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This is a question I have been thinking through quite a bit recently. And with books such as my friend Eric Seibert’s Disturbing Divine Behavior, Paul Copan’s Is God a Moral Monster?, Eryl Davies’ The Immoral Bible, David Lamb’s God Behaving Badly, Thom Stark’s The Human Faces of God flooding the market and receiving a wide readership, the question appears to be as timely as ever.
This morning I read an essay by John Barton entitled “The Dark Side of God in the Old Tesament” in another recent book, Ethical and Unethical in the Old Testament: God and Humans in Dialogue. Barton had the following to say on the issue:
” . . . there is a strong awareness in the Old Testament . . . that God may be neither moral nor immoral but amoral. To the question posed y the present volume–’ethical or unethical?’–the answer may sometimes be ‘neither; simply inscrutable.’” (132).
And later on the same page he writes:
“God is not susceptible to human judgment on his actions, and they cannot be classified as moral or immoral: they are simply God’s actions” (132).
In the same volume, Katharine Dell reflects upon the book of Job (“Does God Behave Unethically in the Book of Job?”) in similar fashion. She cites Miles’ biography of God, where he writes the following concerning God’s response to Job in chapters 38-40:
“The Lord presents himself, with withering sarcasm and towering bravado, as an amoral, irresistible force” (178, pg. 315 in Miles)
Dell seems to call this line of thinking into question, concluding that God does indeed act unethically in Job, but from the perspective of humans. She presents a related question near the end of her contribution:
“Perhaps the ultimate question is whether one can accept that God can behave unethically towards human beings and at the same time be exonerated” (185).
The issue does not appear to be easy to solve. Most would assume, I suspect, that God is moral because that is who God is. Such a view, however, I find difficult to reconcile with the biblical text (or at least the idea that God is moral all the time). Such a view, it seems to me, is far more indebted to the ideas of systematic theology than to a careful reading of the biblical text. But when God acts immorally, there are a litany of attendant questions that follow: immoral by whose standards? who are we as humans to judge God in such a way? what does it mean for the life of faith–indeed, life in general–if God has such proclivities? Or, is God amoral, above the fray, beyond such questions? The issues are complex and multifaceted, and press beyond the confines of this blog post, but here is my initial sense of a few salient points. Any attempt to answer this question . . .
- must avoid being overly apologetic for God
- must not take as its starting point the idea that God must, should, or can be exonnerated in various problematic instances
- must take as much of the biblical text into account, not emphasizing more ‘positive’ aspects to the detriment of more problematic ones
- must understand the highly contextual nature of the question, both for us contemporarily, but also for ancient Israel and what they may be seeking to communicate in and through them
- must reckon with the intimate and deeply personal way the biblical text describes the God/human relationship (I am here thinking specifically of the work of Terry Fretheim in his The Suffering of God and God and World in the Old Testament.
- must NOT appeal to Jesus as the answer to the problem of disturbing divine behavior, or use him as the barometer for adjudicating what is and is not authentic of God. Jesus is just as much of a complex, dynamic, and unsettling character, when read properly, as is God.
What do you think? What issues are pertinent? What questions need to be raised? And how would you answer the question?
This post is the final installment in my review of David Lamb’s new book God Behaving Badly. These final two chapters, I must confess, are superb, and after being quite unsatisfied with the book up until this point, Lamb’s careful and balanced treatment of these final two questions is most appreciated and welcome.
In chapter 7, Rigid or Flexible, Lamb addresses the issue of divine (im)mutability. He points to a number of biblical texts that affirm the viability of each position; God is indeed atteted in the Hebrew Bible as both unchanging yet changing. This is a welcome departure from the earlier chapters in the book, wherein Lamb sought to pick a side, making the issue a matter of either/or rather than both/and (one of my main critiques of what he is doing; forcing the either/or alternative mutes dissonant theological voices in favor of those which are most complementary and amenable to what seems to be a preconceived notion of who God ought to be). But Lamb does nuance his point, arguing that God does not change in regard to divine fidelity to a word of promise and blessing–a point with which I would agree–but that God does change as a result of, for example, “prayer and tears” (141). Or, putting it another way, Lamb maintains that YHWH “changes in the context of showing compassion toward his people” (142). This is a noble observation, though I would contend it does not exhaust all instances in which God changes in the Old Testament. Terry Fretheim’s work is here quite instructive.
