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?
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.
With chapter 5, Lamb addresses the perennial vexing question for those who struggle with the Old Testament: how does one deal with divine violence. Lamb opens with an insightful caution against the easy assumption that simply because the Bible reports something it is therefore commending that activity. He advocates a thorough examination of the context of the story to ascertain whether the behavior is lauded or condemned in the biblical text. Unfortunately, as my own forthcoming book argues (see HERE), I am not convinced such narrative evaluations are always so clear cut and decisive in the biblical text. But this requires a case by case basis. And so I turn to Lamb’s examples . . .
Genesis 22, the near sacrifice of Isaac, opens the discussion. Lamb suggests the “main point of the story is that [YHWH] does not require child sacrifice” (94). It is extremely unfortunate that Lamb does not undertake precisely what he had advocated only a page earlier: a deep excavation of the text’s context. A contextual reading (however one defines it, but perhaps in line with the methods in the Genesis: Texts @ Contexts volume–see my RBL review of the book HERE–I contend it is extremely difficult to avoid other attendant issues that are quite troubling in such an investigation) will not and cannot eliminate the danger and difficulty of this text. For example, relying upon the biblical text itself and its immediate surrounding context (and these are points the rabbis picked up on as well), one should note that while it is quite transparent to readers of the story that this is a “test,” Abraham and Isaac are entirely in the dark. The emotional experience thus becomes less the focus in comparison with Abraham’s exemplary display of faith at this horrific request. Similarly, after the event Abraham and Isaac never again are seen together in the narrative, nor do they ever . . . . ever . . . . speak a word to one another. Compounding the problematic element in this text, Isaac seems later in life to be an almost entirely passive figure, a quite ineffectual patriarch, who is the object of deception by his son and wife, and who sits on his deathbed for upwards of 20 years. He is portrayed in the text as object, not subject (save for Gen 26). And so, to my eye, despite whether one accepts that the “main point” of Gen 22 is that God does not require human sacrifice, this recognition does not mitigate in any way the terror and horror this text should evoke, at least at some level, for readers. Such readings, which relegate the problematic to a secondary status, only succeed in raising the decibel of this unheard aspect of the text to a deafening tone.
Lamb next treats the Elisha and the bears story in 2 Kgs 2:23-25 (a favorite of students), arguing that the common reading the boys are youths is without textual merit; they are, instead, a pack of rogue teens who intend to do serious bodily harm–perhaps even to the point of death–to the prophet. He also argues there is no indication that the bear attack was “fatal” but only “violent” (98), as though a bear mauling anyone–irrespective of age–as a result of a divine command becomes condonable behavior so long as the person does not die. Such a defense would hardly hold up in a modern day court of law! The “main point” of this story, argues Lamb, “is not that [YHWH] picks on children but rather that [YHWH] protected the life of Elisha” (98). I remain unclear how Lamb so confidently arrives at the “main point” of these stories . . . the main point from whose perspective? the author’s? Lamb’s? The arithmetic by which he gets there is not entirely clear. And again I would say that even if this is the “main point” of the text (and I disagree that it is the main point), it does not eliminate other potential points or perspectives that warrant honest theological engagement and struggle. Lamb has ignored them by the common practice of assuming that these problems magically disappear when the text is read properly; they are subsumed and consumed by the “main point” of the text. I cannot accept this. Why the severity? What are the limits? Or, as my students sometimes put it, if God is all powerful (another thorny issue–see Fretheim, for example) then why could God not remedy the situation in a more peaceful way? I do resonate some with Lamb’s conclusion to this section of the chapter: “a pattern emerges that [YHWH] is willing to punish individuals and even nations severely to protect the weak and preserve life” (99), but this recognition, again, does not eliminate the difficulties or the need to deal with them.
Next Lamb turns to the Canaanite genocide, arguing five mitigating points: 1) God was punishing the Canaanites for their wicked behavior in regards to ancient Israel; 2) Israel was not trying to expand borders violently but simply gain a homeland [interestingly, Lamb does not address other texts where ancient Israel is engaged in border expansion through violent means]; 3) YHWH demonstrated patience [slow to anger] in dealing with the Canaanites, giving them opportunity to repent; 4) the Canaanite conquest was not unique within the ancient Near East; 5) the killing in this instance was “probably” [Lamb's word--not the most solid of footing] “limited and localized” given that Judges, for instance, talks of Canaanites remaining in the land.
