Blogging Lamb, God Behaving Badly – 3. Sexist or Affirming?

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.


5 thoughts on “Blogging Lamb, God Behaving Badly – 3. Sexist or Affirming?

  1. Thom Stark says:

    This seems like a whitewash, and although his treatment of Genesis 1-3 is still problematic, even more problematic is the decision to focus primarily here. There are countless texts which give divine-endorsement of patriarchy and at times even misogyny.

    Also, legends such as those revolving around Deborah et al. are important but irrelevant. The question isn’t whether there were strong women; the question is what the legal material says about how women should be treated in Israel. The legal material is supposed to me the most directly divinely inspired, whereas the legends of Deborah and others are popular tales. Here we have institutional religion versus popular religion.

    • John Anderson says:

      Thom, fine thoughts. But I would press your second paragraph a bit more. You say “the question isn’t whether there were strong women” (and are right in doing so), but I would have ended this sentence by saying something like ‘what matters is that there are women are not portrayed as such.’ This seems to be a famous apologetic strategy. “Oh, you think X is a problem? Well look at how cool Y is. Yep, presto chango, bye bye X.” Or, in a more scholarly vernacular, just because there are amazingly strong women does not mean the Bible and/or God is/are not, at some points, sexist. Lamb hasn’t eliminated the problem; he’s just diverted the reader’s attention from it.

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