God Behaving Badly — The Perfect Textbook! (A Review)

This quarter, for my Christian Scriptures undergraduate course, I used one book (other than the Bible) as a textbook: David Lamb’s God Behaving Badly: Is the God of the Old Testament Angry, Sexist, and Racist? (IVP, 2011). I am happy to report that it has been very well received and I plan on using it every time I teach this course.

What is the book about? In a nutshell, it addresses some of the most common problematic stereotypes of the OT God: angry, sexist, racist, violent, legalistic, rigid, and distant. In about 200 pages, Lamb treats these topics in a well-informed, accessible, and humorous way. The book is very persuasive overall, easy to read, and extremely well-written.

When I read this book, I could tell that Lamb is a good teacher. He knows his audience (teens, 20s and 30s). He uses lots of contemporary illustrations (from Simpsons, Monty Python, Saturday Night Live, etc…). Also, he avoids polarities. He does not try to sweep the messiness of the character and actions of God in the OT under the carpet. What he is trying to do is bring a sense of balance. God is not human, but he is complex like humans are complex. Yes he is sometimes angry, but with good reason. And he is loving. Yes he is violent sometimes, but with good reason. And he promotes peace. [You get the picture]. The magic of this approach is that it provokes students to dig into the OT to see if Lamb is right!

As we read together chapter-by-chapter through this book over 4 weeks, I could see students’ hearts warmed to seeing the OT and its God in a new light. Two things make the book work. First of all, Lamb knows enough of the context, story, and background of the OT to bring light to bear on why God says and does the things that sometimes confuse and offend us. Secondly, he draws connections between the reasons why God did the things he did in that ancient time and place, and the ways we make decisions today. Lamb capably shows that our world is not all that different when you get to the heart of it.

So, for me, God Behaving Badly is the perfect textbook. It is simple enough, informative enough, and provocative enough to get the right kind of conversations going. That does not mean there were not times when I thought an illustration Lamb used was off, or that his explanations were occasionally unsatisfying. However, on the whole, I think there is nothing more useful for a sophomore in college to read when it comes to warming them up to the OT.

Thank you David Lamb for your work!


8 thoughts on “God Behaving Badly — The Perfect Textbook! (A Review)

  1. Nijay,

    Glad to hear you found this book helpful (and more delighted to hear you are forcing your students to wrestle with these questions in a serious way). However, as David knows, I have some serious qualms with his book, not with the questions he asks but how he tries to resolve them. I have a series of posts on my blog, one post per chapter, you may find interesting to interact with if time permits. In all honesty, I’m not persuaded anyone who has tackled this question recently (Lamb, Seibert, Copan, Stark) have addressed the issue properly, which is probably why I am now writing a book on the topic. Put most simply, in adjudicating these matters for the Old Testament, I am against a) apologetic attempts to exonerate or defend God just because it’s God; b) ignoring these texts entirely as though they don’t exist; c) appealing to Jesus as the barometer for who God really is [see my review of Seibert in RBL].

    I continue to use Seibert in my intro classes, for a few reasons: a) it is still accessible but is also more ‘critical’ in its approach; b) raises the issue of problematic images of God in the OT in a helpful way; c) the places where I think Seibert is wrong are places that offer me a lot of teachable moments re: the value and integrity of the OT itself, its relationship to the NT and not having to be defined solely by it, the fact Jesus is a dynamic and not static character, Marcionism, etc.]; d) addresses in the most readable format I have found a discussion of history/truth in relation to reading and interpreting biblical texts that students, even if they don’t agree with it, can usually make sense of. I actually have my students read this middle section of Seibert first, to orient them to the what and how of Bible and Bible reading.

    Regardless, I’m glad you are leading your students through these questions. Hope you are well.

  2. Been meaning to check this out. Thanks for the review. One thought – interesting how we all too easily interpret the OT (or NT for that matter) through the lense of what we find reasonable, believable, acceptable, etc. and ignore or forget that He’s God and we’re not.

  3. Thanks John and Sean.

    John – I look forward to your contribution. As for your concerns for Lamb’s book, for its weaknesses (and I only see a few of them), it raises hermeneutical questions that my students need to hear (context, balance, attention to detail, etc…). As you probably well know, it is almost impossible to find a textbook you think fits your class and your teaching style. I have found a match!

