that she was pregnant, Matthew, in his heart of hearts, refused to believe the child was his.

Incidentally, the cheating became less tacit. Rachel had a tattoo inked on her skin, just under her left breast, saying something that could be interpreted along the lines of Matthew’s suspicions. She became addicted to alcohol, drinking one too many glasses of wine with dinner. The baby growing in her bosom only fueled Matthew’s imagination: there was no way in hell the child was his. His wife wasn’t happy with him. He knew it; she knew it, and she no longer tried to hide it.

“The deed” committed, then, was a crime of passion. It was premeditated, conceived in the most intelligent of minds; being acted out by a man who knew what he was doing and why.

After the funeral, friends of Matthew, who were still enraged by his deed, visited him in prison. In his prison clothes, surrounded by fellow thieves and murderers, Matthew expressed no remorse or regret; he only wished he had done it sooner.

With Rachel murdered and buried, and her husband facing life in prison, the two kids were returned to her parents. Maybe they still had a future.

Rachel’s fourteen-year-old sister was no longer herself. She was a witness to a crime no one should have witnessed at that tender age. The psychiatrists placed her on large doses of antidepressants, anxiolytics, and hypnotics. Maybe she, too, had a future, however demented and guilt-ridden it would be.

For most of the surviving members of the family—be it the friends, the relatives, or the church members—the questions haunted them: where was God in all of this? Could God not have intervened? What purpose did it serve to have had a little girl witness such brutality? Was there really any “good” that could come about from the experiencing of such a violent scene? What about the children? Who’s going to raise them? And when Rachel’s daughter grows into a woman, what sort of stories will she tell on first dates regarding her father? Will she tell the guys how “Daddy just flipped out and stabbed mom to death”? Or will she invent something more readily digestible? (I assume one would invent some fanciful tale about one’s origins which one could psychologically deal with.) The question I wish to pursue is relatively simple: How does one live in a world of suffering, a world God allegedly claims as His own?


Before Rachel was ever murdered, before there was such a thing as her cheating and her husband’s rage, there was a concept of God and a concept of how the world ran that infiltrated every aspect of reality. The questions her family members ask, and the questions her little sister will ask as she matures, are undoubtedly asked from a particular vantage point. And what is that vantage point? In the following pages, I wish to articulate a view of God and His relation to the world that may help explain some of the suffering human beings experience.

For many people, the idea that God exists in a world of suffering poses problems. In the classical framing of the issue either (a) God is omnipotent and does not wish to eliminate suffering (hence making God malevolent) or (b) God is benevolent but cannot eliminate suffering (hence making God impotent) or (c) God does not exist. In any of the cases, God is certainly a major subject. It is to this noun “God” that I now turn.

Who or what is God? What does it mean for something to be “god”? The Bible presents us with a strange God. In the Old Testament, for example, YHWH suffers a great deal. In the New Testament, God also suffers—this time on a cross. In both Testaments, God functions as a Being who experiences suffering. In Psalm 78:40, it is said of God: “How often they rebelled against him in the wilderness and grieved him in the desert!” In many ways, according to the Old Testament, God grieved due to relational issues. He grieved due to “forsakenness (Isa. 54:6); mourning (2 Sam. 19:3); distress and anger (Gen. 45:5); [and] injury (Ps. 56:6).”[1] In addition to these remarkably human emotions, the Old Testament relates how God suffers within the context of metaphors. For example, God’s relationship with Israel is seen within the context of a marital metaphor: God is the husband and Israel is the wife. The feelings God verbalizes are romantic:

“I remember the devotion of your youth, your love as a bride, how you followed me in the wilderness, in a land not sown” (Jer. 2:2).

In such romantic, marital recollections, what is being relayed is, according to Terence E. Fretheim, “a picture of the pain and anguish of God.”[2] In what seems like a hopeless romantic’s last-ditch-effort, God comes to Israel begging helplessly for attention.

“I was ready to be sought by those who did not ask for me; I was ready to be found by those who did not seek me…” (Isa. 65:1).[3]

The metaphors do not stop there. God is a mother (Hos. 11:3-4; Isa. 66:13; Ps. 131:2; Luke 13:34), a father (Isa. 1:2-3), a shepherd (Ps. 23), etc. In all these cases, God is relating to humans. It is the relationship that is at the center of the anguish and the pain of a suffering God. The image of God as a hopeless romantic may not be one that many of us would be familiar with—especially a suffering romantic at that! Our images of God, like the idols of old, are detrimental to theology.

The OT tells us that the people of God were often guilty of worshipping idols, of making up their own god, of creating gods, or even Yahweh, in a certain image. We oversimplify this matter if we think of such images solely in terms of wood or stone; the plastic image conveyed a particular way of understanding these gods or Yahweh. And, we have learned over the years that idolatries do not need the plastic form to qualify as such. One can move directly to mental images which construct a false image of God and have the power of wreaking havoc in people’s faith and life. Metaphors matter.[4]

And what is our image—our mental construct, our “idol”—of God today? In the words of Douglas J. Hall, we like the image of God as warrior-king:

The language of our religion had been so consistently informed by the spirit of might, winning, success, and related concepts that it is difficult to use any of the scriptural nomenclature of glory and triumph without conjuring up the whole ideology of empire.[5]

Citing C. S. Song, he writes, “[W]e have been handed a ‘high-voltage God’ and a ‘high-voltage theology’ by our tradition.”[6] The idea that God actually suffers too—that we are like God, having been made in His image—is as foreign to our ears as the oft-repeated phrase imago dei. We’ve heard it so many times, we’ve forgotten what it all means. The words are hidden from our eyes, “hidden because of their simplicity and familiarity” (§129), wrote Ludwig Wittgenstein.[7] Our God, instead, is no longer the God in whose image we have been made. It is a God who is “high-voltage,” like the narcissistic dictators some of us—who are clearly deranged—dream of.

Hall continues:

“The Judeo-Christian tradition does not deny the power of God, but neither does it magnify this attribute; moreover, and more to the point, it does not abstract the divine power from the divine-human relationship. The relationship qualifies—radically—the nature and deployment of power on God’s part.”[8]

And it is here that we’ve come to the crux of the issue. God suffers—and that is alright. But what if His suffering is predominantly contingent upon a relationship? If so, is God’s nature, then, somehow qualified by the relationship? The Bible suggests that this may indeed be the case: God cannot do anything willy-nilly—He is bound to the promises made to human beings.

If God makes a promise to a person, is He not limited by it? That is, if God says that He would do something no matter what, is He free to not do what He said He’d do? It appears that the idea of God being totally all-powerful is wrong. Not wrong in the sense of “God is omnipotent” but wrong in the sense of “God’s power is of such a case that He can do anything and everything no matter what.” Our conceptions of “power” are inherently tied to our conceptions of dictators, kings, and nuclear-capable nations. But is that really power? Is it really “powerful” to bomb another nation? Is it really powerful when you lock someone up in order to prevent them from doing what they so desire? “Who, through power tactics, can eliminate the self-destroying habits of a son or daughter who has fallen prey to hard drugs?”[9] In Frederick Buechner’s novel Lion Country, the protagonist, Antonio, makes the following remarks regarding his sister’s suffering, who was dying from a bone disease:

When Miriam’s bones were breaking…if I could have pushed a button that would have stopped not her pain but the pain of her in me, I would not have pushed the button because, to put it quite simply, my pain was because I loved her, and to have wished my pain away would have been somehow to wish my love away as well.[10]

To wish away relational pain, a pain watered by love, is to wish away the love also. And to wish away love…well, what else does one live for anyway?

We live in a world in which we want to wish away many things. All too often we deny the reality of suffering by failing to accept it as such. We want to reject suffering. We want to reject the pain we feel when a loved one is sick or dying. We want to reject a suffering God—for a suffering God has little to offer humans who have rejected the very nature of the God they claim to worship. And yet, this God is caught up in the cobwebs of intimate relations. This God does not live in a vacuum, detached from human freedom. Humans have the freedom to do all kinds of things. They can build or they can destroy; they can create life or they can take it. Somewhere in the mess of things, God finds Himself—from the biblical perspective—merely[11] involved. God is not, to use colloquial expressions, “in control.”

In the words of the physicist-turned-theologian John Polkinghorne, “A world in which God perpetually intervened in this magical way would also not be a creation that was allowed freely to be itself.”[12] He continues: “[S]uffering and evil of the world are not due to weakness, oversight, or callousness on God’s part, but, rather, they are the inescapable cost of creation allowed to be other than God, released from tight divine control and permitted to be itself.”[13]

According to Polkinghorne, the freedom that we have to exist is necessary for us to be able to truly be ourselves. Without it, we’d just be God on a different day.

But separation from God is not the only thing one could discuss. Separation is necessary for freedom. But what about all of God’s pain? What about all of our pain? This pain comes from involvement, from entanglement. Even reality itself is “built up from relationships.”[14] For example, the EPR experiment in physics[15] shows us that once two photons interact with one another—and begin sharing a single wave function—and are later separated, they will continue to share the same wave function no matter the distance between them. In addition, if anything is done to photon X (let’s say it is measured by a tool which places it into a spin-up state) then photon Y, however far away, will be put into a spin-down state. If mere photons have such “quantum entanglement,” how much are human beings entangled in the world and God? It is a deeply frightening question. Are we so entangled in God’s world that any action we take has virtually eternal and limitless repercussions? If this is, indeed, the case, this puts human beings in a very serious situation: the responsibility that falls on our shoulders may then be likened to Paul’s “weight of glory” (2 Cor. 4:17).

There is a “togetherness in separation”[16] in the quantum world. How much more is there “togetherness in separation” in the real world! Returning to some of our initial thoughts, I do not think God is infinitely removed from reality. If God exists, it would certainly be a God who is a hopeless romantic “entangled” in us. On the flip side, our relations with God and neighbor, with wife and brother, are also gravely important. And what we do shapes and changes history. We have the freedom to love and the freedom to kill. But in any case we are, as it were, infinitely entangled.

If Rachel’s little sister were to ask a theologian about God, and God’s relation to the world, what would he or she say? In light of our brief discussion, mostly centered on the issue of relationships and pain, what does one say? I don’t have the answer—but I think we have a number of answers[17] we could ruminate on.

What was the meaning of Rachel’s death? Could God have done something about it without changing Rachel’s life-story? I don’t think so. In a sense, Rachel was the architect of her life. (And I am not in any way denying influences such as genes, family, friends, etc.) She chose this man—and she committed her share of sins. There is no need to deny the responsibilities that fell on Rachel, her lover Tim, and her husband. All three figures played their cards in this thing called life. None were “without blood,” so to speak. Could God have intervened? I don’t think so. To limit Rachel’s freedom—or what little freedom she had—would have meant to eliminate Rachel’s existence itself. The suffering of God was not, even in God’s own case, eliminated. To hearken back to my mention of Buechner’s work, God did not “push the button.” Like a parent watching a child die slowly from the consumption of illegal drugs, so does God watch—in the most pathetic of manners—the death of His beloveds. In freedom, in letting God be God and humans be humans, there is also the possibility of love and hate, of intimacy and loneliness, of life and of death. “Morally honest joy must be joy had while our eyes remain open to evil,” wrote the philosophical theologian William Greenway.[18] To experience love in all of its grandeur and in all of its tombstone-glory, one must keep one’s eyes open to evil. The beloved remains—always remains—one final exhalation away from death. To deny this is to deny the wholeness of love. To deny the pain that is and the pain that is to come is to deny what is central to love: a pain that aches secondary to, and in proportion to, a love that burns.

Where was God in all of this? Was He distantly removed, somewhere safe in the environs of His Ivory Tower. Or was He deeply immersed in the suffering of Rachel, in the rage of Matthew, in the tears of friends and family? The biblical portrait of God—whether it is the YHWH of the Old Testament or the Jesus of the New—is one: God suffers with. The suffering is not always suffering “for”; sometimes it is simply a suffering “with.” Returning to our earlier analogy of God as hopeless romantic within the metaphor of marital love, God may have simply been present. There is a reason why couples that say their traditional vows invoke the possibility of evil and suffering. It is because it is a very real possibility—and sometimes all one needs is a partner in suffering. “In sickness and in health, till death do us part.” The relationship brings with it the promise—and I do think it is a promise—that you two will suffer. The suffering may be caused by none other than that arch-villain itself, Love. You may lose someone you deeply love in a car accident. You may worry if your spouse is ever late. You may care endlessly about your spouse’s wellbeing. All in all, there will be some level of heartache involved—if one has a soul, that is.

Maybe C. S. Lewis was right:

To love anything is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket—safe, dark, motionless, airless—it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. The alternative to tragedy, or at least to the risk of tragedy, is damnation. The only place outside of Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is Hell.”[19]

If one wants to avoid tragedy in general, or the loss of a spouse in particular, one must simply choose not to engage in any loving endeavors at all. Where there is no such love; where there is no such freedom to love (or not to love); where there is no possibility of intimate relations, there you will find a god who does not cry. But here we are on earth, in the most earthly of manners, infinitely entangled in the arms of a God who cries…


Written by: Moses Y. Mikheyev

Dedicated to Terrence E. Fretheim—for all of the outbursts in class and for our conversations regarding God & suffering…




[1] Terence E. Fretheim, The Suffering of God: An Old Testament Perspective, Overtures to Biblical Theology (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984), 111.

[2] Ibid., 115.

[3] Also cited in Fretheim, The Suffering of God, 118.

[4] Ibid., 2.

[5] Douglas John Hall, God and Human Suffering: An Exercise in the Theology of the Cross (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1986), 106.

[6] Ibid., 96.

[7] Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, trans. and eds. G. E. M. Anscombe, P. M. S. Hacker and Joachim Schulte, rev. 4th ed. (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009), 57.

[8] Hall, God and Human Suffering, 97. Italics original.

[9] Ibid., 98.

[10] Cited in Hall, God and Human Suffering, 99.

[11] I use the word “merely” here quite loosely. That is, I am setting this vision of God in contradistinction to a vision in which God functions as a warrior-king that rules by might.

[12] John Polkinghorne, Quarks, Chaos, and Christianity: Questions to Science and Religion, rev. ed. (New York: Crossroad Publishing, 2005), 60.

[13] Ibid., 61.

[14] Ibid., 75.

[15] Ibid., 70-2.

[16] Ibid., 70.

[17] I use the term “answer” here very loosely. I sympathize with Ivan Karamazov in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. That is, I don’t think I’d accept God’s invitation to go to the theater in which God provided “an explanation” of suffering. I’m pretty sure I’d turn down the offer. No, I’m certain I would.

[18] William Greenway, The Challenge of Evil: Grace and the Problem of Suffering (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2016), 31.

[19] C. S. Lewis, The Four Loves (New York: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1988), 121.

Religious Freedom Under the First Amendment: Three Supreme Court Cases and the Ambiguous Term “Religion”

Throughout the years, and in various Supreme Court cases, the distinction between “religious/sectarian” and “nonreligious/secular” has been rather ambiguous. In this essay, I will examine three separate Court cases in which the Court had to defend its verdict by employing what I deem “ambiguous” uses of the term “religion.” Moreover, I will argue that “religion” as a phenomenon is virtually impossible to define in any concrete, rigid manner. Given this reality, the Court’s decisions, when attempting to demarcate the line between that which is religious and nonreligious, will always remain blurry. Hence, it is my position that ambiguity will remain ever present in the their decisions so long as the Court continues to deal with an ambiguous phenomenon[1] known as “religion.”

Before examining the three cases, I will first begin by looking at the First Amendment and the surrounding historical context in which it was shaped, a context, as we shall later see, that set the trend for the Court’s various positions on “religion.”

The First Amendment was shaped in the 18th century during a time when several principles were deemed essentially conducive to a peaceful, well-governed society. The principles were: (1) liberty of conscience; (2) free exercise of religion; (3) religious pluralism; (4) religious equality; (5) separation of church and state; and (6) disestablishment. “While many of these terms carried multiple meanings in the later eighteenth century and several other terms were under discussion, these six principles were foundational for the American founders.”[2] The First Amendment—an amendment originally governing only Congress—was first applied to states and local governments via the Fourteenth Amendment’s due process clause in the pioneering case of Cantwell v. Connecticut (1940).[3] “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”[4] The Founding Fathers initially feared a particular religious institution so close to the State that it would use the State to persecute any dissenting voices.[5] However, in their attempts to articulate a form of government that allowed the flourishing of religion, the Fathers left one fatal void: they failed to define “religion.” What constitutes a religion? Witte writes, “Nowhere is the word ‘religion’ defined in the Constitution or Bill of Rights…”[6] In fact, if “original intent” is observed, it becomes relatively clear that by employing the term “religion” the Fathers meant “a plurality of Protestant Christian faiths.”[7] That is, they probably did not mean to defend the religious freedom rights of Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, or even Catholics. Nonetheless, a few scattered remarks from this time period do exist which help us understand what “religion” was thought to be. In 1802, Thomas Jefferson wrote, “[R]eligion is a matter which lies solely between a man and his God.”[8] Here “religion” was thought to be (a) a private affair and (b) involving a person and some deity. On June 26, 1788, during the Virginia convention on the Constitution, the authors wrote revealingly: “Religion, or the duty which we owe our creator, and the manner of discharging it…”[9] Here it can be seen that “religion” was thought to be something between a person and his or her deity/Creator. What is alarming in these two remarks is the lack of precise terminology. As we shall see, the modern day Court—from the 1940s onwards—has continued to wrestle with its definition of “religion,” having inherited this ambiguous legacy. I now turn my attention to three modern-day cases in which the demarcation between religious and nonreligious has continued, as in the past, along ambiguous lines.

In Frazee v Illinois (1989), the Court decided a case that involved a certain William Frazee who refused to accept a retail position that involved work on Sundays. He claimed that, as a Christian, it was unlawful for him to work on the Lord’s Day. Frazee later applied for unemployment benefits and was denied. Consequentially, the Department of Employment Security’s Board of Review justified its refusal to grant unemployment benefits to Frazee by stating: “When a refusal of work is based on religious convictions, the refusal must be based upon some tenets or dogma accepted by the individual of some church, sect, or denomination, and such a refusal based solely on an individual’s personal belief is personal and noncompelling and does not render the work unsuitable” [489 U.S. 829, 831] App. 18-19.[10] In a rather fortunate series of events, the Supreme Court picked up this case and overturned the earlier decisions made by the lower courts. Justice White, arguing for the majority opinion, wrote:

“While membership in a sect would simplify the problem of identifying sincerely held beliefs, the notion that one must be responding to the commands of a particular religious organization to claim the protection of the Free Exercise Clause is rejected. The sincerity or religious nature of appellant’s belief was not questioned by the courts below and was conceded by the State, which offered no justification for the burden that the denial of benefits placed on appellant’s right to exercise his religion.”[11]

Essentially, the Court said that while it may be true that Frazee was not a part of any church or sect—for all they knew, he might have stayed home on Sundays only to watch Oprah and eat Bon-Bons—nonetheless, it was not the State’s job to verify the sincerity of religious beliefs, or, for that matter, to act as an arbiter in religious affairs. Put simply: if a person stated they were Christian, it was beyond the State’s power to attempt to prove or disprove the sincerity of those beliefs. The State was not a religious organization, and so could not pass judgment on the sincerity of any deeply held—or, for that matter, deeply faked—religious beliefs.

In the above case we see, once again, a continuation of ambiguity when it comes to the subject of religion. Mr. Frazee was not a part of any church or religious organization. And yet the Court overturned an earlier denial of unemployment benefits on the basis that work on Sundays, for Frazee, was an unnecessary burden on his allegedly religious conscience. Justice White wrote, regarding the difficult process of demarcation between religious and secular, “Nor do we underestimate the difficulty of distinguishing between religious and secular convictions and in determining whether a professed belief is sincerely held.” Could one create a religion out of thin air, claim a free exercise violation, and win? In the post-Frazee v Illinois world, it seems so. For here—as much as ever—the term “religion” is not clearly demarcated from the secular/nonreligious. If staying home and watching football on Sundays is, at some future point, considered to be a “religious act,” who would blame the Court for not knowing what to do? Nobody seems to know what religion/religious is to begin with. Next, I will look at yet another pesky issue: just how cozy could the secular State get with religious holiday displays?

Lynch v Donnelly (1984) was a case settled after the groundbreaking Lemon v Kurtzman (1971). In Lemon v Kurtzman the three-pronged “Lemon test,” a test used to determine whether a law had the effect of establishing a religion, was first formulated.[12] In the case we are now considering—namely, Lynch v Donnelly—the city of Pawtucket, R. I. came under fire for erecting a Christmas display on private property owned by a nonprofit organization, property located directly in the center of the city’s shopping district. Amongst the Santa Claus house, Christmas tree and other such holiday objects, there was also placed a crèche, or nativity scene. This crèche was challenged for being an “establishment clause” violation: the State, funded by diverse taxpayers, was using its funds to “promote” a single religion, Christianity. The case ended up going to the Supreme Court, where the Court concluded, “Pawtucket has not violated the Establishment Clause.”[13] What were the Court’s reasons for reaching this verdict?

The Court argued that the now-famous concept of a wall of separation between church and state was a “useful metaphor” but “not an accurate description of the practical aspects of the relationship that in fact exists.” In addition to this, the Court argued that the Constitution did not, in fact, “require complete separation of church and state”; rather, “it affirmatively mandates accommodation…”[14] The Court also recognized how ubiquitous religion was. Religion was a part of the “American life.” Because it was the Christmas season, and because the crèche alone was not the singular focus of the Christmas display, the Court—echoing the “Lemon test”—ruled that “the city has a secular purpose for including the crèche in its Christmas display and has not impermissibly advanced religion or created an excessive entanglement between religion and government.”

As can be seen, the Court argued that religion was already mixed into the American way of life, thus admitting that the line between religious and secular was to be found “in the mix” somewhere. In other words, there wasn’t much of a line to begin with. Nonetheless, the Court still attempted to make that line materialize. Somehow, because of the “national tradition” and our desire to “depict the origins of that Holiday,” Christmas had become a rather secular holiday, with displays serving “legitimate secular purposes.” While the Court was busy employing the terms “secular” and “religious” without defining them, they had also snuck in some Orwellian double-think by referring to Christmas as both a “religious” and, finally, a “secular” holiday. And so the ambiguity continues.

I now want to turn my eyes to my final case. In Employment Division v Smith (1990) the Court back peddled on the “accommodationist logic” it used in Lynch v Donnelly. In this case, the defendants were two members of the Native American Church fired from their place of employment for using peyote on religious grounds. Once fired, they applied for unemployment benefits and were denied. The Oregon Supreme Court initially ruled that denying them unemployment benefits for using peyote on religious grounds violated their right to exercise religion; however, the state refused to pay out the benefits because possession of peyote was deemed a crime—so the case went to the Supreme Court. The Court focused, citing Sherbert v Verner, on whether the employees had a “constitutional right to unemployment benefits on the part of all persons whose religious convictions are the cause of their unemployment.”[15] Smith, one of the members who appealed to the Supreme Court, argued that he was doing nothing different than what we saw done in Frazee. That is, “[i]f Frazee could get unemployment compensation for refusing to work on Sunday, his day of rest but not worship, Smith argued, surely he could get compensation for being fired for engaging in the arduous and ancient religious ritual of peyote ingestion.”[16] The Court, however, was not in agreement with Smith. On the contrary, they argued that this case should be treated not as a case dealing with unemployment per se but rather as a case dealing with “free exercise” and compliance with “criminal laws.” In fact, the Court argued that Oregon State’s law regarding the illegal use of drugs (or which peyote was one) was “neutral” and “generally applicable”; hence, differing from the prior cases such as Frazee, the Court now argued that it was possible for the State to cast a burden upon a religious person so long as it was doing so by means of a generally applicable law that did not single out any particular person or religion.[17] Using the Court’s logic in Smith and applying it to Frazee one could argue that Frazee did not deserve unemployment compensation since he refused to work on Sundays—and “mandatory Sunday-work is required of everyone, being generally applicable to all, religious or irreligious.”[18] Such a statement, however, was not made in Frazee. Why?

Returning to the second case I looked at—that is, Lynch v Donnelly—allow me to remind you that in that case that which was secular and that which was religious was comingled. In Lynch the religious became the secular by means of “tradition.” Since what was initially religious had been around so long, it was no longer really religious; it was, in fact, perfectly secular. “Christmas is not really a religious holiday; it is mostly a secular holiday with ancient, religious roots. But most of us don’t focus on the religious element, so it’s basically secular,” went the argument.

But not so in Smith. Here a couple of men, who were unquestionably religious, were not allowed to exercise their religious beliefs. Like Christians partaking of the Lord’s Supper—sipping on a toxin known as alcohol[19]—the men involved in the Smith case could not exercise their beliefs. Why? Because the state thought their use of peyote, even in what was deemed a purely religious ritual, to be illegal. The line between religious and secular was assumed throughout the Smith case; there was no question that the two men were participating in a religious act. However, the relationship the State had with their so-called “religious activities” was vastly different than its cozy relationship with the mostly Christian activities we saw in Frazee and Lynch. In these cases, whatever was found to be religious was either explained away as the mostly secular (Lynch) or deemed impossible to verify (Frazee)—in both cases the Court allowed the religious to exercise their religious beliefs, no matter how fake (Frazee) or how assimilated into the secular culture (Lynch). What we saw in Smith, however, was what appeared to be a rather concrete, underlying assumption that the Court understood what it meant for something to be “religious.” But even here the “religious” was never defined. And so, despite the dogmatic rhetoric, the Court has yet to define what it means for something to be a religious act or a religion.

In 1912, James H. Leuba published a seminal paper that included an oft-cited appendix listing more than fifty definitions of religion.[20] Today, more than ever, the religious is ubiquitous—we see it in law, in politics, in science classrooms, in our libraries, in our churches, etc. As then, so now, we don’t really know what religious really means—if anything at all. There are a multitude of definitions available to us. Some, like the Founding Fathers, may see religion as that which involves some deity/Creator. Others, like Buddhists, may argue that no such deity is required by religion. Still others may argue that no such thing as God exists. Some may think a church or synagogue plays an essential part in what it means for something to be deemed religious; others, like Frazee, argue that religious acts do not have to involve such structures. Some may argue that religion has so infiltrated our society, it is no longer possible to clearly separate the two (e.g., Lynch). Some may argue that religion is relatively straightforward, involving the use of chemical substances; practices that the State could, in theory, forbid (e.g., Smith). In all of these various cases, involving a plurality of definitions, the distinction between religious and nonreligious, sectarian and secular, remain forever indistinct to our eyes as we gaze into that abysmal sea of religious discourse “through a glass, darkly” (1 Cor. 13:12). So long as the Supreme Court continues to deal with this most notoriously difficult of issues—that is, the ambiguous phenomenon we call religion—so long will we be haunted by paradoxical court cases and unclear decision-making processes.


