Thursday, June 23, 2011

Reading the Old Testament with Faith

God Behaving Badly: Is the God of the Old Testament Angry, Sexist and Racist?Have you ever agreed with an atheist? I know I have. If I’m honest, I can resonate a bit with Richard Dawkins’s reading of the OT,
The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynist, a homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully (The God Delusion, 1).
While I have never been so angry about it, I can certainly identify with Dawkins’s atheist assessment. Perhaps after reading about the death of Uzzah (2 Sam 6.1-8) or the divinely sanctioned slaughter of the Canaanites (Josh 6.21; 10.40; 11.12-15), you have questioned the character of God? Maybe your view of God as described in the OT is a distant, sexist, legalistic deity?

Most Christians never vocalize these questions and just turn the page to get to the stories they can more easily stomach. Or, confused believers just skip past the OT altogether and get right to Jesus. I would venture to say that if you’ve never questioned the character of God as seen in these and other troubling OT texts you’ve never taken them seriously. After reading certain parts of the OT it is difficult to avoid the thought that the character of God portrayed there is not the kind of God worth worshiping. Instead, you might easily conclude he’s actually the kind of god you would like to avoid altogether. It is to precisely these troubling texts that David T. Lamb directs his provocatively titled recent book, God Behaving Badly: Is the God of the Old Testament Angry, Sexist and Racist?

Lamb’s answer to these troubling texts is to read them with a hermeneutic of trust. Before condemning problem passages, Lamb wants to understand them. His method is threefold. First, he wants to ask why. What reason might there be for God to be angry or to issue a command for slaughter? Second, he suggests reading these passages in context in order to better understand God’s motives. Third, and this is in my opinion a nebulous method, he suggests that readers should, “have reasonable expectations” (42). The only clarity he gives to “reasonable expectations” is, “You won’t be able to resolve all problems.” Elsewhere, Lamb emphasizes that the OT was “culturally engaged” and thus had to make sense in a radically different cultural context (23). Thus, a “reasonable expectation” would seem to be recognizing how God could teach his people something in a culture far less progressive and egalitarian than contemporary western culture. Still, what do you do with these problematic texts that cannot be otherwise resolved? Lamb doesn’t explicitly say, but one can infer that he wants to read these texts as Scripture, describing a God we don’t always understand. Though we cannot always understand, we can trust him because of the wealth of other texts that point to a good God.

Lamb’s book is a fairly comprehensive popular-level defense of the OT God. After an introductory chapter Lamb sets up seven contrasting descriptions of God and addresses the relevant texts to show that the OT God really isn’t worthy of his bad reputation. So Lamb asks if Yahweh is,
Angry or loving? (Chapter 2) 
Sexist or Affirming? (Chapter 3) 
Racist or Hospitable? (Chapter 4)
Violent or Peaceful? (Chapter 5) 
Legalistic or Gracious? (Chapter 6) 
Rigid or Flexible? (Chapter 7) 
Distant or Near? (Chapter 8)
In each chapter he addresses the texts that seem to portray God negatively (sexist, racist, angry, etc.). Then, he draws from a number of other OT texts that describe God quite positively (egalitarian, caring for outsiders, loving, etc.). Lamb attempts to show that most of these OT texts are not so bad, and that overall the picture of God in the OT is a fascinatingly complex, relationally devoted, and ultimately a good God (179-80). So while Lamb admits, “I don’t always understand [God].” He concludes, “I don’t really think he behaves badly” (176).

According to a recent interview with Lamb, the book is aimed at “as wide an audience as possible,” but specifically focused on those persuaded by the arguments of the New Atheists, seekers troubled by the OT, Christians who neglect the OT because they’re afraid of it, and preachers who ignore the OT because they are ill-equipped to understand it. Lamb is an Associate Professor of OT at Biblical Seminary, an evangelical school focused on training people for ministry, and is trying to make the OT readable without ignoring difficult passages. His style is extremely accessible and filled with illustrations from pop-culture including references to TV shows (The Simpsons, The Office), movies (Evan Almighty, Oceans 13), and comic strips (Calvin and Hobbes, Doonesbury). He also has a self-deprecating humor that makes him quite likable.