Another text involving mass death, the Assyrian slaughter by an angel of YHWH in 2 Kgs 19:35, receives treatment next. The body count totals 185,000. Lamb makes sense of this event in three ways: 1) death is a necessary reality of war; 2) Assyria was an extremely violent and rapacious nation; 3) Assyrians had mocked YHWH, insisting he was unable to deliver Israel from Sennacherib. Again, attempts to “explain” the difficulty away does not eliminate the necessity of still needing to “explain” the difficulty. It is not erased. And so what do we do? Lamb’s personal assessment offers a good springboard for discussion. He writes, “personally, I’m glad that the God of the Old Testament took extreme measures to care for the poor and the powerless and to prevent bloodshed and war” (106). My concern is with the latter, italicized part of this statement. Lamb has just discussed many places where bloodshed and war have been carried out in the name of . . . and by . . . God! Is Lamb, then, also glad for the bloodshed and war YHWH has caused in order to protect the poor and powerless? The insinuation in Lamb’s comment hints at what I think Lamb believes he has accomplished in the prior discussions: arguing that YHWH in fact does take an active stance against bloodshed and war. But, as Lamb has shown, in certain circumstances God is indeed the instigator of bloodshed and war. And so the problem remains, unsettled, and unaddressed. These texts reject facile attempts to smooth them out.
As Lamb does in each chapter, he concludes in two ways. First, by turning to Jesus. Lamb attempts to reconcile Jesus’ peaceful message in the Sermon on the Mount with Jesus statement that he came not to bring peace but a sword (Mt 10:34; Lk 12:51) by saying “Jesus was rarely in sword-wielding mode and was often in peacemaking mode” (110), as though the frequency with which one acts problematically was the true barometer for assessing one’s capacity for violence and evil. And so by Lamb’s arithmetic, if I kill someone, but only once, and then devote all the rest of my efforts to helping detectives solve all unsolved murder cases, then I am certainly much more in “peaceful mode” than I am in “killing mode.” This type of logic is senseless in my view. Historical Jesus debates aside, the textual Jesus says both. Attempts to quantify items such as these are especially weak and appalling. Moreover, I wonder how Lamb would reconcile his “peaceful” Jesus of the gospels with the Jesus of Revelation? Or even Jesus portrayed elsewhere in the gospels. I reject the idea that is commonly held, I feel, that Jesus was this sort of 60s hippie with a guitar almost smiling and singing kum-bah-yah (as I’ve talked about elsewhere). I’m fairly certain he raised his voice. And the Temple tantrum? And calling the Canaanite/Syro-Phoenician woman a dog? Jesus was not a tame guy, and his message was not a tame message. Second, Lamb closes the chapter with the worthwhile suggestion that we “promote peace by healing, feeding, loving and praying for enemies” (112). A worthwhile activity indeed. But what remains in the background, and thus unresolved in my view, are those texts in which God–and Jesus!–do not act in like manner.
And so, if asked, is God “Violent or Peaceful,” I respond simply . . . YES.
Chapter 4 of Lamb’s book asks whether God is racist or hospitable. Lamb advances two reasons why God seems racist: 1) 19th century Christians used the OT to legitimate slavery; 2) YHWH commanded the utter annihilation of the Canaanites, which sounds like genocide. For Lamb this view is, rightly so, terribly problematic; all, he affirms, regardless of ethnic or national affiliations, are created in the image of God. To combat the idea that God is racist, Lamb points to the frequency with which the Bible includes genealogies; their presence bespeaks their importance to God. These genealogies, stemming all the way back to Genesis, argue according to Lamb that we are all one human family.
Lamb investigates a number of texts, with varying degrees of success. He first looks at the curse of Ham in Gen 9:18-27, arguing it does not justify slavery for three reasons: 1) the curse was localized to one generation of Noah’s sons and does not have any staying power beyond them; 2) Noah, not YHWH, utters the curse, thus removing God from any potential problematic aspect [this is a favorite maneuver of those attempting to apologize for God; the same is done in the Jacob cycle with Jacob's deceptions--on that, see my forthcoming book. Yet even Lamb must confess, in the very next sentence, that YHWH "did apparently grant power to the curse"; such attempts to separate YHWH from these problematic images are ultimately often, on textual grounds, doomed to failure]; 3) the curse is directed only to Canaan and not Ham or all his sons. The so-called curse, then, legitimates slavery in a tightly circumscribed way, specifically only within the context of ancient Israel and Canaan. One cannot and should not make a modern application. As we have seen in other chapters, Lamb suggests slavery too was treated progressively within ancient Israel. The Israelites themselves, in the redemption from Egypt, collectively embody this very ideal that “God hates slavery” (75).
