Book Review: God Behaving Badly: Is the God of the Old Testament Angry, Sexist and Racist? by David T. Lamb
David Lamb has observed that God has a bad reputation in today’s culture. He is often seen as one who gets angry, smiting people for no apparent reason; a cosmic kill joy imposing bountiful amounts of laws upon us, and one who favors one race (the Jews) over all others.
his book, The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins describes the God of the Old Testament in this manner:
“...jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully” (p. 13).
Lamb states that such a vicious evaluation of God demands a response. He states that the Church has not studied and taught portions of the Old Testament that challenge the way we view God, but have merely swept them under the rug and left claims similar to those of Dawkins unanswered. This book is a response to those claims.
“I will emphasize aspects of God’s character because the Old Testament repeatedly describes God in this manner. But if I am to be faithful to the whole Old Testament, I will also need to examine other texts, even ones that appear to undermine my arguments…To avoid misrepresenting the Bible, we need to look at many texts, to study passages on both sides of an issue and to read texts within their context. This type of reading will involve work, but the result will be well worth the effort as our understanding of God is profoundly deepened” (p. 17).
Lamb concludes this chapter by making a few points.
1. God is primarily called Yahweh in the Old Testament and Jesus in the New Testament and throughout the book he refers to either one or the other depending on which portion of Scripture he is examining. He absolutely believes in the Triune God and is purely “following the conventions for divine names established in the two testaments” (p. 19). The same will be done in this review.
2. “People who overdichotomize the two testaments seem to forget one important fact: the Bible of Jesus was the Old Testament” and “Jesus used the Old Testament to describe God” (p. 20).
3. The image of God an individual holds affects their relationship with Him, their desire to read Scripture, and what attributes that person thinks His followers should manifest.
Chapter Two: Angry or Loving?
In this chapter, Lamb examines a portion of Scripture that is often used to support the idea of Yahweh being a God of anger (2 Samuel 6:1-8). Here we find that the Israelites have recovered the Ark of the Covenant from the Philistines after losing it in battle. The Ark was being transported back to Jerusalem and a great celebration was taking place. The oxen pulling the cart which held the Ark stumbled and Uzzah took hold of the Ark to steady it. Yahweh struck him dead for doing so and the party ends. Why did Yahweh do this? Was not Uzzah just being helpful? Lamb effectively explains that Yahweh was angry here for three main reasons:
1. The Israelites were not carrying the Ark correctly. Yahweh had made it abundantly clear throughout the law that the Ark was to be carried by the priests on poles through rings on the side of the Ark. Here they are carrying it on a cart despite having done it correctly every time before this incident. Lamb uses a clever analogy to demonstrate that Yahweh is not just being overly particular about transporting the Ark- Just as the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission put protocols in place for transporting plutonium, so also, Yahweh put protocols in place for transporting the Ark. The Ark was the symbolic presence of Yahweh among the Israelites. Lamb writes:
“Handling the ark was inherently dangerous, like handling radioactive materials. If people do not use proper precaution when transporting plutonium, people die…God is more powerful than plutonium” (p. 28-29).
2. The decision by the Israelites to transport the Ark on a cart was not only disobedient, it was insulting. As mentioned above, the form of transportation for the Ark that the law prescribed was essentially a litter. This form of transportation was common for royalty in ancient times. “It was important for Yahweh’s symbolic presence to be treated in a royal fashion because he was their God and King” (p. 30).
3. The lack of respect the Israelites were showing towards the Ark was a symptom of their lack of concern for their relationship with Yahweh. Lamb compares the Ark to a wedding ring. The Ark was the symbol of the relationship between Yahweh and His people. He would not tolerate any disrespect towards that symbol.