In my assessment, God Behaving Badly is an apology that will preach to the choir and speak to the seeker, but do little for the skeptic. In the latter chapters that focus on popular misconceptions of the OT God as legalistic, rigid and distant, Lamb does a fine job of showing how these labels are not accurate. Also, the early chapters refuting the angry and sexist conceptions of God are also quite helpful, even if I think the way the NT gets used in these chapters lacks sufficient nuance.[1] These chapters are worthwhile reading for clearing up misconceptions about the OT and making it more accessible to believers. Lamb’s analysis of the problem passages, however, is less convincing.

The least convincing of Lamb’s arguments appears in chapter four, “Racist or Hospitable?” Let me be clear at the outset, there are not many satisfying alternatives to Lamb’s argument. So, I’m not trying to lambaste him for being dishonest, but I do think his approach is inherently flawed. He turns to one of the most difficult problems for Christians reading the OT, “Should the slaughter of the Canaanites by God’s people be considered an act of genocide?” (76). Before answering the question outright, Lamb points to the context of the Ancient Near East. He describes the despicable military practices of Ashurnasirpal of Assyria and the military activity of the Moabite king inscribed in the Mesha inscription. From these comparisons, Lamb makes two points.

First, he argues that Joshua is clearly using hyperbolic language. While the Joshua texts describe “complete destruction” (Josh 10.40; 11.12-15), there are other texts that recognize (often as a lament) the fact that Israel did NOT completely drive out the indigenous population (Josh 13.1-6; 15.63; 16.10; 23.13; 17.12; Judges 1.19-34). Thus, “To reconcile these two divergent perspectives on Israel’s conquest, a nonliteral reading of the texts that speak of ‘all’ people being destroyed is required” (77). Lamb’s argument, then, is that since Israel did not always follow the divine command for total destruction, they really were not all that violent. Even if these commands were not always followed rigidly, the fact that they were issued at all is still disturbing and without sufficient explanation.

Second, Lamb argues that the conquest narratives of Joshua are much less violent than those of Ashurnasirpal and Mesha. In Joshua, Lamb asserts, “There is no mention of women or children, and no descriptions of brutality or mutilation” (77). Unfortunately, this statement is blatantly false. Joshua does explicitly mention the slaughter of women and children (Josh 6.21) as do other OT texts (Deut 2.34, 3.6). While it is true that total destruction was exceptional for war (Deut 20.10-16) and Israel apparently had a reputation for being merciful (1 Kgs 20.31), this does not mean that Israel was in every instance any less violent than other nations in war. Comparing the Mesha inscription with the conquest narratives of Joshua, it is a stretch to suggest that the Joshua text is less violent. If anything it’s the other way around.

The clinching argument for Lamb is that “unlike Assyria and Moab, which were expanding their own borders to enrich their own kingdoms, Israel was simply attempting to gain a homeland” (78). Unfortunately, this is an instance where the hermeneutic of trust becomes a hermeneutic of apologetic. Israel is assumed to be just in her actions so Lamb’s interpretation of the evidence confirms the preformed conclusion. Reading the Moabite stone, for example, it is clear that King Mesha considered his actions completely justified in light of the oppression he faced at the hands of the Israelite King Omri.[2] Of course Israelite stories would describe the conquest as an innocent attempt to gain the homeland which they believed belonged to them. In much the same way as Moabite stories justify the violence of Moabite kings and Assyrian stories justify the violence of Assyrian kings. Just like contemporary Zionists argue that the land of Palestine belongs to them and thus any violence against indigenous Palestinians is justified. There is, however, one substantial difference between Israel’s retelling of stories and other nations’ retellings. As Lamb points out, God is more than willing to punish Israel for her injustice (pg 79 citing 2 Kgs 17; 24-25). So, Israel reads stories against itself as a crucial part of its own narrative. 

In the end, Lamb’s honesty is laudable, “The Canaanite conquest is probably the most problematic topic in the Old Testament [. . .] I must resort to taking it on faith that even though God commanded his people to kill the Canaanites, he still loves the nations and ultimately wants to bless them” (81). While I disagree with some of Lamb’s arguments, I agree with his conclusion. The conquest narratives don’t make sense to me, but I trust that God is ultimately good. This trust is not an irrational fideism, but rather a wrestling with the text of scripture and the character of God revealed therein. It is precisely because of my faith in God that these violent OT texts are difficult for me to understand. Similarly, my faith won't allow me to dismiss these texts out of hand.

