Blogging Lamb, God Behaving Badly 6. – Legalistic or Gracious?

(See the other parts of the review at the following links: ‘Angry or Loving’ HERE,  ‘Sexist or Affirming’ HERE, ‘Racist or Hospitable’ HERE, ‘Violent or Peaceful’ HERE).

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.


5 thoughts on “Blogging Lamb, God Behaving Badly 6. – Legalistic or Gracious?

  1. Michael Peterson says:


    Very interesting. Thanks for the post. But, a comment and a question: I’ve always understood God’s warning in 2:17 to refer to mortality, as in you shall become mortal — which is exactly what happened. Brettler discusses this at some length in “How to Read the Jewish Bible”.

    Do you have an opinion?



  2. John Anderson says:

    Hi Michael,

    There is of course debate about how to interpret Gen 2:17 and what follows. I must confess that I had not originally ever picked up on the fact that the serpent is the one speaking the truth and, seemingly, not God here until I read the Moberly / Barr exchange in JTS. After reading that I can’t read it any other way. But the point you raise is precisely one that Moberly raises as well: he suggests that the death is not a literal death. I’m not entirely convinced by this for a variety of reasons: 1) it rings overly apologetic; 2) the text doesn’t hint in any way tha the death is meant to be understood this way . . . in fact, as I point out in the post above, the use of the Hebrew infinitive absolute in 2:17–rendered something like “you will most surely die” only emphasizes all the more that death is the punishment; 3) even if one concedes that the command is about mortality, the fact remains that the serpent, often vilified, speaks ‘truth’ here as well, as the first couple do indeed become “like God” upon eating the fruit; 4) nothing in the text clearlyindicates that the first couple were immortal prior to this eating.

    Does this all mean that God lied? Maybe. I’m not certain yet (but you can get a sense of what I do with this in my book when it comes out). But I do think Moberly is right that THIS–God seemingly speaking untruth while the serpent speaks the truth–is THE central theological problem posed by this text.

  3. Michael Peterson says:

    Thanks so much for the response. It’s an absolutely fascinating question for me because, I teach a biblical ethics class and the ethics of truth takes up a good deal of our time. To many of my students, they are shocked when they read that God condones (and even rewards) lying under certain circumstances.

    But your post threw me for a loop because I never read it that way. So I am grateful for pointing out that others read it quite differently and, odd tho’ it sounds to write it, I thank you.

    Anyway, I went back and looked a bit more deeply at the text and am not convinced that God lied. You’re right to point out the significance of the the inf absolute, but isn’t this just a rhetorical idiom to stress the action? Surely, the meaning isn’t changed. The verb in question is, as far as I can tell, always translated as ‘die’ in the Qal and kill in the Pol, Hiphil, etc. And this, I think, is an important point. For example, when God warns Adam to refrain from eating of the tree of life by saying “surely you shall die”, how is that any different that a parent telling a child to avoid certain risks because s/he might get seriously injured or die?

    Now, suppose Adam and Eve were immortal (this is the Brettler argument), and, by eating of the tree of life, they became procreative. How does God resolve the problem of immortal beings who breed other immortal beings? He makes them mortal.

    Brettler has a lot more to say here (and I have my own minor additions), but I’ll leave it at that.



    • John Anderson says:

      Thanks for continuing the conversation, Michael. A few quick comments.

      You said “how is that any different tha[n] a parent telling a child to avoid certain risks because s/he might get seriously injured or die?”
      But there is a difference if one accepts your reading. If I share such a warning with my son, for example, the word “die” means exactly that . . . die. It doesn’t mean he will become mortal.

      I simply don’t see anything in the text that claims immortality for the first couple. This is an assumption freighted with quite a lot of baggage that I think the text, in several places, struggles to carry.

      I too am not CONVINCED God lied, but I think it is a wholly plausible reading of the narrative. Unfortunately, we aren’t given many details or narrative cues to guide us. But at the same time, as I’ve argued in my forthcoming book, divine deception is sometimes quite latent in the text; I have no problem seeing this as another example of that. And the question I ask, then, is if God’s first words in the entire Bible to humanity are even tinged just a bit with the potential for dishonesty, is this not perhaps programmatic for how we read the rest of the biblical text?

      Put most simply, as I say in my forthcoming book, paraphrasing John Collins recently, it is perhaps better to call God a liar than to attempt to lie for God to get God off the hook.

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