Book Review: Arterbury, Bellinger, and Dodson – Engaging the Christian Scriptures

Cover ArtOne of the shared experiences amongst all Bible scholars is that at one time or another we are called upon to teach introductory courses. Finding a suitable textbook is not always easy. There are a wealth of single volume intro textbooks covering each Testament as well as the entire Bible, yet these employ a diversity of approaches and views on the presentation of “cutting edge” scholarship. Add to this list of new introductory textbooks Andrew Arterbury, W. H. Bellinger, and Derek Dodson’s Engaging the Christian Scriptures: An Introduction to the Bible.

The volume is designed to be used for a single semester course in Bible–both Old and New Testaments. The preface begins: “We intend for this volume to serve as an introductory textbook to the Christian Scriptures for students who are engaging in an informed reading of the Bible within an academic setting. Because we believe the biblical texts should function as the primary texts in such a setting, we have crafted this textbook to function as a supplemental resource. For example, we have focused our readers’ attention on the prevailing conversations and leading opinions within the field of biblical studies on most subjects” (xi). The methodological focus is described as “contextual,” with a focus on historical, literary, and theological contexts.

The opening chapter, “Places to Begin,” is accessible, well-organized, and still challenging enough for entry level students. Questions addressed include “why read the Bible,” “how did we get the Bible” (covering canon/ization, textual traditions, and translations),  “how shall we read the Bible” (addressing early Christian interpretation, post-Reformation interpretation, and “new trends”). Clocking in at 21 pages, this chapter covers a wide range of difficult yet essential questions for any student to encounter before turning to the biblical text. It is an excellent orientation to the complexities in reading and interpreting the Bible.

The remaining chapters are devoted to the respective canonical divisions: Pentateuch, Former and Latter Prophets, Writings, Between the Testaments, Gospels and Acts, Paul and the Pauline Tradition, General Letters and Revelation. I cannot hope to cover every aspect of this introduction in this review, but a few representative examples will provide a helpful snapshot.

First, the Primeval History in Genesis 1-11 is expertly covered, including important discussions of creation in the ancient Near East, the differences between Gen 1 and 2, patterning/narrative structure of Gen 2-11, the flood account in the Bible and ancient Near East. This section addresses the necessary issues in a readable and non-confrontational way that will allow for the professor to ‘fill in the gaps’ and press conversation deeper during in class discussion. In short, this treatment fulfills the stated aims of the book to serve as a “supplemental resource.” This strength, however, does not continue into the ancestral narratives discussion. While issues such as “the ancestors and history” and the ancestral promise are addressed at the outset in helpful albeit brief fashion, the ensuing discussions surrounding the chosen family fall victim to the sin of many single volume intro textbooks in offering a simple and uninspired summary of the biblical text. For instance, there is no prolonged discussion of the Akedah in Gen 22 and the theological and ethical issues accompanying it. The story is summarized as follows: “Remarkably, in the very next chapter, Abraham hears God instruct him to offer Isaac as a sacrifice. Abraham follows this instruction faithfully, and in the end God provides a ram for hte sacrifice and Isaac is spared. The text becomes the occasion for the repetition of the divine blessing of children and land. Sarah and Abraham then come to the end of their lives. Their journey has been one of learning to trust the ancestral covenant promise from YHWH in the face of threats and distractions from the customs of their culture” (39). While I admit it is not the task of the introductory textbook to cover every issue, nor is such a thing possible, to offer no deeper treatment of this critical nexus in the history of interpretation is an unfortunate lapse.

This recapitulation of the biblical narrative becomes even more apparent in the Jacob and Rachel/Leah discussion, where there is no interaction with or presentation of “prevailing discussions and leading opinions” as stated in the preface. This overly-simplistic summary offers nothing the reader of the Jacob stories could not ascertain themselves. This space would have been better devoted to at least some attention to the challenges surrounding the theme of deception and blessing and the enthralling narrative of YHWH and Jacob’s wrestling contest at Peniel. Instead, the Jacob cycle is summarized thusly: “This section of Genesis contains a variety of traditions organized around the question of the future of the covenant promise”(40). While I agree with this conclusion, much more depth is needed to achieve the stated aims of the book.

