Blogging Lamb, God Behaving Badly – 5. Violent or Peaceful?

For the first three installments, see HERE (Angry or Loving), HERE (Sexist or Affirming), and HERE (Racist or Hospitable).

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.

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8 thoughts on “Blogging Lamb, God Behaving Badly – 5. Violent or Peaceful?

  1. Thom Stark says:

    1. Does Lamb offer any arguments to support his claim that the “main point of the story is that [YHWH] does not require child sacrifice”? If so, I’d like to know what they are, and whether he at all engages the arguments of Levenson, Niditch, myself, et al., that this is not in fact the point of the story? The conflict is the story is that God’s command to sacrifice Isaac conflicted with God’s promise that Isaac was the beginning of a great nation. The tension in the story is not a moral one revolving around the moral status of human sacrifice, but rather a tension regarding the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham. Abraham is confirmed as faithful precisely because he was in fact willing to sacrifice his son. As Levenson remarks, that’s a strange way to condemn child sacrifice.

    2. I’m curious as to why you didn’t offer much criticism to Lamb’s treatment of the Canaanite genocides here. Each point Lamb makes is extremely problematic.

    (1) “God was punishing the Canaanites for their wicked behavior in regards to ancient Israel.” What wicked behavior in regards to ancient Israel? Israel invaded Canaan, not the other way around. Even if we drop “in regards to ancient Israel,” and just leave, “punishing the Canaanites for their wicked behavior,” that hardly solves the problem of genocide, as I’ve discussed at length in my book and in my review of Copan.

    (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].” Your criticism here is on target. But the first statement, if you’ve presented his argument accurately, is a completely false dichotomy. How did they try to gain a homeland? By expanding borders violently. It’s not an either/or. This is, by the way, genocide, even if not all were killed. In my review of Copan, in my second chapter on the Canaanite genocides, I provide a full definition of genocide according to international law.

    (3) “YHWH demonstrated patience [slow to anger] in dealing with the Canaanites, giving them opportunity to repent.” What arguments does Lamb employ to support this statement? Because it isn’t true. Yahweh never offers the Canaanites the opportunity to repent. In fact, it’s the opposite. According to the promise to Abraham, the only thing Yahweh offered the Canaanites was more time to become more wicked so that the conquest of their land could be justified. Unlike Noah and Jonah, neither Abraham nor Moses (nor anyone else) were prophets sent to preach repentance to Canaan. Prophets were never sent to Canaan. The only agents God ever sent into Canaan were secret agents: military spies.

    (4) “The Canaanite conquest was not unique within the ancient Near East.” Read: “But, mom, all the other kids are doing it!”

    (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.” This betrays a fundamental ignorance of source criticism and a failure to identify the agenda behind the Deuteronomistic portrayal of the conquest in Joshua 1-12 over against other portrayals in the second half of Joshua and in Judges. Joshua 1-12 (the totalizing picture) was presented as the ideal (what should have happened). The less total portrait was posited as an error on Israel’s part, and in Judges is framed as the cause of much trouble for Israel. The Deuteronomist wants to say that total genocide is what should have happened.

  2. John Anderson says:

    Hi Thom,

    Taking your comments in order:

    1) No, he doesn’t, and that is what is most frustrating for me. He devotes about 3/4 of a page to the story, as though that were enough to address the issue and complexities adequately. It isn’t. Also, this is a popular level book (as Lamb has claimed also elsewhere on this blog). He has a total of 9 endnotes (gathered at the end of the book) for this chapter. I too had wondered about interacting with Levenson; none of these footnotes cite Levenson. And I think you are precisely on target in what the sense (or at least a glaring theological problem in the text) of the text is: the tension between the ancestral promise, God’s promised fidelity to it, and now the desired divine destruction of this promised child. On this point, Lamb is entirely unconvincing to me, problematically so.

    2) I don’t dispute your claim at all. There was no intention in omitting any sort of comment. Lamb has brought up the Canaanite issue in earlier chapters, and I have addressed my dissatisfaction there, in earlier posts. And so I didn’t repeat it here. But yes, I agree with you. It seems the Canaanite genocide is the litmus test one must be able to pass to address the question of OT ethics and the character(ization) of God adequately. Lamb has not done so for me. Or for you.

    3) Again, I agree with you, against Lamb. I trust you are aware that these comments are my summation of Lamb; i engage him critically where I feel compelled. In this chapter, ultimately, it became a matter of wisely picking my battles!

    4) On this point, perhaps I should clarify. Lamb actually says they are trying to RE-gain the land. So in essence, the land is already there’s because God promised it to them. I don’t think this lessens the difficulty at all, especially in light of a similar story, the Amalekite genocide in 1 Sam 15–in modern day Israel, those who are deemed “other” are said to be Amalek, warranting their utter destruction in the cause of regaining the holy land. So even if the texts themselves are not problematic (though to me, they are . . . quite), the afterlives of them are as well.

    5) Divine patience is equivalent to the opportunity to repent, for Lamb. Yes, again, I agree, inadequate.

    6) “Listen, little Thom, if all the other kids were committing genocide would you do it too?”

    7) And interesting take on the matter. Perhaps the source-critical move is the best explanation, but time and space right now preclude a fuller engagement with this idea. But interesting . . . I’ve never thought of it in those terms.

