Blogging Lamb, God Behaving Badly – 4. Racist or Hospitable?

See the first two parts, “Angry or Loving” HERE and “Sexist or Affirming” HERE.

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.

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