David Lamb’s new(ish) book God Behaving Badly (GBB) covers much of the same terrain as Paul Copan’s Is God a Moral Monster? Making Sense of the Old Testament God (Baker, 2011). However, if Copan’s book is targeted at the upper-level undergraduate or seminarian, Lamb’s book carves out its own niche as a treatment readily accessible to the lay reader.
Let’s start off with the title and cover. Both are great and demonstrate IVP’s marketing craft at its best. One can also speak highly of the style of writing. While the disarming sidebar quips and steady pop culture references to The Simpsons and Calvin and Hobbes might wear on the nerve of the more somber academician, they are well placed for the target audience. All in all, a well executed effort.
The book consists of eight chapters. After introducing God’s “Bad Reputation” (chapter 1) the book turns to address a series of troubling tensions in the biblical witness. Is God 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 case Lamb wrestles with a smattering of problem texts that seem to illustrate God’s anger, sexism, racism, violence, legalism, rigidity or distance. In that wrestling he aims to rebut the charges while adding supplementary testimony that supports the alternative virtue (though, to be accurate, Lamb doesn’t reject God’s anger and violence but only improper anger and violence). Lamb then closes off by concluding that the favorable description is best supported by the evidence. This is not a triumphalistic case — Lamb openly admits texts that still trouble him — but it is nonetheless a case aimed to vindicate the biblical portrayal of God.
God behaves well. But does he also behave badly?
The book makes some valid points in an accessible manner. For example, when discussing the weirdness of Old Testament law, Lamb provides the following illustration:
While commands about clothing may seem bizarre and unnecessary, these types of laws are culturally specific, addressing particular problems from their context. Imagine how advice given in a 2010 sermon about lust would sound to a reader in the year 5010: “Don’t buy Sports Illustrated in early February, and avoid the red-light district.” Most males today understand that the SI swimsuit issue comes out right after the Super Bowl and that in a certain section of town they can expect to find prostitutes, but in three thousand years (roughly how distant we are from these Old Testament laws) this sound advice for avoiding sexual sin won’t make sense. It would seem random, like a command not to wear wool and linen. (124)
And so with this very accessible illustration, Lamb suggests that we adopt a hermeneutic of charity according to which the writers of these laws probably had good reasons for the laws that perplex us three millennia later.
There are many points in GBB with which I find myself in agreement, the above case being one example. Over all, Lamb successfully illumines the winsome and redemptive side of the biblical portrayal of God and for that he is to be commended. But that isn’t the main question. The real question is whether GBB really enables the reader to wrestle honestly with the texts that portray God behaving badly. It is on this point that I must say the book fails. And it is not an insignificant failure since few people dispute that God is described at times as behaving well. The question is about the times when he doesn’t.
Consider an illustration. Your friend Dawn has a new boyfriend named Mark. While Dawn loves Mark you have some serious concerns and you set her down one day to enumerate them. “Mark hits you Dawn. I’ve seen it on several occasions.” What if Dawn were to reply by pointing out all the times when Mark was sweet, and all the gifts he bought her, and how he would be a good provider? That wouldn’t persuade you at all because the question is not whether Mark acts in a morally commendable way sometimes. Clearly he does. The real problem is that at other times he acts in a morally intolerable way. If Dawn is to defend Mark to you she shall have to provide an adequate explanation of why he sometimes beats her.
David Lamb faces a similar challenge in GBB. It is not enough to note the moments when God is patient and kind, loving and generous. One needs to explain the moments when God appears to be unfair, inexplicably violent and terribly cruel. I’m going to argue that Lamb fails in that regard and thus he fails to achieve the single primary goal of the book. I’ll make the case by considering three token examples.