Written by Moses Y. Mikheyev

Dedicated to John Witte, Jr.




[1] It is entirely possible to argue that my use of the term “religion” in itself is already misleading; instead, it may be argued, that what I should have written should have been the plural “religions.” However, I use the term colloquially: it encompasses all and every “religion,” whether the various religions have anything in common or not. (Even here one detects a thorough-going ambiguity: what, in fact, do all religions have in common? Or do we just group various phenomena that appear to be ceremonial as being “religious”? What, then, is “religion”?)

[2] John Witte, Jr. and Joel A. Nichols, Religion and the American Constitutional Experiment, 4th ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016), 62-3.

[3] Ibid., 98-9.

[4] Ibid., 1.

[5] Ibid., 30-1.

[6] Ibid., 95.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., 56.

[9] Ibid., 74.

[10] Frazee v. Illinois Dept. of Employment Security, 489 U.S. 829 (1989), URL=

[11] Ibid.

[12] The three-pronged approach is as follows: “a challenged law must (1) have a secular purpose, (2) have a primary effect that neither advances nor inhibits religion, and (3) foster no excessive entanglement between church and state” (Witte and Nichols, Religion, 163).

[13] Lynch v. Donnelly, 465 U.S. 668 (1984), URL=

[14] Italics mine.

[15] Employment Division, Department of Human Resources of Oregon v. Smith, 494 U.S. 872 (1990), URL=

[16] Witte and Nichols, Religion, 146.

[17] Ibid., 146-7.

[18] The words in quotation marks are theoretical, in case that was not made clear.

[19] “Respondents contend that the sacramental use of small quantities of peyote in the Native American Church is comparable to the sacramental use of small quantities of alcohol in Christian religious ceremonies” (Employment Division, Department of Human Resources of Oregon v. Smith, 494 U.S. 872 [1990], URL=

[20] Jonathan Z. Smith, “Religion, Religions, Religious,” in Critical Terms for Religious Studies, ed. Mark C. Taylor (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), 281.

The Names of God: Exodus 3:14-15 and the Answer

Thousands of years ago, so the story goes, an old man met god in a fiery bush that refused to be consumed. The god took interest in the old man—who went by the name Moses—and decided to send him so that he may help save a group of people whom the god called his own. “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians” (Ex. 3:7-8 NIV). Before Moses accepted this unknown god’s proposition, he first asked the god for its name—for if “they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” (3:13 NIV). The response this god provided Moses has continued to perplex layman and scholar alike to this very day. In this paper, I will examine various interpretations of “the answer” the god gave in the hopes of finding a syncretic approach that makes sense of the answer both within its (a) historical context and (b) its current biblical, canonical context. In my concluding reflections, I will argue that the names of God, as revealed to Moses, are as elusive now as they were then.

In the Ancient Near East, names were thought to have magical properties.[1] Cassuto, summarizing the prevailing view, writes, “[T]he designation of any entity was to be equated, as it were, with its existence: whatever is without an appellation does not exist, but whatever has a denomination has existence.”[2] Already in the second creation myth found in Genesis 2, Adam was seen giving names to the recently created animals brought into existence.[3] Existence and having a name went hand-in-hand. The “magical element” of knowing the name of an object or person was grounded in the ancient idea, as Gordis points out, that “knowing the name of any person or object is tantamount to comprehending its nature.”[4] The language of the Hebrew Bible itself—including our text from Exodus—was conducive to such magical thinking. “In Biblical Hebrew, sëm [שֵׁם, “name”] means ‘essence.’”[5] In addition to this, knowing the name of a god, and “calling on its name,” meant you were able to invoke that god’s attention.[6] But attention itself was not granted unless you knew the god’s name. The “magical element,” however, is best epitomized by the ancients’ idea that “to ‘call a name’ [was] sometimes equivalent to ‘create.’”[7] Given the ancients’ concern for knowing the correct name for a correct object, animal, or god, it should come to us as no surprise that Moses was predominantly concerned with figuring out the god’s name—who, in fact, was speaking with him?

The answer the god gave appears to be as elusive as ever:

“I am who I am.” He said further, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I am has sent me to you.’” God also said to Moses, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘The Lord, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you’” (Ex. 3:14-15 NIV).

At first blush, it appears that there are at least three[8] separate but related answers the god, identifying himself as YHWH, gave Moses: (1) “I am who I am”; (2) “I Am”; and (3) “The Lord” [YHWH]. Numerous theories have arisen because of the seemingly various “answers” YHWH gave Moses; the scholars usually assign the different names to different sources.[9] In this paper, however, I will focus on the canonical text at hand without dealing with the complicated theories catalyzed by source criticism.

YHWH[10] first answers Moses’ question with the cryptic phrase: “I am who I am.” In Hebrew the phrase is אֶֽהְיֶ֖ה אֲשֶׁ֣ר אֶֽהְיֶ֑ה. The first word—namely, אֶֽהְיֶ֑ה [ehyeh]—is the first-person imperfect masculine singular verb from the root הָיָה [hyh, “to be”]. Generally speaking, the word could be translated “I will be,” being an imperfect verb that conveys an incomplete action that could occur in the past, present, or future. The particle following the initial ehyeh is אֲשֶׁ֣ר, which is normally translated in this passage as “who.” What does YHWH mean by saying of himself “I will be who I will be” or, as most translations have it, “I am who I am”? Numerous answers have been given; I will present three interpretations of this enigmatic phrase.

The first interpretation I will call “the unknowable explanation.” According to this interpretation, YHWH, in fact, does not answer Moses’ question; that is, YHWH does not give Moses a “name.” What YHWH does instead is give Moses a phrase—an idem per idem[11] syntactical construction, to be exact—alluding to the impossibility of placing God in a box. Zimmerli, one such exponent of this view, writes, “In the only passage where the Old Testament itself attempts to provide an explanation of the name ‘Yahweh’ it refuses to explain the name in a way that could confine it within the cage of definition.”[12] God remains, in this view, the deus absconditus—that is, “the hidden God.” Several good reasons seem to support this interpretation. In light of the earlier comments I made regarding names and their “magical elements,” this view prevents humans from knowing God’s name “because man should not know God’s name and acquire power over him, for God is not to be man’s slave.”[13] Also, this interpretation seems to suggest that the finite human mind cannot possibly understand God and his nature. Even if a name were given, it would be an illusory shell: the name could never contain God. Since a human could not possibly understand God, God and his name must forever remain a mystery.

The second interpretation I shall call “the ontological explanation.” In this view, YHWH is essentially saying, “I am because I am.” When Moses asked YHWH his name, YHWH gave him a name, but it was made in reference to the name itself. That is, outside of the name given—which is elusive as it is, meaning simply “I will be” or “I am”—is itself not supported by anything external to it, functioning, in a sense, as the grounding of being itself. “There is no cause for God’s existence outside himself.”[14] This is a very popular view, being supported by numerous scholars, both ancient and modern.[15] The problem with this view, from a Hebrew exegesis perspective, is that it assumes the particle here should be translated as “because,” and, in addition to this, the imperfect verb should be thoroughly read as a present perfect; that is, the “I will be” (imperfect) should be translated, with certainty, as “I am” (present perfect).[16]

The third interpretation I shall call “the covenantal-loyalty explanation.” In this view, one that seems to be favored by Cassuto, YHWH, by stating the “I am who I am,” means to relate to Moses that he is a god who is. He is one who is actively present in the life of his people. Prior to Exodus 3:14, this god tells Moses: “…For I will be with you [עִמָּ֔ךְ כִּֽי־אֶֽהְיֶ֣ה]” (v.12, my trans.). He is a god who is loyal to a people he calls his own. (Later on, he will tell Moses that he is the god of his ancestors [3:15].) Interpreting this passage, Cassuto writes, regarding what Moses would say to the people, “He Himself sent me to you; although we forgot his name, He did not forget us. He remembered His covenant with our ancestors, and has sent me to you to fulfill His covenant.”[17] In support of this view is Mowinckel’s assertion that “[t]o the Hebrew ‘to be’ does not just mean to exist—as all other beings and things do exist as well—but to be active, to express oneself in active being…”[18] Noth, likewise, writes, “הָיָה [“to be”] does not express pure being but active being.”[19]

After YHWH’s first answer—“I will be who I will be” or “I am who I am”—he further tells Moses that he is simply the “I am.” In this case, the verb seems to be functioning entirely as a title. But YHWH does not stop there. He then introduces another name for himself, providing a third reply: “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘The Lord [יְהוָ֞ה], the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you.’” In the third reply, God has now used yet another verb from the root הָיָה [hyh, “to be”], namely, יְהוָ֞ה [yhwh, “he is”].[20] The difference between the two words being that of person: the first being in first-person, the second being in third-person. Perhaps when God speaks of himself, he refers to himself in the first-person ehyeh; however, when others refer to God, and speak of him, he is referred to in the third-person yhwh. In any case, God is a god linked to the verb for “to be.” Having looked at various interpretations of “the answer” to Moses’ question, I now want to turn my attention to the Exodus narrative as a whole, looking to see which of these various interpretations make sense of the most data.

At the beginning of the book of Exodus, the narrator presents us with a strange picture. Calling to mind the first command given by God in Genesis 1:28—“be fruitful and multiply”—the book displays before our eyes a people who, indeed, had been fruitful (Ex. 1:7, 9). But in their fruitfulness, the people also made enemies: the Pharaoh felt threatened precisely because of it (1:9). The fruitfulness was either a blessing or a curse; it was either responsible for the growth of the nation, or it was the very curse that reduced them to their slavery. However, what appears evident is that God was intimately involved with his people in their struggle to survive tyranny. The midwives, the narrator tells us, “feared the God” (1:17, my trans.). In addition to this, the narrator makes us cognizant of God’s [elohim, אֱלֹהִ֔ים] early involvement in the Israelites’ reproductive efforts. “God was kind to the midwives and the people increased and became even more numerous” (1:20 NIV).

The tale suggests that, already, God was present with his people. We are not told whether the Israelites knew God as the “I am” or as the “He is”; what we do know is that God—in the generic sense conveyed by אֱלֹהִ֔ים—was with the Israelites. In addition to this, we are reminded right at the end chapter two, “God heard their groaning and he remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac and with Jacob” (2:24 NIV). God, then, was both present and covenantal, both faithful and loyal.

Moses, having run away from Pharaoh’s court, and having settled into a nomadic lifestyle in a place called Midian on the Arabian peninsula, is confronted, years later, by a relatively commonplace scene in such desert regions: a burning bush. The not-so-commonplace sight was the fact that the bush didn’t just burn; it refused to be consumed (3:3). Midrash Rabba offers an intriguing commentary on this passage:

“Why did God show Moses such a symbol? Because he (Moses) had thought to himself that the Egyptians might consume Israel; hence did God show him a fire, which burnt but did not consume, saying to him, “Just as the thorn-bush is burning and is not consumed, so the Egyptians will not be able to destroy Israel.”[21]

Again, the covenantal-loyalty of YHWH is exuded here. If this is the message YHWH was trying to convey to Moses, then he was certainly trying to tell him that he, their God, his people’s God, was faithfully looking after them. Though they may be in the process of being burned by fire, they shall not be consumed—for YHWH remembers his covenants.

Just moments prior to giving Moses “the answer” to his question—namely, what is God’s name?—YHWH[22] said: “I will be with you. And this will be the sign to you that it is I who have sent you: When you have brought the people out of Egypt, you will worship God on this mountain” (3:12 NIV). The promise is already there. First, YHWH says, “I will be with you.” He is the god of covenantal loyalty. Second, YHWH says what will happen with Israel: “you will worship God on this mountain.” He is the god of the future.

It is in this biblical, canonical context in which Moses first hears God’s reply (or “replies,” if you will). Who is God? and What is his name? Instead of seeing the various interpretations as mostly in conflict with each other, I think a syncretic approach works rather well in the interpretation of this passage. Why shouldn’t a first-person verb such as ehyeh convey (a) an “unknowable name”; (b) the grounding of being; and (c) covenantal loyalty? All of these interpretations have come from engagement with the verb in the middle of it all: hyh [“to be”]. What does it mean for something “to be”? What does it mean for God to say that he is (or was, or will be) this “to be”? In a way, then, I see all of these as tentatively valid interpretations. They all have been borne out of an authentic wrestling with the biblical text at hand.

Therefore, on that fateful day on Sinai, it seems likely to me that Moses was given an answer that involved complexity and nuance. A generic name for a god was not thrown out, but neither was no name given. Instead, what Moses discovered was, perhaps, that he was dealing with a God who didn’t like labels, a God who “fear[ed] the magical use of His Name…”[23] Later on in Exodus 33:19, this very same God would remark, “I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy.”[24] The enigma is being perpetrated even here. Who will receive God’s mercy? The answer is not to be found in the answer given. The human subject remains at a kind of distance; he or she is never directly manipulating God’s behavior. Answers qua answers are not given; instead, YHWH speaks in cryptic terms. Maybe if the human subject could know God’s actions, could know whom God would show mercy, maybe then could the human exercise some control over this God.

If the name had to do with some other verb, could humans make sense of this deity then? Maybe if God was not a “to be” but a “to love,” maybe then would he be predictable.[25] But, as it is, no such verb was given. What was given was a verb scholar and layman alike continue to struggle with. In Exodus 3:14, we had come face-to-face with a passage one scholar has called “one of the unsolved difficulties for both translators and exegetes.”[26] Like the ancients of old who sought out names so that they might magically abracadabra various gods into existence, we, too, demand accurate knowledge. Like Moses, being presented with an answer he could not cope with, we meander around the ashes of a burnt out bush, hoping to find “the answer.” And what is our question? “What is the name of God?” In the commentaries and in the academic journals we went looking—only to return with a plethora of so-called “answers.” Under every rock we’ve looked only to come up empty-handed. Somewhere, buried in a long-forgotten commentary written by some nomad, another answer awaits to be discovered. And the names of God continue to puzzle and perplex us today as much as ever, evading us like elusive fireflies burning now and disappearing later. In every scholar, in every reader of the Bible, there lurks a Moses asking an age-old question: “What is his name?”


Written by: Moses Y. Mikheyev



Albrektson, Bertil. “On the Syntax of אֶֽהְיֶ֖ה אֲשֶׁ֣ר אֶֽהְיֶ֑ה in Exodus 3:14.” Text, Translation, Theology: Selected Essays on the Hebrew Bible. Burlington: Ashgate, 2010.

Cassuto, Umberto. A Commentary on the Book of Exodus. Translated by Israel Abrahams. Jerusalem: The Magnes Press, 1967.

Gianotti, Charles R. “The Meaning of the Divine Name YHWH.” Bibliotheca Sacra 142, no. 565 (January 1985): 38-51.

Gordis, Robert. “The Knowledge of Good and Evil in the Old Testament and the Qumran Scrolls.” Journal of Biblical Literature 76 (1957).

Hyatt, J. Philip. Commentary on Exodus. New Century Bible. London: Oliphants, 1971.

Janzen, Gerald J. “And the Bush Was Not Consumed.” Jewish Biblical Quarterly 31, no. 4 (October 2003): 219-225.

Noth, Martin. Exodus: A Commentary. Translated by J. S. Bowden. London: W. & J. Mackay & Co. Ltd., 1962.

Reisel, M. The Mysterious Name of Y.H.W.H. Studia Semitica Neerlandica. Netherlands: Royal VanGorcum Ltd., 1957.


[1] M. Reisel, The Mysterious Name of Y.H.W.H., Studia Semitica Neerlandica (Netherlands: Royal VanGorcum Ltd., 1957), 1. “[I]n the view of primitive man forces are active in Nature that can be influenced and controlled by magical means, such as rites of protection or propitiation, by worship, as also by the giving or avoiding of certain names” (italics original).

[2] Umberto Cassuto, A Commentary on the Book of Exodus, trans. Israel Abrahams (Jerusalem: The Magnes Press, 1967), 37.

[3] Genesis 2:20.

[4] Robert Gordis, “The Knowledge of Good and Evil in the Old Testament and the Qumran Scrolls,” in Journal of Biblical Literature 76 (1957), 125.

[5] Ibid.

[6] J. Philip Hyatt, Commentary on Exodus, New Century Bible (London: Oliphants, 1971), 75. “To pronounce the name of a deity meant to call upon his power.”

[7] Ibid.

[8] Such is the view of M. Reisel, The Mysterious Name of Y.H.W.H., 5. “To this single question he surprisingly receives as many as three answers…”

[9] Noth does this (cf. Martin Noth, Exodus: A Commentary, trans. J. S. Bowden [London: W. & J. Mackay & Co. Ltd., 1962], 42) as does Hyatt (cf. Commentary on Exodus, 75-8). For a list of scholars who advocate some source theory derived from the different names of god in the Hebrew Bible, I refer my readers to the numerous commentaries available. It is not the purpose of this paper to engage with various source theories robustly, as I am more interested in dealing with the interpretation of Exodus as the text currently stands, warts and all.

[10] I will refer to “the god” throughout the text as YHWH from this point forward. While it may cause some difficulties to my readers—perhaps various sources meant different gods when they mentioned either YHWH or elohim? and I have, as it were, caused some confusion by collapsing the alleged “distinction”—it would have been relatively strange, aesthetically speaking, for me to continue to refer to god as “the god” for the remainder of the paper.

[11] Hyatt, Commentary on Exodus, 76-7. “In this construction the speaker (or writer) is intentionally indefinite , because he is either unwilling or unable to be definite and precise.” For examples of other such constructions in Exodus, see 4:13; 16:23; and 33:19.

[12] Cited in Charles R. Gianotti, “The Meaning of the Divine Name YHWH,” in Bibliotheca Sacra 142, no. 565 (January 1985), 41.

[13] Hyatt, Commentary on Exodus, 75.

[14] Ibid., 76.

[15] See Gianotti, “The Meaning of the Divine Name YHWH,” 41.

[16] Ibid., 42-3.

[17] Cassuto, A Commentary on the Book of Exodus, 39.

[18] Cited in Gianotti, “The Meaning of the Divine Name YHWH,” 42.

[19] Noth, Exodus: A Commentary, 45.

[20] This verb is translated here as the Qal verbal stem third-person imperfect masculine singular.

[21] Cited in Gerald J. Janzen, “And the Bush Was Not Consumed,” in Jewish Biblical Quarterly 31, no. 4 (October 2003), 225.

[22] Technically the word here is elohim.

[23] Reisel, The Mysterious Name of Y.H.W.H, 11. Italics original.

[24] NIV.

[25] Interestingly enough, S. D. Goitein makes the argument that the Hebrew root hyh is related to the Arabic “hawiya” which means “to love.” He then interprets Exodus 3:14 as saying, “I shall (passionately) love whom I love” (see Reisel, The Mysterious Name of Y.H.W.H., 17).

[26] These are the words of W. A. Irwin cited in Bertil Albrektson, “On the Syntax of אֶֽהְיֶ֖ה אֲשֶׁ֣ר אֶֽהְיֶ֑ה in Exodus 3:14,” in Text, Translation, Theology: Selected Essays on the Hebrew Bible (Burlington: Ashgate, 2010), 41.

A History of Virginity: Purity Culture’s Ideals, Feminist Critiques, and a Philosophy of History; Or, How in the Hell Did We Go From Virginity to Hymens to Purity Balls?


It’s a Saturday night somewhere. A warm summer breeze caresses a chiseled male jaw. The middle-aged man with grey streaks splattered in rusty patches on his head walks hand-in-hand with a younger lady. In fact, she’s drop dead gorgeous, dressed to kill, and much younger than he. They make their way to the entrance. It’s a late night and they’re going to a party. No, it’s more like a fancy-pants dance. The speakers are undoubtedly playing Taylor Swift’s “Love Story.” And, to be sure, this is about love: it’s about true love. Banners above the entrance read, like those awful planes-in-the-sky carrying messages, the following: True Love Waits. They enter the building, grab some drinks, and begin dancing. They are dancing away in celebration of the young lady. She’s doing something special: she’s keeping her virginity. And the man dancing away with her is her father. How sensible and how sweet.

Such dances are real. They happen in small towns and big towns just like yours. The evangelical Christians like to call them “purity balls.” It’s like the whole Cinderella story except it goes like this: “Once upon a time there lived an intact hymen. And Cinderella promised to keep it intact. And so one night…” But, of course, nobody really begins the fairytale of Cinderella like that. Instead, we use cute, sanitized words like “purity” and “virginity.”

While such balls may actually be fun—and maybe a little creepy?—they are intimately connected to their culture. The concept of virginity has a history; it has a past, a present, and, almost certainly, a future. It’s a living tradition. Purity culture, an outshoot of the conservative Christian evangelical movement, has some rather black-and-white lines drawn when it comes to defining virginity. In other words, they seem to know virginity’s history and its relationship to the present moment. On the other hand, you also have the feminists criticizing this purity culture stuff. Feminists such as Jessica Valenti have a lot of troubling words to say when it comes to the concept of virginity. To be sure, they’ve even written entire books on the subject. And—oh boy!—believe it or not, does virginity have a past! It’s as creepy as Frankenstein’s bastard child; as beautiful as the Mona Lisa; and is as raw-fully detailed as Andreas Vesalius’ De humani corporis fabrica, an early textbook on human anatomy.

In this paper, I will trace ancient and modern perceptions of virginity. I will then examine how both purity culture and feminism view the concept of virginity, especially paying close attention to the way history intersects with modern culture, and how such a coalescence may have helped each of them shape their unique views on the subject of virginity. I will then examine virginity’s history, as it is treated by purity culture and feminism, from Paul Ricoeur’s philosophy of history.

One of the earliest texts that we have specifically dealing with virginity comes from none other than the good old Bible. In Deuteronomy 22:28-29, we encounter the following passage:

“If a man meets a virgin who is not engaged, and seizes her and lies with her, and they are caught in the act, the man who lay with her shall give fifty shekels of silver to the young woman’s father, and she shall become his wife. Because he violated her he shall not be permitted to divorce her as long as he lives.”[1]

A virgin, once de-virginized by a male is told to immediately marry her rapist. This passage makes perfect sense in an age where birth control and abortion did not exist. The virgin may have gotten pregnant from the rape, gave birth to a child, and would have needed support raising the child. And so, as punishment for the crime, and as a way to serve the rape victim some justice, the Bible prescribes marriage certificates when a female victim is diagnosed with rape. And, as far as we know, this sort of legislation may have prevented males from raping virgins. If you rape her, you marry her. And, as if to settle the case in eternity, the male is not allowed to ever divorce his rape-victim-turned-wife. In other words, here’s to a once-upon-a-time Cinderella story told in epic biblical proportions. Cheers.

The Bible doesn’t stop there. Apparently, the ancients even knew how to verify that a human being—specifically a female—were a virgin. Enter the “magic bed sheet.”

“Suppose a man marries a woman, but after going in to her, he dislikes her and makes up charges against her, slandering her by saying, “I married this woman; but when I lay with her, I did not find evidence of her virginity.” The father of the young woman and her mother shall then submit the evidence of the young woman’s virginity to the elders of the city at the gate” (Deut. 22:13-15 NRSV).

The “evidence” that the parents of the bride would submit would be, it is theorized, the bed sheets from the wedding night.[2] Blood and the loss of virginity apparently go hand-in-hand, according to ancient Jewish customs. However you look at it, the ancient Jews were certainly concerned with the concept of virginity. It was a very important subject, hence it being mentioned in the Bible. The concept of virginity, at least as it stands in Deuteronomy, is not necessarily about notions of purity or morality. It is, rather, about property and economics. The commandments concerning female virginity “see[k] to protect the honor of the father and make the seduction or slander of an Israelite virgin an expensive proposition.”[3] To lose one’s virginity in ancient Israel was to lose one’s socioeconomic standing. Males sought female brides who were virgin. And if you weren’t a virgin daughter, you were an expensive long-term inhabitant of your father’s household. You were not marriage material by any means.

The New Testament, likewise, has some things to say about virginity. One well-known story is the tale of the Virgin Birth. Apparently, being a virgin—and giving birth—resulted in the birth of a god (or demi-god). While the New Testament itself doesn’t describe in detail Mary’s virginity, an apocryphal text that was extremely popular in the second-century, the Protoevangelium Jacobi, does. Bart D. Ehrman, a famous biblical scholar, summarizes the text’s tale:

The midwife is astonished at the miracle and goes off to another midwife, named Salome, that a virgin has given birth. Salome, however, is doubtful and indicates that she won’t believe until she herself gives Mary a postpartum inspection to see for herself. Really. They come to the cave, and the first midwife tells Mary, “Brace yourself.” Salome performs an internal inspection and becomes an instant believer. Mary has not only conceived as a virgin, she has given birth as a virgin: her hymen is still intact.[4]

For various reasons, virginity is seen as something good. To have it even after giving birth is a supernatural event. And, this should be noted, apparently there was an objective referent one could resort to when seeking out whether a woman was virgin or not. (Ehrman thinks this was the hymen, but, as the research shows, we cannot be too sure.) I will later show how even the prized hymen, so well known in today’s culture, was not discovered until the sixteenth century!

In ancient Greece, virginity was prized likewise. One Athenian archon gave his daughter to a “hunger-crazed horse” for nourishment after discovering that she had been de-virginized by some male.[5] In fact, the social custom under Solon was that a father, upon discovering that his daughter lost her virginity, would immediately disown her. “It was the single circumstance in all of Solon’s legal code in which a freeborn Athenian could be forced into slavery.”[6]

Why this obsession with virginity? Why did the ancient Romans, for example, have the Vestal Virgins? Why did Christianity produce an enormous amount of celibate monks, who lived in the desert, battled lustful thoughts and maintained their virginity? Why did the second-century theologian, Origen, castrate himself? Was sex really that bad? While the focus of this paper is not Origin’s psychological status in regards to his perpetual virginity caused by self-castration, this paper is interested in examining how, from a historical perspective, virginity was defined, tested for, and discussed. To that I now turn.