It is also in this chapter that Lamb makes what is my favorite statement in the entire book, precisely because he is exactly right. He writes: “When our systematic theology comes into conflict with the Bible, the former needs to be modified, not the latter” (145). Even in my own book (see “my book” tab at the top of the page to order) this was a salient issue: there seems to be a distinction between who God is as constructed by classically defined systematic theologies (which themselves are problematic for their attempts to systematize that which is unsystematic itself, the Bible) and various divergent biblical witnesses to God. Lamb is spot on in his statement; unfortunately, however, I am convinced he falls prey to his own indictment in each of the previous chapters.
In chapter 8, Distant or Near, Lamb again refreshingly takes a mediating approach, not favoring one possibility over the other. He notes that the Hebrew Bible is laden with the faithful asking where God is, yet these petitions (laments) provide a theological vocabulary with which the faithful may speak honestly and from the depth of their experience (see my sermon on “Daring Prayer” HERE). It places the struggle and questions in the context of the life of faith, and allows one to bring these questions and concerns to God. Lamb rightly reminds that Jesus too spoke this way; the most patent example would be his final words on the cross in both Matthew and Mark, both of which are questions, and both of which quote from a lament psalm, Psalm 22:1.
Yet despite seeming distant at times, the Hebrew Bible also provides numerous examples of YHWH’s nearness. God speaks with his people, walks with them, and dwells among them; these are ways the HB communicates divine closeness. Jesus, suggests Lamb, embodied an entirely different sense of closeness in his drawing near, associating, and dining with those whom the majority would aim to be as distant as possible: tax collectors, sinners, prostitutes.
In both chapters 7 and 8 I see the thought of Terry Fretheim in evidence, though Lamb does not mention Fretheim explicitly. The idea of divine mutability and closeness, coupled with the notion of the human/created order’s role in having an affect on God’s flexibility and/or nearness are important concepts that more Christians need exposure to, and I applaud Lamb for raising these issues in a thoughtful and manageable way for the intended audience of his book. I am hopeful readers of his book will benefit most from Lamb’s more balanced perspectives in these final two substantive chapters, recognizing that YHWH as portrayed in the HB is far more complex than many interpreters, lay and scholarly, give YHWH credit for being (and more complex than I think Lamb has given him credit for being elsewhere in the book).
Rounding out the book is an epilogue that summarizes briefly each chapter, followed by Lamb offering some reflective conclusions. One of these left me both satisfied and unsatisfied. Lamb writes: “Instead of ingoring passages that seem to portray [YHWH] negatively, we need to study them, discuss them and teach them to gain understanding . . . we will find that [YHWH] and Jesus can be reconciled and that the God of both testaments is loving” (178). I am in total agreement with the first part of this quotation; where I begin to stumble, however, is on the word “reconciled.” Affirming that God (the God of the OT, that is) can be “reconciled” to/with Jesus smacks of what Marcion himself attempted to do, emphasizing the loving, compassionate image of the divine manifest in Jesus, to the detriment of problematic aspects of God’s behavior elsewhere in the canon. Yes, the God of both testaments is loving; I grant Lamb that point. But what is missing here is that the observe is also true; the God of both testaments can be angry, wrathful, vengeful . . . or, more all-encompassing, the God of both testaments can be terribly disconcerting. I worry that Lamb’s statements here confirm what I have raised issues with in the other segments of this review: that the underlying motivation has been an attempt to moralize an unsettling and problematic at times depiction of God with an equally whitewashed, tame picture of Jesus. Yes, both are loving. And yes, both can be terribly unsettling as well.
Lamb concludes with three observations: 1) God is fascinating (complex, unable to be described simply); 2) God is relational; 3) God is good (all the time). I’m with Lamb on 1 and 2; the biblical text, however, I am not convinced allows one to speak as definitively as Lamb would like on #3.