The Egyptians had it coming
We begin with Lamb’s treatment of the Exodus. As Lamb notes, this text is not just a narrative of the deliverance of the Israelites. It is also a narrative of the destruction of Egypt and her people. Doesn’t this present a problem? Lamb comments:
While I understand why people advocate on behalf of the Egyptians in Exodus (Why did God harden Pharaoh’s heart? Why did God drown them in the Red Sea?), when asking these questions we need to remember the big picture. Egypt was the most powerful nation on the planet and at the top of the Egyptian power “pyramid” stood Pharaoh. He was worshiped as a god. The Egyptians were the ones enslaving and oppressing. Feeling sorry for Egypt is like feeling sorry for Moe, from Calvin and Hobbes, the six-year-old bully who tortures Calvin during gym, steals his lunch money and calls him “Twinky.” (Not surprisingly, Moe also shaves.) Modern-day equivalents to Moses’ Pharaoh would be despots like Robert Mugabe or Kim Jong-il, oppressive leaders that most of us would find it difficult to feel compassion toward. (40)
In this passage Lamb effectively equates Egypt with its tyrannical representative Pharaoh. Since it is right to punish Pharaoh it is right to punish Egypt. But is this really a legitimate rebuttal to the moral concerns the text presents? Consider the final plague described in Exodus 11:
“This is what the Lord says: ‘About midnight I will go throughout Egypt. Every firstborn son in Egypt will die, from the firstborn son of Pharaoh, who sits on the throne, to the firstborn son of the female slave, who is at her hand mill, and all the firstborn of the cattle as well.'” (Exodus 11:4-5)
This is what we’re talking about. This is the moral problem presented by the text. The issue is not simply the punishment of Pharaoh and his soldiers. It is the punishment of the slave woman whose beloved five year old child is slain in the darkness (not to mention the curious punishment of the domesticated animals of Egypt).
To help us get a sense of the problem here, let’s pursue Lamb’s reference to (now deceased) North Korean despot Kim Jong-il. Kim was, by all accounts, a wicked little man who enjoyed his triple malt Scotch whiskey and Russian consorts while his country starved under his tyrannical rule. In the mid-nineties North Korea suffered a massive famine in which hundreds of thousands of people starved to death while countless others were forced to eat grass and tree bark in a desperate attempt to stay alive. The picture on the right is of an 11 year old girl named Ryon An Su who is suffering malnutrition in the midst of this famine.
If Lamb’s argument is a legitimate one then just as God justly punished the tyrannical rule of Egypt’s leader by killing the slave woman’s beloved child, so God might be justly punishing the tyrannical rule of North Korea’s leader by starving young Ryon An Su. Sorry An Su. Your leader drank too much Scotch and consorted with too many prostitutes so you must now starve.
I’m not going to comment anymore on this case except to note that Lamb doesn’t even attempt to articulate the nature of the moral problem presented by the text, much less to respond to it.
Genocidal slaughter in Canaan
Our second example concerns the genocidal slaughter of the Canaanites. Lamb returns to this topic at several points in the book, analyzing it from different angles (anger, violence, racism). He summarizes his case for the genocide of the Canaanites as follows:
First, the Canaanites were being punished for their wicked and violent behavior, particularly attacking defenseless Israel as they were fleeing a situation in which they had been oppressively enslaved for hundreds of years. Second, Israel was not trying to brutally expand their borders to establish an empire like the Assyrians, but as exiles they were simply attempting to reestablish a home in the land of their ancestors. Third, Yahweh had been slow to punish the Canaanites, waiting during the entire period of Israelite enslavement (Gen 15:16), giving the Canaanites plenty of time to repent. Fourth, the Canaanite conquest was not unusual, because in the ancient Near East, military victors typically either killed or enslaved all the vanquished people. Fifth, the killing was probably limited and localized as only a few texts speak of widespread destruction, while most of them speak of numerous Canaanites remaining in the land. (100)
Lamb then adds a sixth point:
the primary image used to describe the Canaanite conquest is not slaughter. While the texts that describe Israel’s vilent obedience get our attention (Josh 10:40; 11:12), the textual image used far more frequently for the conquest is “driving out” the people of the land…. (100)
As regular readers of this blog will know, I have offered extended critiques of the straight readings of the biblical genocides on many occasions and I don’t care to rehash all those arguments here. Instead, let’s focus on two texts. We begin with Deuteronomy 20:16-17:
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.
In this passage Israel is given a genocidal directive. One can debate the extent to which it is carried out (incidentally Lamb never notes that most OT scholars reject the historicity of the Joshua occupation narrative) but the text is unequivocal that the command has been given.
In our second text Samuel speaks for God directing Saul to wipe out the Amalekites:
Now go, attack the Amalekites and totally destroy all that belongs to them. Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys. (1 Sam 15;3)
Both of these texts convey commands in which God directs soldiers to hack up the infants of the enemy. You might say this is a paradigm case of “God behaving badly”. How could God command that harmless infants be hacked up by spears, swords and scythes? Let’s consider Lamb’s six explanations.
First, the infants can be hacked up because of the sins of their ancestors. The problem with this kind of reasoning is that we don’t accept it in other cases. Imagine a German child being born in 2453 who is hacked up because of the sins of the Nazis. Doesn’t make much sense, does it? Yet that parallels closely the reasoning for slaughtering Amalekite infants.