Not all of the book falls prey to this retelling. The Psalms section, for example, does a superb job of entrenching students in the current issues and conversations in psalms scholarship. The requisite discussions of poetric, superscriptions, and form criticism are present, but so also is a ‘lengty’ (3 pages) survey of “contemporary scholarship and the psalms,” with a nod toward issues such as micro and macro readings of the Psalter, poetic form, enemies in the psalms, and historical setting for composition and organization of the book of Psalms.

On the New Testament side of things, the strengths continue. The historical world of Jesus, genre of the gospels, and various theories of gospel writing and relationships are surveyed in a way, again, that will challenge the introductory student, albeit in a non-confrontational way. Each of the gospels is treated on its own terms, highlighting the importance of appreciating the unique portrait of Jesus presented by each. Paul’s letters are also treated individually, with helpful breakdowns into key issues Paul addresses to each community, as well as the “occasion, date, and location” for each respective letter.

A brief (half a page) section devoted to the “Overarching Story of the Christian Scriptures” rounds out the entire volume. With due appreciation to the “diversity of voices, some affirming and expanding traditions, and others challenging and reinterpreting those traditions” (259), the authors suggest “one can also detect an emerging, overarching story” (259). This metanarrative of scripture can be summed up as creation, covenant, Christ, consummation.

While no single volume introductory textbook will ever be ideal for all readers, Engaging the Christian Scriptures has many strengths to commend it. Its stated desire to serve as a supplement, bowing to the primacy of the biblical text in introductory courses, allows for a format that provides the reader just enough and yet allows adequate room for the professor to explore issues further and in greater depth during class time. Certainly, as noted above, the volume is not always successful in this regard–giving way to basic retellings of the biblical text at several junctures as opposed to presenting the “prevailing conversations and leading opinions.” Peppered throughout the book are boxes containing charts, brief discussions of issues such as “messiah or Christ” and “social justice” or “the Immanuel prophecy,” suggested exercises and questions, maps, and artistic reconstructions of Solomon’s temple, among many others. These sidebars make the text not only visibly appealing but also breathe a certain life into it. Students can not only read about Solomon’s temple but “see” it; they can trace the various routes of the exodus or see the land apportioned by Joshua. Moreover, helpful bibliography for further reading concludes each chapter.

I must confess, personally, to typically being dissatisfied with single volume introductory textbooks. When I taught Christian Scriptures at Baylor, we were given a list of approved options, none of which satisfied me. Since, when I have taught intro courses elsewhere I have used several books offering a variety of perspectives and approaches, in the interest of satisfying not only my own desires but also so as to benefit students with exposure to a diversity of perspectives. This volume has some of that advantage, having been written by three Baylor professors, each of whom bring their own strengths, methodologies, and insights to the biblical text. But I am beginning to wonder whether the problems with intro volumes, of which this one also is not immune, have more to do with the genre of the single volume introductory textbook than anything else.

I recommend this volume as an insightful, challenging, and readable foray into the Christian scriptures for the introductory student. The admonition that the primary focus for such a course should be to get students into the biblical text itself is an admirable and worthy animating factor for this volume. The title is a suitable one: Engaging the Christian Scriptures. This volume serves as a helpful guide and companion as students begin their engagement with the Christian scriptures.

 

My Response to Koog P. Hong’s RBL Review of my Jacob and the Divine Trickster

(Below is a copy of the response I have submitted to RBL in the hopes they will publish and circulate it, as a fitting response to Hong’s review of my book, which you can read HERE).

A Response to Koog P. Hong’s Review of My
Jacob and the Divine Trickster (RBL 3/13)

John E. Anderson, Ph.D.

ImageI welcome this opportunity to respond to a recent RBL review of my book (published 3/22/13), written by Koog P. Hong of Yonsei University. Hong has offered a review that strives to take my work seriously. For this I am appreciative; what more could a scholar want? But there are some missteps and misstatements in the review to which I would like to respond. It is my hope also that this response—motivated by the very tenets of the SBL to “foster biblical scholarship”—will encourage a robust dialogue on some of these questions I raise that are, to my eye, far too often ignored, be it out of theological convenience, Testamental dissonance, and/or personal bewilderment at their presence. There are two basic issues I wish to raise: 1) matters of content and argument; 2) matters of theology and method.