Virginity in females did not always have a relationship with the hymen. In fact, in the past, a good portion of the population believed that virginity had something to do with a tight vaginal canal engulfed by arteries and capillaries. One trailblazer seeking evidence for the hymen concluded that it was a mythical thing, something akin to Ponce de León’s fountain of youth.

In som virgins or maidens in the orifice of the neck of the womb there is found a certain tunicle or membrane called of antient writers Hymen…But I could never find it in anie, seeking of all ages from three to twelv, of all that I had under my hands in the Hospital of Paris.[7]

Those were the words of Ambroise Paré, a French surgeon and anatomist. Apparently, even the professional medical doctors of the day had trouble finding the elusive hymen. The word hymen comes to us from the Greek. It was used by Aristotle to mean “membrane.” “The thick membrane around the brain that we call the dura was one such hymen. The mesentery, which anchors all of our intestines in place inside the abdominal cavity, was another. So too with the sac around the heart we call the pericardium…Hymens, hymens everywhere.”[8] In other words, “hymen” was, in the ancient days, a catchall term for “membrane.” So, if you ever run across it in the ancient literature, it may—or may not—refer to what we now call the hymen.

The first time in the historical literature that we find the use of the word hymen in the sense that we use it occurs in Michael Savonarola’s Practica maior (writing sometime in the 1400s). For Savonarola, “the cervix is covered by a subtle membrane called the hymen, which is broken at the time of deflowering, so that the blood flows.”[9] After Savonarola, the word appeared in the English dictionary produced by Thomas Elyot. He defined it as “a skinne in the secrete place of a maiden, which whanne she is defloured is broken.”[10]

Prior to the discovery of the hymen, some ancient anatomists thought that the blood that sometimes resulted from first-time sex came from the vaginal canal itself. The earliest text describing this comes from third-century Rome, Soranus’s Gynecology.

In virgins the vagina is depressed and narrower, because it contains ridges that are held down by vessels originating in the uterus; when defloration occurs, these ridges unfold, causing pain; they burst, resulting in the excretion of blood that ordinarily flows. In fact, the belief that a thin membrane grows in the middle of the vagina and that it is this membrane that tears in defloration or when menstruation comes on too quickly, and that this membrane, by persisting and becoming thicker, causes the malady known as “imperforation,” is an error.[11]

And there you have it: no such thing as a hymen. But, of course, in retrospect Soranus was wrong. Dead wrong. In 1543, Vesalius finally found empirical proof of the hymen. He dissected a couple of stolen bodies and found it. It was right there in front of him in all its membrane glory.

History has a strange way of interacting with us. On the one hand, we clearly want objectivity when discussing it. On the other, it seems that all too often we simply see what we want to see. For example, purity culture believes in the existence of the hymen because it exists (a) today and (b) existed in the past. The Bible, along with the ancients, apparently knew about the hymen and its relation to virginity, so the thinking goes. But then, as you examine history, and dig through the historical texts, the truth may not be so simple. We now know that not everyone believed in the hymen. In fact, when reading the Bible, and its discussing proofs of virginity, even the Rabbis weren’t so sure that all virgins bled on that fateful wedding day. This is why the Talmud contains debates regarding this matter precisely.[12] They, too, were not sure testing for virginity in females was that simple, that black-and-white.

In the fourth-century, the church father Augustine of Hippo was faced with a particular dilemma. He believed that virginity was physical. It probably had something to do with hymens or capillaries in vaginal canals. But a historical situation—in his day, it was a modern one—caused him to rethink his notions of virginity. Christian virgins were being raped. Were they still virgins even though they were raped, and clearly did not consent? Augustine thought so. The reasoning went that if you resisted with your heart and soul, you did not lose your virginity. For Augustine, virginity was an attribute of the soul—it wasn’t merely physical.[13]

Purity culture has its own particular way of engaging with the concept of virginity. For the mostly evangelical Christian population, virginity is pretty much a female thing. Girls must have an intact hymen on their wedding day. Males, on the other hand, have no such “physical” requirements. They simply must not engage their penis in vaginal sexual intercourse. That seems to be the broad, working definition. For males, there’s no physical proof that they are “virgins.” Women, on the other hand, it is thought, have such proof. In fact, there are even theological arguments made discussing God’s design of the hymen and its theological functions. Dannah Gresh, author of And the Bride Wore White: Seven Secrets to Sexual Purity, writes, “You see, God created you and me with a protective membrane, the hymen, which in most cases is broken the first time that we have intercourse…When it breaks, a woman’s blood spills over her husband. Your sexual union is a blood covenant between you, your husband, and God.”[14] No commentary is needed here; God has spoken: your hymen serves as the crux of a blood covenant.

Gresh may be an unheard-of author, but Joshua Harris is not. It is he, after all, who wrote the best-selling, controversial book I Kissed Dating Goodbye; he, too, places big emphasis on virginity and first-time sex. He begins his book with the following “dream”:

It was finally here—Anna’s wedding day, the day she had dreamed about and planned for months. The small, picturesque church was crowded with friends and family…But as the minister began to lead Anna and David through their vows, the unthinkable happened. A girl stood up in the middle of the congregation, walked quietly to the altar, and took David’s other hand. Another girl approached him and stood next to the first, followed by another. Soon, a chain of six girls stood by him as he repeated his vows to Anna. Anna felt her lip quiver as tears welled up in her eyes.

“Is this some kind of joke?” she whispered to David.

“I’m…I’m sorry, Anna,” he said, staring at the floor… “They’re girls from my past… I’ve given part of my heart to each of them.”

“I thought your hear was mine?” she said.

“It is, it is,” he pleaded. “Everything that’s left is yours.”[15]

As Harris sees it, the stakes are enormously high. The threshold for having the perfect marriage, the perfect wedding night, is set so high, so far up in heaven, even Stephen Hawking with all of his telescopes is having trouble seeing where it all ends. And if you make a mistake—God forbid!—if you even dare lose your virginity (whatever that means), your future is damned: you have effectively rendered yourself useless. “[E]ven the most innocent form of sexual expression outside of marriage could be dangerous.”[16] With teenagers reading such books, and the stakes so high for women with their hymens, it’s a surprise that a majority of them don’t resort to some kind of prison-like state of complete isolation from the male species in solitary confinement.

This obsession with the hymen in particular leads to strange things. This results in young Christian college girls engaging in all kinds of sex acts—oral sex, anal sex, masturbation, implementation of dildos and vibrators, etc.—while remaining virgin. How? One sex act was missing from my list: vaginal sexual intercourse. As long as vaginal sexual intercourse is not engaged in—and the hymen remains intact—one could, theoretically speaking, consider oneself a “virgin.”

The way purity culture has valued virginity, and its notions of virginity, has also influenced the “science” of virginity. Since males are taught, incorrectly, that females almost always bleed upon their first sexual encounter, the males have assumed blood along with pain are good indicators of virginity. The problem is that a good portion of the population does not bleed and experiences no pain during first time sex. One study found that 63% of women experienced no blood after their first act of vaginal intercourse.[17] This is nothing new. Males have been duped all these years. They have believed in “blood and guts” because they so wanted to find them. Women have been using all kinds of tricks to maintain this illusion of virginity. For example, we have ancient texts instructing women how to bleed on their wedding night in order to make certain that the male believes in their virginity. The ninth-century Persian physician Rhazes recommended inserting the intestines of dove’s into the vaginal canal, along with the warm blood of the animal, to make the vagina tight and, of course, bloody.[18] I was not kidding when I said “blood and guts.” Literally. And even women today get what they come looking for. In one study conducted in Germany on 669 patients coming in for a gynecological exam, they found a direct correlation between anxiety and the experience of increased pain.[19] That is, if a girl is taught from a young age that first time sex is painful and bloody, it may not be bloody, but it will almost certainly be painful. Not in an objective sense, of course, but in a subjective sense. You will experience pain because you have duped yourself into thinking it’ll be painful. Hanne Blank writes, “A woman is also more likely to have a painless experience, as well as a more positive impression of losing her virginity overall, research tells us, if she is not coerced or pressured, feels safe and secure with her partner, and is not worried about being interrupted or discovered during sex.”[20]

Reality alone will not change Gresh’s “blood covenant’s theology of the hymen.” If the data is accurate, a majority of women will not bleed during first time sex. I guess God doesn’t bless their intercourse. (Such may be the theological response.) Oh well. However, this is not the only case in which the concept of virginity, as it has been traditionally understood by purity culture, has been scrutinized. The feminists have also criticized this extensively. It is to the feminist critiques that I now turn.

As in Augustine’s time, so today, a real modern issue forces one to rethink traditional concepts. With the rise of homosexuality and the invention of condoms, all kinds of sex acts are now, well, sex acts. Heterosexuals can engage in anal sex in a safe manner by using condoms and some lubricating jelly. Lesbians can use various phallic-shaped devices, be they dildos or vibrators, and engage in, well, sex acts. Gay men engage in anal sex. Traditional conceptions of virginity—that is, no vaginal sexual intercourse either passively [female] or actively [male] engaged in—have been usually accepted because heterosexuality has been accepted as the norm. Jessica Valenti points out how absurd the traditional conception is: “If it’s just heterosexual intercourse, then we’d have to come to the fairly ridiculous conclusion that all lesbians and gay men are virgins, and that different kinds of intimacy, like oral sex, mean nothing.”[21] But, of course, most of us here would be inclined to consider anal sex to be sexual intercourse. So, yes, a virgin with an intact hymen having anal sex with her boyfriend three times a day is, by the modern definition, not a virgin. Did I make myself clear? Or should I say “not” again?

And it’s not only homosexuality that has challenged traditional conceptions of virginity. With the rise of various sex toys, I think it’s high time we reevaluated what it means to be a virgin. If a male, without prior vaginal sexual intercourse, has sex with a blow up doll, isn’t he no longer a “virgin”? On the flip side, what if a “virgin” female with her hymen intact “loses” her “hymen intact-ness” to a dildo, is she still a virgin? (She did, according to the traditional conception of virginity, “lose” her intact hymen. But, in a strange way, a penis attached to a male never penetrated her.) Such scenarios make our heads spin. But it all makes sense. This is why Hanne Blank’s modern definition of “virginity” is so vague and broad. She defines it as “a human sexual status that is characterized by a lack of any current or prior sexual interaction with others.”[22] According to her, losing your virginity occurs when some kind of sex act—whether vaginal, oral, or otherwise—takes places between two (whether gay or straight) individuals. The requirements, then, for being a virgin are: (a) no sexual activity with (b) another human being. (Sexual activities, such as masturbation and/or the use of a dildo in a private setting, do not constitute a loss of virginity.)

The rise of homosexuality, various forms of birth control, and sex toys have not been the only thing that have forced moderns to reevaluate what they mean by “virgin.” Another fact has come to light: all hymens are not created equally. If the traditional conception is to be maintained in the modern era—which I don’t think it can be—it must address the problem the objective science presents us with. Hymens, we now know, are not all the same. They come in various shapes and sizes. Some women, for example, are born with imperforate hymens: that is, hymens that cover the entire vaginal opening. This presents menstruating women with a difficulty, so, naturally, the surgeons have to incise the hymen.[23] “Hymenal tissue itself appears in a number of forms. It might be fragile and barely there, or resilient and rubbery.”[24] Some hymens disintegrate on their own; others are “so resilient that they endure years of sexual intercourse quite handily…”[25] As far as hymenology goes, I think it is safe to conclude that it is unscientific and irrational to make an intact hymen bear the crux of “proof” when it, by no means, can do so. The hymen is not as “universal” as the ancients may have imagined or as “theological” as purity culture may have believed. It’s a piece of tissue that comes in all kinds of shapes and sizes, and, in an odd way, takes on a life of its own: disintegrating, at times; at other times, remaining intact throughout years of sexual intercourse.

The strangest thing, however, is that even animals have hymens. So, they’re nothing special. Yes, you heard me correctly: “llamas, guinea pigs, bush babies, manatees, moles, toothed whales, chimpanzees, elephants, rats, ruffed lemurs, and seals all have them.”[26] God must have been having nasty thoughts the moment He decided that a female rat needed to seal her “marriage” to another rat with a “blood covenant.” Strange gods, those guys.[27]

We have seen how conceptions of virginity were construed in the past, and how such historical conceptions were employed by purity culture only to be criticized by feminism. In both purity culture and feminism, traditional conceptions of virginity—as found in ancient texts, for example—guided the modern discussions. One question we have not addressed yet is the question of how we as people read and understand history. How is it that the history of virginity could be, in some ways, shaped by our own prejudices? How is it, for example, that we perpetrate the myth of “blood and guts” in association with first-time sex? Paul Ricoeur, a philosopher, has some interesting things to tell us.

For Ricoeur, all history is, essentially, an act of living interpretation. In the modern era, prior to Immanuel Kant, people generally believed in an objective world that was “out there,” one which they had access to. They were relatively certain in our ability to grasp the objective. After Kant, a shift occurred: people began recognizing their subjectivity. The mind was limited by its very nature. The world “out there,” the noumenon—that is, the thing-in-itself—was not to be confused with the way we perceived it to be; the perceptions were the phenomena, the thing-as-it-appears-to-us. There lie a vast chasm between the noumenon and the phenomenon. In the modern era, an era in which the philosopher Descartes worked, history was viewed as a collection of objective facts—a collection of noumena—to which we, the people, had access. After Kant dropped his atomic bomb in philosophy, and having initiated civilization into the post-modern era, historians began to recognize how un-objective the historical enterprise itself was. Ricoeur welcomed this more balanced-yet-critical approach towards history. For Ricoeur, a good method was one in which “[a] deep distrust for any simple reductive explanation of man or culture remains constant.”[28] The historical data should not just be seen as objective; no, humans who have subjectivities are engaging the historical data. But the historian must not stop there. Ricoeur believed that we should go even further than Kant: we should not merely criticize objectivity, while emphasizing subjectivity, we should criticize subjectivity too! There are methods and counter-methods, subjects and objects, one must not place greater emphasis on one or the other; instead, Ricoeur argues that they must together remain in dialectic tension, “the dialectic of oppositions.”[29] Out of this tension, Ricoeur was forced to discuss the elephant in the room: language. Language—“words”—are the things we use to write history. Ricoeur became increasingly aware that language should be carefully scrutinized. “The word is my work; the word is my kingdom.”[30] It is only within the sphere of a given language that a historian operates, hence his having called “the word” his “kingdom”—it is the place in which one lives and breathes and does history. Ricoeur takes language to mean a system that incorporates the use of “symbols.” The symbols function as pointers to objective things in reality, myth, etc. Such symbols have multiple meanings, and, hence, can confuse interpreters. And, ultimately, all acts in which the reading and understanding of texts—which use symbols—occurs are inevitably going to end up being interpretations. “I define symbol as: any structure of signification in which a direct, primary, literal meaning designates, in addition, another meaning which is indirect, secondary, and figurative and which can be apprehended only through the first.” Moreover, he goes on to define the process of “interpretation.” “Interpretation, we will say, is the work of thought which consists in deciphering the hidden meaning in the apparent meaning, in unfolding the levels of meaning implied in the literal meaning.”[31]

As one can readily tell, the concept of “virginity” undoubtedly has some grounding in objective fact. There are women who have some form or another of hymenal tissue, which can, at times, be torn during first-time sex. But, as our discussion has revealed—as we have lunged into the issue of history, meta-history, language, and the human experience—we have seen how problematic, how complex the symbol of virginity in our language really is. In fact, it is by no means absurd to conclude that we still have issues with grasping virginity’s “hidden meaning in the apparent meaning.” We are onto something but we cannot seem to grasp it. As Blank remarks in her own work, concluding a chapter on the history of “virginity testing”:

There is no single virginal body, no single virginal experience, no single virginal vagina, not even a single virginal hymen. There is only the question, how doe we know whether this woman is a virgin? The answer has been written innumerable times, with alum and doves’ blood and urine and decoctions of mint and lady’s mantle, with charts and graphs and clinical photography. But no matter how many times someone attempts to inscribe it, no matter how firmly they press the pen to the paper, we are left forever with the same blank page.[32]

In a rather strange turn of events, the history of virginity had become biography. As documented earlier, a woman who believes first-time sex would be painful, experiences pain. A woman who believes she will bleed excessively will, by all means, bleed—probably a little—but she’ll end up exaggerating the event.[33] “Sociologist Sharon Thompson’s research has shown that in telling their virginity-loss stories, some women seem to positively revel in gory (and in some cases clearly exaggerated) details…”[34] The males who expect their “virgin” wives to bleed, end up seeing blood on the wedding night because their new brides plan wedding days when they would be on their menstrual periods.[35] The history of virginity, then, is not really history so much as it is our own biography. We want to see blood, so blood we see. Why? Because we want to see it. And if we don’t see blood, somebody bring me dove’ intestines—or, better yet, make sure coitarche (first-time sex) occurs during a woman’s period! And so the “history” of virginity continues. It continues to write its story in blood and guts. But what were we expecting to find anyhow? Weren’t we all in it for the blood and the guts in the first place? As Ricoeur correctly points out:

The purpose of all interpretation is to conquer a remoteness, a distance between the past cultural epoch to which the text belongs and the interpreter himself. By overcoming this distance, by making himself contemporary with the text, the exegete can appropriate its meaning to himself: foreign, he makes it familiar, that is, he makes it his own. It is thus the growth of his own understanding of himself that he pursues through his understanding of the other. Every hermeneutics is thus, explicitly or implicitly, self-understanding by means of understanding others.[36]

In such a way, we, too, have made the foreign familiar; we, too, have made the gory stories in times past our very own. We, as a people, as those who engage in the task of interpreting history, make the text into something that speaks to us—so long as it speaks to us in a domestic language. We want it all for ourselves.

Objective facts—what happened and how—are less important than communicating symbolic truths. The stories that we tell say less about what was literally experienced than they do about how we felt about the experience, how we wanted to feel about it, and how our culture expects us to feel about it.[37]

From Harris’ I Kissed Dating Goodbye to Valenti’s The Purity Myth, virginity, and its shady history, played a central role. How it was understood in the past—be it in the Bible or in ancient medical texts—shaped and informed the modern discussions. However, as we have seen, the task of understanding history involved engagement with human subjectivities, even as Ricoeur philosophically theorized and as the science now suggests. What was theory in Ricoeur has become a working method in this paper. I hope I have, as Ricoeur suggested, examined the history of virginity while engaging in “the dialectic of oppositions.” Having said that, I do not think that virginity, either as it has been traditionally understood or otherwise, is going to stop engaging us as a culture. Sexuality is here to stay, for better or for worse, and we will continue to read ancient texts, medical texts, and blogs, allowing them to shape how we think about the concept of virginity. For the female, it may remain inextricably linked to her hymen; in males, it will probably remain something abstract, ambiguous and immaterial. Jesus was onto something when he slit the connection between physical adultery and “adultery of the heart.” “But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matt. 5:28 NRSV). Even in the ancient past, a thinker such as Jesus recognized that sexuality was more than just “of hymens and dildos.” There was, perhaps, a spiritual element to the sexual. One could engage in adulterous behavior merely by looking at some woman and imagining a sex act. Jesus—like Augustine after him—must have considered the possibility that sexuality cannot merely be reduced to intact hymens; that virginity—and this is per Augustine—is a characteristic, a virtue even, of the soul. If the ancients could think along ambiguous lines—that is, they were willing to think about more than just the physical—so should we be willing to critically examine our own culturally influenced conceptions of virginity.

Written by Moses Y. Mikheyev

I’m a graduate student at Emory University interested in religion, philosophy, and the philosophy of language. 




Ehrman, Bart D. Jesus Before the Gospels: How the Earliest Christians Remembered, Changed, and Invented Their Stories of the Savior. New York: HarperOne, 2016.

Hanne, Blank. Virgin: The Untouched History. New York: Bloomsbury, 2007.

Harris, Joshua. I Kissed Dating Goodbye. Colorado Springs: Multnomah, 1997.

Ihde, Don. Hermeneutic Phenomenology: The Philosophy of Paul Ricoeur. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1971.

Knust, Jennifer. Unprotected Texts: The Bible’s Surprising Contradictions About Sex and Desire. New York: HarperOne, 2011.

Lundbom, Jack R. Deuteronomy: A Commentary. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2013.

Ricoeur, Paul. “Existence and Hermeneutics,” in The Philosophy of Paul Ricoeur: An Anthology of His Work. Edited by Charles E. Reagan and David Stewart. Boston: Beacon Press, 1978.

Valenti, Jessica. The Purity Myth: How America’s Obsession with Virginity is Hurting Young Women. Berkeley: Seal Press, 2009.


[1] New Revised Standard Version.

[2] Jack R. Lundbom, Deuteronomy: A Commentary (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2013), 633. “Other texts dealing with cases similar to the present one—one Old Babylonian and another from Qumran—report (trustworthy) women being called in to inspect the bride and hopefully to settle the matter. A similar procedure is attested among the Arabs. The whole procedure is admittedly primitive and could easily bring unjust verdicts, since women do not always emit blood on their first intercourse, hymens could have been broken for other reasons, and so on” (Ibid.).

[3] Jennifer Knust, Unprotected Texts: The Bible’s Surprising Contradictions About Sex and Desire (New York: HarperOne, 2011), 62.

[4] Bart D. Ehrman, Jesus Before the Gospels: How the Earliest Christians Remembered, Changed, and Invented Their Stories of the Savior (New York: HarperOne, 2016), 33-4.

[5] Hanne Blank, Virgin: The Untouched History (New York: Bloomsbury, 2007), 124

[6] Ibid.

[7] Quoted in Blank, Virgin, 42.

[8] Ibid., 44.

[9] Ibid., 45.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid., 46.

[12] Ibid., 30.

[13] Ibid., 7-8.

[14] Quoted in Blank, Virgin, 112.

[15] Joshua Harris, I Kissed Dating Goodbye (Colorado Springs: Multnomah, 1997), 13-4. There are so many things wrong with this immature paragraph that I will express what I think, at the very least, in a footnote. Harris was young when he wrote this. And, by all means, it sounds very much like an adolescent writing this, with an inability to see the world outside of hard-drawn black-and-white dichotomizing lines. No, Harris, people don’t give their wives “what’s left.” It is life itself that has created them in the present. Their past is a part of what made them, at any given present moment, who they are. Life is, as Søren Kierkegaard and Heidegger point out, “a becoming.” You never “are” anything. You are always in the process of “becoming.” What the fictional David is giving Anna is who he has become—up until that point. But he won’t remain static. He will continue to grow, develop, share history with others—be they male or female—and continue to “become” something of his choosing. To say that spending time with others is somehow immoral or wrong is idealistic and arrogant. People can’t read the future, neither can we know beforehand whom we are going to marry. In a perfect world, hell, I, too, would prefer to spend my youth on my future wife. But in this world—with all of our limitations—spending time with girls that won’t end up with me comes with the territory. I don’t know which world you live in, but on planet earth, people are not omniscient, do not forecast the weather, and—and this point is important—they make mistakes. But only in retrospect. Hindsight. We don’t always know something is a mistake in the present moment. I, for one, have no such crystal ball.

[16] Ibid., 96.

[17] Blank, Virgin, 89.

[18] Ibid., 91.

[19] Ibid., 114.

[20] Ibid., 115.

[21] Jessica Valenti, The Purity Myth: How America’s Obsession with Virginity is Hurting Young Women (Berkeley: Seal Press, 2009), 20.

[22] Blank, Virgin, 6.

[23] The traditional conception of virginity as being directly related to the status of the hymen must, I assume, have problems with a surgeon “taking” a patient’s virginity.

[24] Blank, Virgin, 37.

[25] Ibid., 40.

[26] Ibid., 23.

[27] I’m rolling my eyes so much typing this; they are beginning to feel like bowling balls.

[28] Paul Ricoeur, “Existence and Hermeneutics,” in The Philosophy of Paul Ricoeur: An Anthology of His Work, eds. Charles E. Reagan and David Stewart (Boston: Beacon Press, 1978), 98.

[29] Don Ihde, Hermeneutic Phenomenology: The Philosophy of Paul Ricoeur (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1971), 16.

[30] Cited in Ihde, Hermeneutic Phenomenology, 24.

[31] Ricoeur, “Existence and Hermeneutics,” 98. Italics original.

[32] Blank, Virgin, 95.

[33] Believe it or not, but there have been studies done on this too. And women make up “blood and guts” tales about their wedding nights all the time. See Blank, Virgin, pp. 111-3.

[34] Blank, Virgin, 111-2.

[35] Ibid., 91.

[36] Ricoeur, “Existence and Hermeneutics,” 101.

[37] Blank, Virgin, 103.

Crime and Punishment in the Garden of Eden: The Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, Sexual Consciousness, Unnatural Sex Acts, and the Primeval Couple in Genesis 3:4-7

For years readers of Genesis have been drawn to the stories found about the primeval couple in the mythical Garden of Eden. From the beginning of the narrative arch to its climactic ending, the story appears to be a self-contained unit. The beginning is marked by God’s divine command to ’adam in 2:16-17, in which YHWH commands: “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.”[1] The middle of the narrative is the tension-filled discourse involving a snake, Eve, and Adam (3:1-7). A conflict scene in which YHWH confronts the primeval couple regarding their disobedience then follows (3:8-13). The climactic conclusion is the punishment meted out by YHWH. It is, then, when read in its final, canonical form[2], a story of “crime and punishment.”[3] What is the primeval couple’s crime? In this paper, I will primarily focus my attention on Genesis 3:4-7, in particular I will be analyzing various interpretations of the phrase “the tree of knowledge of good and evil,” which occurs as the official name of the tree in 2:9. What does it mean? In lay circles, it has come to mean that the primeval couple gained moral consciousness by eating of the tree’s fruit. Other scholars have argued that the “knowledge” had more to do with “mastery of one’s existence.”[4] I find all such interpretations to be unconvincing. Therefore, in this paper I will argue that the tree of knowledge of good and evil had to do with sexual consciousness. Moreover, I will argue that the punishment in this tale of “crime and punishment” has to do with the crime of “unnatural sex acts.” I believe that such an interpretation, while it may not convince everyone, explains virtually all of the data, making sense in the biblical context and its Ancient Near Eastern context.

