God Behaving Badly: Part I

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. David Lamb

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: I won’t ask about your preoccupation with phallic matters, but Freud would.

Frank: Who’s Freud? :-)

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.

Click here to read Part II

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Comments

  1. says

    Lector El: I agree with Frank. Thanks for your honesty. It’s great you’re coming here and staying engaged in the dialogue. My “answers” aren’t totally satisfying to me either, but the “answers” of Dawkins and Hitchens are worse. I hope you have friends, particularly Christian ones, you can keep talking to about these things.

    Kim: That’s a great question and a troubling text about the lepers. It does seem harsh and potentially alienating. A couple of things to observe:
    1) The previous 44 verses are about how to distinguish serious skin diseases, so this diagnosis wasn’t to be made lightly
    2) These laws were initially given while they were wandering nomads in the wilderness, living in tents. Thousands of people living together in a small space. Similar to how disease spreads on a plane. Since this particular skin disease was highly contagious, to protect the rest of the community, this person needed to be isolated. Quarantine always seems severe, but it’s done for the sake of the entire community.
    3) Once the disease is gone, after a period of cleansing this person can return to the community.
    4) Although the isolation of leprosy seems severe, God can heal leprosy (Exo. 4:6-7), even for a foreign general like Naaman (2 Kings 5). Jesus made it his business to heal lepers (Mark 1:40-45; Luke 17:11-19). Why doesn’t God always heal lepers? I don’t know. But the touch of Jesus is powerful to heal.
    5) Throughout Church history, Christians have often been the ones willing to work with plague victims and other serious diseases, risking their lives in the process.
    Thanks for a tough question.

  2. phil_style says

    Escalation!

    Excellent observation. Have you been reading Clausewitz by any chance (or Girard)?

  3. says

    I was excited to read this interview, as I have been recommended Lamb’s book and am eager to buy it and read it this summer. I am also taking my third one-year tour of the Bible, which always causes me considerable discomfort as one with a “modern-Western-rational mindset.” I very much enjoyed this interview and am about to go read part 2. But first, I wanted to ask a question about one of Lamb’s statements.

    Regarding, Deuteronomy 23:1, Lamb says, “The law isn’t designed to alienate people who would have already been outcasts because of an innocent injury”. During this year’s reading, I was bothered not only by that passage, but by Leviticus 13:45-46, which says the following: “The person with such an infectious disease must wear torn clothes, let his hair be unkempt,[d] cover the lower part of his face and cry out, ‘Unclean! Unclean!’ 46 As long as he has the infection he remains unclean. He must live alone; he must live outside the camp.”

    Good grief! Speaking of alienating people with innocent illnesses! I get that leprosy is bad, and no one wants it to spread, but seriously? This command seems to add insult to injury, and it DOES seem “designed to alienate” them.

    Do either of you have any insight here?

  4. says

    The God of the Bible is wild.

    Talkin about a strange occurance in our congregation (someone returning after many years whom we were sure we’d never see again) I said, “God works in mysterious ways.” My pastor responded, “That’s the only way He works.”

    Thanks very much for a very interesting post.

  5. Lector El says

    As an atheist, I have to say I don’t find these answers particularly compelling. To my ears, they ring of justification, not explanation. I’ll have to take a look at the book when I can get my hands on it. But from what I’ve seen, I doubt this is going to be the book that makes me believe.

    • says

      “they ring of justification” – that’s exactly how your comment rings to me. His answers were historically rooted in ancient cultural contexts. By the way, nothing is going to “make” you believe. God is a God who hides Himself. He only reveals Himself to the humble in heart. Not to the wise and proud, but “to babes,” Jesus said. The kingdom of God is given to those who are like little children.

      Appreciate you coming on here and making a comment. Most atheists wouldn’t dare.

    • Karl Kroger says

      I found most of the contextual explanations very helpful in seeing how the bible was progressive. But the justifications for God slaughtering women and children disturb me. As a Christian and pastor, I don’t believe such commands are consistent with God’s loving nature.

      • says

        What does that mean exactly? Surely as a Christian pastor you don’t pick and choose what you want to believe in the Bible (?). That’s what non-Christians do. If not, what answer do you provide that is better than David’s?

