God’s Monsters – Esther Hamori

God's Monsters: Vengeful Spirits, Deadly Angels, Hybrid Creatures, and Divine Hitmen of the Bible by Esther J. Hamori
Published by Broadleaf Books on October 31, 2023
Genres: Non-Fiction, Theology
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The Bible is teeming with monsters. Giants tromp through the land of milk and honey; Leviathan swims through the wine-dark sea. A stunning array of peculiar creatures, mind-altering spirits, and supernatural hitmen fill the biblical heavens, jarring in both their strangeness and their propensity for violence--especially on God's behalf.
Traditional interpretations of the creatures of the Bible have sanded down their sharp, unsavory edges, transforming them into celestial beings of glory and light--or chubby, happy cherubs. Those cherubs? They're actually hybrid guardian monsters, more closely associated with the Egyptian sphinx than with flying babies. And the seraphim? Winged serpents sent to mete out God's vengeance. Demons aren't at war with angels; they're a distinct supernatural species used by Satan and by God. The pattern is chilling. Most of these monsters aren't God's opponents--they're God's entourage.
Killer angels, plague demons, manipulative spirits, creatures with an alarming number of wings (and eyes all over)--these shapeshifters and realm-crossers act with stunning brutality, each reflecting a facet of God's own monstrosity. Confronting God's monsters--and the God-monster--may be uncomfortable, but the Bible is richer for their presence. It's not only richer; the stories of the monsters of the Bible can be as fun, surprising, and interesting as any mythology. For anyone interested in monsters, myths, folklore, demons, and more, God's Monsters is an entertaining deep dive into the creaturely strangeness of the Bible.

One of the things that I have attempted to do this is read books that are challenging to the status quo of my beliefs. Raised in evangelicalism, I was taught to question everything (unless it was evangelicalism). As an adult, as someone who has found the Kingdom community of Jesus to be much wider and bigger than the enclave I was raised and trained in, I’m on somewhat of a journey to learn those things that my evangelical seminary didn’t tell me and to, like Jacob of old, wrestle with God over them.

God’s Monsters isn’t a cutesey look at the cherubim, seraphim, leviathan, and the other shocking creatures within the Bible’s pages, it is a serious and comprehensive study of the monstrosity of God and their creation. Dr. Esther J. Hamori, professor of Hebrew Bible at Union Theological, leads readers on a challenging and paradigm-altering journey through the difficult parts of Scripture and takes off the Sunday School veneer that our culture has placed over it.

There’s a scene in Thor: Ragnarok where Hela, the banished daughter of Odin, looks up at the ceiling mural in Odin’s throne room—a mural that displays the accomplishments of Odin to bring and maintain peace in the Nine Realms. Hela shatters the mural, revealing an older image where Thor is a warmonger who gains his victories through violence and oppression. That scene is what kept flashing into my memory as I read God’s Monsters. Esther Hamori is our Hela, shattering our illusions about how God is depicted in Scripture.

Hamori starts off a bit easy with chapters on seraphim and cherubim. I think we all know, at some level, that these angels are not shining Europeans with wings or flying babies. But it’s what those creatures seem to do at God’s behest that challenges us. The third chapter, “The Adversary” was one of the most personally interesting for me, as she develops the concept of Satan (literally meaning “adversary”) as being part of the Divine council. A shorter second part of the book moves onto creatures like leviathan, shades, ghosts, and giants.

It’s all an appetizer, a preparation, for God’s Monsters to move from the created to the creator and discuss the monstrosity of God. Hamori has been building her case throughout the book. God is morally ambiguous at best, allowing others to do his dirty work. Using angels and satan to punish and bring vengeance. She writes that “Modern assumptions that God must be all good aren’t based on the Bible.” The Bible—Old Testament in particular—portrays God in complex and nuanced ways. She suggests that it is in “grappling with the monstrous divine [that is] in some ways at the heart of the Bible’s sense of what it means to be the people of God.”

Hamori’s conclusion isn’t that we should reject God, but that simply be aware of who we are embracing. God’s Monsters is compelling, entertaining, accessible, and more than a bit subversive. But is it substantive? This is, after all, someone with a PhD in the Hebrew Bible exegeting the Hebrew Bible for us. My concern is that, in an attempt to swing the pendulum from ignoring monstrous depictions of God in Scripture to focusing solely on the, Hamori moves from one mischaracterization to another. She moves from Precious Moments to Tim Burton. It’s a caricature in the opposite direction.

We often accuse fundamentalists and evangelicals of “wooden literalism” when interpreting Scripture, but Hamori falls into this same trap in God’s Monsters. Is it possible that these depictions of the divine and their entourage are coming from the flawed perception of Scripture’s writers? Is it possible that these depictions are symbolic or metaphorical? What about how other viewpoints interpret these passages? Hamori engages with none of it.

That is, while Hamori offers an intriguing counter-narrative to the typical perspective, it turns out that counter-narrative is just as exegetically shoddy. Hamori glosses over parts of Scripture that don’t support her narrative (such as when she removes the context for why an angel is burning Isaiah’s lips with a hot coal or not even suggesting it could be a metaphor). She adds descriptions where there is none (such as when she dramatically describes the angel of Death in 2 Sam. 24, but if you actually read that chapter there is no description whatsoever.) She literalizes what should be metaphorical (too many instances to talk about). And while the book ends with an exhortation to “embrace the rich diversity of perspectives” within Scripture, that’s not al all what happens in this book.

Overall, I’m glad I read God’s Monsters. It was challenging. It was entertaining. It made me think. Some elements I agreed with; others I didn’t. Unfortunately, this seems to be a book written for the shock value. In some ways, I kind of like that progressive Christianity is writing books with the level of dogmatism that fundamentalists have had for decades. But I’m not convinced it’s helpful.