Traditionally, especially for those of us who have graduated Sunday School, the story about Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil had to do with their freely made decision of choosing their own way over God’s way; the couple chose to disobey God to discover some separate way of “knowing.” In other words, Adam and Eve wanted to abide by their own rules; and, so, as a consequence of eating of this tree’s fruit, they were awakened to moral consciousness. Leon R. Kass interprets the narrative in this way. He writes, “For a human being, as for any human child, the possibility of choosing for oneself lies always within reach. To be a human being means that judgments of good and bad are always in one’s mental garden…”[5] In other words, for Kass, the story has to do with Adam and Eve’s obtainment of moral consciousness.[6] For Kass, the knowledge of “good and evil” should be taken to mean—as the Hebrew phrase וָרָע טוֹב actually suggests—knowledge of “good and bad.” “Bad,” in this case, includes things like pain, sickness, and disorder.[7] In other words, to bite of the tree is to voluntarily begin participating in the experience of “bad things,” such as cancer, earthquakes, and heartbreaks. But does this make any sense, even in the context of Genesis? I don’t think so. For example, the text states that prior to Eve’s biting of the fruit, she already perceived the tree to be “good [טוֹב] for food,” a “delight to the eyes,” and “to be desired to make one wise” (3:6). How could she know that the tree was “good” prior to obtaining Kass’ moral consciousness? Kass, in an ingenious move, writes, “[T]o reach for the forbidden fruit is already to have tasted it.”[8] In other words, Eve, by reaching for the fruit, already tasted of it, and somehow—and this remains unexplained—was able to make judgments on her own prior to reaching for it. Ultimately, in the tale, the primeval couple proves that “a free choice is not necessarily a good choice, not even for oneself.”[9] This means the point of the tale was to demonstrate to its readers that—sometimes?—it is better to listen to God’s divine imperatives, to live by His commands, rather than make autonomous choices.

Does Kass’ interpretation make sense in the biblical context? It does not. The curse that later follows the crime on its heels has to do with a woman’s childbearing experience. And, as most of us know, sex precedes childbirth. The crime, as my paper will later show, has to do with sexual deviance. However, I have spoken too soon. Next, we will look at another unconvincing interpretation: the tree of the knowledge of good and evil as “mastery of one’s existence.”

Claus Westermann argues that the entirety of the final narrative contained in Genesis 2-3 is “a story of the breaking of a law and punishment.”[10] God commands the prohibition (i.e., “do not eat…”) directly to the ’adam. The couple[11] does not listen, breaking God’s command. The story is a “direct confrontation between humans and God” in which “God himself discovers the transgression, conducts the trial and pronounces judgment.”[12] In the narrative, according to Westermann, the primeval couple attempts to eat of the tree because it represents “knowledge (or wisdom) in the general, comprehensive sense.”[13] Following a thesis proposed by J. Pedersen, and citing it, Westermann believes the reason that God felt threatened by the couple’s eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil had to do with “the god’s zealous maintenance of their absolute superiority.”[14] In eating of the fruit, the couple chose their “craving for more.”[15] In Westermann’s words, it is this that “leads to conflict with God or the gods.”[16] “Human beings are created in such a way that they are capable of advancing their life and of advancing their knowledge… There is a difference between these two human aspirations. To aspire after life comes in conflict with the inexorable barrier of death; to strive for wisdom or knowledge meets no such barrier.”[17] All of this leads to what Westermann believes the author of Genesis is particularly ascribing to the primeval couple: a desire “to be like God” (3:5). Comparing this text with Job 15:7-8, Ezekiel 28:11-19, and Sirach 49:16, Westermann articulates the view that the primordial myths all reveal a primeval person (or persons) “grasping after wisdom to which the creature has no right.”[18] Once the primeval couple disobeyed YHWH, they were punished. The punishment of the woman is of particular importance. She is “cursed” with increased birth pains. Why? Westermann, being unfriendly to the “sexual consciousness interpretation” of this text, remains utterly silent; he does not even address the “why.” Instead, he writes, “[J]ust where the woman finds her fulfillment in life, her honor and her joy, namely in her relationship to her husband and as mother of her children, there too she finds that it is not pure bliss, but pain, burden, humiliation and subordination.”[19] The punishment is harsh. (And Adam, along with the snake, is likewise punished.) Westermann cannot explain why this curse and not another on the woman. He cannot explain it[20]—and does not bother to—because his interpretation is wrong: the text is dealing with sexual consciousness and unnatural sex acts. It is to this interpretation that I now turn my gaze. But before I examine the biblical evidence in favor of a sexual interpretation, I would like to discuss some of the text’s Ancient Near Eastern “relatives.” Such “relatives” will make us aware of the kind of stories the ancients told about the primeval man…

In the Epic of Gilgamesh, the goddess Aruru creates Enkidu—created as a “double” after the failed creation of the demi-god Gilgamesh, who ended up becoming a tyrant. But Enkidu, too, has problems. He is wild. He runs around naked and lives like a jungle animal. Anu then sends a cult prostitute who seduces him into a night of hot sex. Overnight, after, I assume, several orgasms, he awakens a brand new man: he is now civilized and tame. The animals abandon this new version of Enkidu—“it was not as before; but he now had wisdom, broader understanding.”[21] He returns to the harlot who enticed him. He is now willing to listen to her. She tells him, and I quote, “Thou art wise, Enkidu, art become like a god!…”[22] In this tale, which definitely has parallels with our Genesis text, the “wisdom” that Enkidu obtains is gained by sexual intercourse with a woman. The woman makes a man who he is. It is she who makes a man civilized, for lack of a better word, by means of pussification. Like the “Harlot of Gilgamesh,” Eve, too, forces Adam to bite of the fruit; she is the one who initiates him into sexual consciousness. Adam, like Enkidu, listens to her voice. In the final scene, much like Adam’s placement of the burden of guilt upon Eve in 3:12, Enkidu, too, blames the harlot. Enkidu becomes aware that sexual consciousness, having made him (a) awakened to life and (b) aware of death, is very much a blessing and a curse. And, so, he curses the woman; he curses the harlot. “Such motifs as sexual awareness, wisdom, and nature’s paradise are of course familiar from various ancient sources,” writes E.A. Speiser.[23]

In another Ancient Near Eastern text, known as the Adapa Myth, the god of wisdom, Ea, creates a man called Adapa. One day, while fishing, Adapa’s boat capsizes due to the wind. Adapa finds himself drowning. In the process of falling into the sea, Adapa breaks the wind’s wings, stopping it from blowing for seven days. The sky god, Anu, is enraged by this. He calls for Adapa to appear at the divine council. Ea, the creator-god of Adapa, instructs Adapa on how he should behave in the presence of the god Anu. He tells him, moreover, that he should not drink of the cup which Anu may present to him, nor eat of the food, for it is the drink and food of death. (In reality, the drink and food contain the gift of immortality.) In the end, Adapa refuses to drink and eat, and is sent back to earth to toil and live as a mortal.[24] The story is ultimately a story about Adapa being deceived into not obtaining immortality. Much like the Genesis story, in which the additional punishment is forever being forbidden to eat from the “tree of life,” the Adapa myth tells of a primeval event in history where man was tricked out of eternity. While the Adapa myth does not give us anything “sexual,” it does tell us something that does not sit well with Kass and Westermann’s interpretations: the ancients viewed primeval man as being endowed with wisdom from the get-go. In the myth, Adapa is described in the following poetic manner:

Wisdom… His command was indeed… like the command of Ea. Wide understanding he had perfected for him to disclose the designs of the land. To him he had given wisdom; eternal life he had not given him.[25]

Like Enkidu in the Epic of Gilgamesh and Adapa in the Adapa Myth, Adam in the Garden of Eden was endowed with wisdom before eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Here’s the biblical evidence.

In the Garden of Eden, Adam, prior to the eating of the fruit of the tree, gave names to every living creature (2:19-20). Robert Gordis writes, “It is a truism that in ancient thought, including the biblical world-view, knowing the name of any person or object is tantamount to comprehending its nature.”[26] In another biblical text, which appears to be speaking of Adam before The Fall, describes him as being “full of wisdom and perfect in beauty” (Ezekiel 28:12). “Semitic, biblical and post-biblical [sources] are at one in conceiving of primal man as endowed with supreme wisdom and beauty before his misadventure.” Gordis further adds: “The theory that it was the fruit of the ‘tree of knowing good and evil’ that conferred the knowledge of the world and intellectual maturity upon Adam is therefore decisively ruled out.”[27] There go Kass and Westermann: the tree of the knowledge of good and evil does not have to do with either moral consciousness or, in a similar vein, “mastery of one’s existence”; instead, the tree has to do with something entirely different: sexuality.

Right from the beginning, the sexuality of the text was bursting at the seams. The phrase used in Genesis 2:9 to describe the forbidden tree in Hebrew is וָרָֽע טֹ֥וב הַדַּ֖עַת וְעֵ֕ץ [“and the tree of knowledge of good and evil”]. This includes the construct noun, with the definite article, הַדַּ֖עַת [“the knowledge of”]. The verbal form of this word [“to know’] is used in the Hebrew infinitive as a euphemism for “to have sex.” In fact, it’s a euphemism for sex in Arabic, Greek, Akkadian, and Latin.[28] Therefore, when the text states that this is the tree of knowing good and evil, it really is saying that the fruit of this tree cause one to become sexually conscious. But what does the phrase “good and evil” refer to then? The biblical texts suggest that this, too, has to do with sexual matters. The phrase וָרָֽע טֹ֥וב [“good and evil”] “may have originated in the two aspects of sexual experience, the normal (טֹ֥וב) manifestations of the impulse and the abnormal (רע).”[29] In Judges 19, there is the odd story about a Levite, his concubine, and an old man who took them both in. In the biblical episode, the Levite and his concubine are on a journey home, and stop at the town of Gibeah, being taken in by an unnamed man. At nightfall, the townsmen demand that the old man hand over his male guest to the townsmen. They want to rape him, essentially. “In each case, the host replies אַל־תָּרֵ֣עוּ[30] and expresses his willingness to offer up instead a woman to their lust.”[31] The phrase cannot be translated, as many translations do, “Do not act wickedly”—for “violating the chastity of an innocent women is surely an evil.”[32] Therefore, it is better to render the verb for רע [“to do evil”] here as “to act unnaturally.” In this case, the word refers to the abnormal sexual act. The opposite word טֹ֥וב, and its verbal forms, would mean “to act naturally.”

In another biblical passage, no other translation of phrase “good and evil” is possible but the sexual. Second Samuel 19:35 reads:

Today I am eighty years old; can I discern what is pleasant and what is not [וָרָֽע טֹ֥וב]? Can your servant taste what he eats or what he drinks? Can I still listen to the voice of singing men and singing women? Why then should your servant be an added burden to my lord the king?

The phrase translated by the NRSV as “pleasant and what is not” is actually וָרָֽע טֹ֥וב [“good and evil”] in Hebrew. In this passage, King David is lamenting that he can no longer enjoy life. In fact, he is so old, he cannot delight in women and wine, song and dance, and “good and evil.” But in this case, the phrase should probably be a reference to sex. King David didn’t have access to Viagra and, hence, found life to be a bore with all the babes around in the King’s Court. As we have seen, it’s not anywhere near mere conjecture when I say that the phrase “good and evil” has sexual overtones. And, most importantly, it could also mean, in some cases, “natural and unnatural.”

It is neither a stretch of the imagination nor a crime of biblical eisegesis: the fact that Adam and Eve’s, the primeval couple’s, sexual consciousness blossomed after eating the fruit can no longer be denied. Even the snake in the Garden of Eden functions as an object that inspires thoughts of sex. O. Loretz writes, “[T]he serpent in Gen 3 is one of those mythical serpents that represents life and death together. It stands…as a symbol of the Canaanite fertility cult and as such promises life.”[33] In addition to this, some scholars view the snake as “a phallic symbol.”[34]

We are now in a good position to read the pericope this paper is ultimately trying to make sense of. Genesis 3:4-7 reads:

But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate. Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves (NRSV).

We’ve already ploughed most of the ground for a fertile interpretation of this text. We know that the snake represents the phallus. We’ve discussed what “the knowledge of good and evil” means (and the related phrase “knowing good and evil” used here); it means something along the lines of “sexual knowledge of natural and unnatural sex acts.” We’ve also looked forward into the text and saw that the “curse” directed at the woman only makes sense if the crime in the Garden were a sexual one (as sex results in conception and childbirth). At this point in our exegesis, it appears that the primeval couple performed some kind of unnatural sex act that would have upset YHWH. In addition to this sex act, they also disobeyed YHWH by eating of the fruit of that tree. We are left with two more key ideas to explore. The first is the enigmatic phrase “you will be like God”; the second is the realization that they were “naked.” To those two points in the text I will now turn.

What does it mean to “be like God”? If we are correct that this has something to do with sex, the natural reading of the text would suggest the following interpretation: to “be like God” means “to be immortal like God by means of sex, which results in progeny, implies that your name will live longer than your mortal body—and that is immortality.” As Gordis points out, “[P]artaking of the tree of knowledge afforded the eater the vicarious immortality which comes from the procreation of children.”[35]

What does the text try to communicate when it states that immediately after their eyes were opened, they became aware of being naked? It doesn’t require a PhD in sexology to recognize that something lewd is going on here. After being told not to eat of the fruit of that tree, the couple—albeit completely butt naked—eats of the fruit, fruit which conveys sexual knowledge of natural and unnatural forms of intercourse. Immediately, as their eyes open, as this new knowledge grabs a hold of them, they engage in sexual intercourse. In addition to sex, they recognize something about sex: it takes two butt naked people to engage in it. But that recognition that sex and nudity go hand-in-hand leads the couple to recognize that outside of sexual intercourse, they probably shouldn’t be naked. Nudity turned Adam on. It might turn YHWH on too; it did, several chapters later in Genesis 6, make the “sons of God” engage in sexual intercourse with “children of men” after all (v. 4). The couple, now informed that nudity should be saved for the master bedroom, hides from YHWH. And so, the ancient text introduces us to civilization, society, and clothing. In a vein similar to Enkidu, Adam becomes civilized after his rendezvous with Eve. She makes him a better man.

We must now come to the climactic ending, which, in a strange turn of events, occurred after Adam and Eve had already climaxed their way through orgasm.[36] YHWH finds the primeval couple, gives them clothing, curses them, and kicks them out. Scholars think that there were originally multiple sources at work here, and that two stories were mixed to create this one.[37] Originally, the punishment must have simply been either the curses or the expulsion from the Garden; one story, such as the tree of life tale, must have concluded with curses, and the other, such as the tree of knowledge tale, must have concluded with the expulsion. The final product, as it now stands, must be interpreted on its own terms. What we know, despite what the source critics say, is that the text ends with some form of punishment. YHWH punishes the couple for a crime they had committed. Having engaged in some form or another of unnatural and natural sex, the couple posed a threat to YHWH. At the very least, they simply disobeyed orders. But if our interpretation is correct, the couple, by means of progeny, was also able to live vicariously through them. In a sense, they had disobeyed YHWH and had tricked him. By means of children they, too, would live “forever”—whether YHWH liked it or not. Whether he liked their illicit sexual behaviors or not, they would live forever. But why was YHWH concerned with unnatural sex? The dichotomizing themes of pure/impure, natural/unnatural, have a long history in the Old Testament.[38] It was a way for the Jews to keep themselves set-apart and different from the rest of the ancient tribes. Having said that, the crime, however you look at the text, is clearly an act of disobedience. The question is: was it a sexual act? I think, as this paper has tried to show, the answer is probably a “yes.” It’s a tentative yes, not a dogmatic one.

Allow me to summarize my results and the conclusions I have drawn from them. I first looked at two interpretations of this text that I did not agree with, Kass and Westermann’s, respectively. I have revealed that they do not make sense of most of the data in the text. I then proceeded to show that the Ancient Near Eastern myths, which parallel our own text, reveal: (a) the primeval man was full of wisdom from the get-go; and (b) especially in the Epic of Gilgamesh, primeval man was tamed—brought to civilized life—through sex and sexual consciousness. I then proceeded to demonstrate that even the biblical text reveals to us hints of primeval Adam being endowed with wisdom from the start. In addition to this, I discussed that “to know” was a euphemism for sex; that “good and evil” could also mean “natural and unnatural [sexual acts].” I then grounded my study in the biblical texts themselves. Finally, I have tried to let my interpretation make sense of the “curse” on woman, the setting, and the surrounding biblical context itself. I would like to conclude by stating that, whatever one may draw from the individual premises themselves, and whatever one may ultimately think of the conclusions reached, this interpretation holds, at the very least, some—if not a lot—of water: Adam and Eve gained sexual consciousness in the Garden of Eden, disobeyed YHWH, performed natural and unnatural sex acts, and were ultimately expelled from the Garden of Eden. The myth was a tale of love and romance, nudity and sex—of crime and punishment.

Written by Moses Y. Mikheyev

I’m a graduate student at Emory University interested in religion, philosophy, and the philosophy of language. 


Gordis, Robert. “The Knowledge of Good and Evil in the Old Testament and the Qumran Scrolls,” in Journal of Biblical Literature 76 (1957).

Kass, Leon R. The Beginning of Wisdom: Reading Genesis. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003.

Mark, Joshua J. “The Myth of Adapa.” Ancient History Encyclopedia. Last modified February 23, 2011. /article/216/.

Speiser, E.A. Genesis: Introduction, Translation, and Notes. The Anchor Bible. New York: Doubleday & Co., 1964.

Westermann, Claus. Genesis 1-11: A Commentary. Translated by John J. Scullion. Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1974.


[1] All biblical citations in this paper will come from the New Revised Standard Version.

[2] I want to point out that I have decided not to make this paper a paper on sources for several reasons: (1) The scholars virtually all disagree as to where one such source begins and where it ends; (2) contrasting P’s account of the primeval couple’s sexuality (e.g., 1:28) with J’s (thought to be 2:4ff) does not really work as we don’t have enough data in Genesis to give us a holistic idea as to what they agreed upon and what they disagreed about; therefore, (3) the previous points make the excurses in the sexual views of J or P more of a highly speculative and highly tentative enterprise. Finally, I simply chose to deal with the final, canonical form for the simple reason that the final editor, whoever it may have been, chose to weave the tale in such a manner. I am attempting to make sense of what it was that this author (or authors) was/were trying to communicate.

[3] Claus Westermann, Genesis 1-11: A Commentary, trans. John J. Scullion (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1974), 193. While I ultimately disagree with Westermann’s interpretation of Genesis 2-3, I agree with him that it is—in its final, redacted form—a tale of crime and punishment.

[4] Ibid., 248.

[5] Leon R. Kass, The Beginning of Wisdom: Reading Genesis (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003), 66. Italics original.

[6] Ibid., 63. “[T]he name [of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil] suggests rather knowledge of how to live, of what we would call practical knowledge, including but not limited to moral knowledge” (ibid.).

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., 65.

[9] Ibid., 66.

[10] Westermann, Genesis 1-11, 193.

[11] Here it is evident that the final product of Genesis 2-3 involved multiple sources. In Genesis 2:16-17 it is the man given the command not to eat of the fruit. Another source in the pre-history of the text must have dealt with a “couple”—and not a single individual; hence, Genesis 3:2-7 involves Eve breaking a command she had not heard! Such “roughness” in the text reveals its own subtle disunity.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid., 247.

[14] Cited in Westermann, Genesis 1-11, 245.

[15] Ibid. Citing J. Pedersen here again.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid., 247.

[19] Ibid., 263.

[20] Ibid., 261-3. He spends three pages on “The Sentence of Punishment of the Woman” without so much as bothering to connect the punishment with the surrounding narrative.

[21] Ibid., 247.

[22] Cited from the “Enkidu Episode” (Tablet I, iv 26-34, ANET 75) in Westermann, Genesis 1-11, 247.

[23] “The Story of Eden,” in Genesis: Introduction, Translation, and Notes, The Anchor Bible (New York: Doubleday & Co., 1964), 26.

[24] Joshua J. Mark, “The Myth of Adapa,” Ancient History Encyclopedia, last modified February 23, 2011, /article/216/.

[25] Cited from Tablet A, II. 2ff. in Robert Gordis, “The Knowledge of Good and Evil in the Old Testament and the Qumran Scrolls,” in Journal of Biblical Literature 76 (1957), 128.

[26] Ibid., 125.

[27] Ibid., 129.

[28] Ibid., 131.

[29] Ibid., 131.

[30] “You all (masculine plural), do not do evil!” (my trans.).

[31] Ibid., 133.

[32] Ibid.

[33] Quoted in Westermann, Genesis 1-11, 244.

[34] Ibid.

[35] Gordis, “The Knowledge of Good and Evil,” 130.

[36] Of course at this point in my paper, I have now resorted to a creative interpretation of the text. What I mean by that is, after having done some biblical exegesis, I am trying to understand the message of the text. That is, I am interested in presenting a robust and cohesive version of the story as I see it. I am trying to fit all the pieces of the text together into a cohesive, believable whole. And the “sexual interpretation”—the one I am espousing—seems to make a lot of sense of the data.

[37] For an excurses on sources, see Westermann, Genesis 1-11, 186-196, esp. 195.

[38] Gordis, “The Knowledge of Good and Evil,” 123-4 and 132-3.

Marcion and Tertullian: A Tale of a god Who Wouldn’t Be

In the middle of the second-century there developed within Christianity a rival movement that would consume virtually the whole of nascent Christendom. Christianity would employ some of its greatest intellectuals in order to defend itself against this enormous and all-consuming heresy. Irenaeus would write scathing critiques of it. Justin Martyr would mock it. However, the death blow to this movement would come from the pen of Tertullian of Carthage. He would write lengthy volumes covering virtually every aspect of Christian existence—whether it would be issues concerning baptism or the veiling of virgins. Of all the lengthy works that he had written, the longest one of all—which consumed his energies for a number of years—was Adversus Marcionem. It was his five-volume work that would take Marcion of Sinope to task, forever carving notches on Tertullian’s theological pistol. This work, almost single-handedly, responded to Marcion’s theology and killed it; it was thorough, fought Marcionism on its own terms, and engaged in dialogue with various Marcionite responses to orthodox Christianity’s critiques. Tertullian had the advantage of watching Marcionism flourish for over half a century—he was a giant standing on the shoulders of giants who, too, had written critiques of Marcionism.

Marcion of Sinope originated from a region situated on the south shores of the Black Sea called Pontus. He was born around the year 85 C.E.[1] and would later bring his version of the gospel to Rome around the years 140-150. He may have come from a Jewish background, as the city that he came from was also home to Aquila, the great Jewish biblical translator. According to Adolf von Harnack, Marcion was familiar with Jewish interpretations of the Old Testament (OT) and was rooted in a very literal approach—which is not to be surprising since Aquila also translated the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek very literally, following a word-for-word approach. [2] Christians were apparently in Pontus since the beginnings of Christian evangelization. The First Epistle of Peter presupposes Christians in Pontus, as do the famous letters written between Pliny the Younger and the emperor Trajan around the year 111. Not only was Marcion familiar with Judaism, he appears to have been brought up a Christian from his earliest years. His father, according to Hippolytus, was the bishop of Sinope.[3] His father would later excommunicate Marcion from his own home; thus forcing Marcion to flee to Rome. When Marcion came to Rome, he did not come as a poor outcast; he came loaded with money, donating 200,000 Roman sesterces to the Roman church. He was a shipbuilder and probably sailed into Rome on his own ship. Before coming to Rome, he experienced a number of unsuccessful attempts to preach his version of the gospel message to Christians located in Asia Minor. It may have been at Ephesus that Marcion encountered Polycarp, as reported to us by Irenaeus, and was rejected by him as the “first-born of Satan.”[4] Within a period of time, Marcion probably began to infiltrate the Christians at Rome with his teachings. It appears that he took a modest approach at first, giving people the necessary time to digest his teachings. We have reason to believe that the Roman church probably was initially sympathetic towards him, as he donated a large sum of money, came with letters of recommendation from his brother, and was the son of a Christian bishop. Notwithstanding all of the above, once Marcion had summoned key leaders of the Roman church and presented his version of the gospel, he was immediately excommunicated and his money was returned. The Christians of Rome wanted to have nothing to do with the likes of his teachings. The break with the church most likely happened around the year 144.[5] Apparently, Marcion had presented to the leaders of the Roman church a version of the gospel that sounded a little bit too Gnostic and dualistic.

Marcion took as his point of departure Luke 6:43. He believed that, if Jesus is to be taken seriously, the “good tree” produced good fruit and the “bad tree” produced bad fruit. Since the Creator God created human flesh, which is obviously evil (with all of its sinful inclinations), Marcion believed that Jesus’ saying implied that the Creator God created bad fruit (i.e., human flesh). Since the fruit was bad, the Creator, too, was bad. This implied a whole lot theologically. If Marcion was to be taken seriously by the Roman church, the Christians of Rome would have had to eliminate the OT as sacred Scripture and would have had to do away with references to the Creator God in the New Testament (NT). The presbyters that were gathered on that fateful day decided that Marcion was wrong.

Marcion took his money and began his own Christian world mission. His was the first massive, world-scale religious proselytizing mission rivaling the work of the Apostles. Within merely five years of his break with the Roman church, Justin Martyr was able to say that Marcion’s gospel had flooded the entire human race.[6] Fifty years or so later, Tertullian would likewise remark, “Marcion’s heretical teaching has filled the whole world” (Adv. Marc. V. 19).[7] Despite what anyone thinks about Marcion’s theological credentials, he was a man who was energetic, productive, extremely smart, and an able leader. The church that he would produce (called the Marcionite church) would inundate virtually the entire known-world and would have a united theology and united front. Whereas the early Christians of the time were too busy bickering amongst one another about peripheral matters like veiling and whether or not one should add vanilla flavoring to the Eucharist wafer,[8] Marcion was out conquering the world in an Alexander-the-Great manner. What made Marcion’s church so great? How did Marcion set about preaching his gospel and what were the contents of what he preached? To this I now turn my attention.