Lamb concludes from this event “that Yahweh gets mad to protect his law, his honor and his relationship with his people” (p. 33). This reader finds all of these valid reasons for the God of the Old Testament to get angry. Lamb also discusses how Yahweh is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love not only towards the Israelites, but also other nations. Also, he briefly discusses two incidents where Jesus became angry (the “cleansing of the Temple” and when Jesus heals the man with the withered hand on the Sabbath). To top it off, he provides some helpful advice on page 42 when coming upon a difficult passage in the Old Testament:
1. Ask why Yahweh got angry.
2. Read the whole context
3. Have reasonable expectations.
Lamb finishes off the chapter by bringing all of this down to a personal level with the following:
“Is the God of the Old Testament angry? Yes. Is the God of the Old Testament loving? Yes. Is the God of the New Testament angry? Yes. Is the God of the New Testament loving? Yes. Anger and love are not mutually exclusive. Love for people can lead to anger over a broken relationship. Love for people can also lead to anger about injustice. The God of the Old Testament and New Testament is both quick to love and slow to anger (Jas 1:19). And we should be too” (p. 46).
Chapter Three: Sexist or Affirming?
To address the accusation that Yahweh is sexist, Lamb starts off this chapter by going all the way back to the beginning to discuss the creation of Eve and the Fall. From the text in Genesis 1 and 2 we find that women are made in Yahweh’s image and it could be argued that Eve was an improvement upon Adam. Lamb writes:
“I don’t actually think that we should argue for the superiority of women because they…came second, but I do think that an argument for their inferiority based on Genesis 2 is also invalid” (p. 52).
He also explains that the Hebrew world ezer or “helper” found in Genesis 2:18 does not hold the sexist connotations some think that it does. In the majority of the Old Testament, God is the ezer. Just as Yahweh helps his people, the woman helps the man. So, again we see that women are like Yahweh.
Lamb then focuses on the Fall narrative in Genesis 3 to address the cultural perception that this portion of Scripture makes Eve look bad. When the text is studied, it is clear that Adam was standing right next to Eve when she ate the fruit. Thus both the man and the woman look bad in this passage and it could even be argued that Adam’s sin was worse. Lamb continues on in this chapter of Genesis to examine the accuracy of the claim that the curse placed upon the woman is sexist. He sums it up this way:
“The curse on the woman and the curse on the man were not the same, but that doesn’t mean that God was treating the woman in a sexist manner. Unlike curses on the man and the serpent, the woman’s ‘curse’ never actually mentions a ‘curse.’ Her punishment speaks of submission, not oppression. It was not as severe as the man’s curse. And, most significantly, in the midst of these curses, she alone is blessed with a promise” (p. 58).
The author then makes the important point that the negative consequences of the curses are not to be accepted. Yahweh overcame them through the death and resurrection of Jesus. Amen!
He also looks at the incident in Genesis 19:5-11 with Lot and his daughters and a law in Deuteronomy 22:28-29, that states that after a woman who is not engaged is raped she is to become the wife of her rapist, and brilliantly answers the claims of sexism. Finally, Lamb provides several examples in the Old Testament where women are influential (Judges 4; 1 Samuel 25; 2 Samuel 13; 2 Samuel 20:14-22; Ruth; Esther) and examples in the New Testament in which Jesus interacts with women (John 4; 20:11-18; Mark 5:33-34; 7:26-29), tells stories in which a woman is the hero (Luke 15:8-10; 18:1-8), and affirms women (Luke 10:38-42; Mark 12:43-44; 14:3-9).
Lamb closes the chapter by stating that sexism in society and the Church are factors contributing to the perception that the God of the Old Testament is sexist and by providing three suggestions for men found on page 68:
1. Women are made in the image of Yahweh. Listen to them and learn about Yaweh from them.
2. Follow the example of Yahweh and Jesus by affirming women whenever possible.
3. Talk and write about sexism.
Is Yahweh sexist or affirming? Lamb gives a huge affirmative for affirming. And this reviewer agrees.
Chapter Four: Racist or Hospitable?
