God Behaving Badly, by David T. Lamb (IVP, 2011)
The biggest conundrum for thoughtful ‘people of the book’ (Muslims, Christians, Jews) – and for their critics – is how to make sense of a God who issues hundreds of sometimes strange edicts, many of which carry ‘smitable’ penalties or even a death sentence... A God who seems to be highly selective about which people/s are worth protecting or wiped out...
A God who comes across as sexist, racist and, once or twice, homophobic – but who is described as merciful and gracious, slow to anger, a God of ‘steadfast love’ etc.
David Lamb has an Oxford DPhil, and has worked as an IVF staffworker then College professor with young people who ask these questions and demand coherent answers. In this book he does a pretty good job of explaining that Old Testament laws and stories have to be understood within their Ancient Near Eastern contexts. We post-Enlightenment Westerners therefore come with some handicaps to this enterprise.
His basic thesis: The God of the Old Testament and the God Jesus talked about is the same God: both are characterized by love, and are ‘slow to anger’. If you really want to know what God is like look at Jesus: he and Yahweh ‘are essentially one’ (though Jesus never smites anyone, but both are highly affirming of women). It’s just that punishments meted out to individuals and nations in the Old Testament emanate from God’s compassion and justice.
Lamb’s favourite story is about Uzzah, who is smitten with death for trying to steady the ark of the covenant. Look it up, and see what you make of that strange episode. Clue: God the lawgiver ‘gets mad... when his people don’t follow his instructions’. Another: the ‘Golden calf’ episode where ‘he was mad because they committed adultery on the honeymoon’ (42). And another: ‘Yahweh protected Elisha [not from cheekiness by small boys but] from a teenage gang so the prophet could go on to bless the lives of thousands of others’ (99).
David Lamb has been immersed in the cultures of the young people he’s trying to win over – so we have ‘with-it’ language (like Lot’s wife ‘rubber-necking’; or ‘Jebusites, Hivites and all those other people-ites’) and dozens of comments and illustrations from Google searches, contemporary sitcoms, movies and literature (including quotes from the two loudest contemporary atheists Dawkins and Hitchens). Like these:
- ‘In an episode from the first season of The Simpsons Bart’s Sunday School teacher concludes the lesson with “and that’s why God causes train wrecks” (13)
- ‘The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction... [But] Jesus is a huge improvement over the cruel ogre of the Old Testament’ (Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion. (13, 15)
He’s also done his homework in terms of research:
- ‘As William Webb argues, laws in the Old Testament concerning women consistently move in a redemptive direction in comparison to parallel laws from its ancient Near Eastern context’ (63). While most progressive democracies in the world today have never been ruled by a woman, Yahweh selected a female ‘president’ (Deborah, Judges 4). Similarly with slavery (75).
Some key Lamb assertions: Today’s churches are ‘perceived in popular culture as contributing to the problem and not as part of the solution’ (23). ‘Compared to other ancient Near Eastern literature, the Old Testament is shockingly progressive in its portrayals of divine love, acceptance of foreigners and affirmation of women (23). And how about this: ‘If your enemy is hungry, give him bread to eat / and if he is thirsy, give him water to drink’ (Proverbs 25:21).
I have just two hesitations in recommending this book: whilst it’s an excellent introduction to the subject for undergrads, those with a more advanced education in biblical studies will be frustrated (as I was sometimes) with Lamb’s too-easy conservative throwaway solutions. Like this one: ‘Old Testament scholar Eric Seibert [Disturbing Divine Behavior: Troubling Old Testament Images of God, 2009] argues that Old Testament passages that describe a violent God can be rejected because that behavior is inconsistent with the character of God revealed by Jesus in the Gospels’ (102). I’d have liked Lamb to develop that point, perhaps citing better-known scholars like Marcus Borg  and Rene Girard .
My second disappointment is in the area of homophobia – the religious world’s #1 battleground these days. Lamb (maybe at the insistence of his conservative publisher?) doesn’t grapple with this issue except vaguely. He should have had a whole chapter on it. 
 See, eg. http://jmm.org.au/articles/28630.htm
David has a lively blog - http://davidtlamb.com/
And if you want to see what he looks like (quite a handsome guy!) – see his first YouTube effort here - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SPq9nh0D15I&feature=youtu.be