Marcion appears to have recognized the existence of at least two gods: the righteous/bad Creator God and the loving/good father god of Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ was the Son of God in the Marcionite sense that He came from a father who was not of this world: Jesus’ father was not the Creator God but an alien god. This alien god was completely unknown and would always remain unknown. The only thing people could know about this god had been revealed to us in Jesus of Nazareth. Marcion believed that the OT contained the actions and story of the bad Creator God, while the NT contained the actions of an alien god. Because of this strong and mutually-exclusive dichotomy which Marcion had set up, the OT and the NT had virtually nothing to do with each other. They should not both be read at one and the same time as sacred literature. Marcion, inevitably, removed the OT from his canon; in the process, he was the first known Christian to have had created a definite canon of Scripture. Moreover, if the Creator God gave the Jews a canon of Scripture, why weren’t the Christians in possession of one? “[F]or a littera scriptura must be available, and if the creator of the world had provided such, then the alien God must all the more do so.”[9] His canon of Scripture was authoritative, set-in-stone, impenetrable, and theologically “all-consuming” in the Hegelian sense—for his canon was “truth” that would “swallow” everything else up. His canon would filter all Scripture through its own highly-idiosyncratic microscope. Marcion comes across as an all-or-nothing type of man: either you accept his canon as truth or you go to hell! Theologically speaking, the lines that he drew between “Law” and “Gospel” were permanent, bold, and huge. Where did Marcion get this idea of breaking with the OT? Apparently, according to Marcion, from Jesus Himself.

Marcion believed that Jesus broke the law again and again in His lifetime. In the words of Harnack, “Did he [Jesus] not declare war against the teachers of the law? Did he not call the sinners, while those teachers desired only righteous men as their pupils?”[10] Jesus was starkly set against the OT from the beginning. Moreover, did not Jesus Himself preach that you could not patch up old wineskins with new? (In Marcion’s mind, this was Jesus declaring that His teaching not be mixed and “patched” onto the OT.) “[F]or [Marcion] the God of the Jews, together with all his book, the Old Testament, had to become the actual enemy.”[11]

Marcon’s hero also happened to be Paul the Apostle. Reading his Epistle to the Galatians, Marcion was able to discover that Paul battled Judaizing apostles. Who were these Judaizing apostles? Marcion believed that they were, most likely, Jesus’ original disciples themselves. Doesn’t the Gospel of Mark in particular portray the Apostles as a bunch of ignorant hillbillies who misunderstood Jesus all the time? Marcion connected the dots and formed the “original idea” that only Paul truly understood Jesus because Jesus had to commission him after His Resurrection (Adv. Marc. IV. 21, 22). To Marcion’s mind, it seemed somewhat ridiculous that Jesus would need to bring in another apostle into the fold had the original disciples been doing their job. So why did Jesus call Paul? “Aha!” Marcion probably thought, “Jesus called Paul because the original disciples had misunderstood Jesus and had not taken His words seriously about the bad Creator God.” Marcion believed that only Paul could be trusted out of all of the disciples, as he alone claims that his gospel came not from man but from Jesus Himself (Gal. 1:12). But Marcion faced an enormous textual problem that would consume the rest of his miserable existence: Paul’s very own letters.

Paul had written some 10 letters which Marcion appeared to be aware of (excluding the Pastoral Epistles). In those letters, any reader finds Paul citing OT texts left and right. He sees Jesus Christ fulfilling the OT. Marcion was dumbfounded. How did this all happen? Why would Paul do away with the OT, as Jesus had secretly commanded, and yet cite the OT? Marcion searched his brains for an answer—and found one.[12] He believed that the letters of Paul were corrupted by Judaizers. In his opinion, these Jewish opponents of Paul were so good and so thorough, they even edited the letters of Paul and made them look as if Paul were Jewish. Not only that, Marcion believed that “the entire apostolic age had been moved exclusively by one major topic, that of the struggle of the Judaistic Christians against the true (i.e., Pauline) gospel.”[13] Marcion also saw that the Christians read roughly four gospels. He looked at them and found none of them appealing. He decided that, since Luke was Paul’s companion, Luke’s Gospel must have been more original to the authentic gospel message. But even Luke’s version of things has way too much Jewish material in it. Marcion was not moved by this: the Jews got to it before he did! He believed that the Gospel of Luke must have been corrupted by these same Judaizing false apostles. But Marcion was not as arrogant and autocratic as he initially seems to be; you see, he was actually somewhat of a modest man. Marcion wanted to have an authentic gospel and suffered the “temptation to write such a gospel himself”[14] and yet it is “[h]ere in particular there is shown with special clarity and remarkable interweaving of criticism and fidelity to history.”[15] Marcion did not write a gospel on his own authority, though he certainly could have, but worked tirelessly to “restore” the texts he had before him. Marcionites were, as Origen would later put it, “slaves to pure history” (Comm. XV.3 in Matt., T. III).[16] He worked hard to restore the biblical texts he set out to restore—he would later leave the task of “restoring” to his devoted followers. The texts he had chosen to include in his canon were eleven in number: ten of Paul’s epistles and the Gospel of Luke (all of which were combed for “corruption”; thus being, to our mind, “highly-edited”).

Marcion saw himself as a restorer of the text and felt that this was his special calling in life—he truly was a man that “thought with his blood.” He was, arguably, the first protestant reformer in Christian church history; albeit, a heretical one at that! Being a self-proclaimed textual critic, he set about editing the texts before him in a thorough-going manner. References to Peter and Paul in Galatians 1:18-24 were excised wholesale; Peter could not be seen as in agreement with Paul.[17] The text about Abraham and all that “Old Testament gibberish” was removed from Galatians 3:15-25. The reference to the “seed of Abraham” in verse 29 was also deleted. Since the alien god of Jesus Christ was non-judgmental, loving and good, he would not— as in the words of Paul in 1 Corinthians 3:17— “destroy” any man. Where the text read “God will destroy him” Marcion felt obligated to convert this phrase into “he will be destroyed.” There simply was no room in Marcion’s theology for a “destroying” God who was tied to Jesus.[18] In 2 Corinthians 7:1 Paul writes “let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit.”[19] Marcion would have nothing to do with this—he changed “spirit” into “blood.”[20] References to the OT like phrases such as “as it is written” in places like Romans 1:17 were deleted; how could Paul, who knew that the OT was from the bad god, cite the bad god’s text?[21] Marcion believed that Jesus was not born of Mary since He could not participate in the Creator God’s matter. So in Luke 8:19 the reference to Jesus’ mother and brothers was deleted.[22] Many such emendations were made to the Marcionite Canon.

But why did Marcion refuse to believe that Jesus took on a human physical body? The reason was simple: Jesus had come from an alien god and He was not about to put on any bad “fruit” created by the bad Creator God. Marcionite ethics were as radical as Marcionite “textual criticism.” Marcion’s theology had huge implications for human daily activity. For example, if a couple were interested in getting married, Marcion would object and tell the couple to refrain from the evil inclinations of the flesh. In fact, to participate in communion, Marcionite Christians had to either be widowed, eunuchs, or single virgins; one could not be married.[23] To participate in sexual union was to obey the commands of the bad Creator God who had said, “Be fruitful and multiply.” Moreover, to reproduce would be to produce more human beings that would be trapped in this evil world and evil body. One could not satisfy the flesh in eating habits also. For Marcion, even enjoying created food was sinful; how could a true Marcionite Christian enjoy the “bad fruit” of the Creator God? Impossible! This meant that Marcionite Christians would, essentially, be extremely ascetic. They rejected wealth, marriage, family, sex, enjoyment, bodily pleasures, etc. After learning about such ascetic manners, modern western-raised Christians may find such asceticism and hate for human life repulsive. One is pressed to ask the question: Why was Marcionism so attractive to the second and third-century mind? It is to this question that I now turn.

During the first-century, there arose a movement within Christianity that would later become known under the umbrella term Gnosticism.[24] (Though “full-blown” Gnosticism is recognized—by predominantly American scholars—as coming on the scene in the second-century.) It was a dualistic religion that emphasized the dichotomy and separation between good and evil. The world was ultimately evil and the spirit was ultimately good. The Gnostics were preoccupied with the problem of evil and pushed it “upstairs”; they believed that evil originated with the evil Creator God. Moreover, the Gnostics lived in the problem and paradox of human existence; they saw themselves as exiles in an unknown and foreign land. This was not home. The spirit was good and it was trapped in our created body. And not only that, there could simply be no resurrection of the human body: the good god would not suffer to raise the flesh—that would be unnecessary. From an ethical perspective, the Gnostics generally fell into two groups: libertines and ascetics. Both groups had the same premises but vastly different conclusions. Both believed that everything in the world was created by a bad (lesser) god; however, the ascetics argued that a true Gnostic Christian must abstain from the evil pleasures of this world, while the libertines argued that since the good god did not create the flesh and that only the spirit mattered, one could do anything while being in the flesh. Already in the NT we find Paul battling Gnostic thinking in his epistles. Whether it be the question of food or resurrection, the Gnostics were a thorn in Paul’s side.[25] In 1 Timothy 6:20, Gnosticism is out-rightly named and attacked mockingly as “gnosis so-called.” The Epistle of 1 John is adamant about attacking a movement within the congregation that claims that Christ did not come in the flesh (cf. 4:2). Because Gnosticism was already either a nascent faith in the first-century or somewhat more fully developed, it was most probably the launching pad for Marcion’s thinking. Tertullian relates that Marcion was taught by a certain Cerdo. Taken at face value, this indicates that Marcion’s ideas were not second-century at all and neither were they innovative and “new” in their entirety. Marcionism came into a world that was already very familiar with the problem of evil, fleshly inclination, dissatisfaction with human life, and the problem of marriage. Women were often times left to the wills and whims of their husbands—seeing themselves as restrained, they joined the Gnostic movement and bought into it hook, line and sinker. Why? Because Gnosticism was very women-friendly. The author of the Acts of Paul and Thecla, undoubtedly a Gnostic (contra Tertullian), reveals to us just how “liberating” Gnosticism was. Marriage is seen as a barrier to progress in an individual woman’s life, so Thecla is told by “Paul” not to marry her fiancé—she is rather to escape with Paul and preach the gospel. It is against such Gnosticism that the author of 1 Timothy writes the following words: “She [i.e., woman] will be saved through childbearing (2:15). The author here was combating a form of Gnosticism that forbade marriage (which is why the author reminds woman that childbearing is both good and actually salvific!). All of these things would eventually come into play when Marcion came around. He was not exactly the “new kid on the block”; he came pulling baggage from the first-century. So what made Marcionism so attractive? Its familiarity. Marcionism was a variant form of Gnosticism. Whereas the Gnostics retained the OT and reread it in light of the coming savior Jesus Christ, Marcion did away with all of the so-called “Jewish myths.” In other words, Marcion was bolder than his Gnostic contemporaries and predecessors; he alone was willing to single-handedly remove the OT from the canon of accepted Christian Scripture—and he almost succeeded. But in removing the OT, he did not reject its contents entirely; no, he believed that his followers should continue reading it in order to know what the bad Creator God was up to.

Seen in its entirety, being set within its own historical context, Marcionism is a religious philosophy and way of life that helped explain away some of man’s greatest fears. In the second-century, children were being left “exposed” on a Roman hillside. Mothers would die in labor. Marriage was seen, at least for woman, as a threat to existential freedom. In such an environment, Marcionism seemed like a very enticing option. It reduced all of the world’s problems to a series of pithy categorical imperatives: do not get married, do not have sex, do not have children, do not enjoy pleasures, do not worry about this world, do not be concerned about wealth, etc., etc. All the things people had trouble obtaining (health, children, food, etc.) were rejected as unnecessary. All of man’s hopes and dreams for a better life were rendered useless. Marcionism offered an explanation for this world’s evil. It preoccupied itself with the problem of evil because the world was seen at that time as being predominantly evil. Gnostics roamed the streets the world over. And along came Marcion. He was not an outcast in any usual sense of the word; he was an ordinary individual who thought mostly like half of the other population populating earth in the second-century. Because evil appears to have been on everybody’s mind, Marcionism was welcomed in. As a bonus, it did away with the issue of race, class and sex. If the Creator God was wrong in creating us, He too was wrong in making us black, white, male, or female. Marcionism was able to provide people with a sense of complete unity and identity. There was no longer an us-against-them mentality—anybody and everybody could and should be welcomed in. It did not matter whether you were a Jew or a pagan: Jesus came to save us from this world. (Of course, many people chose to ignore this message, but they were merely “deceived.”) If ever a problem was presented to a Marcionite Christian, one could simply resort to excision: excise the verse (or problem or whatever) out! All this goes to show that Marcionism was very much at home with a large portion of the second-century population. However, despite its attractiveness, an equally large amount of people found problems with Marcion’s thinking. It is now that I turn my attention to Marcion’s greatest critic: Tertullian of Carthage.

Tertullian was a fiery second and third-century writer who composed his five-volume work against Marcion around the first few years of the third century. He was allegedly a lawyer, well-trained in philosophy and rhetoric. He may have begun his first edition around 198 C.E. but would not have completed the entire work—entering its third edition—until April 207 or 208.[26] His work drew upon his predecessors Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, and maybe Theophilus of Antioch. Tertullian’s originality is brilliantly distilled in the fourth and fifth volumes of the work, where Tertullian goes practically verse-by-verse through Marcion’s Antitheses and biblical canon (with all of its deletions and corruptions). Tertullian summarizes what his thesis is in book in the following words: “I have set before you Jesus as the Christ of the prophets in his doctrines, his judgments, his affections, his feelings, his miracles, his sufferings, as also in his resurrection, none other than the Christ of the Creator” (Adv. Marc. IV. 43). Tertullian sets out to argue a number of things concerning Marcion’s theology: (1) Jesus of Nazareth was prophesied in the OT; (2) Jesus of Nazareth is the Creator’s Messiah; (3) The Creator is good; (4) Jesus is judgmental too; and (5) Jesus may, at times, appear more harsh than the Creator and His prophets. All of this goes to show that Tertullian is willing to accept Marcion’s theology on its own terms and then he finds multitudes of problems with it. In the five-volume work, simply known as Adversus Marcionem (“Against Marcion”) and being written in Latin, Tertullian attacks Marcion’s theology and ethical system in the first three books. In the fourth volume, he writes an anti-Marcionite commentary on Marcion’s version of Luke’s gospel, and in the fifth volume he does the same with Marcion’s ten edited Pauline letters. With that being said, I would like to examine the contents of the five-volume work and summarize its basic arguments. (As a note of caution I would like to add that my presentation of Marcion will, inevitably, follow Tertullian’s representation of him. For example, if Tertullian’s version of Marcion contradicts Harnack’s, then you must use scholarly judgment to ascertain who is in the right, be it Harnack or Tertullian.)

In the first volume, Tertullian begins by poking fun at Marcion’s birthplace and heritage. Using his usual wit, he situates Marcion amongst the cold, winter peaks of Pontus. He introduces Marcion to us with the following description: “Marcion was…more unsettled than a wagon dweller…darker than fog, colder than winter, more brittle than ice…” (Adv. Marc. I. 1). He relates to us that “Marcion had an unhealthy interest in the problem of evil—the origin of it—and his perceptions were numbed by the very excess of his curiosity” (I. 2). Marcion, according to Tertullian, argued that God creates evil. Citing Isaiah 45:7 as his proof text, he demonstrates that the Creator God, therefore, must be evil. Tertullian will argue that “evil” here should be taken to mean punishment for sin. There are “two sorts of evils” for “not only sins but also punishments are described as evil”; that is, Christians “take note of the difference between evils of sin and evils of punishment…” (II. 14). Moving on past this argument, Tertullian develops his idea of the oneness of God. He argues that “God is an entity supremely great” and that “Christian verity has decisively asserted that if God is not one only, he does not exist” (I. 3). Tertullian believes that if the definition of “God” is “supreme being,” then there cannot be two “supreme beings”—either one is supreme or none are supreme. If one is supreme (as is the Christian God), then He is one and He is alone in His supremacy. Moreover, “[t]he reasoning which could admit two could admit also a great many: for after two comes a multitude, once unity had been exceeded.” (I. 5). Thus, for Tertullian, the supremacy and unity of God must be maintained in opposition to pantheism. He does not believe that other gods exist beside the Creator God within the Trinity. Tertullian points out that if the OT speaks of other so-called “gods” it is merely mocking so-called gods. “[T]here are large numbers of worthless slaves who bring discredit on the names of kings, being called Alexander or Darius or Holophernes: yet this will not degrade the kings from being what they are. Also the idols of the heathen are gods to the vulgar, yet none of them is a god simply by having the name of ‘god’” (I. 7). Tertullian then goes on to argue that “All new gods are false gods” (I. 9). Because Marcion’s alien god appeared so late in salvation history, he must, admittedly, be false. Tertullian sees God—the true God—as always being present in the minds of men; the knowledge of Him being innate. “The knowledge inherent in the soul since the beginning is God’s endowment, the same and no other whether in Egyptians or Syrians or men of Pontus. It is the God of the Jews whom men’s soul’s call God” (I. 11). He argues that the alien god could not be God since our knowledge of God had existed prior to his so-called revelatory work in the person of Jesus; no, Tertullian believes that Jesus preached the same God that we innately worshipped since the beginning of time. Marcion’s alien god is not God. “God can never keep himself hidden, can never be unattainable: he must at all times be understood, be heard, even be seen, in such manner as he will. God has his evidences, all this that we are, and in which we are. Such is the proof that he is God, is the one God, this fact that he is not unknown, while that other one is even yet struggling after recognition” (I. 11). Not only is God known, but he is known through nature (i.e., natural theology). As for Marcion’s god, “[o]ne solitary little chick-pea of his own ought Marcion’s god to have brought to light, and he might then have been proclaimed a sort of new Triptolemus”[27] (I. 11). This then brings us full-circle: “And so it follows that just as no one doubts that the Creator is God—for he has created all this—so no one has the right to believe the godhead of that other, who has created nothing…” (I. 11).

After demonstrating that God is one and that He was known before Jesus’ coming, Tertullian sets out to demonstrate the Creator’s goodness. He exclaims, “[L]ook at man, within and without[,] at least this work of our God will obtain your approval, a work upon which your lord, your superior god, has set his affection…” (I. 14). Not only that, Marcion’s alien Jesus has “not even yet rejected the Creator’s water.” Moreover, even in his rites and ceremonies, the alien Jesus “cannot do without things begged and borrowed from the Creator” (I. 14). All of this goes to show how dependent Marcion’s alien Jesus—sent from an alien god—was upon the Creator’s products. The Marcionites were not only interested in the Creator’s material things, they also, apparently, guided their lives according to the Creator’s stars—being amateur astrologers (I. 18).

Tertullian goes on to show that even where the Gospel (NT) appears to contradict the Law (OT), the Creator God Himself had already foretold such changes. The Creator had issues with sacrifices and Sabbaths already in the OT (cf. Jer. 7:22, Ezk. 20:25-26, Isa. 1:14, etc.), therefore, the fact that the Gospel stands in stark contrast to the Law was already prophesied and instituted—not by some alien god—but by the Creator Himself! Paul the Apostle was not preaching a different God either. “[The] Creator had long ago rejected all these [i.e., sacrifices and Sabbaths], and the apostle’s pronouncement was that they must now be rejected, evidently the fact that the apostle’s judgment is in agreement with the Creator’s decrees, proves that no other god was the subject of the apostle’s preaching…” (I. 21). Not to mention the fact—but Tertullian does!—that Marcionite Christianity appeared late on the scene and was not apostolic in origin. “[Y]ou will find no church of apostolic origin whose Christianity repudiates the Creator” (I. 21).

Tertullian also finds problems with Marcion’s claim that this alien god—the alleged “father” of Jesus—is any better than the Creator God. If the alien god was really “good” in any meaningful sense of that word he would have come and saved the whole of humanity. Why does he only save a few, Tertullian asks? Moreover, why is this alien god only doing his salvific work now? Why didn’t he come earlier—let us say, at creation? Either he was powerless to overcome the creator (which would make him a lesser god) or he was evil and wanted to see humanity suffer under the alleged “cruelties” of the Creator God (I. 22, 24). Tertullian puts it succinctly: “What would your opinion be of a physician who by delaying treatment should strengthen the disease, and by deferring remedy should prolong the danger, so that his services might command a larger fee and enhance his own repute?” (I. 23). Moreover, once this idiotic construct “Jesus” of Marcion’s—coming from a stupid alien god—breaks into the Creator’s world to save human life, what does he really save Marcionites from exactly? “[T]he Marcionite still gets malaria, and the aches and pains of his flesh still bring forth for him those other thorns and briers: he is exposed not only to the Creator’s lightening, with his wars and pestilences and other chastisements, but even to his scorpions. In what respect do you suppose yourself set free from his kingdom, when his flies still tread upon you?” (I. 25).

Tertullian saves his best critique for last before ending his first volume: if this alien god is good and non-judgmental, “[w]hy does he forbid the commission of an act he does not penalize when committed?” (I. 26). For example, if I was to join the Marcionite church, learn about this non-judging, all-loving, heavenly Santa Claus—and I was, at the same time, to get married and have sex—what would this non-judging god do? Punish me? Since Marcion’s god forbids marriage, sex, riches, reproduction, etc., this means that he, too, is a judge (just like the Creator God). “For by not wishing it he forbade it. And has he not also become a judge, by wishing it not to be, and therefore forbidding it? For that it must not be done was a judgment, and that it must be forbidden was a sentence. So then he too is now a judge” (I. 27). In other words, “he forbids you to sin—but only in writing” (I. 27).

Not only is this alien god a judge, it appears that Marcionites fear him too. “Why also during persecution do you not at once offer your incense, and so gain your life by denial? On no, you answer, far from it. In that case you are already in fear—of doing wrong: and by your fear you have admitted your fear of him who forbids the wrong” (I. 27). But even in his judgments, this alien god is idiotic—for “he washes a man never to his mind defiled [in the waters of baptism]” (I. 28). “Not even a rustic will go and water land which is to return no fruit—unless he is as stupid as Marcion’s god” (I. 28). And, last but not least, even Marcion—that alien god’s favorite human being—was born of marital intercourse. “How can he show affection to one of whose origin he does not approve?” (I. 29). This “god” of Marcion’s has as many paradoxes and contradictions as Marcion’s version of the Creator God. In fact, one could say that this alien god is stupid and more so bewildering in his actions!

In the second volume, Tertullian further develops the idea that God the Creator was good (II. 4) and that evil is to be found in human freewill (II. 6). “[O]nce God had granted the man freedom he must withdraw from his own freedom, restraining within himself that foreknowledge and superior power by which he might have been able to intervene to prevent the man from presuming to use his freedom badly, and so falling into peril. For if he had intervened he would have cancelled that freedom of choice which in reason and goodness he had granted.” Then Tertullian continues, “[S]uppose him to have intervened, suppose him to have cancelled that freedom of choice, by calling the man away from the tree…” (II. 7). Tertullian wants Marcion to say “Yes!”— for he knows that the moment the Creator cancels out freewill is the moment that Marcion would exclaim “Look! A god full of contradictions! He gives freewill only to take it back again!” This Tertullian does to show that God could not be blamed for the evils of mankind. Even in breathing into us, when God gave us His Spirit, this did not make us insusceptible to evil. “You yourself do not by blowing into a flute make the flute into a man” (II. 9). Just because God, a sinless being, breathes into a man and gives him life does not mean that the man would be sinless too—all because of freewill. God has the right to judge sin because He has given man the ability to fulfill His commands. When man sins, God can function as the judge; He is a just God. Criticizing God for judging people is stupid. “Justice is an evil thing only if injustice is a good one” (II. 12).

After making such arguments, Tertullian tries to synthesize a theology of the OT. “One should rather see there that careful interest by which, when the people were prone to idolatry and transgression, God was content to attach them to his own religion by the same sort of observances in which this world’s superstition was engaged, hoping to detach them from this by commanding them to do these things for him, as though he were in need of them, and so keep that people from the sin of making images” (II. 18). Tertullian, in a way, agrees with Marcion that the laws and commands of the OT are not what God desires; however, he believes that God commanded these things out of genuine concern and love for His people. When Marcion attacks the OT God as being evil for commanding the theft of Egyptian gold, Tertullian wittingly responds that—since God is just, and since the Egyptians had not paid the Jews for four hundred years of labor—God was simply commanding the Hebrews to take their wages (II. 21)! Remember: the laborer is worthy of his wages (Luke 10:7). And not only that, but even where God commands the Hebrews to “work” on the Sabbath (as on the day when they marched around Jericho), Tertullian differentiates between doing “man’s work” and “divine work” (II. 22).

After answering these Marcionite critiques of the OT, Tertullian looks at God “repenting” in the OT. Tertullian believes that God doesn’t “repent” in the sense of committing a sin and then trying to change sinful behavior; that is, God doesn’t change His mind because He “sinned.” Rather, Tertullian suggests that “[i]t is to be understood as neither more nor less than a simple reversal of a previous decision” (II. 24). In fact, if Marcion is blaming the OT God for repentance—when He acts in a certain way and then changes His behavior—Marcion is actually condemning his own alien god. For this alien god at first did not care for mankind for thousands of years; he came only in the 15th year of the emperor Tiberius. This means that he, too, “repented” and changed his previous decision not to save mankind from the bad Creator God. “For the fact that he did at length have respect for man’s salvation was an act of repentance for his initial disregard—such repentance as is owed to an evil deed” (II. 28).

In the third volume, Tertullian turns his attention to the fact that Marcion’s alien god came so unexpectedly. He argues that God should come announced and expected (III. 3). Not only that, Tertullian believes that a son of god should come after a father god. In Marcion’s theology, you have a son figure coming before a father figure (who remains unknown and unannounced throughout). Tertullian then looks at Marcion’s hate for allegorical readings of the OT. He points out that even Paul, Marcion’s favorite apostle, used allegory in his own epistles (III. 6). Tertullian calls Marcionitic theology “antichrist” because it denied the fleshly reality of Jesus’ body. “[L]et him [i.e., Marcion] from now on belch forth the slime of his own particular devices, as he maintains that Christ was a phantasm: except that this opinion too will have had other inventors, those so to speak premature and abortive Marcionites whom the apostle John pronounced antichrists, who denied that Christ came in the flesh…” (III. 8). Marcion, according to Tertullian’s report, denied the fleshly body of Jesus Christ. He chides Marcion for preaching a Christ who “being flesh and not flesh, man and not man, and in consequence a Christ [who was] god and not god” (III. 8). Tertullian then argues that such a phantom Christ could not have actually bore our sins and suffered. “[T]he sufferings of Marcion’s Christ will fail to find credence: one who has not truly suffered, has not suffered at all, and a phantasm cannot have suffered at all (III. 8). Throughout his entire discussion, Tertullian cites generously from the OT texts. He wants to ground the Creator’s Christ in the OT. For example, at one point in his argument he writes, citing Psalm 96:10, “The Lord hath reigned from a tree,[28] I wonder what you understand by it…why should not Christ be said to have reigned from the tree?” (III. 19). He argues that Jesus of Nazareth was the OT Christ prophesied by the Creator God. Marcion, on the other hand, believes that the OT Messiah is yet to come. According to him, he will be a Jewish Messiah who will merely save the Jewish race and not be concerned with the whole of humanity (III. 21). After debunking Marcion’s “two Christ theory” and his idea of a docetic Christ, Tertullian concludes his third book by saying, “As things are, you are giving invitations to dinner, but not showing at which house: you are telling of a kingdom, but not pointing out the palace. Is this because your Christ promises a heavenly kingdom when he has no heaven, in the same way as he made profession of humanity without having a body? What a phantasm it all is!” (III. 24).