Your thoughts on Lamb’s book, and my comments of it?
One year ago today I officially graduated with my Ph.D. from Baylor University. One year ago today I also weighed 78 lbs more than what I do now (I’ve lost 30% of my body weight). And so I was quite a bit curious, on the anniversary of the first time I wore my robe, how it would fit. As many of you likely know, these things cost a pretty penny, and I was hoping I wouldn’t have to pay for alterations of any sort. Today I tried the robe on again, and was delighted with what I saw. Here’s the ‘before and after’ picture . . . you know it’s rough when you can mak a Ph.D. robe–puffy and flowing as they are–look fat. Well I did. But no more!
In chapter 6, Lamb tackles the perennial thorny issue that often unfortunately serves as unnecessary fodder for a stark division between the two Testaments, pointing to the superiority of the New to the detriment of the Old. Lamb maintains that despite the prevalence of legal material in the Old Testament, God is indeed not legalistic. The first bit of evidence adduced is that the first commandment in the Bible is not “Don’t eat the apple from that tree” (116) but is in fact found in Gen 1:28: “God blessed them. And God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth.’” The second divine command, says Lamb, is to eat . . . a lot. The two initial divine commandments–sex and eating–are examples of God’s “generosity, goodness, and graciousness” and “are the foundation for all his laws” (117). The fault, then, in the opening chapters of Gen falls with the serpent, who Lamb suggests is not equated with Satan but functions in much the same way, tempting the first humans that God’s intentions for them are not indeed good and true.
I was delighted to see Lamb take notice of the glaring–though oft unrecognized–problem in Gen 2-3, namely that the serpent seems to be the one telling the truth, while God appears to be the one lying; the humans do not in fact DIE as God had said, but they do upon eating the fruit become like God, as the serpent had said. Walter Moberly and James Barr had a tremendously spirited discussion on this topic in the pages of the Journal of Theological Studies (which I discuss in my forthcoming book, see the MY BOOK tab at the top of this page). Lamb ultimately concldes as follows: “God’s graciousness and not his deceptiveness was the reason he didn’t kill the humans instatntly after they ate the fruit” (120). The fact that Lamb paid attention to this issue (my readers will know well the soft spot I have for any discussion of divine deception, especially in Genesis) is to be applauded, and his response to the tension is on target largely; I do agree that the primeval history especially is typified by a pattern of sin followed by grace. I still wonder, however, whether Lamb’s statement quoted just previously in fact absolves the issue in all its complexity. Yes, God may have responded graciously to the couple . . . but this response need not necessarily be in line, and does not necessaril reveal everything, of what the original divine intention was in telling the first couple they would not just die but MOST CERTAINLY DIE (infinitive absolute). The emphasis on death as the fitting punishment, followed by its unfulfillment, continues to stand as a tension. Moreover, the difficulty of the serpent seemingly speaking the truth while God does not is unique and worth discussion. Characterization and character studies in the biblical text often will play one character off another; what does it mean, then, for God’s characterization in Gen 2-3 (and following?) that God is portrayed as either lying or wrong (or unnecessarily gracious) while the serpent is entirely right in what he says? There is much more to probe on this critical textual issue.
Lamb next turns a traditional question on its head, asking “why do good things happen to bad people” (rather than the converse, why do bad things happen to good people?). Posing the question in this way is especially enlightening, I think, and stresses again what Lamb wishes to emphasize throughout the book: that the God of the Old Testament is gracious, kind, generous, loving, and good. I can get on board with that. What I want to make certain of, though, is that the other side–the dark side–is allowed also to remain for God. God is both kind, generous, and loving, and also dangerous, terrifying, and seemingly unfair at times. Both get to the heart of the matter; picking and choosing, or emphasizing one to the detriment of the other, is not to recognize the fullness of the biblical text’s witness to God. For Lamb, the Bible affirms that in fact we are ALL bad people . . . the only example he says of a good person who experienced bad things was Jesus . . . (120). But even this was an act of goodness done by God; Lamb calls God “the quintessential do-gooder” (121)–which I again would emphasize is only one part of the picture–but I agree with Lamb that behind the image of YHWH as lawgiver are the intentions of a generous and gracious God who wants humanity and creation to live the best life possible.