Second, Lamb says that Israel simply wanted a homeland. Unfortunately this doesn’t explain the need to slaughter infants. Surely it was possible to occupy the land without hacking up all the non-Israelite infants living within it.
Third, Lamb points out that Yahweh waited for an extended period to punish the Canaanites. This, of course, completely begs the question. Imagine if you ask a man why he is beating his wife and he replies that he waited several years before he decided to beat her. Waiting for awhile before you engage in an immoral act doesn’t make it moral.
Fourth, Lamb observes that slaughtering infants was quite common at the time. I shudder to think of the implications were this “Everybody’s doing it” principle to be applied generally to our moral behavior. Imagine this as an excuse for a Wall Street banker or Rwandan genocidaire: everybody else was doing it!
Fifth, Lamb takes note that not all the Canaanite infants were slaughted. But surely this doesn’t make the death of those that were slaughtered morally justifiable. Would anybody dare defend James Holmes’ killing of people at the Colorado theater by noting that not everyone in the theater was killed?
What about Lamb’s sixth point that the Canaanites were not simply slaughtered but also were driven out of the land? Translation: the call to genocide was complemented by a call for ethnic cleansing. And this is supposed to be an apologetic?
In each case Lamb’s moral defenses of the text are not only bad, they are shockingly bad. And that becomes blushingly obvious every time you take one of them and attempt to generalize it as a principle. Ultimately this suggests that Lamb’s real case for the genocide rests simply on the belief that God commanded it. But if that really is the single defense, then these other bad arguments merely obscure the real issue of whether a (perceived) divine command constitutes moral value and obligation.
The bears that mauled the teen punks
Now let’s turn to our third case. This incident concerns the time when Elisha cursed a group of boys tormenting him at which point two bears came out of the woods and mauled forty-two of the boys. Lamb makes several points in response to this problematic passage in which the boys are mauled for being obnoxious. First, the two Hebrew words that are translated as “boy” in the passage could be rendered “teenager”. Consequently, it may well have been that Elisha was being tormented by a group of teenagers. Second, name calling (such as the boys calling Elisha “baldhead”) is serious business. While our culture is relatively lax when it comes to verbal insults, other cultures are offended deeply. Third, we should interpret Elisha’s action here against the backdrop of a life of service and compassion (96-98). Further, Lamb points out the text doesn’t say that the boys were killed, only that they were mauled (98). And who knows but that these boys might not have inflicted harm on Elisha had the bears not come along and mauled the gang.
Let’s think about Lamb’s claims carefully. The first point is important to note. A gang of toddlers presents little threat, but a gang of teenagers is quite different. That much I’ll certainly grant. However, everything depends on whether Elisha’s response was appropriate to the threat presented.
In order to consider the nature of the threat let’s consider Lamb’s second point that the dignity of Elisha had been sullied by the “baldhead” insult. Are we really willing to follow the suggestion that verbal insults to dignity warrant a violent response? Consider that complete idiot Ted Nugent who recently called the President of the United States a “subhuman varmint”. This is a serious insult and Nugent is a complete bonehead for making it. But does it follow that he should be mauled by an animal? Who would seriously propose such a remedy? And what should happen to Sinead O’Conner for insulting the pope? Should she be thrown into an enclosure with rabid chimpanzees?
What about the third point that this action should be counterbalanced against a life of service? I think there is a confusion here. Consider the case of David Petraeus. The General’s life has been an oustanding service to his country. But that doesn’t mean that his adultery and lying are moral. Likewise, Elisha’s outstanding life of service does not automatically entail that his complicity in the mauling of close to four dozen youth was morally justified.
Finally, what about the fact that the youths weren’t killed? Lamb emphasizes this point: “The text, however, doesn’t suggest death was the result; it simply states they were ‘mauled’ or ‘torn.'” “The attack here by the bears on these teenagers was violent but not fatal.” (98) But hold on a minute. What exactly does it mean to be mauled by a bear? Consider this poor gentleman pictured to your right. He was attacked by a bear and survived. Can you imagine the carnage of more than forty youths mauled by two large bears? Can you imagine their mutilated faces, their torn limbs, their festering wounds and grotesque scars?
This brings us to the real problem with the passage: Elisha was not in any danger. Don’t believe me? Consider, just a few pages later in GBB Lamb notes how in other circumstances Elisha prayed that certain people who posed a threat to him would be stricken with temporary blindness (107). That suggests to the reader that it was within his power to pray that the teen gang would likewise be stricken with temporary blindness. But in their case he chose instead to curse them with a bear attack that probably left many scarred for life.
