Yesterday, I posted Part I of my interview with David Lamb on his excellent book, God Behaving Badly: Is the God of the Old Testament Angry, Sexist and Racist?
Today, we resume with Part II. Be sure to read my closing word at the end of this post.
Frank: Some have suggested that the city of Jericho was already destroyed before the Hebrew people finally settled in Canaan. This is reportedly evidenced by several independent methods of dating the final destruction layers of Jericho.
If true, this is an argument against an accurate historical portrayal in Joshua. The idea being that the Israelites idealized their early historical conquests after the fact. According to Kenneth A. Kitchen’s book, On the Reliability of the Old Testament, by the time of the Exodus, the walls of Jericho would have been little more than the backs of houses that ringed the small settlement. Allegedly, Jericho was largely abandoned at the supposed time of the exodus. What is your response to this?
David Lamb: I am not an archeologist, but I know there is sufficient ambiguity in the archeological world to warrant differing conclusions about the data. It is impossible for the preconceptions of an archeologist to not somehow shape their conclusions. People that believe the conquest accounts were not historical will find plenty of evidence to support that idea. Likewise, people who believe that cities like Jericho were destroyed will dispute these findings based on other evidence.
For Jericho, we shouldn’t envision enormous castle-esque walls like the type John Cleese taunted King Arthur’s knights from the top of with his “silly French accent” in Monty Python’s The Holy Grail. Similarly, the walls probably weren’t as high as the ones that the French peas stand on top of in Veggie Tales’ Josh and the Big Wall!
Were the accounts of the destruction of Jericho shaped by the worldview of the authors of Joshua? Certainly. But I also believe they were divinely inspired authors who recorded faithful narratives of what took place. I would also defer to the views of people like Kenneth Kitchen who have studied the issue of the conquest more than me.
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 in GBB 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: Have you considered having your publicist send Bill Maher a copy? I (for one) would love to see you debate him.
David Lamb: So, you’re a sadistic and would like to see me get my butt kicked on TV?
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.
For more from David Lamb, check out his blog.
Also, last year I interviewed Paul Copan on his book Is God a Moral Monster? I asked him some of the same questions that I asked Lamb. Copan’s book is more academic and scholarly. And it covers more subjects. Lamb’s book is more popular and accessible, but he covers ground that Copan doesn’t treat. Both books are superb on the subject and make great companion volumes.