Matters of Content and Argument

Hong’s critiques make constant mention of what I don’t do. Barring the ‘maxim’ that a reviewer is to articulate fairly and accurately the book the author wrote, not what s/he should have written, I take Hong’s points seriously. On nearly every occasion, however, I do indeed discuss—at times in depth—what he suggests I do not.


The Morality and Theology of Divine Deception

For example, Hong writes that “Anderson does not discuss the moral and theological implications revolving around his bold thesis: YHWH the divine trickster. His insistence that YHWH’s deception is intimately bound to the covenantal fidelity to the ancestral promise (i.e., deception is used only to advance the promise) does little to alleviate the moral unease inherent in it” (emphasis added). But I do indeed discuss the “moral and theological implications” in both the introductory and concluding chapters. Indeed, in the final chapter of the book is a bolded subject heading entitled “Theological Implications” (174-77) in which I advance and develop five theological implications arising from this study; in short, they are: unexpected modes of divine fulfillment/fidelity, the “centripetal force of the ancestral promise,” the destabilizing and subversive tendencies of this portrait of God, that the Old Testament and thus our theologies should not “whitewash, sanitize, or domesticate God,” and that one avoid systematic approaches to doing Old Testament theology. This critique is odd given that Hong himself notes in the summary portion of the review that “Anderson concludes with a reflection on the implications of the theology of deception.”

Moreover, while my book is not primarily concerned with issues of morality as it relates to this material, I do discuss it, again in both the introductory and concluding chapters. In the introductory chapter, this point appears as early as page 2. Later in that same chapter, I argue that “in its original context, the Jacob cycle is not a narrative ultimately concerned with matters of ethics” (39). Attached to that statement is a lengthy footnote, maintaining that “there does not appear to be any moral commentary running throughout [these texts]” and that “I disagree with the sentiment that a contemporary reader must deem these texts unethical.” I am, at bottom, here suggesting that there is an inherent danger in importing our modern sensibilities of ethics and morality onto an ancient text. Our primary task—and the task I take up—is to offer a descriptive theology, and only with that in place should we begin to move toward questions of contemporary application. More germane to Hong’s “moral unease” is my final chapter, a section following immediately upon the “Theological Implications” section, entitled “Trustworthy Deception,” where I wrestle with this question as articulated in the biblical text, with ramifications for the life of faith. To be fair, this is not my primary concern in the book, but to suggest I ignore “moral and theological implications” is simply untrue. I don’t ignore them, yet I do seem to argue a perspective contrary to one Hong holds.

One might more appropriately ask whose “moral unease” I should have set out to address and redress. Certainly, given my comments above, I am not persuaded ancient Israel took moral issue with this portrait of Jacob but rather saw it existing in a beautiful and meaningful tension with other portraits of Jacob.[1] Nor am I persuaded the authors and/or compilers of Genesis in its final form felt any sort of ethical impulse to tame Jacob or God (a point I also develop in the book). It seems Hong’s main contention is that I don’t address the “moral unease” of contemporary readers. Surely the God of the Old Testament is unsettling in many respects, but I don’t understand my task—be it in this book, or as a believer, or as a professor—to be to assuage difficulties with or apologize for the Old Testament’s raw portrayal of God. Not that these issues are unimportant to me or are not questions with which I live and wrestle, but not everyone is troubled by a God capable of/complicit in deception. Ancient Israel wasn’t. The authors/compilers of Genesis weren’t. Nor were the authors/compilers of the multitude of other biblical (and ancient Near Eastern) texts I enumerate in my first chapter. I often tell my students, who are unwilling to admit that God may be complicit in deception, violence, or some other unsettling behavior in the Bible, that when the Bible clashes with your theology, one of the two needs to give way; they are free to choose their theology over the biblical text, but they must then be aware of the implications of the choice they have just made (I may here be betraying my Protestant bias, but as an Old Testament scholar I am deeply committed to the text and wrestling with the Bible we have, not the one we wish we had). This is not to say the Bible or its portrait of God is beyond critique or censure, but one must be honest with where the ethical impulse is located: in the text, or the reader?