It is important that we grasp the nature of the offense here. Imagine, for point of comparison, that your troubled son tries to steal Mr. Smith’s wallet. Mr. Smith has two options by way of response: pepper spray or pitbulls. The former will disable your son until the authorities arrive while the latter will disable him for life. Mr. Smith chooses the pitbulls. The dog attack results in scars on your son’s face comparable to the man pictured above. Who would dare defend Mr. Smith’s decision?
Theology is about choices
If I were to summarize the problem with GBB in a single sentence it would be this: in multiple instances the book’s defense of God’s behavior depends at least in part on obscuring the depth of the problem at issue. Whether the issue is punishing an entire nation for the sins of its leaders or committing genocide or causing the mauling of youthful tormenters, Lamb’s defense depends on multiple arguments with implausible moral premises which obscure the nature of the issue of debate.
It is doubly unfortunate that Lamb never seriously considers another possiblity: perhaps God didn’t do everything attributed to him in scripture. But we can only seriously consider this option if we first grasp the nature of what action is being attributed to God in the first place, and this is precisely what Lamb fails to do.
Perhaps you’re wondering how you can consider denying the literal reading of some passages of God’s action in history. Don’t be too surprised, for you’re already doing this. The fact is that no Christian reads every text straight. Every Christian grants certain interpretive controls to certain points internal to the text and to certain controls outside the text (e.g. specific ecclesial traditions, philosophies, personal experiences) which guide how one reads scripture. For example, I read scripture from the perspective of Nicene Christianity, baptistic ecclesiology and Arminian theology. It would be foolish and deluded for me to think these presuppositions don’t frame my reading of the text. So it should be no surprise that these kinds of precommitments inform which texts we subject to non-literal interpretation.
Unfortunately Lamb doesn’t seem to grapple with this fact or how it could inform his treatment of the problem at issue. Consider as an example how Lamb treats the question of whether God ever changes his mind (144-45). Some biblical texts suggest that he does change his mind while others suggest that he doesn’t. So how should we respond? As Lamb notes some theologians (e.g. Aquinas, Edwards) conclude that God doesn’t change his mind. (Indeed, this has been the overwhelming theological consensus until recently.) However, other theologians have concluded that God does change his mind (e.g. open theologians like Richard Rice). Lamb disagrees with both positions. He doesn’t believe that Aquinas and Edwards or Rice treat the texts adequately.
But wait: these two positions are logical contraries. If you deny that God changes his mind and that God doesn’t change his mind then there is nothing left to affirm, is there? Indeed, there is: suspend belief. Lamb thus concludes:
we can work to understand how these two apparently contradictory yet biblical descriptions of God can be faithfully reconciled without downplaying the tensions. (In case you weren’t sure, this is the option I recommend.) We hold them in tension and avoid attempts to overly systematize the Bible. (145)
While this may sound “biblical”, it is in fact a completely indefensible position. If Lamb believes that God is omniscient — and since he teaches at the conservative Biblical Seminary I assume he does — then it follows necessarily that God doesn’t change his mind ever. Consider, if p is true and God is omniscient then God always knows p in which case God could never have believed not-p. So, for example, if p = God would extend Hezekiah’s life based on Hezekiah’s prayer then God always knew that p in which case it was never the case that God believed not-p. And from that it follows necessarily that God never changed his mind.
So if Lamb believes God is omniscient it follows that he must reread passages of scripture that describe God as changing his mind. This isn’t a case of over-systematization run amok and it certainly isn’t a case of an idolatrous dependence on philosophy (to note two spurious charges). It is, rather, a consistent reading of the Bible in light of one’s beliefs about God which are themselves derived from a complex inter-play of biblical and extra-biblical sources.
Such readings of scripture are inescapable. If we believe God has no body then we reinterpret passages that describe God as embodied. If we are impassibilists then we reinterpret passages that describe God has undergoing emotion and pain. If we are atemporalists then we reinterpret passages that describe God as acting in time. Christians have always done this. The question that Lamb never considers is whether moral considerations which are likewise drawn both from sources internal to the text and external to it could lead Christians to adopt non-literal readings of certain texts that depict God behaving badly.
These are very important questions to be considering. Unfortunately Lamb never seriously considers this option (see 101-02). But if the only way we can assure ourselves that God doesn’t behave badly is by obscuring the force of the texts that suggest he does, then perhaps it is time to return to the hermeneutical drawing board.