Again, Lamb begins this chapter “in the beginning” by looking at Genesis to address the view that Yahweh is racist. He writes:
“God created man and woman in the image of God and then commanded them to multiply and fill the earth (Gen 1:26-28), and over time groups of peoples and nations were eventually created, all of which reflect the divine image” (p. 72)
In the end, all nations are related to each other and this process of populating the earth was established by Yahweh. This reviewer also appreciated this statement Lamb makes regarding genealogies in the Bible:
“Why does the Bible waste so much ‘prime real estate’ on genealogy? Because race is important to God. The main message communicated through these ‘boring lists of names’ is that God is interested in where peoples and nations came from” (p. 73).
Lamb then discusses the curse Noah placed upon Canaan in Genesis 9:18-27. After the flood, Noah plants a vineyard, gets drunk, and then lies down in his tent naked. He is seen in this state by his son Ham who then tells his other brothers, Japheth and Shem, who in turn quickly and subtly cover up their father. When Noah finds out what happened, he gets mad at Ham and curses his son Canaan. This curse was used by some nineteenth-century Christians to justify slavery as Ham’s descendents were generally thought to be Africans. He provides three points in refutation:
1. The unusualness of the story makes it impracticable to postulate any ongoing repercussions outside of one generation of Noah’s sons.
2. The curse was not spoken by Yahweh, but by Noah
3. The curse focused on Canaan, not Ham or all of his sons. Canaan’s descendants were the people the Israelites encountered in the land of Canaan. So this curse is actually a foreshadowing of the conflict between Israel and the Canaanites.
A discussion of the Canaanites genocide is where Lamb then turns. He expounds on it in greater detail in chapter five, however here he writes:
“The major point of similarity between the biblical conquest narratives and those of their neighbors is the hyperbolic language. The hyperbolic nature of the two Joshua texts can be seen when they are examined alongside other texts. While Joshua 10:40 and Joshua 11:12-15 speak of everyone being destroyed, elsewhere in Joshua and Judges a different perspective is given. These other texts repeatedly state that the Israelites did not kill all the Canaanites; they can’t even drive all of them out of the land (Josh 13:1-6; 15:63; 17:12; Judg 1:19-34). The book of Joshua even refers to foreigners not just living among the Israelites but also participating in the covenant renewal ceremony (Josh 8:33, 35). 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” (p. 77).
Lamb then goes into a wonderful discussion on promise and punishment. The land of Canaan was promised to the Israelites by Yahweh and their acts were not one of conquest, but of regaining what was rightfully theirs. They had lived there before. He also explains that Yahweh punished His people as well as the Canaanites and intended on blessing all nations through Israel. Lamb asks the obvious question: If Yahweh were racist why would these things be so?
He briefly discusses laws concerning sojourners which instructed Israel to treat them equally (Leviticus 24:22; Numbers 9:14; 15:15-16) and to love them (Deuteronomy 10:17-19) and then gives an example of these being demonstrated by a slave girl, Elisha, and Yahweh in the healing of Naaman the Syrian general (2 Kings 5:1-4, 9-15).
Finally, as if all this were not enough to clear the charge against Yahweh as racist, Lamb presents the genealogy of Jesus in Matthew 1:1-6. He explains that four women are mentioned in this genealogy all of whom are foreigners. Tamar and Rahab were Canaanites, Ruth was a Moabite, and Bathsheba was probably a Hittite. If Yahweh were racist, “he wouldn’t welcome foreign women into his family and then have them listed prominently in his son’s family tree” (p. 87)
To end the chapter, Lamb discusses the Samaritan parable found in Luke 10:29-37 and how the church needs to engage the topic of racism, confront it, and embrace those of different racial and ethnic backgrounds just as Jesus did by telling this parable. If more Christians did this “there would be more Christians” (p. 92).
Is Yahweh racist or hospitable? Lamb excellently demonstrates that He is hospitable and this reader is persuaded.
Chapter Five: Violent or Peaceful?