This may provide little consolation to those who are unsettled by a God who engages in trickery, but this book was not written for those in the pews; it was written for the academy, as an attempt to crack open a larger conversation that occurs far too infrequently. But, I do still feel I have attempted to answer, or what Hong calls a way “to cope with it and present the present-day audience with the message that is still relevant today.” I would affirm, as I do in the book, that the Old Testament challenges and empowers readers to delight in, be challenged by, and puzzle over a God whose trustworthiness can be displayed, in a beautiful paradox, through deception (see pp. 177-86).

I must note, as I do in the book, that I am in good scholarly company in not being repulsed by divine deception: Hermann Gunkel, O. H. Prouser, as well as several others I have become aware of since the publishing of my book. Among the most recent, Marvin Sweeney offers this insightful comment about God in Genesis with which my book resonates: “Freed from the presuppositions of historical analysis that the trickster or deceptive nature of G-d’s character in Genesis is simply the product of a primitive and theological unsophisticated stage in Israelite religious development, scholars are now coming to recognize that divine duplicity and deception cannot be dismissed as the product of primitive culture, but must be taken into account in biblical interpretation.”[2]


God and Deception: “Through” or “Despite”?

Another example warrants mention. Hong writes that “Anderson ignores an interpretive possibility that God works despite human errors.” This is not a new criticism, and it is, again, one I take up in the book.

Hong’s challenge centers on God’s relationship to deception in the Jacob cycle; in the opening chapter I survey at length and engage with extant scholarship on several possibilities, one of which is that God persists with Jacob in spite of his seemingly lackluster character. There is no need to repeat at length the material already in the book, but at bottom I argue the text is clear in its articulation, from beten (Gen 25:23) to Bethel (esp. Gen 28:13-15) to Peniel (Gen 32) and at scattered moments in between that God is not making a concession in dealing with Jacob. Up until this point in Genesis thus far God has felt perfectly free to change course on a number of occasions; the primeval history bears this point out fully. Moreover, while I don’t state this in the book, the ancient Near Eastern evidence I adduce, replete with examples of trickster deities who are happy to work deception for (and sometimes against, but not despite) human characters is informative. Knowing that ancient Israel shared this cognitive environment makes the resonances that much more striking.

The larger operative question is who is to say whether Jacob has erred? Hong seems to assume as much, given his statement cited above. But who is to adjudicate whether Jacob has failed? Whose assessment matters in the world of the text? Us, or God? This is not to suggest we read uncritically and simply accept at face value anything in the text. We should indeed read discerningly. But my argument, that the prenatal oracle in Gen 25:23 animates the conflict (a conclusion I share with Brueggemann, whose bold and daring foray into this oracle is illuminating and honest), and that God’s first appearance to Jacob on the heels (pun intended!) of a family shattering act of deception—where Jacob is met not with punishment but with promise—underscores that God has no moral qualms with Jacob’s shenanigans. The “tragic side of the trickster’s celebrated life” that ensues, mentioned by Hong, no where connects the moments of theophany with divine punishment. Rather, as I argue in the book (and along similar lines as Diana Lipton in her Revisions of the Night), the moments of theophany are revelatory in their ability to communicate that God has been at work, to co-opt a well-worn phrase from Luther, “in, with, and under” Jacob’s many deceptions. Not despite. In, with, and under.

Moreover, it is precisely the “tragic side” of Jacob’s life with Laban that I argue leads to incipient fulfillment of the ancestral promise in Gen 29-31 in and amidst deception (see esp. pp. 97-129). And while Hong contends that I “fail to see that Jacob has to pay a heavy price for his behavior” (in Gen 34, which Hong incorrectly labels the “Tamar incident”; Tamar occurs in Gen 38, while it is Dinah who is subject, and object, in Gen 34), I do not see God as a character here working “despite” or “against” Jacob; even Hong is tentative here in his conclusion, stating that “one may take these as God’s implicit punishment for Jacob’s trickery” (emphasis added). Readers will have to read my arguments for themselves to see whether they find them persuasive.