  3. David Lamb says:

    Thanks for discussing my book.

    I agree that I don’t go into depth on Gen. 22. It seems to me that you had a lot you wanted to say about Gen. 22, but I only made a passing comment on it-one sentence–because Denis of Devon so misconstrued it. On Gen. 22, Denis had a couple words, I had a sentence, you had a long paragraph. (I generally liked what you said about Gen. 22.)

    I decided to go into depth elsewhere, on 2 Kings 2 and the Canaanites (which I discuss in chapters 2, 4 and 5. I would hope it would be clear why I can’t go into great depth on each of these issues in a short chapter on violence. Perhaps, I should have made that clear for the academic types who would read the book.

    (Thom, I’m not fully satisfied with my “answers” to the problem of the Canaanites, but I hope my points might help people begin to think about the issue. I’m sure I’ll go to my grave still struggling with the Canaanite problem.)

    The book is for a popular audience, an introduction to seven rather diverse problematic issues (perhaps not issues you all struggle with?). So, if you’re looking for an academic, in-depth lengthy discussion on any one of these topics, I’m not surprised that you’re disappointed. IVP didn’t want me to have many footnotes/ endnotes. I can write academically (see my dissertation- Righteous Jehu and his Evil Heirs (Oxford, 2007)), but didn’t want to here. I knew academics would have problems with it, but they aren’t my primary audience

    I guess we’ll just have to disagree about the story of Elisha and the bears. It’s pretty obvious to me that Elisha’s life was in danger and that prophets were being killed in record number from the context of 1-2 Kings, so this time YHWH dramatically keeps Elisha alive. I’m sorry, you don’t like my choice of words (“main point”), but I still think that’s pretty clear that the point of the story is that YHWH keeps his prophet safe. I still don’t understand the violence of the story (I hope I made that clear both in my comments to Infidel Guy and other comments), but I’m trying to make some sense of it.

    I actually tried to rather humbly state that these issues are really problematic, and it’s good for people of faith to not avoid these texts and to take them seriously, ultimately I don’t think we’re going to be able to completely resolve them. So, I probably agree with your statement that God is both violent and peaceful(but I’m surprised that you didn’t hear that in what I wrote). What I’m trying to do is to help people who don’t read the OT much, or who read it then get really confused, to help them begin to work through some really problematic issues.

    John, I appreciate your desire to have me comment on your review, but it’s hard for me to not feel defensive about the critical tone of your review, so I probably won’t be commenting any more. (While I really appreciated the depth at which you cover my chapter, personally the length of your post made it difficult for me to read and process it quickly like a typical blog post.) I hope my tone here hasn’t been harsh or critical. Thanks again for discussing the book.

    • John Anderson says:

      Hi David! Thanks for weighing in. I do hope you will not, of course, feel pressured into commenting, but I do also hope that the length and content of these posts will not preclude further dialogue. These are quite important issues; on that point we all agree. I am hopeful the conversation will continue, and perhaps we can indeed get together at SBL if time permits.

      First, a few quick clarifications. I apologize if the tone appears overly harsh; that is by no means my intent. I am simply expressing my assessment and trying to back it up with some further questions and reflections. It is a critical academic review. Nothing personal. I’d invite you to rea my RBL review of Seibert’s Disturbing Divine Behavior. Quite a critical review, though Eric is and remains a dear friend. In fact, he personally thanked me (over lunch!) for the review and for taking his work seriosly. So, in short, I am in no way suggesting what you have done is not worthwhile; indeed, I am delighted you are tackling these questions . . . far too many are not! But I am weighing in on the topic in such a way because I think the issues are so important. Second, and relatedly, I have in no way meant to imply that you cannot write academically. I hope that point is clear.

      Second, I fully understand the ‘genre’ and aim of the book. It is important to address these issues to a popular audience. Where I have a question about that “defense,” however, is in my assumption that whether the book were written for academics or for a popular level audience, your conclusions would still be the same. In this regard, I’m less concerned (though, as you see, not unconcerned) with you or anyone else ‘showing their work’ and more concerned with the final conclusion offered in regards to the problem. If the conclusion itself is unsatisfying, then how you got there is as well. And so trusting your conclusions would be consistent despite the audience envisioned for the book, this appeal does little for me ultimately. But I do understand the restrictions of publishing and what one can/cannot cover. It ultimately becomes a matter of triage quite quickly!

      In all honesty, there are several–though not all–of your rationales that I think are wholly possible (some more probable than others), but the point I’m trying to emphasize is that I don’t think that eliminates the problem. I’m glad you yourself don’t think that you’ve done that, or that we can. But in regards to your agreeing with me that God is BOTH violent and peaceful, in looking over the chapter again I can see how one could draw that out of the text, but I still persnally see more of what is going on as a matter of stacking the balance . . . if the arithmetic can add up high enough on one side (i.e., if God is shown to be peaceful more often than violent) than that in effect ‘cancels out’ the more problematic aspects.

      Lastly, I do hope you will continue reading. In all honesty, I think your chapters on “Rigid or Flexible?” and “Distant or Near?” are actually quite superb, and much more in line with how I would address those issues, as well as the others in the book. They are quite well done; excellently so. So rest assured . . . I don’t only have arrows in my quiver!

      Hope you are well!
      Shalom!

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