  6. Ant Writes says

    I ordered the book. I have an additional answer to the Amelakite issue. Since God dealt unmercifully with these people AND he deals unmercifully with people who take the mark in Revelations, one can safely assume that they were Nephilim. Half-human/half-demonic crossbreeds can not be saved and thus don’t warrant any mercy.
    That’s just my take :)

  7. Robyn G says

    I think I’ve become so used to accepting GOD’s soveriengty, and I’ve read these texts since childhood, that I forget how shocking and “unexplainable” it can be to someone who is considering GOD, or even for me when I really look at the reality of it all. I’m happy to be forced to really look at these aspects and expectations of GOD…and the deep truth of Him and his actions ultimately makes me love him more and more deeply. He, in his totality, is irresistable…

    • phil_style says

      Probably my answer would be yes. If gross moral failings and/ or abuses/ victimization is systemic and/or supported by the national structural framework then, yes, i would say that nation is evil. Although, it’s more difficult when talking about pre nation-state societies. One must remember that the term “nation” in texts prior to the French revolution could be read more like “culture”, as opposed to what our modern minds consider to be a nation. Can culture’s be “evil”? Probably yes also, if cultural norms support and/or maintain gross moral abuses.

      That’s not to say that cultures and nations which fall into the “evil” category cannot contain “good” citizens…. but, one must also always consider the complicity of citizens in the behaviors of the nation and/or culture. Some would say that a knowing silence is a form of compliance.

  8. says

    I hope the book helps people overcome obstacles to seeing, knowing and loving God better. (Ben, I think you’re a swell chap too.) Mike, I think your comment gave my comments a run for their money in that regard.

    Thanks for engaging in the dialogue. Churches need to talk more about these texts, and not just ignore them because we’re afraid of them. The best place to gain understand is by discussing God and his behavior in community.

  9. Nancy says

    I don’t think any of us are strangers to these types of questions and we do need to be ready to give answers. As a Christian I believe study of the Old Testament is crucial to our faith. I think without understanding the culture and the background of the people of the OT (both Jews and gentiles) one can’t possibly receive insight into the actions of God. God’s actions always stem from love and the need to protect His people. This is the part of God’s love story that is so beautiful. Knowledge, as to His ways of reasoning, goes deep and often way beyond our thinking. And, in spite of the often gruesome details one can spot unwavering love for those He loves. Even in these parts of scripture there is an amazing love story unfolding.

  10. Pat says

    Great Post! I have also wondered about certain things in the OT. I think I will order the book…. it sounds interesting.

  11. says

    I think everything becomes much clearer when we look at Jesus, His Gospel and how it makes Him look so awesome.

    If we are as bad in our natural state as the Bible says: unrighteous, unable to do good or seek God (Rom 3:10-12),
    sinful (Rom 3:23),
    under the reign of death and sin (Rom 5:14),
    impure (Prov 20:9),
    unclean (Job 14:4, 25:4),
    underminers of love to God (Job 15:4),
    vastly wicked and that every intent of our heart is only continually on evil EVEN from youth (Gen 6:5, 8:21),
    fleshly and unpleasing to God (Rom 8:8),
    murderous (1 Jn 3:15)
    adulterous (Mt 5:28)
    blasphemous (Ex 20:7, Lev 24:14-16)
    violators of every law of God (Jas 2:10)

    If we are really so evil and corrupt, the right question is not “Why does God command the destruction of certain people,” but “Why has God not destroyed us?”

    Because of His Son.

    If we just understand how depraved we are, then there are no “hard questions about God’s immorality” – just beautiful pictures of His justice and how needful we are of grace!

  12. Angela says

    Thanks for posting this Frank. I always used to dream when I was a little kid about the OT law and what a beautiful thing it would be to live in a land of real justice for a change. I never saw YHWH as mean. Course I was and innocent child then and as teh saying goes, “Children love justice becuase they are innocent, but adults love mercy because they know they are guilty.”
    I think exactly like this guy except I read that other book you recommended ‘Is God a Moral Monster?’ and so I now realize that places like Jericho where military installations with very few women and probably few children, so we are not talking about genocide for the sake fo genocide here anyway, like the Nazi example, were the really evil head nazi’s were hanged, but the rest were forgiven if they wanted to join a civilized society again.

    It was nice to hear of someone else who looks at circumcision the way I do , although I’m a woman, ha, ha! ( I hope this is not too ‘frank’ for the blog manager!)

  13. Ben says

    It is a great book and very fun to read. It is definitely not going to answer all your questions, but gives you some great tools for beginning to learn how to answer them. Also, David is a swell chap. Great interview.

  14. says

    The book sounds really interesting. I will definitely have to check it out. The “trouble” texts in the OT are something I’ve always struggled to understand better. This sounds like it might be a great companion to “Is God A Moral Monster,” which is still sitting on my shelf waiting to be read, haha. Looking forward to the rest of the interview tomorrow, :)

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