The fourth volume is essentially commentary on Marcion’s version of the Gospel of Luke. Tertullian points out textual emendations that Marcion made and objects to Marcionite interpretations of the Gospel. Tertullian points out that, despite what Marcion thinks of the so-called “Judaizing corruptions” of both the Gospel of Luke and the Pauline letters, Paul himself is guilty of “Judaizing.” For example, “Paul himself made himself all things to all men so that he might gain them all” (IV. 3). For Tertullian, then, if Paul sounds Jewish it is because he himself assimilated for the Jews! This implies that nobody corrupted his epistles! Making his way to the Lukan text, Tertullian reminds Marcionites that “it was only when Marcion laid his hands upon [the Gospel of Luke], that it became different from the apostolic gospels, and in opposition to them” (IV. 5). It was not “corrupted” and emended by Judaizing Christians; rather, it had been Jewish all along. Tertullian points out that if the alien god of Jesus was adamant about destroying the Jewish Creator, why, then, did he send Jesus to the Jews first? Isn’t it idiotic to believe that Jesus was not a Jew when He was a Jew (IV. 7)?

Surveying the gospel text, Tertullian looks at how Jesus cast out demons. He examines Luke 4:16-43 and points out that even in the Marcionite version the demons still flee in fear and trembling. But doesn’t this make Jesus a God to be feared? “Yet how did he expect them to come out—a thing they would not have done except from fear?” (IV. 8). Tertullian points out that even in Marcion’s gospel, Jesus still remains silent when people He heals go and fulfill the OT law by offering gifts in the Temple (IV. 9). Moreover, the Jewishness of Jesus does not stop there: He also calls Himself by that Jewish epithet “son of man.” Why would an alien Jesus—who came to destroy the OT law—take up an OT name? Tertullian is baffled by this (IV. 10). To top it all off, this Jesus of Marcion’s does not look any different for Tertullian than the Creator God: He forgives sin as well. Tertullian reasons, if Jesus forgives sin, has He not also “judged” something to be a sin in order to call it sin? Marcion also liked to play the “Jesus-broke-the-Sabbath” card: he would point out how Jesus healed on the Sabbath. Tertullian’s response is that “the work of healing or of rescue is not properly man’s work but God’s” (IV. 12). Therefore, Jesus did not do any of His own (human) work on the Sabbath, but God’s work.

Coming to Luke 8:16, Tertullian cites Jesus saying about the hiding of a lamp in a jar. How could Jesus have said that? “I wonder how one can talk about a lamp never being hidden, who through all those long ages had hidden himself, a greater and more essential light: and how can he promise that all things secret shall be made manifest, when he is all the while keeping his god in darkness, waiting I suppose for Marcion to be born” (IV. 19). Recalling that Marcion blamed the OT God for being “ignorant” in the Garden of Eden, when He asked Adam “Where art thou?” (Gen. 3:9), Tertullian responds by pointing out that in Marcion’s gospel, Jesus too asked the woman who was hemorrhaging, “Who touched me?” (IV. 20). Using such an approach, Tertullian is able to apply Marcion’s own logic to Marcion’s very own scriptural canon and destroy it. He grounds Jesus in the OT and reminds his readers that what Marcion has said about the OT God could just as easily be said about Jesus. This, however, should only lead to the conclusion that Jesus and the Creator are actually of one and the same nature. With such argumentation, Tertullian goes through the Gospel of Luke and concludes his fourth volume.

In his last and final fifth volume, Tertullian comes to the highly edited ten Pauline epistles. He begins by pointing out that Paul the Apostle was prophesied in Genesis under the code name “Benjamin,” the one who would come like a ravening wolf during the morning and would distribute food at night. Tertullian argues (V. 1) that this is Paul; he came killing Christians in the beginning of his life (i.e., morning) and then would repent and spread the gospel (i.e., the food) at the end of his life (i.e., night).[29] Tertullian begins by examining Marcion’s interpretations and emendations of Galatians. Apparently, Marcion interpreted 1:8 (“if we or an angel from heaven should proclaim to you a gospel contrary to what we proclaimed to you”) as referring to a “gospel of the angels”—the “angels” in this case belonging to the Creator God. Thus, Marcion saw in this passage a Paul who foresaw that the Creator God would even send His own angels to proclaim a gospel message contrary to Paul’s (this message being the message of the Jewish false-apostles). Tertullian, quite naturally, responds that Marcion’s approach to this passage is coming straight out of his rear-end (V. 3). For reasons unknown to us, Marcion apparently left Galatians 3:11, which has Paul citing Habakkuk 2:4 (“the just shall live by faith”). Tertullian takes this passage and points out that Paul was “expressing agreement with the prophets” (V. 3). Marcion deleted the reference to Abraham in 3:29 and had the text read instead “you are all sons of faith” (V. 3)—it should have been “sons of Abraham.” At 4:3 Paul writes that “while we were minors, we were enslaved to the elemental spirits of the world.”[30] Marcion took this passage to mean that the OT was given to the Hebrews by the god of this world, who used evil “elemental spirits” as his mediators (allegedly Moses would have been in contact with them). Tertullian responds by arguing that the phrase “elemental spirits” actually means “early instruction” (V. 4). Such elements are equivalent to “that early schooling in the law.” The OT law would then be seen as a guardian that kept the Hebrews safe from any extreme errors. Yes, Tertullian would agree with Marcion that the OT law was not perfect; no, he would not agree with Marcion that it was given by a different god and inherently evil.

When Tertullian comes to the First Epistle to the Corinthians, Marcion’s entire worldview comes undone. In this epistle, we have a direct critique of pro-Gnostic thinking and, most probably, an attack upon the docetic Gnostics of Corinth. What is bewildering to the modern mind is that—despite all of the deletions and emendations of Marcion—he kept this particular epistle somewhat intact. It still dealt with marriage and resurrection. Tertullian criticizes Marcion for not allowing marriage when Paul allows it and so does Jesus (V. 7). Regarding the resurrection, Marcion apparently had to reinterpret the whole of chapter 15 in the epistle through the phrase “flesh and blood shall not inherit the kingdom of God.” He took this as his point of departure and filtered the rest of Paul’s writings on the afterlife and resurrection through this phrase. Tertullian makes ingenious comments regarding the entire episode, trying his best to point out how stupid Marcion’s canon within a canon really is. For example, Paul uses the analogy of wheat falling into the ground, dying, and then rising up again. Tertullian argues that if Paul was preaching an escape from the evil flesh, why then was he using examples given us by the Creator (V. 10)? Using this form of argumentation, Tertullian goes through the entire Pauline corpus, as found in Marcion’s canon, and concludes his research by pointing out that only Philemon, Paul’s shortest writing, was left untouched by Marcion.

Tertullian wrote his five-volume work because he felt an urgent need to combat a heresy that was in some ways ridiculous and yet so captivating. “By the year A.D. 200 Marcionitism had called forth attacks in three languages—Greek, Latin, and Syriac.”[31] Marcionism was in some ways very much rooted in the NT, and yet—from an orthodox perspective—completely in opposition to it. Christians living in the second and third-centuries would not have been as informed about Marcionism as we are now. Many could not see the differences. “The content of the Marcionite divine service must have been very similar to that of an orthodox one, so much so that orthodox Christians had to be careful not to go into a Marcionite church by mistake.”[32] Upon examination, one could see the world of difference between Marcionism and orthodox Christianity, but to the untrained eye, they were the same thing. Moreover, in a world of hierarchy and subjugation—where slave was set against master and husband against wife—Marcionism gave the lower class folk a sense of heightened equality and importance. Tertullian obviously felt obligated to respond to this growing threat within Christianity. As someone who was educated amidst a people who were predominantly illiterate (90-95 percent of the population were illiterate), Tertullian had the advantage of reading Marcion’s Antitheses first-hand. He wrote because they wrote. But what if he had not written his five-volume set? What if he chose to ignore Marcionism as too stupid to hold its own? Marcionism would have, most likely, died out nonetheless. What began as a quest for knowledge of the problem of evil, ended in the abyss of infinite evil itself. “If Marcion’s god is good and kind, why did he ignore human suffering for so many centuries? thereby showing that the problem of evil still exists for Marcion.”[33] The problem of evil never disappeared—sadly, even for Marcion. The whole of human existence was filtered through Marcion’s lenses—and yet they, too, failed. “He did not realize that his own rigidly literal exegesis might also miss the truth, and that it was possible to fail to see rightly a whole picture because parts of it were viewed in too great detail.”[34] Marcion’s theology, with its emphasis on evil, turned a beautiful picture—with a small scratch in it—into one that was holocaustically horrendous and terrifyingly evil: only the “scratch” became visible in Marcion’s theology. In all of this, “Marcion is a typical representative of Gnosticism.”[35] He may have thought he was somewhat innovative, but he ended up being just another Gnostic looking out for God, trying to solve evil. And when he was confronted with the problem of sin and why Marcionites still avoided it (if the alien god was never going to punish and judge anyhow), Marcion replied, paradoxically, “Absit, absit” (“God forbid! God forbid!”).[36] Anybody who would have confronted this sort of religious philosophy would have found problems with it at some point. A god who didn’t punish and yet forbade you to sin sounded…strange (to say the least). “Marcion’s thinking is superficial; to the deepest things in religion he is insensitive. He is the slave of dualistic presuppositions, seeing everything antithetically, incapable of perceiving the subtleties which are the very essence of human experience and which cannot be pressed into a rigid classification, dualistic or otherwise. His temperament fitted him to be an organizer and a textual critic, but not to be a prophet or pastor or comforter of sin-sick souls.”[37] And so, Marcion has died twice: he died when he died and he died when his philosophy was incapable of sustaining the human individual living in a world full of beauty, good food, beautiful marriages, children swinging on trees, flowers blooming in May, and all of that other stuff that makes life worthwhile. Marcion is no longer remembered because his philosophy could not sustain itself—it simply could not stand on its own two feet (for it was ghostly and had none!).

Written by: Moses Y. Mikheyev

Dedicated to Jerry Sittser (of Whitworth University) – for being “the monk who wouldn’t be”!


Blackman, E. C. Marcion and His Influence. London: S.P.C.K., 1948.

Bultmann, Rudolf. Theology of the New Testament. Translated by Kendrick Grobel. Vol. 1. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1951.

Ferguson, Everett. Backgrounds of Early Christianity. 2nd ed. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993.

Harnack, Adolf von. Marcion: The Gospel of the Alien God. Translated by John E. Steely and      Lyle D. Bierma. Durham: The Labyrinth Press, 1990.

MacCulloch, Diarmaid. Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years. New York: Viking, 2009.

Rudolph, Kurt. Gnosis: The Nature and History of Gnosticism. Translated by Robert McLachlan            Wilson. San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1983.

Schmithals, Walter. Gnosticism in Corinth: An Investigation of the Letters to the Corinthians.        Translated by John E. Steely. New York: Abingdon Press, 1971.

Schmithals, Walter. Paul and the Gnostics. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1972.

Tertullian. Adversus Marcionem: Books 1 to 3. Oxford Early Christian Texts. Translated and       Edited by Ernest Evans. Vol. 1. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1972.

Tertullian. Adversus Marcionem: Books 4 and 5. Oxford Early Christian Texts. Translated and    Edited by Ernest Evans. Vol. 2. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1972.


[1] Adolf von Harnack, Marcion: The Gospel of the Alien God, trans. John E. Steely and Lyle D. Bierma (Durham: The Labyrinth Press, 1990), 15.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid., 16.

[4] Ibid., 17.

[5] Ibid., 17-18.

[6] Ibid., 19.

[7] Ibid.

[8] The vanilla flavoring is not to be taken seriously; it is “scholarly humor” that probably has some truth to it.

[9] Harnack, Marcion, 28. Italics original.

[10]Harnack, Marcion, 22.

[11] Ibid., 23. Words italicized in the original.

[12] According to Tertullian, Marcion had no brains. “Evidently you could more easily discover a man born without heart or brains, like Marcion, than without a body, like Marcion’s Christ” (Adv. Marc. IV. 10). Translation taken from Tertullian, Adversus Marcionem: Books 4 and 5, Oxford Early Christian Texts, trans. and ed. Ernest Evans, vol. 2, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1972), 304-305. All following citations from Tertullian’s Adversus Marcionem come from Evans’ 2 volume translation.

[13] Harnack, Marcion, 26. Italics original.

[14] Ibid., 28.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid., 46. Citation taken directly from Harnack.

[17] Ibid., 31.

[18] Ibid., 32.

[19] New Revised Standard Version (NRSV).

[20] Harnack, Marcion, 33.

[21] Ibid., 34.

[22] Ibid., 37.

[23] Ibid., 72.

[24] For scholars who think that Gnosticism can be traced to the first-century see Walter Schmithals, Gnosticism in Corinth: An Investigation of the Letters to the Corinthians, trans. John E. Steely (New York: Abingdon Press, 1971); Paul and the Gnostics (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1972); Kurt Rudolph, Gnosis: The Nature and History of Gnosticism, trans. Robert McLachlan Wilson (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1983), see esp. pp. 299-306; Rudolf Bultmann, Theology of the New Testament, trans. Kendrick Grobel, vol. 1, (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1951), see esp. pp. 167-183.

[25] “The troubles at Corinth over the resurrection and enthusiastic spiritual gifts have also been traced to Gnostic thinking” (Everett Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity, 2nd ed. [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993], 292.

[26] Ernest Evans, introduction to Tertullian, Adversus Marcionem: Books 1 to 3, Oxford Early Christian Texts, trans. and ed. Ernest Evans, vol. 1, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1972), xviii.

[27] Triptolemus was a hero sent to teach men agriculture (Ovid, Metam. V. 645 sqq.).

[28][28] Ernest Evans writes a footnote here that reads: “’From the tree’ is not in the Hebrew or the LXX or Latin Vulgate of Ps. 96:10: but it was known to Justin, apol. i. 41, 42; dial. 73; and the epistle of Barnabas (8.5) seems to be aware of it” (Adversus Marcionem: Books 1 to 3, 227).

[29] This tradition was already present in the Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs.

[30] NRSV.

[31] E. C. Blackman, Marcion and His Influence (London: S.P.C.K., 1948), 3.

[32] Ibid., 7.

[33] Ibid., 73.

[34] Ibid., 82.

[35] Ibid., 85.

[36] Ibid., 97.

[37] Ibid., 106.

Schleiermacher’s Doctrine of Atonement: An Historical Introduction and Examination of Schleiermacher’s Sermon The Dying Savior Our Example

Friedrich Schleiermacher was a late 18th century and early 19th century theologian and philosopher. He was born into a Prussian household of Reformed pastors; his parents later became Moravians and sent their son to a Moravian Brethren school in Niesky on June 14, 1783. While there, he successfully studied Latin and Greek, later becoming a well-known translator of Plato’s writings into German.[1] He labored tirelessly in theological and philosophical literature throughout his life, attempting to make sense of his Christian faith. During his lifetime, Kant’s critical philosophy had wiped away any hope for traditional Enlightenment views of God and Christ, and atomically destructive work would later be carried out by the likes of David Strauss on the historical Jesus.[2] Adding to this critically poisonous atmosphere, Schleiermacher began his lifelong affair with Baruch Spinoza, flirting endlessly with his pantheistic philosophy (which later, understandably, had his critics wrongly accuse him of being a pantheist—err, practically an atheist).[3]

Two years later, he and ten other graduates left Niesky for Barnaby, a small community where the Moravians had their theological seminary.[4] While there, he read Goethe’s Werther and Wieland’s writings. His teachers also introduced him—from a polemical perspective—to Semler’s biblical criticism. It wasn’t long before the youthful Schleiermacher, along with his group of “independent thinkers,” had a falling out with the Moravians, resulting in his leaving to attend the liberal Halle University, where he would encounter the critical musings of Johann August Eberhard, a philosophy professor and disciple of Christian Wolff. He taught Schleiermacher Kant’s philosophical system, along with Kant’s “rational” religion—who, as many know, was probably committing the logical fallacy of false equal by making “religion” and “God” essentially identical to ethics.[5] Schleiermacher’s leaving of the Moravian seminary did not come without existential angst. His father, whom he loved dearly, argued passionately with his son, trying to convince him not to ever leave the faith. Schleiermacher’s father saw in his son “only pride, a defective love for Jesus, and a worldly longing,” as succinctly summarized in the words of Martin Redeker.[6] Despite his father’s wishes, Schleiermacher allowed doubt and despair to settle in; years later, he would recount “I have again become a Moravian, only of a higher order.”[7] His father would not live to hear his son say those words.

After two years at Halle, Schleiermacher stopped studying at Halle and instead retreated to Drossen (living with his uncle Samuel), where he began leisurely reading works in philosophy, despite the pleadings of his father to finish his theological education.[8] It is at this point in his life that Schleiermacher began thinking of religion along mostly ethical lines. He wanted a theory of virtue—something like Kantian ethics—to replace Christianity. What was important was how one lived—and Kantian ethics, surely, was in complete accord with Christian teaching. Schleiermacher found holes in Christian teaching about the afterlife too. He refused to accept that a hope for a hereafter as a motivating factor in an ethical theory was valid; doing good simply because Jesus told you that you will be rewarded in heaven brought what Redeker calls “a false eudaemonistic motive into Christian ethics.”[9] However, with his eyes inflamed from too much reading, Schleiermacher reluctantly agreed to complete his theology examinations in Berlin at the Directorate of the Reformed Church in the year 1790.

After becoming a tutor to the Count Dohna family, Schleiermacher’s spirit began a period of rejuvenation from youthful arrogance, rebellion, and disillusionment. It was here at Schlobitten that he, only within a mere two years, began preaching. He wrote his father on August 6, 1791: “Here my heart is properly nurtured…Here I enjoy the family life for which man is made and this warms my heart…You surely must thank God with me for his gracious providence and send me your blessings that I may widely profit by them.”[10] Here was a maturing theologian—a man who had come to terms with his God, his philosophy, and his religious past. One of his sermons in the year 1792 was an exercise in moral philosophy and theology, dealing with happiness and unhappiness as false definitions of a well-lived life. “The young preacher was filled with a vigorous sense for the moral ethos discovered in Kant’s concept of duty.”[11] At this point in his life, Schleiermacher believed that the telos of life was to become morally perfect, like God.

After completing his second theological examinations at Berlin in 1794, he became an assistant pastor in Landsberg. By 1796, he was appointed a pastor of the Charite Hospital in Berlin, a post he kept for six years, until the age of thirty-four.[12] After these years, he would begin writing some of his most well-known works, teaching classes first at Halle then at the University of Berlin (which he helped found), all along preaching sermons. Schleiermacher

“created the classic theological statement of liberal Protestantism in The Christian Faith and ushered in a new period of systematic theology by applying to theology the method of transcendental philosophy. He was an untiring academician and teacher, lecturing almost every morning from 7:00 to 10:00. Nearly every Sunday for forty years he devoted himself to the service of the Christian community as a preacher of the gospel.”[13]

This summarizes Schleiermacher’s life as a thinker. His life was essentially a reflection of a man thoroughly committed to preaching the Gospel and attempting to build bridges between those who despised religion and Christianity. He tried his best to make Christianity palatable to his hearers. With that being said, I would like to briefly examine Schleiermacher’s theology, later specifically focusing on his views of Christ and atonement.

Schleiermacher’s theology is somewhat difficult to explain for the uninitiated. Despite this fact, I will attempt clarity possibly at the expense of robust depth and accuracy. Schleiermacher obviously believed that God existed. God, for Schleiermacher, was that Being upon whom all life depends. The universe is absolutely dependent upon God. Redeker relates how Schleiermacher “referred to God as the ultimate power active not simply in a supernatural realm but permeating the whole of reality.”[14] God was, quite literally and biblically, “all in all” (see Ephesians 4:6). But could humans possibly know this God? Could they somehow come to know God by natural theology or by means of reason alone? Schleiermacher thought not. He did not think—and here he seemed to agree with Kant—that knowing God was possible. Schleiermacher viewed God, to use an anachronistic term over-used by Karl Barth, “wholly Other.” God was out there to our sinful, unredeemed minds. But in reality, God was omnipresent: He was everywhere. Space did not confine Him. Schleiermacher accepted “the basis of critical transcendental philosophy” in which “God cannot be the object of human knowledge, since human knowledge is bound to space and time and the categories of reason, i.e., the finite world.”[15] Here lies a most crucial point in understanding Schleiermacher’s theology: God is infinite and we are finite. Between the two lies a vast abyss of absolute nothingness. Our reason cannot cross over from the realm of the finite into the realm of the infinite. All we can do is hope to God that God does something. God, being infinite, cannot be understood by finite creatures. The reason being, for Schleiermacher, quite simple: God is not a part of the space-time continuum. God is infinite, thus time does not exist for Him, and neither does space. This also brings us to Schleiermacher’s next point: for God there are no subject-object distinctions. In the realm of the infinite “reality is not yet divided into subject and object.”[16] Human beings usually deal with past, present, and future—being bound by space-time—and objectification of the Other, being bound by subjectivity and the limitations of human reason. Essential to Schleiermacher’s theology, therefore, is the utter “non-objectifiability of God.”[17] The question then arises: how do we know God? Schleiermacher responds: we don’t. We never know God nor do we know anything about God. To talk about the “about-ness” of God is ridiculous; the moment we do this, we are immediately objectifying God, the infinite, and wrenching Him into the realm of space-time finitude. No, God is to be left alone. All Christians can do is participate in “God-consciousness,” which is strictly different than what we would call “consciousness about God.”

But then a miracle happens.

God decides, graciously (and please do note my use of “grace-filled” terminology), to instill in human beings a feeling. Note that this is not God instilling a particular logic or a particular form of reasoning; no, God instills in human beings a feeling. This is Schleiermacher’s most oft-cited phrase: “the feeling of absolute dependence.” In its entirety, Schleiermacher actually wrote in The Christian Faith: “The feeling of absolute dependence is in and of itself God’s co-presence in self-consciousness.”[18] But what did he mean by that phrase? Redeker sees, at the very least, two truths being conveyed here: (1) “God, as Creator, creates and preserves our human existence and instills in us the religious feeling of creatureliness”; and (2) “In this feeling of creatureliness we became certain that God vitally permeates the entire world.”[19] Our ability to feel dependent upon God arises from God Himself. We do not feel anything on our own at all. All humans can do is participate in “universal God-consciousness.” In some ways, for Schleiermacher, God-consciousness is to be understood as encompassing this “feeling of absolute dependence.” Without participating in God-consciousness, one cannot feel anything towards God. God exists and is conscious, and for us to be a part of that consciousness, we must participate in revealed God-consciousness. It is revealed because it comes only from God and to whom God chooses. And how do we come to participate in this so-called “God-consciousness”? Jesus Christ. Jesus is the embodiment of the fullness and perfection of God-consciousness here on earth. As “Jesus” is the answer to most Barthian questions, so is Jesus the answer to restoring our lost God-consciousness. And how did we lose God-consciousness?

Schleiermacher believed that the Fall marked a period in human history in which humans had damaged their God-consciousness. We started sinning. Sin was defined by him as being the “complete incapacity for the good.”[20] Once humans began sinning, they became less and less dependent upon God; their thinking and feelings became clouded by sin. They lost the ability to feel that feeling of absolute dependence. Moreover, in Schleiermacher’s theology, there was even room for original sin. Redeker succinctly defines original sin, as Schleiermacher saw it, as “the internal and timeless predisposition toward sin.”[21] Schleiermacher’s theology, which still accepted sin, did not sit well with many a Romantic. Sin was a nasty subject to be taught by primal man; it was not supposed to be peddled by such a cultured man as Schleiermacher. “His teachings of the need for redemption and the sinfulness of men contradicted the optimistic, moralistic self-regard of the Enlightenment as well as the prevailing philosophy of humanity.”[22] Precisely because of this belief (i.e., that men were ultimately sinful), Schleiermacher’s theology had room for a savior: enter Jesus Christ.

For Schleiermacher, Jesus was the embodiment of tangible God-consciousness. Jesus came to earth to help restore our God-consciousness. He did this by allowing us to participate in Him (in participating in Christ, Christians participate in God-consciousness). Once that occurs, three things happen: (1) The person is immediately aware of his or her state of sin; (2) The person becomes aware of the need for a savior and the need for grace; and (3) The person then responds by having the feeling of absolute dependence restored. Redemption occurs only by means of God’s grace and His revelation. His revelation of Himself is entirely gracious. Our response must be nothing but humble thankfulness.

To recapitulate: God, through Jesus Christ’s incarnation, allows human beings to witness God-consciousness in all of its glorious fullness, and, in response, humans participate in God-consciousness, becoming aware of their sinfulness, their need for redemption, and their dependence upon God.

Schleiermacher believed that both sin and grace were, in a sense, “created” by God. “[S]ince we never have a consciousness of grace without a consciousness of sin, God has ordained the reality of sin with and alongside grace,” comments Redeker.[23] This means that sin must only be seen in relation to grace. “God has ordained sin not in and for itself but only in relation to redemption.”[24] It may be better to think of the dichotomy between sin and grace as being separated by a wall which has a one-way street. That is, sin is contingent upon grace, but grace is not contingent upon sin. Humans have chosen sin—hence sin exists. Yet, grace could exist apart from sin, while sin could not exist apart from grace. Moreover, Schleiermacher added the qualification that sin was, at the end of time, to be completely annihilated into white hot nothingness. Sin will not prevail against God’s act of creation and redemption; at the end of time, when all is said and done, it will be God who reigns over all—not sin.[25] Finally, it would be good to note that Schleiermacher, because of this view that God ultimately wins (even with all the nasty warts of sin), refrained from talking much about God’s wrath. Redeker cites Schleiermacher as saying, rather dryly: “Nothing need be taught concerning the wrath of God.”[26] Such a statement makes sense only in light of a Schleiermacher’s belief that sin is only a temporary stage in human development. It is all transitory. If God, being a loving God, sees human beings, running around like chickens with their heads chopped off and sinning, He would not speak of wrath. He would mostly speak of perfection. God understands that humans are merely, to use Kierkegaard’s and Heidegger’s word, in a state of “becoming.” We are not perfect. We do not have our God-consciousness fully restored yet. Only in Jesus do we see a fully operational God-consciousness. In participating in Christ, we, as Christians, are merely “becoming” like Christ. Given this reality, sin should be viewed as (a) evil and (b) temporary. This would further suggest that wrath is, in some ways, probably unnecessary. God will conquer sin whether sin likes it or not. God will turn sin into nothingness. Becoming perfect presupposes that nasty and brutal fact that one is not perfect…yet. Given this, Schleiermacher can, when viewing history from a holistic perspective, in which sin is merely a bleep on God’s radar, do away with wrath and spend time lecturing his students and parishioners on imitating Christ.