Lamb’s treatment of the Canaanite genocide (Josh 10-11, for example) is far less satisfactory. Relying on an age old idea–that Joshua uses hyperbolic language–Lamb claims “a nonliteral reading of the texts that speak of ‘all’ people being destroyed is required” (77). While I am in agreement with this basic sentiment, based upon the witness of the book of Joshua that the entire land was not conquered, coupled with archaeological evidence that raises severe questions about the historical veracity of the conquest narratives, it does little to address the actual problem. The command in the mouth of God is still present, whether it was carried out fully or not (I do not, however, mean to imply the divine command itself is historically reliable either; the mere fact that it exists and is preserved in the biblical text serves as enouh warrant to have to wrestle with it beyond simply explaining the text away). There are still other commands in the Old Testament placed on the lips of God that call for utter destruction of men, women, children, etc., 1 Sam 15 among perhaps the most problematic. The ‘answer’ Lamb adduces in dealing with the conquest narratives–even if one accepts them–are not universally applicable to these other instances in the OT. And moreover, I marvel again at the positive spin that is able to be placed on death here. Despite the scope of death portrayed in the narrative, be it exhaustive or only a few, is not even a single death in this context problematic? Why is it acceptable to reduce the problem to matters of simple arithmetic. I feel almost like Abraham dealing with God re: Sodom and Gomorrah: how many “dead”–even if those corpses are only narratively constructed, we cannot ignore how these texts have been used in their afterlives, most recently against Palestinians in the battle raging in the modern state of Israel–will be acceptable for one’s conscience not to be bothered? Lamb goes on to argue that all Israel was doing was attempting to gain a homeland, or more accurately, regain the homeland of its ancestors; for Lamb, “they had a legitimate right to be reestablished in the land of their ancestors” (78). Perhaps. But then, and now, does such a “legitimate right” in the end legitimate death on any scale, be it mass genocide or the death of a single innocent person? Lamb’s attempt to address this issue remains entirely unsatisfactory.
Turning to the topic of divine hospitality, Lamb adduces the example of Rahab the protitute, as well as the stories of Ruth, Daniel, Jonah, and Naaman the Syrian general (2 Kgs 5:1-4, 9-15). YHWH judges not based upon race/ethniciy but as recompense for wickedness. Throughout Torah one can also find specfic laws instructing one in the proper treatment of the sojourner.
Jesus shares in this love of the foreigner, evident in four foreign women (Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba) being included in his genealogy at the outset of the NT in Matthew’s genealogy. Moreover, Lamb reads the parable of the Good Samaritan as primarily a parable concerned with racism. The title itself, says Lamb, is racist (implying that what is novel about the Samaritan is the fact that he is good; the good Samaritan also makes it sound as though there is only one Samaritan who was good, thus demonizing all others).
Rounding out the chapter, as always, is Lamb’s contemporary application of the lessons culled from this chapter. He suggests three: 1) the majority culture need to bring up the issue of race as well and show they are concerned with it; 2) we must confront racism when we see it and work to remedy it; 3) make friends with those belonging to other ethnic backgrounds.
It is interesting to note that in the majority of treatments of the topic of Old Testament ethics or problematic portrayals of God, the Canaanite genocide is always the most problematic–yet also the most important!–issue to address and overcome. Put simply, I don’t think one can, or should, seek to overcome the issue for many of the reasons I list above. Put simply, one cannot overcome it. But that is, as Lamb rightly shows, only one half of the portrait.
And so, if asked, is God “Racist or Hospitable,” I respond simply . . . YES.
For my discussion of the first chapter, “Angry or Loving?”, see HERE.
In chapter two, Lamb tackles the question of whether God is sexist or affirming. He focuses primarily upon the first three chapters of Genesis. I commend Lamb’s emphasis on the unfair (and unwarranted) jump to Gen 3 when dealing with this question; Gen 1-2, he suggests, offers a much more compelling, and original (read: earlier) sense of God’s understanding of women. Put most simply, they are made in God’s image. Relatedly, the fact that women are created second need not pose a problem, says Lamb; the “second draft,” he asserts, is always an improvement over the first! But this is not to say women then are better than men. The biblical language of a “helper” (or, as one of my past professors who also married my wife and I put it so well in his message during our wedding, someone who “has your back”) is key.