In this chapter, Lamb deals with bear attacks, Canaanite slaughters, and the death penalty. However, he makes an important point before diving into the discussion. Simply because something is recorded does not mean it is being glorified. He then proceeds to examine 2 Kings 2:23-25.
In this passage of Scripture, Elisha is taunted by a group of boys who in turn curses them in the name of Yahweh. A couple of she-bears appear and maul 42 of the boys. Why were these boys dealt with so harshly for teasing Elisha? Lamb provides three points from a post he sent to an atheist blog that commented on the passage:
1. There are two Hebrew words for boys in the passage: qatan in verse 23 and yeled in verse 24. Both of these words can mean “boy,” “young boy,” or even “adolescent” or “older teenager.” Based on the text, Lamb states it is reasonable to assume that this was a group of teenagers (for a group of younger children this large would unlikely be hanging outside of town without adult supervision) and that Elisha was in danger.
2. “While in our 21st-century, Western mindset it may seem like Elisha was overreacting, within his cultural context his behavior was justified” (p. 97).
3. Looking at the broader context of 2 Kings it is clear that the ministry of Elisha was one of mercy and peace. Lamb says we should give him “the benefit of the doubt” in light of all of his other deeds (p. 98).
He wraps the discussion of this passage up with more observations that I think further alleviate concerns regarding Elisha’s and Yahweh’s character:
-It is not explicitly stated that the boys are killed.
-Some manuscripts of the Septuagint record that the boys also threw stones at Elisha
-Elisha was acting in self-defense
-Yahweh was sending a message that Elisha would have divine protection. He wanted Elisha’s “ministry of compassion” to continue (p.99).
Lamb continues on by discussing the violence of the Canaanite conquest in more depth than the previous chapter.
Five points arise from this discussion:
1. The Canaanites were being punished for their wicked and violent behavior.
2. Israel was not trying to expand an empire at any cost (as the Canaanites were); they were trying to restore a home in the land of their fathers.
3. Yahweh waited until the entire period of Israel’s bondage in Egypt was finished to punish the Canaanites. This was plenty of time for them to repent.
4. The conquest of the Canaanites was not unusual in the ancient Near East. Conquered nations were typically killed or enslaved.
5. The killing was probably limited and localized. Only a few texts mention widespread destruction while the majority of them mention many Canaanites still in the land.
Lamb then goes on to discuss a divinely initiated slaughter in 2 Kings 19:35, the need for justice to be “simple, swift, and straightforward” in ancient Israel, and 2 Kings 6:14-23, where Yahweh brings peace instead of violence (p. 104). He concludes the chapter by giving examples in the New Testament of how Jesus is the “Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:6) and that we are to promote peace as He and Yahweh do.
Is Yahweh violent or peaceful? Lamb effectively demonstrates that Yahweh is both, but violent only when the wicked need to be punished and the weak protected.
Chapter Six: Legalistic or Gracious?
As the author continues, he again turns to Genesis in this chapter to look at the first commands Yahweh gives to Adam and Eve. They are, essentially, have sex and eat! Right off the bat, Lamb displays the goodness and generosity of Yahweh. So how did Yahweh become viewed as a party pooper? The temptation of Satan. Lamb discerns two lessons from the Fall story:
“First, temptation questions the goodness of God’s commands. Second, sin results from perceiving God not as good, generous and gracious, but as mean, stingy and legalistic. A proper understanding of God and his laws is, therefore, vital to resist temptation and avoid sin” (p. 120).
He also comes to a very thoughtful conclusion: “God’s actions define his character, not popular perceptions of his actions” (ibid).
Lamb then examines three “types” of laws found in the Old Testament: many laws, random laws, and harsh laws. To address the concern that there are too many laws, he simply makes a comparison:
“Old Testament law codes are actually concise compared to modern law codes. We’ve all seen images of a lawyer’s office: four walls, each wall lined with ten shelves, each shelf containing a hundred books, each book with thousands of laws, cases and precedents. Yahweh’s laws don’t even fill up one book” (p. 122).