However, Schleiermacher’s theology did demand a savior, for, as Redeker notes, “where God-consciousness has not been restored through redemption, the destructive consequences of sin continue.”[27] Schleiermacher ultimately believed that Jesus had come to leave behind a legacy, a legacy we should all imitate. The world-renowned historian Diarmaid MacCulloch summarizes Schleiermacher’s theology in the following manner: “The unique gift of Christianity was the person of Jesus, who revealed his own divinity by representing the most perfect consciousness of God that there could be.”[28] Jesus was ultimately sent to have followers. Followers after God’s own consciousness. Schleiermacher, then, viewed Jesus’ death not as substitutionary but as exemplary. But not—as some interpreters wrongly assume—only exemplary. Schleiermacher criticized those who viewed Jesus’ death as merely exemplary. The feminist theologian Mary J. Streufert points this out succinctly. “Schleiermacher’s criticism of exemplary christology [was the following:] if Jesus is divine because he does good earthly activity, are those who do good among us divine?”[29] For Schleiermacher, then, salvation-redemption was a process that was ongoing; it was not something to be identified with a singular event which occurred in the past—like sacrificial appeasement. “[R]edemption is a present process and is no longer located in a single act of sacrifice in the past.”[30] Because of this, some theologians are right in noting how Schleiermacher’s view of atonement and salvation has more in common with Paul than with, say, the author of Hebrews. He understands redemption as being “mystical” and sees it “as a union with Christ through the redeemer’s ‘influence’ (Wirkung).”[31] Hence, while Schleiermacher certainly has more affinity with a “moral influence theory of atonement,” it is also just as certainly wrong to see him as endorsing only an “exemplary” view of atonement.

Given the aforementioned views regarding Jesus, Schleiermacher could certainly point to Jesus as being a life we should model—without getting rid of the need for a real savior. Jesus lived a life in which because he was God, he was humble. And yet, as one of the earliest Christian hymns so beautifully states, “he emptied himself, taking the ‘form’ of a slave…” (Philippians 2:7, my trans.). Paul also admonishes his readers to “have the same mindset as Jesus Christ” (v. 5). If Paul could ask his hearers to imitate Christ, surely Schleiermacher was orthodox in doing so likewise. In my own words, I would say that, for Schleiermacher, Christians who accepted Jesus, along with his God-consciousness and ethical system, accepted God-conscious ethics. Hence, it followed that they, too, should live a life worthy of their savior’s. With that being said, I now turn my attention to Schleiermacher’s sermon.

The Dying Savior Our Example was preached in the presence of the King possibly sometime in 1799. In this sermon, Schleiermacher set out to do three things. “I desire, then, that in dying we may all have, in the first place, the same sorrow over unaccomplished deeds; secondly, the same calmness under the unjust judgments of the world; and thirdly, that we may be in the same way surrounded by tender and faithful friends.”[32] As strange as it sounds, Schleiermacher took Christ’s death—an event few Christians today look to for ethical recommendations, to say the least—and placed it on display before his congregants eyes. It is as if Schleiermacher had said, “Look! Here is Jesus Christ on the Cross before you. Imitate Him even in His death!” But what did Schleiermacher mean by imitation? I think he meant it literally. “[W]e all set before us His life even to death as the pattern which we seek to follow; yes, His life even to death, not even excluding the last experiences of His holy soul.”[33] Schleiermacher could not help but see Christ’s life as a model for our own. “[L]et us learn to die in seeing Christ die! It is no small thing that I expect from you in calling on you to do this; for it is with the death of the Saviour as it was with His life; let him who seeks only happiness and joy shun likeness to Him.”[34] Schleiermacher even had time to sneak in a little bit of his anti-utilitarianism—“let him who seeks only happiness…shun likeness to Him.” For Schleiermacher, Kantian ethics were still better tasting than utilitarian ethics, though in his later life he focused on a final telos in which ethics, being goal-oriented, arrives at a summum bonum (“the highest good,” to be identified with participating in God-consciousness by becoming like Jesus).[35]

After clearly stating his thesis and his beliefs about following Christ’s pattern of life, Schleiermacher returns to his first claim (i.e., having sorrow over unaccomplished deeds). This claim, Schleiermacher holds, is grounded most poignantly in Christ’s almost final cry-out: “My God, My God, why have You forsaken me?” In these words, Schleiermacher saw the God-man sorrowful not over God’s inability to bring about His Kingdom and His Glory; rather, Schleiermacher sees these words as reflecting Christ’s sorrow over his failure to accomplish the work which he set out to do. Christ died young. And that sucked. “He loved His duty with His whole heart; the thought of the great work to which He had devoted His life still filled His soul. And when He reflected how far that work still was from completion…[He began experiencing sorrow].”[36] Christ died of a broken heart. Schleiermacher, instead of talking about blood and guts, as most modern theologians and preachers would, immediately begins discussing practical matters, such as ethics.

Are you servants of the State, administrators of public regulations; may you grieve that you cannot still reform abuses and introduce improvements! Are you independent and wealthy; may you grieve that you cannot set agoing one more benevolent institution, or do this thing and that for the unfortunate whom you protect! Are you scholars and philosophers; may you be reluctant to interrupt an instructive presentation of your thoughts, or to turn away from a new field of human knowledge! Are you artists and workmen; may it grieve you that you are not to bestow on one more piece of work at least the new perfection that you have planned or practised![37]

Schleiermacher took one of Jesus’ final cries and turned it into an ethical imperative: Go and do likewise.

Schleiermacher’s second point need not much commentary. He wishes for his congregants to leave the world in a state of calmness. “It is therefore with good reason that I wish for us all in this event the Saviour’s calmness and equanimity; for it is the result of the most mature wisdom and the most genuine piety.”[38] He recognizes that Christians will be persecuted. And, despite this, he asks them to suffer with joy.

Schleiermacher’s third and final point is, perhaps, his most brilliant, original, and ecclesiological: Be surrounded by friends, for friendship is the greatest gift one can give and receive. For Schleiermacher, friendship was axiomatic both for his life and theology. In fact, he even seen the Church as nothing less than a great gathering of friends. “We could all desire to die surrounded, as the Saviour was, with loving and suffering friends.”[39] For Schleiermacher, the imperative to have friends became an absolute demand, and rightly so.

“[T]his love and faithfulness, enduring even to death, were the best testimony that He, with His loving heart, had enjoyed in His whole sphere of work the highest happiness of life. And it is for such reasons that I wish for ourselves, above all things, to die in such company; nay, as much as lies with ourselves, I demand it of every one.”[40]

The “highest happiness” was dying surrounded by friends. Schleiermacher’s love for human friendship is soberly summarized in his comment on the loss of a friend: “It is true, a friend whom you have lost will never be replaced.”[41] Outside of friendship, to mimic Paul’s language on love in 1 Corinthians 13, lies nothing but a “resounding gong or clanging cymbal.” Hold on to friends, says Schleiermacher, for you never know the day of your death. “Even in happy youth does not the feeling of the transitory nature of all earthly things arise? Are we not often involuntarily seized by the thought that each joy may be the last [?]”[42] Indeed, this may be our very last joy shared together: the joy of friendship. And, finally, in his most sentimental moments, Schleiermacher concludes his sermon by returning to the reality of congregants inhabiting church pews.

“And what should be the nursery of sincere and faithful friends, if not the Church of Christ, the association of men with whom unselfishness and benevolence, sympathy and helpful love are natural sentiments, among whom every kind of wisdom and perfection ought to exist and to be ready for the service of each?”[43]

Can Schleiermacher teach us something about sermons, churches, and Jesus? Most certainly! As I’ve already pointed out, Schleiermacher’s concerns about friendship within the body of Christ (formally known as “the Church”) are as relevant today as they were over two-hundred and sixteen years ago. The modern experience of “church” in America on any given Sunday is about as detached as one can get. The point of many modern churches is precisely detachment. If we had the will to experience friendship in church, we wouldn’t be so desperately seeking to be lost in the non-existent Kierkegaardian “crowd.” As Kierkegaard so cogently reminds us: “In eternity you will look in vain for the crowd. You will listen in vain to find whether you cannot hear where the noise and the gathering is, so that you may run to it. In eternity you, too, will be forsaken by the crowd.”[44] We run into the crowd to avoid responsibilities. We seek crowds in order to be hidden. Like modern terrorists who wrap their bodies in dynamite sticks, large coats, and hoodies, we run into the safety of the crowd so that our true identities—along with all of our sins and insecurities—may remain forever hidden. And so the world never knows us. Schleiermacher knew all too well the nothingness of “the crowd” (even a “church crowd”). He wrote:

“Today the sermon is the only means of having a personal impact on the common outlook of a large number of people. In reality its effect is not great for it does not achieve much. But if one takes up and deals with the matter as it should be—not just as it is—and if there should be only two or three who really listen, even then the result may still be beautiful.”[45]

Schleiermacher was acutely aware of the fact that crowds cannot be taught, neither do they listen. Only individuals—two or three at best—are taught. To allow ourselves, as the body of Christ, to disappear in the nauseating dizziness of the crowd, would be equivalent to denying Jesus the one thing that he demanded of his followers: “Love one another.” But how can we love if we don’t even know who you are?[46]

Schleiermacher’s own theory of atonement, which could easily—with noted qualifications—be identified under one of the subsets of a “moral influence theory of atonement,” reflects not only the reality of the categorical imperatives which are embodied in Jesus Christ but also the reality of the Church. Richard Niebuhr coined the phrase “Christo-morphism”[47] in order to explain the general thrust of Schleiermacher’s theology. That is, the point of Schleiermacher’s theology was to get people to morph into being Christ-like. (This term can just as easily be applied to his own, unique theory of atonement.) Christ was in the business of “person-forming” work.[48] The Church, which should also be a reflection of this calling, needs to continue creating new persons in the image of Christ. That is the point of Christian theology. It is the very reason why a Church even exists. If Christo-morphism is not going on in churches, if person-forming work is not being carried out, we have not only failed Jesus, we have also failed to heed the voice of one of the most important theologians of the 18th and 19th centuries: Schleiermacher.

Written by: Moses Y. Mikheyev

Dedicated to Karen Petersen Finch (of Whitworth University) – for being a good theologian and scholar.


Kierkegaard, Søren. Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing. Translated by Douglas V. Steere. New York: HarperOne, 1956.

MacCulloch, Diarmaid. Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years. New York: Viking, 2010.

Niebuhr, Richard R. Schleiermacher On Christ and Religion: A New Introduction. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1964.

Redeker, Martin. Schleiermacher: Life and Thought. Translated by John Walhausser. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1973.

Schleiermacher, Friedrich. Selected Sermons of Schleiermacher. Translated by Mary F. Wilson. 1886. Reprint, Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 2004.

Streufert, Mary J. “Reclaiming Schleiermacher for Twenty-First Century Atonement Theory: The Human and the Divine in Feminist Christology.” Feminist Theology 15/1 (2006): 98-120.


[1] Martin Redeker, Schleiermacher: Life and Thought, trans. John Walhausser (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1973), 9.

[2] Schleiermacher accepted the fact that the Bible was corrupted (to some degree) and that myth was present in it. Niebuhr, reflecting the scholarly consensus in a post-Enlightenment era, correctly summarizes what Schleiermacher (and those following him) certainly felt (and feel); namely, “No one today will contest the presence of myth in the New Testament” (Richard R. Niebuhr, Schleiermacher On Christ and Religion: A New Introduction [New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1964], 223, n. 17.

[3] An affair that would not begin until he had become an assistant pastor at Landsberg in 1794. When Schleiermacher was appointed a professor of theology at Halle University in 1804, Eberhard, his childhood philosophy professor, would remark: “It has not come to the point that an open atheist has been called to Halle as a theologian and preacher” (cited in Redeker, Schleiermacher: Life and Thought, 77). To call this infantile caricaturing would be an understatement. It is no wonder that Schleiermacher’s personal friends were forced to come to his defense. Henriette Herz, for example, would come out arguing for his orthodoxy: “Schleiermacher is far removed from rationalism and genuinely believes in God and the Savior…He does not adhere to the letter, not to the dead word—he believes rather in the living spirit” (Ibid., 28-29).

[4] Ibid., 12.

[5] Ibid., 15.

[6] Ibid., 14.

[7] Ibid., 9.

[8] Ibid., 16.

[9] Ibid., 17.

[10] Ibid., 19-20.

[11] Ibid., 21.

[12] Ibid., 25.

[13] Ibid., 5.

[14] Ibid., 39. Perhaps it is this particular belief of Schleiermacher’s which is responsible for his being called a “pantheist” and, later, an “atheist.”

[15] Ibid., 38.

[16] Ibid., 39.

[17] Ibid., 120-21.

[18] Cited in Redeker, Schleiermacher: Life and Thought, 42.

[19] Ibid., 123.

[20] Cited in Redeker, Schleiermacher: Life and Thought, 125.

[21] Ibid., 125.

[22] Ibid., 125.

[23] Ibid., 127.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Ibid., 128.

[26] Ibid., 130.

[27] Ibid., 126.

[28] Diarmaid MacCulloch, Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years (New York: Viking, 2010), 832.

[29] Mary J. Streufert, “Reclaiming Schleiermacher for Twenty-First Century Atonement Theory: The Human and the Divine in Feminist Christology,” Feminist Theology 15/1 (2006): 116.

[30] Ibid., 102.

[31] Ibid., 105.

[32] Friedrich Schleiermacher, “The Dying Savior Our Example,” in Selected Sermons of Schleiermacher, trans. Mary F. Wilson (1886; reprint, Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 2004), 54.

[33] Ibid., 53.

[34] Ibid.

[35] For a discussion of this see Richard R. Niebuhr, Schleiermacher On Christ and Religion: A New Introduction, 93-97. He writes that Schleiermacher “rejected the Kantian-Fichtean accent on duty as the principal phenomenon of the moral life and of our sense of humanity and instead organized his own ethical reflections around the idea of the highest good” (pp. 93-94). Moreover, Niebuhr believes that “Schleiermacher chose to identify the highest good with the content of ethical activity and to deny that reason can entertain a pure, a priori idea of it” (p. 94). Though Niebuhr does not explicitly state this, Schleiermacher seems to have understood the highest good to be identified with God-consciousness which permeated the whole of reality. Since Jesus embodied that consciousness, it is safe to say that, for Schleiermacher, a life patterned on Jesus’ own would reflect, at the very least, the highest good.

[36] Ibid., 55.

[37] Ibid., 55-6.

[38] Ibid., 60.

[39] Ibid., 61.

[40] Ibid.

[41] Ibid., 63.

[42] Ibid., 64.

[43] Ibid., 65.

[44] Søren Kierkegaard, Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing, trans. Douglas V. Steere (New York: HarperOne, 1956), 191.

[45] Redeker, Schleiermacher: Life and Thought, 73.

[46] It may be good here to point out that Schleiermacher believed in a world where the I stood in relation to the Thou (and was, in some ways, dependent upon it). This implied that human beings must be social creatures. A church should exist made up of Is and Thous. “We may also recall at this point Schleiermacher’s observation in his psychology of the fact that the consciousness of being an “I” always presupposes a “thou,” since memory cannot reach back to the absolute origins of the individual; and, therefore, beyond the point at which memory falters, the individual is dependent on the descriptions of himself furnished by others” (Richard R. Niebuhr, Schleiermacher On Christ and Religion: A New Introduction, 239). Given this reality, a “you” cannot exist in isolation (read: hidden) from the view of others. This further implies the fact that, at least for Schleiermacher, the Church could not exist as a detached community.

[47] Ibid., 215. Niebuhr also notes—in relation to our discussion regarding Schleiermacher’s theory of atonement—how “Schleiermacher speaks of Christ as the exemplar (Vorbild) of perfected human nature” (p. 218, italics original).

[48] Ibid., 214.

Karl Barth an Anti-Semite?

Karl Barth was accused of anti-Semitism when he preached a sermon titled Die Kierche Jesu Christi, “The Church of Jesus Christ.” It was preached on Advent, 1933. Weeks earlier, on November 13th, a radical German Christian by the name of Dr. Reinhold Krause delivered a “rousing speech” in the Berlin Sport Palace in which he called all German Christians to purge their Bibles of the Old Testament, Paul, and of any Jewish elements in the New.[1] The German Christians who shared Krause’s theological and political convictions, demanded the Arierparagraph be applied to the Prussian church, the segregation of Germans and non-Germans, and the freeing of worship and confession from the Old Testament’s “Jewish ethics of reward.”[2] With this rise in overt anti-Semitism, Barth was forced to respond to these recent “theological developments” in German Christianity. And so Barth preached a sermon.

Despite the sermon being utterly pro-Jewish, with conniving logic and some large doses of taking quotes out of context, Daniel Jonah Goldhagen was able to have Barth call the Jewish people “an obstinate and evil people.” Of course he failed to mention the fact that Barth was primarily quoting Exodus 32:9 (for the first part of the statement) and referring to Exodus 33:3-5, 34:9, Deuteronomy 9:6, etc. (for the second). In fact, to be completely fair, the text of Exodus 32:9 actually calls the Jewish nation “stiff-necked” (read: obstinate) and deserving to be “destroyed” while God’s anger “burned.” Had Barth quoted the verse in its entirety, maybe Goldhagen would have stood a chance at being called a judicious and sober scholar. (Instead, he chose to quote-mine and, hence, serves as a perfect example of how not to do scholarly work.) So what, in fact, did Barth say in his sermon?

Barth’s thesis seems pretty clear: Christians are to welcome one another as Christ has welcomed us.[3] And, furthermore, since Christ was thoroughly Jewish, and Jesus came as a fulfillment of the Old Testament, we, too, must welcome Jews and the Jewish traditions. As Barth overtly puts it: “salvation comes from the Jews” (citing John 4:22).

Right off the bat, Barth begins by saying that “Christ has been a servant of the Circumcision.”[4] In other words, Christ was for the very thing the German Christians have completely denigrated. Barth reminds the German Christians that Christians are called to be a “community,” using the old German word Gemeinde. There has to be a certain level of togetherness. Not any segregation.

Barth also demolishes any ideas of a Church that is completely aligned to a given State. “The fact that there is God’s Word in the Church is not established in human spiritual life, nor is it a cultural achievement, nor does it belong to the nature and character of any particular people or race…”[5] For Barth, then, a German Christian Church is really no church at all—since it is not really a universal community, but a racial community! (And Barth already annihilated that in his comment.)

Midway through the sermon, Barth really gives the German Christians something to think about: “Christ belonged to the people of Israel. That people’s blood was, in his veins, the blood of the Son of God. That people’s character he has accepted by taking on being human…”[6] There appears to be nothing anti-Semitic about any of this. In fact, it sounds almost elitist. Jewish-elitist. Barth is saying what most historical Jesus scholars know (post-Sanders): Jesus was a Jew.[7]

Then, after making those statements, Barth says that even that people’s characteristics were “stiff-necked and wicked.”[8] But aren’t the Jews the ones who killed Christ? “[A]ll peoples of all times and lands would also have done in its place.”[9] For Barth, the Jews did what all humanity would had done anyway: crucify Christ. Moreover, Barth is also quick to point out that all of us are “stiff-necked and wicked.” Goldhagen is wrong again. Barth did not only call the Jews stiff-necked and wicked, he called all of humanity that. Citing Romans 11:32, Barth said: “God imprisoned all in disobedience, so that he might have mercy on all.” And, as if that weren’t overt enough, Barth continues by adding that the Heathen, who were later accepted by God, were not any better than the Jews.[10]

So there we have it. Goldhagen was wrong and Barth was right. “[W]e perceive [faults] in each other much too seriously.”[11] This ability to deny goodness in others; to exaggerate evil in others; to annihilate the Other simply by reducing the Other to a cruel word or phrase—this is what Barth was against. He said this was what the Germans who agreed with Krause were doing in 1933. And this, precisely, was not “welcoming one another.” In doing that, we were not being a Church. In doing what Goldhagen does, we are submitting ourselves to infantile caricaturing and annihilation of the Other through false documentation. Goldhagen is not merely doing bad scholarly work; he is perpetrating the myth of the power of labels. He labels Barth, then proceeds as if nothing really happened. But something did. Barth—from a reasonable perspective—said no such thing (e.g., “obstinate and evil people”). If one finds anti-Semitism in an anti-anti-Semitic sermon, one can find a bag of shit in a non-existent diaper. Goldhagen should not merely be corrected; his methodology in this particular endeavor should be actively denounced and called what it really is: the comments of a scholar doing scholarship-gone-awry. (And such an evaluation is thoroughly justified.)

Written by: Moses Y. Mikheyev


[1]John Michael Owen, “Karl Barth’s Sermon For Advent 2, 1933: Introduction and Translation,” Colloquium 36/2 (2004), 170.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid., 179.

[4] Ibid., 172.

[5] Ibid., 174.

[6] Ibid., 175. Italics original.

[7] I am referring to the influential (and game-changing) book by E. P. Sanders, Jesus and Judaism (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1984).

[8] Ibid., 175.

[9] Ibid., 176.

[10] Ibid., 177.

[11] Ibid., 178.

The Reformed Objection to Natural Theology: A Brief Summary and Evaluation of Alvin Plantinga’s Argument

In his article “The Reformed Objection to Natural Theology,” Plantinga argues that the Reformed tradition has had a tendency to refuse to succumb to natural theology. The reason being that the Reformed tradition views the idea of God as properly basic. By properly basic, Plantinga means that this belief (i.e., the idea of God) is not grounded nor supported by anything else—it merely is (with or without arguments). A properly basic belief is a belief that is not contingent upon anything else; it is not a belief that needs an argument or a proof to support it. Most people throughout history had believed in God—with or without evidence. This seems to suggest that the idea of God is a “natural” starting point for most humans; it is the “default position” with which most of us function in the world.

Plantinga begins his article by mentioning briefly the diverse views the Reformed tradition has had towards natural theology. Citing Herman Bavinck, Plantinga summarizes his anti-natural theology view: “[A]rguments or proofs are not, in general, the source of the believer’s confidence in God” and “[A]rgument is not needed for rational justification; the believer is entirely within his epistemic right in believing that God has created the world, even if he has no argument at all for that conclusion.”[1] Plantinga, as a Christian himself, also points to the Bible as a template for how natural theology should be done: it shouldnt. He writes, “There is nothing by way of proofs or arguments for God’s existence in the Bible; that is simply presupposed.[2] The Bible itself does not respect natural theology. If so, why should we?

John Calvin, the reformer of reformers, writes that “we conclude that it [belief in the existence of God] is not a doctrine that must first be learned in school, but one of which each of us is a master from his mother’s womb and which nature itself permits no one to forget.”[3] What about those who are “naturally” atheists and unbelievers, what explains there predicament? Calvin has a ready-made answer for that: sin. Our minds have been clouded by sin so much that some of us no longer even have this allegedly “properly basic belief” in God. Plantinga, summarizing Calvin’s views, bitingly suggests that “one who doesn’t believe in God is in an epistemically substandard position—rather like a man who doesn’t believe that his wife exists, or thinks she is like a cleverly constructed robot and has not thoughts, feelings, or consciousness.”[4] Ouch! It seems that all atheists potentially may be denying not only God’s but even their spouses’ existence! So much for those who reject properly basic beliefs. He who has this so-called properly basic belief doesn’t hold belief in the existence of God as being made rational by virtue of supporting arguments, be they the teleological, ontological, or cosmological arguments; no, “he doesn’t need any argument for justification or rationality.”[5]

Plantinga then goes on to speak of epistemic foundationalism. He defines classical foundationalism as being a noetic structure in which belief B is founded upon belief A; where beliefs can be right or wrong; where there are “responsibilities and duties that pertain to believings as well as to actions…”[6] In classical foundationalism, “[t]o criticize a person as irrational, then, is to criticize her for failing to fulfill these duties or responsibilities.”[7] However, the problem with classical foundationalism is that some of our beliefs are, well, properly basic. For example, “I believe that 2+1=3…and don’t believe it on the basis of other propositions.”[8] Moreover, one can believe one loves another human being on the basis of nothing—I can meet a girl I’ve never seen before and have such feelings for her that may be rationally unjustifiable. I can feel pain in my body and not have to believe that I have the pain because of something else—I simply believe I have the pain without resorting to arguments for or against such a properly basic belief. Plantinga also mentions how some of our properly basic beliefs have different “depths of ingression.” Some of our beliefs—like the belief that I have pain in my neck—will not have any repercussions if, say, I awake and find the pain was an illusion. Losing such a properly basic belief will not cause me to undergo a paradigm shift.

Plantinga points out that when the Reformers rejected classical foundationalism, they were not, by any means, rejecting everything these guys taught. Rather, they rejected the idea that all our beliefs needed to be grounded (read: founded) upon something else. All of our beliefs need reasons, arguments, justifications, other beliefs, etc., in order to be “rational.” One may call such Reformers “weak foundationalists.”

An objection here could be made to Plantinga’s claims. He foresees this and finishes his article by dealing with “the great pumpkin objection.” The objection goes like this: if people have properly basic beliefs, how do we know which beliefs they are? For example, what if someone were to argue that belief in the great pumpkin is basic? How do we go about arguing with that? Planting believes that we must inductively decide whether beliefs are properly basic or not. Of course such a method is not definitive—it is by no means deductive. “We must assemble examples of beliefs and condition such that the former are obviously properly basic in the latter, and the examples of beliefs and conditions such that the former are obviously not properly basic in the latter. We must then form hypotheses as to the necessary and sufficient conditions of proper basicality and test these hypotheses by reference to those examples.”[9] In other words, if you see another human being walking towards you, and you are not on any known hallucination-inducing medications, you’re probably right in thinking there really is a person there. Finally, there is no way we’ll even reach a consensus. People will simply disagree regarding which beliefs are basic or not. Most of us, as history has shown, will simply take belief in God as properly basic, whether other people agree with us or not.

