David Lamb is a professor of Old Testament and author.
David Lamb is a professor of Old Testament and author.

Exploring 'God Behaving Badly'

 An Old Testament scholar and author of an evocative book kicks off a sermon series at a CBF church in Missouri.

By Jeff Brumley

Kevin Glenn is already hearing the grumbling about his nine-week sermon series on “God Behaving Badly,” and it hasn’t even begun yet.

“I have people complaining about the title,” said Glenn, pastor of Memorial Baptist Church in Columbia, Mo. “They say there’s no way God can behave badly.”

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Even so, the series will kick off Sunday when author David Lamb visits Memorial to preach on his 2011 book God Behaving Badly: Is the God of the Old Testament Angry, Sexist and Racist? The book delves into Old Testament passages that many Christians would rather ignore – such as a group of boys being mauled by bears at Elisha’s request in 2 Kings – and that many in the New Atheist movement love to extol.

Glenn said he decided to take on the controversial subjects raised in the book to equip himself and his church to better handle critics who focus on such texts. “New Atheism builds their whole argument on passages like that,” Glenn said. “The series is a way for me to address some of the questions I get from non-believers and nervous Christians about these things.”   

That’s also why Lamb, a professor of Old Testament at Biblical Seminary in Hatfield, Pa., decided to write the book. “It frustrates me a little bit because we need to dig deeper,” Lamb said. “There is a lot more to the Bible than the ‘mean God’ of the Old Testament and the ‘nice God’ of the New Testament.”

ABPnews interviewed Lamb recently about his book and the issues that inspired it. Here is some of what he had to say.

To start, what is your own faith background?

I was born going to a Baptist church, but then deviated from that path. For a while I went to an Evangelical Free church, then Presbyterian and a Vineyard (church). I’m a denominational mutt. Now I go to a non-denominational church.

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What’s the general reaction to the book?

The title makes some people mad, particularly people within the church. People say, “God doesn’t behave badly.” Then there are people who are attracted to the title, a lot of them Christians, but for a lot of people outside the church this also resonates deeply. Like the smiting of Uzzah who tries to stabilize the ark – people don’t understand why God does this.

How is “God Misbehaving” expressed in our culture?

Through (Richard) Dawkins and (Christopher) Hitchens, the so-called New Atheists have a lot of critiques of God that come particularly from the Old Testament.... They look at the Canaanite genocide, for example, and ask why would God, even if the Canaanites are not good people, tell his people to wipe out this entire race?

How do Christians generally handle such passages?

A lot of Christians are afraid of those texts.… People will say “I grew up going to church and my college religion professor was the first to expose me to these texts.” They didn’t even know those verses were in the Bible, and they get mad at their church for not exposing them to the entire Bible.... What I am saying is, we need to not ignore these texts.

What texts do you examine in the book?

It’s those passages where God seems to be angry, or denigrating to women; where he seems to be racist or violent. I also examine if God is legalistic or gracious, rigid or flexible. Is God distant or is God near? Some texts say yes, some texts say no. I look at these problematic issues.

Where do you begin in addressing all of that?

Genesis is foundational to our understanding of God – of the entire Bible.… The first thing we learn about humans is they are made in God’s image, and the first thing God does is bless them.... That tells me that my God is a generous God, a God who wants to provide for me and bless me. I’m not talking about a prosperity gospel or anything like that, but a good God who really wants to bless humans and who wants us to bless other humans.

For some Christians, the Sandy Hook school massacre evoked images of the angry, wrathful God. Is that inspired by these kinds of biblical texts?

One of the things you learn from the Old Testament is that we need not underestimate people’s propensity to sin.… God sometimes judges those acts severely, but sometimes he doesn’t. What happened at Sandy Hook was a deranged person shot a lot of people.

Do events like that tend to bring out the Old Testament prophet in some people?

I think we need to be careful about speaking for God in these situations. The Old Testament speaks a lot about false prophets. I think before we speak categorically about any disaster, we need to make sure that we are speaking humbly and acknowledging the world we live in is fallen – and that we are part of that.