The rush to accuse women in Gen 3 is also misfounded, Lamb rightly says. The man acts equally problematically here for several reasons. Primarily, the Hebrew reveals that the man is present when the woman eats the fruit, and the man–who also eats–offers no resistance. The curse that follows the first couple’s disobedience–that the man will ‘rule over’ the woman, etc.–is not taken by Lamb to suggest oppression of any sort. First, this curse, he insists, is applicable only to this first couple. Second, in a bit that was not too terribly convincing to me, Lamb argues the man’s curse is more severe than the woman’s based upon content (the man receives ‘death’ while the woman only pain in childbirth) and the number of Hebrew words used (13 words in Hebrew for the woman vs. 46 for the man). Third, the woman also receives a promise: that her seed will stamp out the serpent (the protoevangelium, as it is often called), while the man hears nothing positive. These second and third reasons are somewhat problematic for me; I think they swing the pendulum to the other side too far in the attempt to redress an imbalance, and more importantly, I think they press against the more compelling reading Lamb has offered earlier in the chapter: that man and woman together constitute the fullness of God’s image. It isn’t, and shoudn’t be, a contest. Lamb is right to suggest that the ‘reality’ of Gen 3 is not how God wants it, and the task of humanity is to struggle to get back to the ideal of Gen 1 and 2, where both the woman and the man are “God-like helpers for each other” (59).
Lamb offers an interesting discussion of the Pentateuchal law that a single woman who is raped is mandated to marry her rapist (Deut 22:28-29). According to Lamb, while such a practice is abominable and appalling to us, within the context of ancient Israel it is meant to address and remedy any sexism in that world. It offered the “necessary security” for the victim by affording the woman–who would be “stigmatized by the loss of her virginity” and not be allowed to marry–the security of one to care for her in this patriarchal culture. In fact, Lamb argues that laws regarding women and their status in ancient Israel and in the Old Testament are actually comparatively quite progressive. While I understand his point, I am not enamored with such comparative arguments. Copan makes them far too often in his very disappointing book Is God a Moral Monster? This “lesser of two evils” approach does little more than attempt (and fail, in my view) to mitigate and explain away a problem that contemporary faith communities need to address much more fully.
The Old Testament, however, does emphasize strong, strong women. Lamb mentions Deborah (who he calls YHWH’s selected female “president”), as well as Ruth and Esther. Many more can be added to this list: Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, Leah, the Hebrew midwives in Exodus, among countless others. The Old Testament is replete with courageous, impressive, and strong women.
Lamb concludes this chapter, as he does each chapter in the book, by turning to the NT and showing how Jesus also acts in this way (having finished the book already, I am well aware that Lamb is trying to “reconcile”–his word–YHWH and Jesus, though I wonder in which direction the reconciling is actually aimed at some places). He cites Mark 14:3-9, the woman who anoints Jesus in the house. While somewhat ancillary to Lamb’s overall purposes in this small section of the chapter, I have always wondered about Jesus’ tone and timber of voice when hesays “Leave her alone. Why do you trouble her?” In undergrad the final project for my class on the life and teachings of Jesus involved groups staging, memorizing, and performing a particular gospel in its entirety. Every decision–from clothing to facial expression to tone of voice became important matters of interpretation. We opted to portray Jesus–I was playing Jesus at the time!–as literally screaming these words, perhaps matching his anger with the infamous Temple tantrum that gets him killed in each gospel save for John. And so I have always wondered why one presumes Jesus is here wearing tye-dye and singing kum-ba-yah. I’m convinced Jesus rose his voice and got plenty angry at several points. I’m also fairly certain this is one of them). All that to say, the example Lamb offers has more interpretive issues to address than what this small portion of the book does.
In light of this discussion, Lamb advocates three measures for the contemporary life of faith (and these are quite often of tremendous value; Lamb has not only discussed the relevant issues but also gives practical and real life advice for implementing them within contemporary concrete communities of faith): 1) affirm women are made in the image of God and thus listen to and learn from them; 2) follow YHWH and Jesus’ examples and affirm women whenever possible; 3) talk and write about sexism. This final point is especially important, I think, within the academic community, where the issue is still a real problem in some sectors.
Lamb has done a commendable job of stressing how YHWH is not sexist. But this is only a part of the picture, and his overarching argument for the book that when God “behaves badly” it is highly purposive, seems troubling here (as I think it is elsewhere, mind you).
And so, if asked, is God “Sexist or Affirming,” I respond simply . . . YES.