Matters of Theology and Method

We operate in an age of methodological plurality, where dissonant scholarly voices grapple for a hearing, much like the tensive voices in much of the Hebrew Bible. And to be sure, methods can at times distort the text much more than they can inform it. I have, however, attempted to be up front about these issues in the book, offering as much transparency into my method and the assumptions I bring to the work (handily discussed in a section titled “Assumptions and Methodology,” pp. 33-40). In brief, I work with two mutually-informing vectors—how and what the text means—as an avenue into genuine theological inquiry, channeling scholars such as Robert Alter, Adele Berlin, and Meir Sternberg. Methodologically, I am not treading new ground as much as I am working to put new literary criticism more intentionally in the service of Old Testament theology, a discipline that has, until recently, largely been dominated by historical-critical methodologies.


Modern or Postmodern?

Hong identifies my method as “modernistic” given that I maintain “rhetoric of [my] reading’s superiority over other readings.” While I see the point he is attempting to make, I am hard-pressed to think anyone would come away from a reading of my book and label it “modern.” Perhaps the problem resides more in the sometimes unhelpful and fluid labels modern and postmodern. He is correct that I have followed Brueggemann’s lead (though I would include Leo Perdue as a seminal voice here as well) in embracing polyphony, but this is not tantamount to saying all meaning is up for grabs. Hong critiques me for defending my reading in engagement with others. I remain unclear what he envisions a truly postmodern/polyphonic argument to look like, though it is apparently not one that has an interest in defending an argument critically and thoughtfully. He does suggest “the argumentation would have been more nuanced had he presented his reading as an alternative conditioned reading that adds another facet to the ‘richness’ of the text, candidly admitting his own involvement in its production.” This, however, is precisely what I do. I write: “Old Testament theology is not a monolithic entity; there are, rather, theologies in the Bible. In this book, I offer one such theology, a theology of deception in the Jacob cycle” (34). It is my literary-theological method that helps clear this path, and while I do persist in affirming the integrity and persuasiveness of my own reading, that does not mean that I have exhausted all possible meaning-potential from the Jacob cycle, a point that is true whether one does or does not agree with my method and my conclusions.

Where is Meaning Found?

In a similar vein already alluded to above, Hong expresses the desire that my methodological proclivities would have given me reason for “candidly admitting his own involvement in its [the text’s meaning] production.” But, again, I do make just such an admission. I write: “Readers play a role in discerning a text’s meaning, and this meaning arises in the dynamic relationship between text and reader. While no reading can be entirely disinterested, the text itself serves as a ’control’ for one’s interpretation, and it is against the text that the authenticity of any interpretation must be judged” (35). On that same page is a lengthy footnote that provides even greater clarity, appealing to W. Lee Humphrey’s The Character of God in the Book of Genesis and assuming the posture of a first time reader, ignoring as much as possible “a priori ontological assumptions about God’s character deriving from classical systematic theology” (my words) and “both claims by historians of religion about the God(s) of ancient Israel and early Judaism and particular and fundamental claims about God from theologians and members of religious communities who assert an identity between God in Genesis and the God who commands their worship and allegiance” (Humphrey’s words). ‘Checking’ (as much as possible!) this theological and ecclesiastical baggage leaves, as I have already described, little more than the text and I. I have, in essence, attempted to ‘put off’ the very garb Hong seems to wish I had kept on! Therefore, in conversation with extant scholarship, I fully admit to my own involvement in the production of the text’s meaning. The only caveat I would extend is that I wish more scholars would admit the same.[3]


Psychologizing Biblical Studies

One final point warrants brief mention. At several points Hong engages in little more than psychologizing my thought process or rationale in writing various parts of the book. I don’t find such speculations helpful or warranted in pursuing genuine scholarly inquiry or the conversation I have attempted to begin.

The Divine Trickster: Moving Forward

I wrote this book with twin objectives: 1) to give uniquely theological expression to an oft-ignored portrait of God that some may deem unsettling or problematic; 2) to provide a fresh reading of the Jacob cycle that honors the textual tension between Jacob’s character and God’s election of him. The topic of God’s character is a hot-button and controversial issue to be sure with much at stake, and I suspect readers will have many visceral reactions to some of what I suggest. It is my hope that whether one finds my arguments compelling or not, that I have opened up new avenues for dialogue on these two very timely issues, dialogue that will not be animated by any animus to my reading but by an honest attempt to wrestle together, theologically, with the unsettling God of Genesis and the Hebrew Bible.

