God Behaving Badly

God Behaving Badly: Is the God of the Old Testament Angry, Sexist and Racist? (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2011) by David T. Lamb

In his 2004 bestseller, The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason, Sam Harris first introduced the world to the popular New Atheism. Listen to leading apologist William Lane Craig talk about the new atheists.

Christopher Hitchens followed with his attack on God in his 2007 book: God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. The very next year, Richard Dawkins made his claim that the God of the Old Testament is “arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction” (The God Delusion, p.51).

David Lamb, associate professor of Old Testament at Biblical Theological Seminary in Hatfield Pennsylvania, believes that Dawkins “simply isn’t reading his Bible well” (p.16).

Lamb, with refreshing wit and respect, responds to accusations being made against God in his book, God Behaving Badly: Is the God of the Old Testament Angry, Sexist, and Racist? (June, 2011).

Lamb says that the avoidance of certain texts by Bible teachers has actually made it seem that atheists are reading the Bible more carefully than those who accept it as God’s word. Far from ignoring problematic texts, this OT scholar writes from his extensive study of history and Scripture to provide insight into the biblical context, which he claims is the key to proper interpretation.

Lamb notes that the God of the OT has a bad reputation. Are the critical perceptions valid? He doesn’t deny the difficulty with certain texts, but he insists that God’s hesed (love) is abundant in the OT. He rejects the Marcionite heresy that the God of the Old Testament is cruel and vindictive, not the same loving God of the New Testament.

He writes “compared to other ancient Near Eastern literature, the Old Testament is shockingly progressive in its portrayals of divine love” (p.23).

Lamb addresses those OT texts that reveal God’s anger, commands of violence, appearances of sexism, racism, legalism, and what seems to be a stubborn inflexibility in God. Lamb touches on those passages that are most often quoted to show that God is a big meanie.

Why did God kill Uzzah for touching the ark (2 Sam 6:1-8)? Does the Bible present an unfavorable view toward women (Gen 3:1-19; 19:5-11)? Is slavery, racism, and genocide being supported in the biblical text (Josh 10:40; 11:12-15)? Does God endorse child sacrifice and violence against enemies (Gen 22; 2 Kings 2:23-25; 19:35)? And what about all those pesky out-dated commandments (Ex 20-23; Lev 17-26; Deut 12-26)?

Lamb believes that the OT text should be harmonized with the life and teachings of Jesus. He seeks to accomplish this by finishing each chapter with relevant passages from the Gospels.

What is God like? Lamb wants to make it clear that “this book is essentially about the nature of God” (p.177). 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” (p.178).

I’m recommending this book to all of those wrestling with what seems to be a dichotomy within the biblical text—where God appears to be bi-polar and where Jesus finally managed to satisfy the bloodlust of his abusive Father.

God Behaving Badly should be required reading for all skeptics and students of theology, especially those Christians who habitually yank verses from their OT context to skillfully ignore the teachings of Jesus.

I want to thank Adrianna Wright at InterVarsity Press for sending me Lamb’s book to read and review.

D.D. Flowers, 2011

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About David D. Flowers

David received a B.A. in Religion from East Texas Baptist University and a M.T.S. in Biblical Studies from Houston Graduate School of Theology. David has over 15 years experience as a pastor and teacher in and outside the church. He currently pastors an Anabaptist congregation in Virginia. View all posts by David D. Flowers

10 responses to “God Behaving Badly

  • Cindy Skillman

    Thanks, David. I’m sure I’ll benefit from reading this. 🙂

  • David D. Flowers

    Hey Cindy, I’m sure you will enjoy it. As always, thanks for reading!

  • NotAScientist

    “where God appears to be bi-polar and where Jesus finally managed to satisfy the bloodlust of his abusive Father.”

    Given that Jesus’ story ends with his own bloody murder, ordered by ‘himself’, and involved things including constructing a whip and beating people, Jesus isn’t all that better.

    • David D. Flowers

      @ NotAScientist:
      My comment about satisfying the “bloodlust of his abusive Father” was aimed at a specific atonement theory first proposed by John Calvin and since expounded upon by other theologians. That theory focuses on God’s wrath. I simple disagree with it. There was clear agreement within the Father, Son, and Spirit (before the foundations of the world to be exact) as to how mankind would be redeemed in love.

      Of course, “ordered by himself” would depend on what you mean by “ordered.” I agree that Jesus was the substitutionary atonement for our sins. He told of his coming death and that he would be a ransom for those who believe and place their trust in him. He saw his crucifixion as his calling and the inevitable outcome of teaching that the kingdom of God had arrived in him.

      “constructing a whip and beating people”?
      There is absolutely no indication that Jesus hit any human being or animal with the whip (Jn 2:15; Matt 21:12; Mk 11:15). Lamb acknowledges this in his book. I regret that he placed that point in his end notes, rather than the body of the writing. Jesus’ own teaching would prohibit such an action as “beating people” or animals for that matter (Matt 5:38-48). This temple “whip” clearing episode was symbolic of the judgment and destruction soon to come upon the system. Any other reading of this pericope is a blatant disregard for what the text actually says and ignores the broader context of Jesus’ ministry and teachings.

      Respectfully, I would encourage a closer reading of the gospels, instead of a surface reading which proof-texts verses for the sake of argument.

      I do think Jesus is far better than the alternatives.

  • David Lamb

    David, thanks for the review. Glad you liked it.
    Cindy, hope it’s helpful.
    Not a scientist, Jesus made a whip, but it’s not clear that he actually hit people with it. It’s possible, but it doesn’t seem likely in light of how he treated people elsewhere in the gospels. I like David’s arguments here.

  • JBen

    I just finished this book (and had it sent to me from IVP) and I think it is a fantastic introduction to the problematic OT texts. I might go so far as to say it is a great introduction to Bible study in general. I am recommending it to any and all students I can (I work in college ministry).

    I am also blogging through the whole Bible and finding myself arriving at the same conclusions Lamb is.

  • John Metz

    David,
    Good review. It stirred me to get the book.

  • David D. Flowers

    Thanks, John. I’m glad you liked it.

  • Making Christian Disciples

    I am a believer and I must admit I have found myself struggling with the God of the Old Testament. But when I remember that He never changes, then I can know that He did everything in the Old Testament out of love, just as He did in the New Testament. The culture was different, and the situations were different in the O.T. But God is love and in Him is love. It’s not that He loves, it’s that He IS love. God bless!

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