Why then all the laws, and why are some so wildly harsh and unmoving? Lamb suggests this was a mechanism to help ancient Israel transition from a slave people in Egypt to a genuine community of faith ruled by judges and then kings. This evolutionary idea of ancient Israelite society certainly has some merit, but Lamb’s argument here falters on a few aspects, most notably the typical critiques that accompany an evolutionary view of the biblical text (most recently on this point, see the excellent chapter by Eryl Davies in his The Immoral Bible) but also the assumption latent in Lamb’s comments that the Old Testament text presents a reliable chronology for these events from Israel’s nascence to the development of the monarchy. The linear history of the biblical text is far more complex and fragmented than Lamb is letting on (no doubt, of course, because of his audience, but the point still stands).
Lamb rounds out the chapter with a comparison between Jesus, who is aiming to show that God is not a legalist, and the Pharisees, who adhere to the letter of the law (but who Lamb astutely points out are not beyond plotting murder on the Sabbath). While the comparison is apt at the textual level, I do wish Lamb had offered even just a brief comment so readers did not come away with the idea affirmed from the biblical text, that the Pharisees are the quintessential ‘bad guys.’ New Testament scholarship has shown this to be the case quite convincingly.
And so, if asked, is God “legalistic or gracious,” I respond, simply . . . YES. But this is a bit more tempered yes than my usual response in previous entries on Lamb’s book. I agree entirely that the Torah is an act of divine benevolence, evidenced at least in part by the fact that within Judaism (and I am painting with a very broad brush here), the law is not a burden but a gift, a sign of God’s grace. But are some of the laws seemingly ‘unnecessary,’ or even worse disturbingly dangerous in their advocacy of death as a severe punishment, for instance, of talking back to one’s parents? Yes. But that becomes less an issue of legalism for me and is more a problem of how one ultimately adjudicates the divine character in toto.
I just came along this wonderful comment, albeit too late to include in my forthcoming book. No worries, though; I plan to include it in an article on which I am working. But Sweeney raises the issue in a wonderful way when talking about method and the character of God:
“Freed from the presuppositions of historical analysis that the trickster or deceptive nature of
G-d’s character in Genesis is simply the product of a primitive and theologically unsophisticated stage in Israelite religious development, scholars are now coming to recognize that divine duplicity and deception cannot be dismissed as the product of primitive culture, but must be taken into account in biblical interpretation” (Marvin Sweeney, Reading the Hebrew Bible after the Shoah: Engaging Holocaust Theology, 25).
Spot on! Absolutely spot on! Unfortunately, this conversation on divine deception (in Genesis especially, see HERE) is still very much in its infancy, but I am glad to hopefully be giving that conversation a jumpstart!
Here is the real (front) cover for my forthcoming book, Jacob and the Divine Trickster: A Theology of Deception and YHWH’s Fidelity to the Ancestral Promise in the Jacob Cycle (buy HERE). The back cover will be identical to the joke pink cover posted immediately below (see HERE), but I understand it will also include endorsements from Walter Brueggemann and Bill Bellinger (see HERE for those).
So what do you think? If you’re going to pick up a copy, drop a note in the comments!
EDIT: Here is the full cover (front and back), which I just received.
My fine friends at Eisenbrauns, who are publishing my forthcoming book very soon (see HERE to order a copy) have just now sent me a copy of the cover, and I must say, this thing is going to fly off the shelves. Here it is (click to enlarge):
Wow. Absolutely brilliant! Maybe I should rename the book? How about ‘Edom Means Pink, not Red!’?
So, is your book tough enough to wear pink? Cuz mine is!
Who’s buying a copy now?!
[DISCLAIMER: This is NOT the real cover of my book; at least not the real color scheme. It is a great joke from some of my friends at Eisenbrauns, namely James Spinti].