Like their predecessors, the “New Athiests” have had a field day with the Old Testament, using it to malign God and cast aspersions on His goodness.
This isn’t terribly hard to do. Just open up Exodus, Numbers, or Deuteronomy and start reading them with a modern-Western-rational mindset.
Enter David Lamb’s compelling book, God Behaving Badly: Is the God of the Old Testament Angry, Sexist and Racist?
Lamb is an Old Testament scholar. And his God Behaving Badly is a fog-clearing piece of work that does a beautiful job defending the God of Creation by shedding light on the perplexities that are generated when modern (and postmodern) minds try to make sense of the Old Testament.
God Behaving Badly is written at a popular level, and it’s extremely accessible. Lamb also throws in some comic relief to mix it up. But the wisdom he employs throughout the book is both subtle and helpful.
This is part 1 of a 2-part interview I did with Lamb. Note that I purposely asked him the tough questions that plagued me as a young believer . . . the questions that atheists, agnostics, and Deists love to gleefully throw in the face of Christians. Check out his answers and get the book.
Frank: What motivated you to write this book?
David Lamb: I was on a date with my wife Shannon recently and we ended up chatting with my server. He says to me, “So what do you do?” I reply, “I teach the Bible, mainly the Old Testament.” My response prompted him to ask, “The Old Testament—isn’t that where God is always getting angry, smiting people and destroying cities all the time?” I tell him, “Well, not exactly, but I get that question a lot because the God of the Old Testament has a bad reputation.”
I wrote God Behaving Badly for this server, and for anyone who wonders about God’s behavior in the OT (which is pretty much everyone). One of the biggest obstacles to moving atheists, agnostics and skeptics toward God is the problematic passages of the Old Testament. I talk to people about the problem of God of the Old Testament all the time: my cardiologist, my postman, my son’s soccer coach, my Sunday school class and literally hundreds of college students. I wrote the book for them.
The atheist Richard Dawkins, in his best-selling book The God Delusion, declares “The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction…a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.” While I don’t agree with Dawkins, I must acknowledge the guy is provocative, and he sells books (he never replied to my email). I wrote the book for Dawkins and his followers.
Despite the problematic divine portrayals we sometimes find there, study of the Old Testament will yield rich fruit–a profound encounter with YHWH (God’s name in the OT). I hope and pray that readers of the book will fall more deeply in love with the God of both testaments.
Frank: With my next set of questions, I’m going to play Robert Ingersoll/Bill Maher/Richard Dawkins-esque “devil’s advocate.” So here goes (deep breath).
Consider the following passage in the Law of Moses:
If two men are fighting and the wife of one of them comes to rescue her husband from his assailant, and she reaches out and seizes him by his private parts, you shall cut off her hand. Show her no pity (Deuteronomy 25:11-12)
Doesn’t this make clear that the Old Testament was written by a man? Come on now. How is this consistent with a good, loving, reasonable God? If God wrote this, I wouldn’t want anything to do with a God like that. What say you?
From your perspective, what did God have in His mind when He authored this Law? And how does it reflect His nature?
David Lamb: A common feature of many action and comedy films today involves a guy getting kicked in the balls. (My family just saw Johnny English Reborn (2011)—not surprisingly, kicks to the crotch were a reoccurring theme.) Standards of sportsmanship in fighting weren’t always like this. Fighting and boxing have traditionally had rules to be followed to ensure fair play—“no blows below the belt.”
Seizing the private parts of your opponent was never allowed by the Marquess of Queensberry Rules of boxing, particularly if it involved the wife of your opponent. I assume we are in agreement that this type of behavior shouldn’t be encouraged. Deuteronomy 25 is attempting an early version of the Marquess of Queensberry Rules.
The problem is the draconian nature of the punishment. The punishment (hand amputation) doesn’t seem to fit the crime. I agree in principle, but we need to think about the ancient context. Typically the principal of escalation carried the day. A gives B a minor injury. B retaliates inflicting A with a major injury. A then kills B. Escalation. This is why wars start.
Even though it seems draconian, into the world of escalation the biblical principal of lex talionis, an eye for an eye is actually progressive (see GBB pages 105-106 or Christianity Today’s excerpt, “An eye for an eye, a wedgie for a wedgie” . It is just, clear, and stops escalation.