David Lamb has tackled a difficult subject, making the OT readable to everyday people. Even if he falters in regard to a very difficult problem, he has still written a fine introduction to the OT from the perspective of faith. Lamb successfully shows that the god Dawkins so vehemently opposes is not the God of the OT. Rather, God as we see him in the OT is complex, relationally devoted to people in a specific cultural context, and ultimately a good God. If you’re looking for a book to recommend to a believer or seeker struggling with the OT, this is a good place to start.

[1] For example, Lamb describes Jesus’ temple action (Mt 21.12-13 || Mk 11.15-17 || Lk 19.45-46; Jn 2.14-16) as an important illustration of “the anger of Jesus” (43), but anger appears nowhere in the gospels. If this story was meant to highlight Jesus’ anger how come he is never described as angry in any of these texts? Similarly, he says that he will use the name “Jesus” to refer to the “God of the New Testament” (19). Obviously, Lamb is trying to argue that there shouldn’t be such a sharp dichotomy between the testaments, but this is sloppy theological language. The “God of the NT” is the Father, and Jesus is his anointed Messiah. Furthermore, whatever implications Jesus’ status as Messiah might have for his divine status requires a lot of explanation. Perhaps I’m misunderstanding him, but it does not seem at all accurate to say, “I am simply following the conventions for divine names established in the two testaments” (19). The theological language of the Trinity is not articulated until well into the fifth century. Still, overall Lamb does a fine job dispelling false dichotomies between the OT and NT.

[2] Interestingly enough, Omri is also condemned as a wicked ruler in 1 Kgs 16.25-26 for his idolatry.


John Anderson said...

Hi Tyler, thanks for pointing me to your review. I have yet to finish Lamb's book (reading a bunch on the Holocaust for a course in the Fall right now), but I have a sense of where Lamb is going with the conversation.

The interesting thing is, I SOMEWHAT resonate with what he is after, but let me point out I think we are still vastly different in terms of method and conclusions.

I've been dabbling recently with trying to write such a volume that would address problematic aspects of God/the OT (since I am terribly unhappy with Copan's recent treatment, don't feel Lamb handles everything responsibly [I get terribly annoyed at 'comparative genocide' discussions, insinuating that ancient Israel is practicing something common within the ANE but not to the extreme of other more primitive--and by primitive is often meant unenlightened by God--peoples], and Seibert's volume two years ago [see my RBL review for my thoughts and concerns with his book]).

In a nutshell, I am most interested in looking at the theological meaning being communicated by these texts. First off, it is irresponsible and we are no better than Marcion to ignore these texts. To me, the most fascinating question to pose is why, but of a different sort than Lamb is posing. I ask 'why?' would ancient Israel include such a text? What is the THEOLOGICAL payoff (this shifts the question from the realm of historical certainty to the world in the text).

I also agree with Lamb that such studies need to be contextual. Ancient Israel and its texts obviously arose in a culture much different than ours, with mores that may seem terribly problematic for present-day readers. This is fine, but it means one must struggle all the more to give the text an honest hearing.

Lastly, I am not an apologist, nor do I aspire to be one. What I find potentially most troublesome about this conversation is the emphasis on an "either/or" way of thinking, saying God is either all good/loving/kind or all bad/hateful/evil. More recently, as you well know, the conversation has shifted to apologize for God. I am unconvinced the text expresses much interest in such apologetics, especially for God. I find Brueggemann's idea of testimony/countertestimony, etc. to be a most helpful paradigm in that it highlights the tensive relationship between these various biblical witnesses and lets them stand, honoring that tension, with not one obliterating the other.

Just a few musings for 8:30 AM.

Justin said...

Just a minor point taking issue with something from your first footnote Tyler. Jesus does get angry in the Gospels (Mark 3.5

Tyler Stewart said...


You are correct Mk 3.5 does describe Jesus as "angry." My point in the footnote, however, was not to say that Jesus is never angry but that the gospel texts Lamb points to describing Jesus' anger are in fact not at all about anger.