Lamb examines a law found in Deuteronomy 22:9-11 that seems random for it commands that clothing made of wool and linen woven together must not be worn. He states that “these types of laws are culturally specific, addressing particular problems from their context” (p. 124). To give an example of this, he states that advice to men to not buy Sports Illustrated in early February and to avoid the red-light district given in a sermon today would not make sense thousands of years from now.
He then looks at an incident in Numbers 15:32-36 in which a man is stoned to death for gathering sticks on the Sabbath as the law commanded. This seems rather harsh. Lamb writes:
“The supposedly innocent stick gatherer would have known that he was committing a crime with a punishment of death. Everyone else knew what he was doing was wrong. His decision to blatantly disobey the word of Yahweh was an act of distrust and rebellion, and Yahweh decided not to be lenient at this point, lest a precedent be set for disobedience…he clearly wasn’t trusting God to provide for him…considering he had been supernaturally fed with manna every day since they left Egypt” (p. 126).
The author then echoes what he said earlier in the chapter about a proper understanding of God’s laws by briefly discussing Psalm 119 and how the whole psalm is about the crazy love the psalmist has for Yahweh’s laws. The psalmist knew following them would bring him into a deeper relationship with Yahweh.
The chapter begins to close with an examination of Mark 2:23-3:6 in which three actions take place on the Sabbath: Jesus’ disciples pluck grain, Jesus heals a man with a withered hand, and the Pharisees plot to kill Jesus. Lamb writes:
“The sabbath law is meant to guarantee restoration and rest, and Jesus wants to uphold that law for the sake of this man, even though his action will serve as a catalyst for a process that will culminate in his own death. The legalism of the Pharisees lead them to want to deprive the disciples of food, the man of healing and Jesus of life. Jesus is essentially risking his life here to make the point that God’s laws are designed to bless people. Jesus is not a legalist and neither is Yahweh” (p. 131).
The reoccurring question is effectively answered.
Lamb closes the chapter by swiftly tackling the three forms of legalism: 1) God’s laws are a way to earn salvation 2) God’s laws are viewed as a means of repayment to God 3) God’s laws are viewed as simply a duty or obligation.
Chapter Seven: Rigid or Flexible?
In this chapter, Lamb explains that the subject of divine changeability centers on the Hebrew word naham which has three meanings: to relent or change one’s mind, to regret, and to show compassion. And the context usually makes it clear which meaning naham is referencing. He focuses on texts that contain the first meaning as it implies mutability. There is also a sidebar that summarizes all of the naham references.
Lamb then identifies four primary Old Testament texts that speak of the immutability of Yahweh: Number 23:19, 1 Samuel 15:29, Psalm 110:4, and Malachi 3:6. The passage in Malachi does not use naham however. He writes:
“The main point that these texts are making is not simply that God is unchangeable, but that God is unchangeable about his commitment to bless his people” (p. 139).
Yet he also recognizes many texts in which Yahweh relents: Exodus 32:14; Numbers 14:20; 2 Samuel 24:16; 1 Chronicles 21:15; Psalm 106:45; Jeremiah 15:6, 18:10, 26:3, 13, and 19, 42:10; Amos 7:3 and 6; Joel 2:13-14; Jonah 3:10, 4:2. In each of these texts, pending judgment and repentant sinners exist. And from these texts Lamb states that we can see that Yahweh “is predictably flexible, constantly changeable and immutably mutable…in regard to showing mercy toward repentant sinners” (p. 147).
Mark 7:24-30 is also discussed by Lamb in this chapter. In this passage of Scripture a Gentile woman asks Jesus to remove an unclean spirit from her daughter. Jesus responds by telling her it is not right to take the children’s (the Jews’) bread from the table and give it to dogs (the Gentiles). The woman responds by saying that even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the table. As a result of her statement, Jesus changes his mind and heals her daughter.