    You mentioned three things you find troublesome. I don’t think any of these apply to Lamb’s book. Maybe he is trying to defend God (a), but I don’t think it is “just because.” He is simply trying to have people take a more careful look at the complex issue of God in the OT. As for (b), he doesn’t seem to be ignoring major texts. He engages in some of the most challenging texts in the OT. If he could be criticized, it is for handling them too quickly. But the demands of a good textbook prohibit prolixity. Finally, (c), Lamb does occasionally refer to Jesus, but not in the silly kinds of ways I think you ar worried about.

    Anyway, I appreciate we are both reading the same books! Let’s keep reading together.

    Sean – I see your point, but reason or logic is important to finding coherence in Scripture, hence the “Reason” part of the Wesleyan quadrilateral. For example, the Christian opposition to slavery in America and the UK was rooted in a logical and experience-based concern that the way people were using Scripture to support slave-ownership was not appropriate.

    In every general, appeals to reason CAN be useful to make sure coherent and appropriate interpretations are upheld. When it comes to ethical issues, such as those pertaining to the character of God, I think we do have the right to ask whether it makes sense.

    1. Yeah, I was refering to “reason(able)” in the rationalistic sense. I’m not Wesleyan, but I think ‘reason'(in the WQ) is birthed out of and informed by the knowledge of God, not an unbridled, unhealthy skepticism; which I think unfortunately is the starting point of much discussion on the OT, even in Christian circles.

  4. Nijay,

    I would encourage you, when time permits, to take a peek at my series of posts through Lamb. Would be curious as to your thoughts.

    I do applaud him for not jumping to Jesus as the answer all the time, but it is quite clear at some places that this seems to be a governing principle. Regardless, I think you’ve misunderstood my criticisms (a fault that perhaps lies in the fact our conversation is occurring on a blog, and I’ve already blogged through these issues). My biggest complaints with Lamb would be a) he treats complex issues in way too cursory a manner; yes, I gather this is a textbook, and yes, I gather his audience is not academic, but I don’t think that apologizes for treating Gen 22 in about a paragraph and assuming that covers the issue in any sort of depth or worthwhile way; b) that he emphasizes one side of the portrait. This is my biggest complaint . . . in the end, none of the negative adjectives Lamb lists in the titles of each of the chapters are applied to God. I don’t think it’s that easy. There’s a lot of assumptions that I think lie behind this, but I’m much more open and receptive to an approach like Brueggemann’s (core, counter-testimony, etc.), which emphasizes the diverse portraits of God in the Bible, unsettling and less so, and doesn’t force them to conform only to the positive side of things. Relatedly, while Lamb may do a good job with context (hit or miss in my view), I struggle to see how explaining WHY God does something gets God off the hook for any sort of negative implications. So to take a rather significant example that I raise to my students in working through Seibert’s book (and I’d encourage you to look at Seibert’s chapters on approaches to disturbing divine behavior, because his critiques there are spot on in my view), if the roof tore off my classroom and God revealed THE REASON for the Holocaust, let’s say it was to achieve a higher purpose, the establishment of the state of Israel perhaps, we may know why, but that doesn’t make the behavior acceptable. Same thing with biblical texts: just because Lamb may be able to explain–and again, I question his success on this front at many places–WHY God does something, that doesn’t make it acceptable. This is a dangerous line to tread.


    1. John,

      Thank you for your analogy at the end. I think that helped solidify the points that you made earlier in a way I was able to follow further. How do you generally respond to God acting in unacceptable ways? Would you say this was unacceptable from our perspective as humans or wholly unacceptable on all counts(meaning God did wrong)? If God truly did wrong how do we rectify that? These are actually some of the things I’ve been wrestling with lately. Unfortunately I’ve never had the opportunity to go to seminary or really dig into any Bible classes but I really felt the pull to try and understand the Bible more and have tried to go head-first into theology and biblical studies books. It can be quite overwhelming without some of those foundations in intro classes and people to bounce this knowledge off of. I appreciate your and Nijay’s blogs considerably for this reason because I am often able to grasp your posts.


  5. Hi Nijay–

    Scot McKnight and I used Lamb’s book in our Intro. to the Bible courses at North Park this Fall. I am using it again next semester. It was a great experience! It stimulated excellent conversation among undergrads from diverse religious and theological backgrounds. Believe it or not — McKnight got Lamb to skype into class to debate some chapters with his students!

    Drew Strait

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