The day Hong’s review was published I received an email from Gershon Hepner, author of Legal Friction: Law, Narrative, and Identity Politics in Biblical Israel, who shared with me an original poem he wrote, inspired by my work and Hong’s review of it. Gershon has kindly agreed to allow me to share the poem here.

JACOB’S TRICKERIES

The theory that Jacob’s trickeries reflect

his imitation of our God

may not  sound religiously correct,

but precisely since it’s odd

should be considered seriously. We see

as soon as the great God of Abram picks

the Jews He does not mind their trickery,

approving the repeated tricks

that Abraham and Isaac choose to play

by claiming that their wife

is just their sister, which each one would

not just to save their life,

but to demonstrate  to every ruler

such tricks are an M. O.

that God, the universe’s Foremost Fooler,

considers not de trop

provided that the end seems good, believing

that to be Machiavellian

when faced by those who’re murdering and thieving

is not rebellion

against His principles, for they’re more real-

istic than we might

have thought, brought up to think we must  repeal

all trickery, and fight

the good fight,  one hand tied behind our backs,

against all tricky foes.

Simplistic views like that the Lord  attacks,

and Patriarchs oppose,

especially the third, whose name means “fraud”—-

Hosea says this clearly.

Fraud is the M. O. that the Lord

does not regard as merely

acceptable for Jacob, but a path

that turn a Forefather

into what some may call sociopath,

but a great hero, rather,

behaving in a way that God  would too

if He lived down on earth,

since Jacob does the sort of things He’d do

to show his godly worth.

In the Torah’s laws God changes all the rules,

and outlaws all deception.

The rules’ great proof, we should be taught in schools,

is Jacob—their exception!
(This poem was inspired by Koog P. Hong’s SBL  review of a book by John E. Anderson at Baylor University, performed under the supervision of Bill Bellinger. The book, Jacob and the Divine Trickster: A Theology of Deception and Yhwh’s Fidelity to the Ancestral Promise in the Jacob Cycle)


[1] On this, see most recently Yair Zakovitch, “Inner-Biblical Interpretation” in Reading Genesis: Ten Methods (ed. R. Henden; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 92-118.

[2] Marvin A. Sweeney, Reading the Hebrew Bible After the Shoah: Engaging Holocaust Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2008), 25.

[3] While I wouldn’t classify my book as attempting the same thing, one may helpfully consult Fortress Press’ new Texts@Contexts commentary series for examples of scholars foregrounding their respective contexts and being open to how context informs and indeed at times creates meaning.

Blogging Lamb, God Behaving Badly 7. Rigid or Flexible? & 8. Distant or Near?

(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, ‘Legalistic or Gracious’ HERE).

This post is the final installment in my review of David Lamb’s new book God Behaving Badly. These final two chapters, I must confess, are superb, and after being quite unsatisfied with the book up until this point, Lamb’s careful and balanced treatment of these final two questions is most appreciated and welcome.

In chapter 7, Rigid or Flexible, Lamb addresses the issue of divine (im)mutability. He points to a number of biblical texts that affirm the viability of each position; God is indeed atteted in the Hebrew Bible as both unchanging yet changing. This is a welcome departure from the earlier chapters in the book, wherein Lamb sought to pick a side, making the issue a matter of either/or rather than both/and (one of my main critiques of what he is doing; forcing the either/or alternative mutes dissonant theological voices in favor of those which are most complementary and amenable to what seems to be a preconceived notion of who God ought to be). But Lamb does nuance his point, arguing that God does not change in regard to divine fidelity to a word of promise and blessing–a point with which I would agree–but that God does change as a result of, for example, “prayer and tears” (141). Or, putting it another way, Lamb maintains that YHWH “changes in the context of showing compassion toward his people” (142). This is a noble observation, though I would contend it does not exhaust all instances in which God changes in the Old Testament. Terry Fretheim’s work is here quite instructive.

It is also in this chapter that Lamb makes what is my favorite statement in the entire book, precisely because he is exactly right. He writes: “When our systematic theology comes into conflict with the Bible, the former needs to be modified, not the latter” (145). Even in my own book (see “my book” tab at the top of the page to order) this was a salient issue: there seems to be a distinction between who God is as constructed by classically defined systematic theologies (which themselves are problematic for their attempts to systematize that which is unsystematic itself, the Bible) and various divergent biblical witnesses to God. Lamb is spot on in his statement; unfortunately, however, I am convinced he falls prey to his own indictment in each of the previous chapters.