Ah, but here’s the rub. An eye for an eye doesn’t really work here. (I assume I don’t need to fully explain why.) The context of Deuteronomy 25 doesn’t make it clear what damage was done to the man’s privates, but it’s not hard to imagine that it would have been permanent. Given their male-dominated context and the principal of escalation it is reasonable to assume that a woman who does this type of thing would typically have been killed.
This law would therefore save her life. She would be punished, but she’d survive. Does it make sense to us today? No. Was it appropriate back then? Yes, definitely. But into the very different world of Jesus’ day, he overturns the law of an eye for an eye with turning the other cheek (Matt. 5:38-48; see also CT excerpt).
Frank: A similar question. Deuteronomy 23:1 says, “No one whose testicles are crushed or whose male organ is cut off shall enter the assembly of the Lord.” Whhhhaaaa? What’s the point of this? How does this reflect God’s nature?
David Lamb: On first glance, this command doesn’t seem to make any sense. We can’t be certain what was involved, but in his commentary on Deuteronomy, OT scholar Gordon McConville observes that these men would have been ritually mutilated in the context of the worship of other gods. McConville’s theory makes a lot of sense. The law isn’t designed to alienate people who would have already been outcasts because of an innocent injury, but to restrict people who were serious idolaters from entering the sacred space associated with YHWH.
Frank: Exodus 4:24-25 says,
“Now it came about at the lodging place on the way that the LORD met him and sought to put him to death. Then Zipporah took a flint and cut off her son’s foreskin and threw it at Moses’ feet, and she said, “You are indeed a bridegroom of blood to me.”
Now what’s this about God seeking to kill Moses because he wasn’t circumcised? Come on now. Can you help us all make sense of this? Seems pretty savage. And why was circumcision chosen to be the sign of the Covenant? It pains most men to even think about it.
David Lamb: To think about circumcision we need to go back to Genesis, when God established the covenant with Abraham (Gen. 17). God gave Abraham three images from nature to remind him that he would be the father of a great nation. His descendents would be as numerous as the dust of the earth (Gen. 13:16), the stars of the sky (Gen. 15:5) and the sand of the sea (Gen. 22:17).
But before Abraham had a son through Sarah (Ishmael’s mother was Hagar: Gen. 16), YHWH upped the ante for the patriarch by telling him to be circumcised. For a ninety-nine year-old guy who still desperately wanted to father a child to have penis surgery might not seem like a great idea. But he did it. That’s serious faith.
Interestingly, Isaac was born about a year later. It’s hard to say how long Abraham’s circumcision recovery lasted, but it’s not unreasonable to assume that Abraham and Sarah’s first post-circumcision sexual encounter culminated in the conception of Isaac. Whoa! Abraham was reminded of God’s promise whenever he looked to the sky, to the sea, to the ground, and every time he looked down his trousers to relieve himself. We all need reminders of God’s promises. Abraham had one every time he used the urinal.
The covenant of circumcision was a big deal for Abraham, and YHWH wanted Moses to take it seriously, which he hadn’t been doing previously. It was meant to a reminder of God’s covenant and his promise to his people for all future generations.
Frank: There are a number of instances in the Old Testament where God commands Israel to slay other nations, not sparing the women, children, or livestock. Is this not a heinous, horrific thing to command, let alone carry out? And doesn’t it contradict the teachings of Jesus regarding loving your enemy, forgiveness, etc. Here’s are two examples:
Thus saith the LORD of hosts, I remember that which Amalek did to Israel, how he laid wait for him in the way, when he came up from Egypt. Now go and smite Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have, and spare them not; but slay both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass. (1 Samuel 15:1-3)
However, in the cities of the nations the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance, do not leave alive anything that breathes. Completely destroy them—the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites—as the LORD your God has commanded you. Otherwise, they will teach you to follow all the detestable things they do in worshiping their gods, and you will sin against the LORD your God. (Deuteronomy 20:16-18)
What say you about these texts?
David Lamb: These passages are the most troubling texts in all of Scripture. When people ask me, “Why did God command the slaughter of the Canaanites and the Amalekites?” my response is, “That’s a great question, one I struggle with daily.” It’s difficult to give a short answer to such a problematic question, but I give a longer response on the topic of the Canaanite slaughter in an article I wrote for Relevant Magazine, pages 108-111).