Is Yahweh rigid or flexible? According to Lamb he is both. Within the chapter he states that when faced with such a seemingly contradictory statement there are three routes we can take: to ignore one of the characteristics; to rationalize that even though Scripture ascribes both of these attributes to Yahweh he is actually only one of them; or to work to understand how they correlate with each other. The author and this reviewer take the third option, because it is clear, once again, that context is the key to understanding Scripture. He ends by saying that Christians “need to teach not only about divine immutability but also about divine flexibility” (p. 151).
Chapter Eight: Distant or Near?
The first several pages of this chapter discuss the psalms, specifically the lament psalms which account for over 40 percent of them. These are passages in which the psalmist cries out to God asking, “Where are you at?” and “Why is this happening?” Lamb writes:
“God apparently thought it was good for the writers of Scripture to express their honest questions about his apparent absence. God gave laments to his people as a way to pray in the midst of pain. Jesus even modeled appropriate use of a lament (Ps 22) by showing how relevant it was to his own crisis as he was dying on a cross…As we follow the pattern of the lament-from doubts and despair to prayer and petition-we eventually arrive at a place of hope, trust and praise” (p. 157).
Lamb goes on to show how throughout the Old Testament, Yahweh:
-Speaks to His people: “In the English Standard Version of the Old Testament, the phrase ‘The LORD said’ appears more than 250 times. ‘Thus says the LORD’ appears more than 400 times” (p. 166). Yahweh speaks the world into creation and blessing to Adam and Eve (Genesis 1:28). He “spoke directly to the patriarchs and later to his people through Moses, judges, kings and the prophets. He spoke through prophecies, visions, dreams (Gen 28:12; 37:5-10; Joel 2:28) and even a talking donkey (Num 22)” (ibid).
-Walks with His people: Yahweh walked with Adam and Eve (Genesis 2:7, 21-22; 3:8), ate a meal with Abraham and Sarah (Genesis 18:1-15), and even had a wrestling match with Jacob (Genesis 32:24-32).
-Dwells with His people: At Sinai, Yahweh tells the Israelites he will dwell with them (Exodus 29:45). While Solomon was constructing the temple, Yahweh told him He would dwell with them forever (1 Kings 6:13). Yahweh consistently says “I am with you” as Israel is rebuilding the temple (Haggai 1:12-2:5).
Lamb also reminds us in this chapter that one of the names of Jesus is “God is with us” (Immanuel, Matthew 1:23). He goes on to talk about how tax collectors and sinners drew near to Him and ate with Him (Luke 15:1-7) because He was approachable. He concludes the chapter by saying that Christians often do not attract people like Jesus did and that they need to do a better job of reaching out to the marginalized of society.
Is Yahweh distant or near? The author did very well showing that He is near.
Here, Lamb briefly summarizes each chapter and explains that this book is fundamentally about God’s nature. He goes on to say that it is important to think about the nature of God because it affects how we relate to Him. He writes:
“Instead of ignoring passages that seem to portray Yahweh negatively, we need to study them, discuss them and teach them to gain understanding. While all our questions may never fully be answered, we will find that Yahweh and Jesus can be reconciled and that the God of both testaments is loving. He affirms women, is hospitable toward foreigners and brings peace, not a sword. He is not legalistic but gracious, not rigid but flexible, and not distant but near” (p. 178-179).
He ends the book by adding three more attributes of God to the list: fascinating, relational, good.
There are also discussion questions for each chapter after the Epilogue, making this a perfect book for group study.
David Lamb’s examination of difficult passages in the Old Testament is easy to read and full of wit. And yet this reviewer can sense his deep respect and love for the Old Testament. The book alleviated the struggles I had with certain passages in the Old Testament and reiterated for me that only a thorough study of Scripture will bring us into a deeper understanding of God and a deeper relationship with God.
Thanks to Intervarsity Press for the review copy.
Stand firm in Christ,