I’ve decided to blog my way through David Lamb’s new book God Behaving Badly: Is the God of the Old Testament Angry, Sexist and Racist? This is a question that is very important to me, and one which I think is often neglected (see, for example, my post HERE and my RBL review of Eric Seibert’s Disturbing Divine Behavior HERE). This is not meant to serve as a full scale review but rather will be my interaction with some salient aspects of the texts.
In chapter one, “A Bad Reputation,” Lamb suggests, obviously, that the OT God has a bad reputation based upon the prevalence of seemingly problematic texts, coupled with cultural references to God as ‘smiter,’ for instance. He does, rightly, challenge Marcion that we have two different gods that are incompatible with one another. Where I would quibble though–and this is a critique I have with Seibert and others as well–is that in many of these discussions of God as a problematic character, there still remains the implicit assumption that Jesus is the swellest of guys and the image of God usually ends up being skewed to fit that more positive portrait. Seibert does this. Lamb does as well, but he does so with more nuance, pointing out that Jesus does get angry; for example, what my students have come to call the ‘temple tantrum.’ In the end, however, Lamb seeks to give adequate REASON for God’s troubling behavior, showing that it is wholly justified in each circumstance, more or less, and should not be taken to define wholly who God is and is not.
Chapter 2, “Angry or Loving?,” Lamb looks at the story of Uzzah (2 Sam 6:1-8), explaining (away) God’s (quick!) anger with three points: 1) the Israelites had been told time and again how to carry the ark properly, and here they were not; 2) transporting the ark on a cart was insulting to King YHWH; 3) Israel had shown a lack of respect in losing the ark to the Philistines. Here is the question I bring, and it is twofold: first, in re: point 1, if the ark is being carried improperly and this is the motivation for God’s anger, then why not ‘kill the carriers’ instead of Uzzah, who simply tried to steady it? And second, does the punishment (death) fit the crime, a question Lamb will address by saying we cheapen God’s grace be ignoring the fact that the Bible clearly states (note tha phrase: does the Bible ‘clearly say’ anything?) that the punishment for sin is death? I can’t help but think this punishment certainly does NOT–by Lamb’s own argumentation, fit the crime or fit the criminal. Lamb also makes the point that God almost felt compelled to act because the text reveals that “all Israel” was watching, and God did not want the Israelites to think disobedience was an option. Of course, disobedience is going to end up typifying their existence largely, and God shows Godself to be surprisingly “long nosed” (or, patient) in those circumstances. This, in fact, is what Lamb next moves to discuss . . . that God is ‘slow to anger.’ Yes, the biblical text affirms this, and yes, YHWH displays tremendous patience at many points along the narrative. And so my question, then, is why not give Uzzah another chance? Why not show some patience in this more innocuous situation? Give Uzzah a chance to repent!
Perhaps the most disconcerting part of this chapter for me deals with Lamb’s insistence that the essential character of YHWH as one who is “slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” is revealed in conjunction with YHWH’s own personal name; indeed, as an extension of it. Here are the two problems, and they are not minor in my estimation, and one may be symptomatic of the other. First, Lamb incorrectly attributes these words to Exod 34:5-6; they are, in fact, the key lines from Exod 34:6-7, which are oft quoted in tandem. The error notwithstanding, I hope and trust it was a harmless mistake (he rightly cites the text a few pages later), and not done to hide from the reader the continuation of this statement, still connected to the divine name, that God is indeed not only a God who is “slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (34:6) but continuing on also one that “keep[s] steadfast love for the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin . . . ” But here’s the kicker–v. 7b: “yet by no means clearing the guilty, but visiting the iniquity of the parents upon the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.” Lamb’s selective quoting of this text is something that I see as endemic to many who venture to answer the thorny question of problematic portrayals of God in the OT. If Lamb’s point is that these aspects define the essential character of who God is because it is attached to his name, and “names mean something significant, representing one’s essence and character” and [YHWH's] full name speaks of his graciousness, patience and slowness to anger” (36), one must also reckon with the fact that this name also points to YHWH’s sometimes problematic sense of justice as transgenerational, and the divine proclivity for punishment of the guilty. It’s right there in the name (a very long name!).
Lamb next turns to a cursory discussion of the question “Did [YHWH] Abundantly Love the Canaanites and Egyptians?” In my view he never ultimately answers this question. He offers a rationale for their respective punishments (hardening the heart/drowning and a genocidal program of military conquest), but my question again is seemingly simple but a necessary point with which to reckon: does the punishment fit the crime? I think many modern readers–and I’m sure some ancient ones as well–would have some difficulty with this point.