I, myself, find Plantinga’s argument, overall, as being rather convincing for several reasons. First, Plantinga is right in concluding that we’ll probably never reach a consensus regarding what is basic and what is not. After seeing many, many debates throughout my life, I only get the feeling—which is now bordering on certainty—that human beings are not capable of consensus in regards to that which is or is not “rational.” We have inherent differences in the way we reason. Foundational principles for some of us are entirely different than those around us. What for some passes as “self-evident,” passes as “self-delusion” for others; what one sees as “rational,” another sees as empirically and logically “irrational.” Certainly, our brains are structurally different—we have brain-prints that are simply unique; we each have brains full of neurons wired differently from the wiring of the next person standing next to us. No two of us agree on everything. And those of us who don’t agree, clearly are in the right and are rational! It is that one who is not rational. Therefore, the belief in a universal logic or a universal foundational principle is absurd—the empirical evidence has been in for thousands of years in human history, and humans are guaranteed one thing: they will disagree (while arguing that their side is more “rational.”). I will have nothing to do with a utopian belief that a universal rationality exists—I remain thoroughly unconvinced by philosophers who argue otherwise.

Second, there is hardly a reason to think that logically a universal logic exists. Kurt Gödel, surely, had shown the “impossibility of proof” even within such a stringently certain field as mathematics. Even math has axioms which remain self-referential. If self-referential, there is no way to ultimately prove them—all one can do is assume they are true. One can only say that 0 equals 0—all the while believing one understands what 0 actually means (since, in the example, it is self-referential). Elements of paradox and, potentially, faith exist even in formal logic. Given the reality of Gödel’s two incompleteness theorems, I believe it’s fair to extend the implications to rationality as commonsense. What one deems is rational in one’s own subjective logical “noetic structures,” may be the very thing that another—subjectively—rejects as axiomatic. For example, in thinking about what constitutes proof, some of us—both “rational” theists and “rational” atheists—disagree. On the one hand, the theists take for granted some key axiomatic beliefs, such as the critical belief that there exists something potentially outside the empirical world of our senses. The atheists, on the other hand, are uncritically accepting of the empirical senses. While they may (or may not) reject some aspects of their empirical certainties, most uncritically assume that what they see is really true and real. Given these realities, realities in which I see different noetic structures operating on vastly different and unabashedly contradictory faith-based unprovable axioms, it is impossible—at least for me—to uncritically accept and sustain the untenable belief that universal rationality and a “universal logic” exists. With that, I must remain in complete agreement with Plantinga: there are properly basic beliefs, and we will never agree on them.

Written by: Moses Y. Mikheyev


[1] Alvin Plantinga, “The Reformed Objection to Natural Theology,” in Philosophy of Religion: Selected Readings, eds. Michael Peterson, William Hasker, Bruce Reichenbach, and David Basinger, 5th ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), 208. Italics original.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid., 209.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid., 211.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., 210.

[9] Ibid., 214.

Arguing with God: Deuteronomic Paradox and Habakkukian Critiques

The prophet Habakkuk was active sometime around 605 BC. He was most likely a contemporary of Ezekiel, Jeremiah and Zephaniah. The context within which Habakkuk issued forth his complaints against YHWH is essential to understanding his message. Twenty-four years prior to Habukkuk’s complaints against YHWH, the prophet Jeremiah began his own similar activities in 629 BC. It was not until a few years later, in 621 BC, that the “book of the Torah” was found and brought to the attention of the youthful king of Judah, Josiah. The “book of the Torah,” usually identified with (probably) Deuteronomy 12-26, was brought to the prophetess Huldah. She exclaimed that the curses within the “book of the Torah,” which faithless Israel had brought upon herself, would come upon Jerusalem (2 Kings 22:15-20).[1] Josiah responded by seeking to go back to a more conservative and less “modern” Mosaic religion. “[T]he paganism against which Zephaniah had protested (Zeph. 1:4-6) was abolished…”[2] Moreover, “[t]he practices of sacred prostitution, child sacrifice in the Valley of Hinnom, and the consultation of mediums and wizards were discontinued.”[3] The most novel response being the centralization of YHWHistic worship in the Jerusalem Temple. While Josiah was on a rampage to restore primitive Mosaic faith, Assyria was losing its clutch on power; in a decisive battle, Nineveh, the capital of Assyria, was overthrown by the combined forces of Babylon, Scythia, and Media in 612 BC.[4] Three years later, Necho, the ruler of Egypt, seeing an opportunity to help out Assyria, sent his troops in 609 BC. On their way north to Assyria, Josiah decided to play dice and come to Babylon’s rescue—he attempted to prevent the passage of Egyptian troops. Ultimately, he ended up dying and Judah would become a temporary vassal of Egypt.[5] For roughly another four miserable years, Judah is a slave to Egypt. Then, in 605 BC, the epic battle of Carchemish takes place, in which Babylonian troops put to waste Egyptian troops. In a matter of time, Judah is made a vassal of Babylon, and would remain so until its utter destruction in 587/6 BC. Thus, within a mere twenty years of Josiah’s initial reform, Judah is once again a slave to evil empires.

The theology of this period has been dubbed by modern scholarship “deuteronomic.”[6] It is a very retributive theology that is cut-and-dried: if you obey YHWH, good will follow; if you disobey YHWH, evil will follow. “In the popular view, Yahweh’s justice meant that good consequences would came from good actions, that obedience would result in security on the land, victory against foes, and abundant life. But the cruel facts of history seemed to contradict this belief.”[7] Within a matter of years, Jeremiah’s hopeful approach towards Josiah’s reform and deuteronomic theology withered away and became a bittersweet song; “[h]e came to see that  it did not result in a circumcision of the heart or a breaking up of fallow ground.”[8] Habakkuk, likewise, was greatly frustrated by this “health and wealth gospel.” How could it be that the children of YHWH, who did commit righteous acts, be visited by an utterly evil nation? Where was the deuteronomic righteousness of YHWH? Within these profound, paradoxical turmoils were born the complaints of Habakkuk.

Habakkuk wrote his complaints just after the battle of Carchemish.[9] “No one living in Jerusalem about the year 600 could fail to see that world-shaping events were already in preparation.”[10] Yes, he probably did witness the collapse of an evil Assyria—but that evil empire was soon replaced by one no different than it: Babylon. Habakkuk was not sure how one could approach this deuteronomic God. If evil is the result of disobeying YHWH, is it possible that those who were deemed “righteous” were somehow deceived? Maybe evil followed them precisely because they unknowingly sinned. But such thinking surely fled Habakkuk’s mind; he knew that the righteous were righteous—and, yet, they were being punished by the unrighteous. This deuteronomic paradox forced Habakkuk to cry out to YHWH: “How long, YHWH, will I call out and you will not listen? Or when I shout to you ‘Violence!’ and you do not save?” (1:2). Habakkuk expects a message from YHWH precisely because he knows that he is righteous. His contemporary, Jeremiah, likewise reiterated this fact: “When these people, or a prophet or a priest, ask you, ‘What is the message[11] from the LORD?’ say to them, ‘What message? I will forsake you, declares the LORD’” (23:33 NIV). Habakkuk had received a “message” and knew that, for whatever reason, he was not yet forsaken by YHWH. In the same vein, Job would cry out:

               הֵ֤ן אֶצְעַ֣ק חָ֭מָס וְלֹ֣א אֵעָנֶ֑ה אֲ֝שַׁוַּ֗ע וְאֵ֣ין מִשְׁפָּֽט

“Though I cry out ‘Violence!’ I get no reply; I cry out for help and there is no justice.”

Virtually the same language is used in both verses. Habakkuk cries חָמָ֖ס (“violence”) and so does Job; Habakkuk later (1:4) sees this as an attack on מִשְׁפָּ֑ט (“justice”) as does Job.[12] Job, it is presumed, was a righteous man.[13] Like Habakkuk, he too could not understand why YHWH would allow such a thing. How could it be that righteous men of YHWH could not get a response from YHWH?

Habakkuk was surely confused: isn’t YHWH too holy to behold any atrocities being committed against the righteous? “Why do you make me look at wickedness and trouble? Why do you make me gaze at death and at the violence before me? A dispute and a quarreling go up (to you)…” (1:3). Surely, YHWH was aware that “dispute and quarreling” were “going up” (i.e., being witnessed) by him. Habakkuk then calls to YHWH’s mind his own torah (“teachings”): “Therefore, the torah is paralyzed. Will justice never prevail? For the wicked siege the righteous; on this account, justice is perverted” (1:4). Habakkuk is directing his anger at YHWH, using his own torah, “Your very own laws, YHWH, are now paralyzed. They are no more. They are ineffective. You who defined yourself as just[14] have let justice fail. Justice has been perverted!” In what seems to be a statement vis-a-vis Deuteronomy 32:4, Habakkuk exclaims: “(Your) eyes are too pure to look at evil—they cannot gaze at trouble. Why, then, do you gaze at those who deal treacherously? Why are you silent while the wicked swallow up those more righteous (צַדִּ֥יק) than him?” (1:13).  The YHWH who defined himself as being “righteous” (צַדִּ֥יק) in Deut. 32:4 has allowed those who are like him to perish.

Out of this “doom and gloom,” in contrast to the “health and wealth gospel” of Habakkuk’s day, YHWH revealed something entirely new. “Behold,” YHWH tells Habakkuk, “I am going to do something in your days that you would not believe (לֹ֥א תַאֲמִ֖ינוּ) even if you were told” (1:5). The root for “believe” being used here is אָמַן. (It is the same root word that is being used to describe the “righteous” in Habakkuk 2:4.) What YHWH tells Habakkuk shocks him. YHWH is the very one who is raising up the Babylonians (1:6). For what is he raising them up? To execute justice? We are never told. All that Habakkuk gets in reply is this: “Behold! The soul of the unrighteous is puffed up in him; but the righteous will live by faithfulness (בֶּאֱמוּנָתֹ֥ו) in it (i.e., the vision/revelation of YHWH)” (2:4). Habakkuk was given a חָזֹ֔ון (“vision,” “revelation”) and YHWH expects Habakkuk to simply place his faith in it.

While it is true that an explicit answer is never given to Habakkuk as to what exactly YHWH would be doing that people would “not believe,” there are some clues in the text that may suggest a slightly different version of events. Some scholars argue that the answer to Habakkuk’s critiques lies in the fact that the first part of the book is addressing internal problems, while later passages address external (i.e., Babylon) problems. Because Habakkuk uses such words as חָמָ֖ס (“violence”), אָ֨וֶן֙ וְעָמָ֣ל (“iniquity and trouble”), and שֹׁ֥ד (“death” or “pillage”), some think that this indicates “native oppression and not a foreign invader.”[15] In other words, it may be that the “revelation” which Habakkuk is receiving from YHWH is that YHWH will destroy internal evil, within the gates of Jerusalem, by the hands of external—and more evil—Babylonians. Even if this may be the case, the problem still remains for Habakkuk: will YHWH punish the righteous along with the wicked? And even if justice will come, how long must one wait for that to happen?

In the most critical time of his life, Habakkuk was told by YHWH what would come to pass. Against all expectations, Habakkuk received what appears to be a “non-answer answer”: simply put faith in my revelation. Later on in the book, Habakkuk reminds YHWH of his previous deeds and actions. He wants YHWH to act as he had acted in the past. “YHWH, I have heard of your fame, I have feared your deeds; make them come to life in our day…” (3:2a). He is attempting one last try, one last argument he is offering YHWH. This one is an argument of old; it was used so many times, YHWH was probably tired of hearing it. “Do what you have done in the past,” begs Habakkuk, “Please!” The author of Psalm 44:2 used a similar technique:

                        אֱלֹהִ֤ים׀ בְּאָזְנֵ֬ינוּ שָׁמַ֗עְנוּ אֲבֹותֵ֥ינוּ סִפְּרוּ־לָ֑נוּ פֹּ֥עַל פָּעַ֥לְתָּ בִֽ֝ימֵיהֶ֗ם בִּ֣ימֵי קֶֽדֶם

“Oh God, with our ears we have heard, and our fathers have recounted to us deeds which you have done in their days, in the days of old.”

The ability to remind YHWH of his previous actions was founded on the assumption that YHWH was “reliable.” He was, as Deut. 32:4 put it, אֱמוּנָה֙. Anything that was not אֱמוּנָה֙ was not constant nor reliable. It is precisely because of this that Jeremiah likewise could say (15:18):

                        תִֽהְיֶ֥ה לִי֙ כְּמֹ֣ו אַכְזָ֔ב מַ֖יִם לֹ֥א נֶאֱמָֽנוּ

“Will you be to me like deceptive waters that are not reliable?”

The word for “unreliable” is the same root (and derivatives) we have seen being used before; it is the Niphal stem of the root אָמַן. In this particular case, the waters are not “reliable” in the sense that they are not “continual” or “lasting.” The expectation is that the spring or creek would have water whenever one would approach it; for Jeremiah, it is this “un-lastingness” that makes the waters “unreliable”—at one time there’s water, at another there isn’t. Like Jeremiah and the Psalmist, Habakkuk expects YHWH to be reliable (אֱמוּנָה֙). A derivative of this root אָמַן is the noun/adverb אֱמֶת, which basically translates as “true” or “trustworthy.” In Psalm 119:43, the Psalmist exclaims:

                        אַל־תַּצֵּ֬ל מִפִּ֣י דְבַר־אֱמֶ֣ת עַד־מְאֹ֑ד כִּ֖י לְמִשְׁפָּטֶָ֣ יִחָֽלְתִּי

“Do not utterly take/rescue from my mouth the word of truth, for in your judgments I have hoped.”

When the Psalmist uses this particular word, he “celebrates Yahweh’s torah and commandments as [אֱמֶת]…he does not just mean that they are true as opposed to false, but that they also have the character of being trustworthy and reliable for people to base their lives on.”[16] To be a trustworthy God is to be אֱמֶת. In fact, this particular derivative of אֱמוּנָה֙ is used in reference to God quite often. One can see the use of this word in one of the most divine statements in all of Scripture, Exodus 34:5-7, where God himself reveals his character and describes himself as וְרַב־חֶ֥סֶד וֶאֱמֶֽת (“abounding in love and faithfulness”). To fully appreciate the moral uprightness of this word, one can look at its synonyms and antonyms, as found in the Hebrew Bible. The word is used in conjunction with חֶ֫סֶד (“covenantal faithfulness,” “love”), as was seen in the Exodus passage cited, צֶ֫דֶק (“righteousness”), and מִשְׁפָּט (“judgment,” “justice”) [e.g., Jer. 4:2, Ps. 15:2]. Its Hiphil form appears in parallelism with another Hebrew word בָּטַח (“trust”) [Micah 7:5]. The word is contrasted with שֶׁ֫קֶר (“lie,” “deception”) in Proverbs 12:22. The word אֱמוּנָה֙ (and its derivative noun אֱמֶת) has quite a moral character in the Hebrew Bible! It is no wonder, then, that Habakkuk could place such great faith in YHWH. If YHWH is the opposite of “deception,” if YHWH is equated with “reliability” and “steadfast love,” how could he allow a righteous person’s prayer go unheard? “Israel assigns to (or recognizes in) Yahweh elements of constancy and substance that make Yahweh in some ways knowable and available to Israel.”[17] And, yet, the strange thing about Habakkuk’s message is that YHWH does not really work in a way that seems, at least to Habakkuk, consistent with his character. In the words of the Psalmist, the deeds that YHWH had done were done (past tense) “in the days of old.” And that, precisely, is where they remained.

Habakkuk is no different than any one of us today. We are, to be blunt, all in the same boat. The fact that Pentecostals pray all day long, exceeding the volume of a rock concert, virtually does nothing to the way things really are. Even the good people are still falling prey to cancer at age thirty, dying in car accidents committed by drunk fools, or simply losing their jobs to more ruthlessly conniving individuals. The “faithful” people today still see the loud mouth, die-hard atheists using their vocal cords to cast curses upon YHWH. Just as in Habakkuk’s time, we still have our deuteronomic theologies—though they go by fancy names like “health and wealth gospel” or “success theology”—which teach people that, if one follows God, one will inherit the pearls of the Kingdom right here and right now. We still have our Joel Osteens, Joyce Meyers, Benny Hinns, regurgitating a worn-out theology; a theology of mere cut-and-dried retribution. Whether we like it or not, this sort of thinking was accepted by Habakkuk, Jeremiah, Moses, and a thousand others. It is the initial theology of all school children. But then we all grow up. Like Ecclesiastes, we shed our teenage mentality and we see that “things are not so.” Maybe along with his version of the categorical imperative—אַל־תְּהִ֤י צַדִּיק֙ הַרְבֵּ֔ה (“Do not be righteous too much!” [7:16])—we, too, will find rest in knowing that, no matter what you do, you will suffer. You can be good or bad, fat or thin, American or Russian, white or black, believer or atheist, you will still probably get cancer at some point in your life, and you may, or may not, live to see your grandchildren. One could relate to a lament made by people within Zephaniah’s time, a contemporary of Habakkuk’s, who had the audacity to say that YHWH “does neither good nor evil” (1:12). Von Rad makes the following remark about Zephaniah’s contemporaries, “[T]hese were no atheists, but they no longer reckoned with divine action in the present day; and when the storm broke, and the Southern Kingdom suffered the same fate as had the Northern, and saw its upper class deported to Babylon [in 586/7 BC], the question of Jahweh’s relationship to his people became completely uncertain.”[18] In Habakkuk’s time, deuteronomic theology became a theology of paradox—it could not even stand on its own two feet. And when the Babylonian captivity took place, after Habakkuk’s time, it completely fell beneath the weight of human experience. As I’ve stated earlier, even in the time of severe personal crisis and doubt, YHWH gave Habakkuk no real answer. “[T]he answer to the question why there should be such great and mysterious suffering is so remarkably veiled and obscure that it makes one feel as if Jahweh were retreating before the question, and withdrawing into ever deeper seclusion.”[19]

Habakkuk’s three-chapter book is one long sustained argument with YHWH, with a number of interjections made by YHWH. The prophet attempts to get YHWH to recognize that justice must be served at an appropriate time and in an appropriate manner. YHWH responds by making Habakkuk aware of, what appears to be, an uncertainty principle. Habakkuk is to trust that YHWH is, essentially, in control. All one has to do is trust in YHWH despite any given circumstances. No longer must one judge oneself as good or bad in relation to what one has or does not have. YHWH is not really about rewarding the righteous people, after all—at least not on planet earth. The methods Habakkuk uses to argue with YHWH are standard Old Testament methods that sometimes work (Moses and the Children of Israel in Exodus 32) and sometimes do not (Abraham and Sodom in Genesis18-19). We can plead with YHWH all we want, but Habakkuk is right, “the righteous will live by placing their faith in YHWH’s vision.” In the end, YHWH wins and you lose. You can either be on YHWH’s side or you can hold a sustained argument against YHWH, but it will be faith that gets you through on either side. As Paul once remarked, “Everything not done in faith is sin” (Romans 14:23). To argue or not to argue, to use Kierkegaardian language, “you will regret both.”


Written by: Moses Y. Mikheyev



Translation and Textual Notes

עַד־אָ֧נָה יְהוָ֛ה שִׁוַּ֖עְתִּי וְלֹ֣א תִשְׁמָ֑ע אֶזְעַ֥ק אֵלֶ֛יךָ חָמָ֖ס וְלֹ֥א תֹושִֽׁיעַ׃

לָ֣מָּה תַרְאֵ֤נִי אָ֨וֶן֙ וְעָמָ֣ל תַּבִּ֔יט וְשֹׁ֥ד וְחָמָ֖ס לְנֶגְדִּ֑י וַיְהִ֧י רִ֦יב וּמָדֹ֖ון יִשָּֽׂא׃

עַל־כֵּן֙ תָּפ֣וּג תֹּורָ֔ה וְלֹֽא־יֵצֵ֥א לָנֶ֖צַח מִשְׁפָּ֑ט כִּ֤י רָשָׁע֙ מַכְתִּ֣יר אֶת־הַצַּדִּ֔יק עַל־כֵּ֛ן יֵצֵ֥א מִשְׁפָּ֖ט


טְהֹ֤ור עֵינַ֨יִם֙ מֵרְאֹ֣ות רָ֔ע וְהַבִּ֥יט אֶל־עָמָ֖ל לֹ֣א תוּכָ֑ל לָ֤מָּה תַבִּיט֙ בֹּֽוגְדִ֔ים תַּחֲרִ֕ישׁ בְּבַלַּ֥ע רָשָׁ֖ע

צַדִּ֥יק מִמֶּֽנּוּ

הִנֵּ֣ה עֻפְּלָ֔ה[20] לֹא־יָשְׁרָ֥ה נַפְשֹׁ֖ו בֹּ֑ו וְצַדִּ֖יק בֶּאֱמוּנָתֹ֥ו יִחְיֶֽה

יְהוָ֗ה שָׁמַ֣עְתִּי שִׁמְעֲךָ֮ יָרֵאתִי֒ יְהוָ֗ה פָּֽעָלְךָ֙ בְּקֶ֤רֶב שָׁנִים֙ חַיֵּ֔יהוּ

How long, YHWH, will I call out and you will not listen? Or when I shout to you ‘Violence!’ and you do not save?

Why do you make me look at wickedness and trouble? Why do you make me gaze at death and at the violence before me? A dispute and a quarreling go up (to you)…

Therefore, the torah is paralyzed. Will justice never prevail? For the wicked siege the righteous; on this account, justice is perverted.

(Your) eyes are too pure to look at evil—they cannot gaze at trouble. Why, then, do you gaze at those who deal treacherously? Why are you silent while the wicked swallow up those more righteous than him?

Behold! The soul of the unrighteous is puffed up in him; but the righteous will live by faithfulness in it (i.e., the vision/revelation of YHWH).

YHWH, I have heard of your fame, I have feared your deeds; make them come to life in our day…

(Habakkuk 1:2-4, 13; 2:4, 3:2a)


Bibliography and Works Cited

Anderson, Bernhard W. Understanding the Old Testament. 3rd ed. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1975.

Brueggemann, Walter. Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997.

Goldingay, John. Old Testament Theology: Israel’s Life. Vol. 3. Downer’s Grove: IVP Academic, 2009.

Janzen, J. Gerald. Habakkuk 2:2-4 in the Light of Recent Philological Advances. Harvard Theological Review 73, no. 1-2. (January 1, 1980).

Moberly, R. W. L. “אָמַן,“ in New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology and Exegesis. Ed. Willem A. von Gemeren. Vol. 1. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1997.

Rad, Gerhard von. Old Testament Theology: The Theology of Israels Prophetic Traditions. Trans. D. M. G. Stalker. Vol. 2. New York: Harper and Row, 1965.

Ward, William Hayes. “A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on Habakkuk,” in The International Critical Commentary on the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments. Eds. C. A. Briggs, S. R. Driver, and Alfred Plummer. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1911.



[1] Bernhard W. Anderson, Understanding the Old Testament, 3rd ed. (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1975), 348-349.

[2] Ibid., 349.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., 362.

[5] Ibid., 363.

[6] Ibid., 362-364.

[7] Ibid., 363.

[8] Ibid., 360.

[9] Ibid., 364.

[10] Gerhard von Rad, Old Testament Theology: The Theology of Israel’s Prophetic Traditions, trans. D. M. G. Stalker, vol. 2. (New York: Harper and Row, 1965), 263.

[11] The word for “message” here is מַשָּׂ֖א. This is the same word which is used to introduce Habakkuk’s prophecy (1:1); it is a מַשָּׂ֖א (“message,” “pronouncement,” or “revelation”).

[12] Another interesting parallel is that both use the same word for “crying out,” צָעַק.

[13] Though the technical word for “the righteous” (הַצַּדִּ֔יק) is not used in relation to Job, similar adjectives are applied to him. He is called “pure and upright, fearing God” (תָּ֧ם וְיָשָׁ֛ר וִירֵ֥א אֱלֹהִ֖ים).

[14] Deut. 32:4 defines YHWH’s actions as “all just”: הַצּוּר֙ תָּמִ֣ים פָּעֳלֹ֔ו כִּ֥י כָל־דְּרָכָ֖יו מִשְׁפָּ֑ט אֵ֤ל אֱמוּנָה֙ וְאֵ֣ין עָ֔וֶל צַדִּ֥יק ויָשָׁ֖ר הֽוּא. YHWH is called “pure” (תָּמִ֣ים), “just” (מִשְׁפָּ֑ט), “faithful” (אֱמוּנָה֙) and “righteous” (צַדִּ֥יק).

[15] William Hayes Ward, “A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on Habakkuk,” in The International Critical Commentary on the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, eds. C. A. Briggs, S. R. Driver, and Alfred Plummer (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1911), 4. For a similar line of argument, see John Goldingay, Old Testament Theology: Israel’s Life, vol. 3 (Downer’s Grove: IVP Academic, 2009), 786-792.

[16] R. W. L. Moberly, “אָמַן,“ in New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology and Exegesis, ed. Willem A. von Gemeren, vol. 1. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1997), 428.

[17] Walter Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997), 229.

[18] Von Rad, Old Testament Theology, 263.

[19] Ibid., 267.

[20] The Pual imperfect 3rd person feminine singular verb עֻפְּלָ֔ה (“she/it is puffed up, proud”) has been taken to be, by some, as corrupted. Janzen offers the suggestion that it be reconstructed to a noun to read עָצֵ֑ל (“sluggard”). I do not think that such a change would greatly impact my reading of the text, which is why I have not bothered to emend the Masoretic Text. See J. Gerald Janzen, Habakkuk 2:2-4 in the Light of Recent Philological Advances, Harvard Theological Review 73, no. 1-2 (January 1, 1980): 67-70. Numerous other, somewhat ingenious, emendations have been proposed by virtually any scholar who knows Hebrew, for those guesses, I refer the reader to any critical commentary on Habakkuk. As a rule, for every scholar there is an idiosyncratic emendation.

May 6, 2014