In chapter 8, Distant or Near, Lamb again refreshingly takes a mediating approach, not favoring one possibility over the other. He notes that the Hebrew Bible is laden with the faithful asking where God is, yet these petitions (laments) provide a theological vocabulary with which the faithful may speak honestly and from the depth of their experience (see my sermon on “Daring Prayer” HERE). It places the struggle and questions in the context of the life of faith, and allows one to bring these questions and concerns to God. Lamb rightly reminds that Jesus too spoke this way; the most patent example would be his final words on the cross in both Matthew and Mark, both of which are questions, and both of which quote from a lament psalm, Psalm 22:1.

Yet despite seeming distant at times, the Hebrew Bible also provides numerous examples of YHWH’s nearness. God speaks with his people, walks with them, and dwells among them; these are ways the HB communicates divine closeness. Jesus, suggests Lamb, embodied an entirely different sense of closeness in his drawing near, associating, and dining with those whom the majority would aim to be as distant as possible: tax collectors, sinners, prostitutes.

In both chapters 7 and 8 I see the thought of Terry Fretheim in evidence, though Lamb does not mention Fretheim explicitly. The idea of divine mutability and closeness, coupled with the notion of the human/created order’s role in having an affect on God’s flexibility and/or nearness are important concepts that more Christians need exposure to, and I applaud Lamb for raising these issues in a thoughtful and manageable way for the intended audience of his book. I am hopeful readers of his book will benefit most from Lamb’s more balanced perspectives in these final two substantive chapters, recognizing that YHWH as portrayed in the HB is far more complex than many interpreters, lay and scholarly, give YHWH credit for being (and more complex than I think Lamb has given him credit for being elsewhere in the book).

Rounding out the book is an epilogue that summarizes briefly each chapter, followed by Lamb offering some reflective conclusions. One of these left me both satisfied and unsatisfied. Lamb writes: “Instead of ingoring passages that seem to portray [YHWH] negatively, we need to study them, discuss them and teach them to gain understanding . . . we will find that [YHWH] and Jesus can be reconciled and that the God of both testaments is loving” (178). I am in total agreement with the first part of this quotation; where I begin to stumble, however, is on the word “reconciled.” Affirming that God (the God of the OT, that is) can be “reconciled” to/with Jesus smacks of what Marcion himself attempted to do, emphasizing the loving, compassionate image of the divine manifest in Jesus, to the detriment of problematic aspects of God’s behavior elsewhere in the canon. Yes, the God of both testaments is loving; I grant Lamb that point. But what is missing here is that the observe is also true; the God of both testaments can be angry, wrathful, vengeful . . . or, more all-encompassing, the God of both testaments can be terribly disconcerting. I worry that Lamb’s statements here confirm what I have raised issues with in the other segments of this review: that the underlying motivation has been an attempt to moralize an unsettling and problematic at times depiction of God with an equally whitewashed, tame picture of Jesus. Yes, both are loving. And yes, both can be terribly unsettling as well.

Lamb concludes with three observations: 1) God is fascinating (complex, unable to be described simply); 2) God is relational; 3) God is good (all the time). I’m with Lamb on 1 and 2; the biblical text, however, I am not convinced allows one to speak as definitively as Lamb would like on #3.

Your thoughts on Lamb’s book, and my comments of it?

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Read my RBL Review of Eric Seibert’s Disturbing Divine Behavior

My RBL review of my friend Eric Seibert’s Disturbing Divine Behavior has just been published. I have offered my comments on this book elsewhere on this blog (see HERE and HERE). I am glad that my blogging on his book put me in touch with Eric, and we were able to meet at the most recent SBL over lunch, and we have kept in touch via email often since. As will become clear in reading the review, I think the work Seibert is trying to do is important, though I remain (utterly) unconvinced of his proposal; in fact, I think it raises more problems than it purports to solve. But enough about that . . . please, read and offer your thoughts! I’m especially curious about this one, as Eric is a friend and I have thought about and wrestled with this book for a great while.

READ THE REVIEW HERE.