Here are a couple things to say briefly. First, feeling sorry for the Amalekites and Canaanites isn’t like feeling sorry for European Jews in WWII, it’s like feeling sorry for the Nazi’s. They were evil nations that attacked other nations and were involved in heinous crimes. God was punishing them for wicked behavior.
Second, the Amalekites and the Canaanites had been doing evil things for literally hundreds of years but God had given them a long time to repent (see Gen. 15:16). God was slow to anger in his punishment. Third, God showed mercy to all the Canaanites who showed mercy and hospitality to Israel: Rahab and her family (Josh. 6:22-25), the Gibeonites (Josh. 9), a man from Bethel (Judg. 1:24-25) and the Kenites (1 Sam. 15:6).
In the midst of my struggle to understand these texts, it gives me hope to remember the mercy shown to a Canaanite woman more than 1,000 years before God’s ultimate act of love—sending Rahab’s descendent, Jesus, to the cross for the sins of the world.
Frank: The Old Testament is full of laws about cleanliness. Certain foods are unclean. A woman who is menstruating is unclean. Touching a dead body makes a person unclean. How can someone make sense of this except to think that a human being wrote these laws? How can they reflect God’s nature?
David Lamb: While many of these rules don’t make sense to us today, we need to remember that the laws of the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Old Testament) were given to Israel while they were wandering nomads in the wilderness. These laws were their constitution and their basis for their society not just spiritually, but also economically, politically, socially and even hygienically.
Their laws needed to address some of what the FDA or the USDA does for us now, provide guidance about what is safe to eat and about how to maintain physical health. God cares about our health and our welfare, and while we may not fully understand all of the apparently obscure regulations of the Pentateuch, the primary reason for them is clear, as God repeatedly tells his people, “Be holy, for I am holy” (e.g., Lev. 11:44-45; 19:2; 20:26).
Over a thousand years later, in a very different context, holiness looked different, as Jesus declared all foods clean and challenged his followers to focus at what comes out of their hearts and to welcome foreigners into the community of faith (Mark 7:18-23; Acts 10:13-16).
Frank: In Exodus 32, God gets angry with Israel because they made and worshipped a golden calf. The Lord responds by telling Moses He wants to consume the whole nation and make a new nation through Moses. Moses intercedes for the people, and the Lord changes His mind.
But God does command the sons of Levi to kill “every man his brother, every man his friend, and every man his neighbor” (presumably those who worshipped the golden calf). Okay, so we see God burning with anger, desiring to wipe out the whole nation and start over again with Moses, then changing His mind, then asking one tribe to kill some of their own brethren. How does all of this fit with the sovereign, loving, benevolent God that Christians believe in and proclaim?
David Lamb: The story of the golden calf is troubling on a variety of levels. But once again, we need to read and understand this story in context. Israel has just been dramatically delivered by YHWH from hundreds of years of Egyptian oppression. Pharaoh changed his mind and decided to wipe them out as they were trapped at the Red Sea, so YHWH delivered them again in perhaps the most spectacular display of his power in the OT—by parting the sea.
Then on Mount Sinai, YHWH gave them his covenant, which among other things included clear proscriptions against idolatry at the very beginning of the Ten Commandments (no other gods, no idols, no worshipping other gods). As an entire nation they agree to the covenant, “All the words that YHWH has spoken we will do” (Exo. 24:3). Their commitment is like that of marriage. YHWH will be their God and they will be his people.
Shortly after this, Moses is delayed a few days from coming down from the mountain, so what do they do? They worship a golden calf, thus breaking the covenant they just made. YHWH is the perfect spouse (flowers, chocolates, deliverances), but they commit adultery on the honeymoon. YHWH’s anger is totally justified. God had made it clear that the punishment for breaking the covenant would be death (Exo. 20:5; 21:12, 15, 16; 23:12, 24, 33). They all deserve to die.
The most shocking thing about this story is that any of them live. YHWH told Moses he was going to met out the appropriate judgment by wiping out his people and start over with Moses. But Moses amazingly convinces YHWH to change his mind (read more about this inGBB chapter 7). The Levite slaughter is troubling, but we shouldn’t forget that the 3000 killed were a small fraction of the nation, and it sent a clear signal to the people that idolatry wouldn’t be tolerated. Unfortunately, Israel never really learned that lesson.
