Blogging Lamb, God Behaving Badly – 1. & 2.A Bad Reputation & Angry or Loving?

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.


7 thoughts on “Blogging Lamb, God Behaving Badly – 1. & 2.A Bad Reputation & Angry or Loving?

  1. Ed Gentry says:

    Thanks for doing this John. I’m looking forward reading your reviews.

    I had been thinking about requesting a review copy of this book, because I was considering using it in my first year university OT introduction class. I certainly think we have an inadequate understanding about both Jesus and Yhwh. I don’t want to sugar coat Yhwh in the OT, and I certainly want to dispel the idea that the OT’s Yhwh was mean and vindictive while Jesus (and indeed God) in the NT are ‘really swell guys.’

  2. John Anderson says:

    Hi Ed, you’re most welcome. While I won’t tell you to use or not to use Lamb’s book (I would say it depends on what you would use alongside it), I much prefer Seibert in such a context. Still quite readabe, not AS apologetic, and his middle section on the nature of and how to read OT narrative (challenging truth vs. history dichotomy) is simply superb. It will challeng students but also press them to challenge Seibert back. I have them read the book slowly throughout the course of the semester, and at first they are usually angry or upset he’s giving God such a bad rap, and by the end of the semester, once Seibert advances his proposal that Jesus is the hermeneutical key, they get upset about how he does essentially what he says others shouldn’t do. It’s a fun exercise. I use Seibert alongside Terry Fretheim’s The Suffering of God and some others to give students a perspective on the diversity and complexity of God in the OT. I’m delighted with how well received it has been over the last academic year. The undercurrent of my class is a challenge to Marcionism, and realizing that in the OT God is both a good guy and a bad guy, and at times in the NT Jesus is pretty swell, but also pretty troubling. Sanitizing and whitewashing either figure drives me insane. And I worry that too often in this conversation about problematic portrayals of God that that is exactly what happens.

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