Ever wonder about all those Monsters in the Bible, and what they might tell us about, well, God? Earlier this year I read a book by Esther Hamori, God’s Monsters: Vengeful Spirits, Deadly Angels, Hybrid Creatures, and Divine Hitmen of the Bible. (Broadleaf Books, 2023). It’s been a long time since I’ve read a book on the Bible completely unlike anything I’ve read before. I thought it was fantastic (so to say).
And so I did three things right off the bat. I agree to write a blurb for the book (see below); I met Esther (Professor of Hebrew Bible at Union Theological Seminary); and I asked her if she’d be willing to co-author the third edition of my textbook on the Bible. (She agreed).
Here is the blurb I wrote for her book.
God’s Monsters is a hilarious treatment of a horrifying topic. With deep intelligence, literary flair, and wicked wit, Esther Hamori pulls no punches in exposing the terrors of the Bible and the multitudinous divine creatures that inhabit it – including the Almighty himself. For those of us who believe in brutal honesty and in fighting horror with humor, this book is a godsend.
Now I’ve done a fourth thing: asked Esther to post a couple of posts on the blog to let y’all know about the book. (You can get it here: https://www.amazon.com/Gods-Monsters-Vengeful-Spirits-Creatures/dp/1506486320
Here’s her first. Comments?
Biblical Monsters and Their Violent God (Yeah New Testament, I’m Looking at You)
Esther J. Hamori, Union Theological Seminary
The Bible is full of monsters. Giants tromp through the land of milk and honey, Leviathan swims through the wine-dark sea, and God reliably vanquishes the monsters and protects us from harm.
Not so fast. As the biblical monster population comes into focus, one chilling feature stands out. Most of the monsters of the Bible, even the most dangerous and deadly of them, aren’t God’s opponents. They’re his entourage.
I’m guest posting on Bart’s blog today and tomorrow with some good news and some bad news. Good news: the Bible is filled with strange and wonderful monsters, divine creatures as fun and juicy as anything you’ll find from Greek mythology to Netflix. Bad news: they might be here to kill you.
We might like to imagine God attended by benevolent angels aglow in everlasting praise, but the biblical picture isn’t so placid or comforting. The heavenly realm is teeming with life. God is surrounded by bizarre, monstrous creatures who commit remarkably violent acts on his command.
As I explain in my new book, God’s Monsters: Vengeful Spirits, Deadly Angels, Hybrid Creatures, and Divine Hitmen of the Bible, most have been tamed by time and tradition. The cherubim—menacing, winged animal guardians—have morphed into heavenly babies, marketed for feel-good cuteness on greeting cards and framed prints to be hung on a bathroom wall. The seraphim, multi-winged creatures with serpentine bodies and humanoid hands, have become conflated with angels. Angels, meanwhile, have acquired the soft-edged glow of a Hallmark card, which turns out to be a remarkable PR victory. (More on that in tomorrow’s post.) Mind-altering, gaslighting spirits who are deployed to mess with people’s minds have dissolved into mere figures of speech. Other monsters are hidden altogether, masked in translation as natural phenomena, like the demons Pestilence, Plague, and The Chill. They’d be prime comic book villains—except that they work for the Good Guy.
Over several years of writing my book about biblical monsters, talking with countless people about it, and teaching seminary courses on the subject, there’s one misconception I’ve heard frequently that might be of particular interest to readers of Bart’s blog. That’s the assumption that God is only violent in the Hebrew Bible, not the New Testament. But the strange theme of God deploying divine monsters against people—a disconcerting pattern no matter where it’s found—isn’t limited to the Hebrew Bible.
Far from it.
If anything, the New Testament ratchets up the violence of most of God’s monsters. Even if this sounds surprising at first, it’s perfectly in line with other developments in the New Testament—like replacing the drab underworld of the Hebrew Bible (Sheol) with eternal torture in the flames of a newly conceived hell. In the New Testament, divine monsters get even more menacing, all at God’s command.
Take the cherubim, for instance. In the Hebrew Bible, their main function is to serve as guardians of the gateways to sacred space. They guard the entrance to Eden, their statues protect the innermost sacred space of the tabernacle and the temple, and they usher God across the threshold of the temple (Exodus 25:10–22; 1 Kings 6:23–35, 8:6–7; Ezekiel 10–11). In Revelation, they still guard cosmic gateways—but now they use that position to usher the four horsemen through to ravage the earth (Revelation 6:1–8). Soon after, they also hand plague-bowls over to angels to pour down on the earth and decimate massive portions of the population (Revelation 15:7).
Tomorrow’s post will do a deeper dive on God’s entourage of killer angels. For now let me just ask: Do you know some of those “Fear not!” passages? Turns out there’s a reason angels are always having to reassure people they’re not there to slaughter them… this time.
So if you’ve held onto a comfortable assumption that the New Testament portrays a kinder, gentler deity—one who doesn’t go off the rails from time to time—I need to tell you that’s a fantasy. But let me also explain why I’m glad this difficult material is in the Bible.
As horrifying as all of this is, it offers something that the prettier, safer texts don’t. The Bible, as a rich anthology reflecting diverse perspectives, includes writing that rejects any possibility of a neat, pat worldview in which God will magically make everything fine. What’s more, it includes writing that looks directly at the harming of the innocent and lays responsibility at God’s feet. This, too, is part of biblical tradition.
It was during a period of intense grief that I first began contemplating the monsters of the Bible. I had once looked for solace in the Bible’s more obvious places—psalms of hope and reassurance, stories of safety and rescue. I immersed myself in uplifting texts from my own Jewish tradition and from other traditions. But reeling in bereaved shock, I found myself connecting more with a collection of ancient voices reverberating with the acknowledgment that life is precarious, unjust, and at times monstrous.
Confronting the Bible’s monsters—and the God who sends them—may be uncomfortable, but I think the Bible is richer for their presence. Its ancient authors understood something about the world. They saw all around themselves the realities of chaos, violence, and fear. Their unflinching depictions of God’s monsters and the monstrous God create space for our own grief, anger, and protest. Instead of quietly setting these challenging texts aside (or muzzling the monsters by hiding them in innocuous translations), we can embrace them for how they validate the reality of the human experience.
Esther J. Hamori is Professor of Hebrew Bible at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. Her new book God’s Monsters: Vengeful Spirits, Deadly Angels, Hybrid Creatures, and Divine Hitmen of the Bible was published, appropriately enough, on Halloween. She is grateful to Bart for sharing this space for her to guest post about monsters.