Frank: Devil’s Advocate Questions Over. You can breathe easy now. What has the reaction been to the book thus far? And what would you like it to be?
David Lamb: Some Old Testament scholars think the book is superficial. I agree. It’s supposed to be, at least from the perspective of an OT scholar. Some people want me to go into more depth on each of the seven subjects I address about God (anger, sexism, racism, violence, legalism, rigidity, distance).
Entire books could be written on each of those subjects, but that’s not the book I wanted to write. I wanted to write a 200 page book that addressed seven major problems people have with the God they encounter on the pages of the Old Testament. This book isn’t primarily targeting people like me, OT scholars, but everyone else, people like George, Jon and Sandra.
I recently received an email from George, a 70 year-old gentleman, who received a free copy because he’s a board member of my seminary. He writes, “Quite frankly, the title scared me off. I didn’t need to read that and I put it aside. I recently decided to delve into it. Once I started, I couldn’t put it down. You hit on many of the more difficult passages and you nailed them.”
George’s apprehension about the title isn’t unusual (“God doesn’t behave badly!”). When people ask me about the title, I tell them, the full title is a question (“Is the God of the Old Testament…?”). Then I remind them that even Jesus on the cross asked a tough question about God’s troubling behavior: “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” If it’s OK for Jesus to ask tough questions of God, then it should be OK for us.
This is an email from Jon (who I think is probably a few years younger than George): “I just finished your book “God Behaving Badly”. I am not yet a Christian, but have been on a decade and a half progression from being in Dawkins/Hitchens mode to being presently a deist who is friendly and curious about the faith. I’ve even recently started attending a church and (gasp!) reading the Bible. A big obstacle (that I knew was coming) was the subject of your book. Thank you for helping me a better understanding of Yahweh. You’ve provided me with another nugget to chew on.”
Here’s an email from Sandra: “Your book is healing to say the least and you are so smart to write in the friendly manner which disarms the reader’s apprehensions and makes the “medicine” of God’s word much more palatable. You have blessed one of His servants.”
Emails like these are gold.
Frank: Perhaps. But I was actually looking for someone to give Maher an atomic knee drop and I thought you’d be a good candidate. (Oh, for you literalists out there in Webland, Lamb and I are speaking metaphorically.)
David Lamb: Seriously, I’d love to discuss God’s troubling behavior with Bill Maher. Maher is controversial, as is Dawkins, which makes them popular. But it would be awesome to talk to him. Maher makes great points about the hypocrisy of religion, sometimes sounding a bit like Jesus.
This is my first popular book, so I’m still a bit new to the whole publicity thing, but I’ve done about 20 radio interviews, mainly with Christian stations. I’ve really enjoyed the interviews and they’ve gone well. I’d be happy to do more.
I’ve sent a copy of my book to the local NPR affiliate (WHYY) and the hosts of programs produced here in Philadelphia, Fresh Air and Radio Times, but received no response. Another friend contacted someone they know at All Things Considered, but again we’ve gotten no bites.
Frank: Like many atheists and agnostics, Maher has embraced the narrow-minded belief that empiricism is the only way to truth and he evangelizes it. He’s trapped in modernistic thinking and captive to the extreme arrogance that goes with it. He sounds more like Robert Ingersoll (he actually copies him) than Jesus. Though he’s more arrogant — Ingersoll was an agnostic not an atheist. But the logic used contra the Bible is identical.
I’d like to see you debate an atheist or agnostic in a public forum, TV or Radio preferably. Your publicist is the key to putting that together.
Would you like to add anything else about the book that readers should know?
David Lamb: Here are a few hopes I have for people who read the book. Many Christians feel guilty for not reading their Bibles and it doesn’t help that when they finally get around to doing it, they encounter a God they don’t understand and who seems to be in many respects “unlikeable.” I would hope that after people read this book they would have an increased passion, love and enthusiasm for Scripture.
Not only that, but I would also hope that this book would give Christians the information and knowledge to intelligently discuss the biblical portrayals of God with their skeptic friends and neighbors. As skeptics and seekers read the book, my goal for them would be that some of their obstacles to faith would be diminished or removed.
However, my deepest hope is that readers of God Behaving Badly will desire to draw closer to God since they have a better understanding of his behavior, and they realize that he is not harsh, unfair and cruel, but loving, gracious and generous.
See also my post Is the God of the Old Testament a Moral Monster?