Lamb closes the chapter by asking “when should we get angry?” Seemingly channeling the imago Dei concept, that we are to emulate as much as we can the divine way of doing things (terrifying prospect in some instances!), Lamb suggests that God gets angry about breakdown in relationships and about injustice. I agree entirely. Where I part company, though, is on whether the punishment fits the crime. Or, to put it another way, Lamb’s second-to-last sentence in the chapter affirms “the God of the Old Testament and New Testament is both quick to love and slow to anger.” I would respond in two ways. First, yes, sometimes this is true. And second, was God “quick to love” for Egypt and Canaan, or “slow to anger” for Uzzah? I don’t think Lamb has successfully argued either case persuasively.
And so, if asked, is God “Angry or Loving,” I respond simply . . . YES.
God Gone Wild (or, wrestling with disturbing divine behavior with Seibert, Stark, Copan, Davies, and others)
With my first book about to be available (see HERE), I have already begun thinking through my second book project. At present it will be related to the first, albeit loosely. Put most simply, I am curious about the problematic images of God in the Hebrew Bible and what one is to do with them.
This area within scholarship has been mushrooming recently, with several recent attempts at the question: my friend Eric Seibert’s Disturbing Divine Behavior (see my RBL review HERE), Paul Copan’s Is God a Moral Monster, Thom Stark’s The Human Faces of God, Eryl Davies’ The Immoral Bible (a wonderful volume addressing the important question of method in tackling these texts), and most recently David Lamb’s God Behaving Badly. Each of these volumes get it, with varying degrees of success, important aspects of the conversation. None, however, has left me entirely satisfied that the problem has been adequately (or in some cases, even responsibly) addressed.
At bottom, what I think has been severely neglected in most treatments is honest wrestling with the theological implications and meaning communicated by these texts. As I have said regarding Seibert’s contribution, it is irresponsible and one is no better than Marcion (who himself is unfairly villified; he too was only wrestling with the problem, yet his solution, I hope we would all agree, is egregiously disconcerting) if one opts simply to ignore these texts or eliminate them from theological contention. Moreover, it does the texts a disservice to engage–as Copan and Lamb do on occasion–in what I would call “comparative genocide” discussions, insinuating that ancient Israel is practicing something shared within the larger ANE context but doing so in a more ‘humane’ way or not to the extreme of other more primitive (and by primitive is often meant unenlighted by God and/or Jesus) peoples. In short, too much is made to apologize for these texts and, worse in my view, for God. These texts do not, to my eye, show any hint of concern for divine apologetics. Nor do they seem terribly interested in easy or pat answers. So, for instance, when Lamb asks in the title of each of his chapters, is God “angry or loving?”, “sexist or affirming?”, “racist or hospitable?”, “violent or peaceful?”, “legalistic or gracious?”, “rigid or flexible?”, “distant or near?” I would answer with a simple–yet unsettling–YES. I also think such questions are at the heart of the problem. The very question does ont allow for an “either/or” choice. It is a both/and.
To me, the most fascinating question to pose is what is the theological payoff (which, for folk such as Copan, shifts the question from the realm of historical certainty–which puts Copan on a terribly tenuous track at the outset–to the world in the text itself) of these texts. What do they say about God? Or, to ask the question another way, why would ancient Israel include such texts in their understanding of who God is? Taking theology as its name says, literally a ‘word about God,’ what theological word do problematic texts convey?
I agree with the bulk of those mentioned above that such studies need to be at least in part contextual. Ancient Israel and its texts obviously arose in a culture much different than ours, with mores that may seem terribly problematic for present-day readers. This is fine to acknowledge (see Davies’ final chapter on reader-response for one attempt to articulate the nexus of historical anchorings of these texts with our contemporary setting), but first and foremost it means one must struggle all the more to give the text an honest hearing.
I am not an apologist, nor do I aspire to be one. What I find potentially most troublesome about this conversation is the emphasis on an either/or way of thinking, saying Go dis either all good/loving/kind or all bad/hateful/evil. I find Brueggemann’s idea of testimony/countertestimony, etc. to be a most helpful paradigm in beginning to address the question. It at the very least opens up the important realization that the biblical text speaks with a multiplicity of voices and witnesses, none of which has attained hegemony over the others. It highlights the tensive relationship between these various biblical witnesses and lets them stand, honoring that tension, not allowing one to obliterate the other. It is, in my view, this theological tension that makes these texts most fascinating, and it is this voice that I think is severely lacking in the current conversation.
Just some early musings. Thoughts?