God Behaving Badly 5

God Behaving Badly 5 May 31, 2011

Does the Old Testament teach us about a God of violence or a God of peace? Apart from the “just because it’s in the Bible doesn’t mean it is condoned” approach, a proper method for answering a question like this is to probe the texts and find the patterns and the contexts and see what is happening in that text in that day. So David Lamb, in his excellent book, God Behaving Badly: Is the God of the Old Testament Angry, Sexist and Racist?, begins by examining a seemingly clear case of God behaving badly: Elisha’s praying for bears to destroy some boys (2 Kings 2:23-25, after the jump).

It is too easy to read this text quickly, see the horror and pounce on YHWH and Elisha and Judaism and Christianity. And many prefer that method, but there are factors here that deserve some consideration: first, the word “boys” is not gradeschoolers but probably teenagers, and they appear to be a gang or pack of boys up to no good in the wilderness. Second, though not our world, an insult of someone as worthy and noble as a prophet was serious — both violent words and an assault on the social order. This is not a harmless set of words by a group of innocent boys out playing a prank. [That’s the superficial reading.] Third, Elisha a peace-seeking and healing prophet. Finally, the text does not say they were killed but “mauled” — short of death. It is severe, no doubt, but David Lamb says it is more an incident of God’s protection of a noble prophet.

Recently I’ve been pondering violence and God some, and I wonder if violence isn’t the way of the world and that God is depicted as entering into the violent ways of humans in order to redeem us from the ways of violence. Anyway, how do you deal with these texts of violence? Ignore, suppress, minimize, or ponder?

What then of the Canaanites being drive from the Land? David sees this as forced migration, it was not as severe as many text suggest in their hyperbolic forms, and the primary form of “violence” — if that is what you want for a term — is “driving out” and not “death.” David responds briefly to Eric Seibert’s (at times Marcion-like) suggestion that the God of the Old Testament, when he doesn’t conform to Jesus, needs to be rejected, but David prefers a method that seeks to get to the bottom of the text in another way.

The 185,000 bodies of Assyrians in 2 Kings 19:35? Tough one. People die in wars; Assyria was a notoriously brutal nation; the Assyrians mocked YHWH. Lamb: “… justifed in this context of war against a brutal empire to defend [YHWH’s] honor” (104).

David also suggests that the justice system of Israel, in that context, needed to be swift, simple and straightforward. The lex talionis was a way of curbing the principle of escalating violence.

But what is best in this chp, and one that can’t be explained at length here, is how committed YHWH and Jesus are to peace. Yes, sometimes a sword, but over and over the sword serves peace. And the second text below is from 2 Kings 6:14-23, where you see the peaceful orientation of Elisha.
23 From there Elisha went up to Bethel. As he was walking along the road, some boys came out of the town and jeered at him. “Get out of here, baldy!” they said. “Get out of here, baldy!” 24 He turned around, looked at them and called down a curse on them in the name of the LORD. Then two bears came out of the woods and mauled forty-two of the boys. 25 And he went on to Mount Carmel and from there returned to Samaria….

14 Then he sent horses and chariots and a strong force there. They went by night and surrounded the city.

15 When the servant of the man of God got up and went out early the next morning, an army with horses and chariots had surrounded the city. “Oh no, my lord! What shall we do?” the servant asked.

16 “Don’t be afraid,” the prophet answered. “Those who are with us are more than those who are with them.”

17 And Elisha prayed, “Open his eyes, LORD, so that he may see.” Then the LORD opened the servant’s eyes, and he looked and saw the hills full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha.

18 As the enemy came down toward him, Elisha prayed to the LORD, “Strike this army with blindness.” So he struck them with blindness, as Elisha had asked.

19 Elisha told them, “This is not the road and this is not the city. Follow me, and I will lead you to the man you are looking for.” And he led them to Samaria.

20 After they entered the city, Elisha said, “LORD, open the eyes of these men so they can see.” Then the LORD opened their eyes and they looked, and there they were, inside Samaria.

21 When the king of Israel saw them, he asked Elisha, “Shall I kill them, my father? Shall I kill them?”

22 “Do not kill them,” he answered. “Would you kill those you have captured with your own sword or bow? Set food and water before them so that they may eat and drink and then go back to their master.” 23 So he prepared a great feast for them, and after they had finished eating and drinking, he sent them away, and they returned to their master. So the bands from Aram stopped raiding Israel’s territory.

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  • The prophets were human, so they sometimes misused their power. Like kings, they were not perfect. This is an example. There us nothing to show that God approved of Elisha’s behavior. He did not receive a word from the Lord.

  • Peter

    “How do you deal with these texts of violence? Ignore, suppress, minimize, or ponder?” I think that issues related to violence in the Scripture are murky because incarnation is a murky business, OT, NT and our own incarnation of the gospel today. So my answer to the question is ‘ponder,’ which is why I got this book so that I could follow this conversation. Thank you.

  • Susan N.

    Peter – #2, I agree…ponder. In fact, I was just reading Bonhoeffer’s ‘Letters and Papers from Prison’ this weekend. “Who Stands His Ground” and “Civil Courage” provide enough reason for me to stop and wonder how God does, really, look upon man’s violent ways when the intention is to subdue evil, “defend God”, or protect the life of another. “[Free responsibility] depends upon a God who demands bold action as the free response of faith, and who promises forgiveness and consolation to the man who becomes a sinner in the process.”

    This question of whether or not God is violent matters so much because when Jesus taught in the Sermon on the Mount, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect,” did He really mean that “loving” my enemies might include killing them? If God Himself is violent, and violence *may* be a holy act (depending on the intention and motivation of the heart?), then how are we to discern the meaning of “loving”?

    Bonhoeffer speaks of failure to take a bold stand (and I’m presuming he meant any means necessary, including violent action) as a “sin of omission.” What if no one had stood against Hitler? Would God have performed a supernatural event, such as the earth opening up and swallowing Hitler and his army, had no man (or nation) acted to stop him?

    It takes a little courage even to ponder such things…

  • Dave

    as the father of three teenage daughters, I have often prayed for those bears to show up and maul a few teenage boys!!!

    Good stuff to ponder, thanks for beginning to unwrap it.

  • Steve

    After your posts on this I am buying this book, I have a Jewish Christian in the Sunday school class I teach and we often discuss the continuity of God throughout the scriptures. We both feel that the proposed discontinuity, by people who claim that there is a “God of the OT and a God of the NT” (my paraphrase) is a completely false one and this book sounds like it falls very much in line with this.

    Completely different subject…just listened to a lecture by Richard B Hays from the (Baylor Winter Pastors School lectures Feb 2011, available online) where he connected the passage above (specifically vs. 14-23) with the Emmaus Road story in what he termed a ‘fanciful intertextual reading’ in an example of how we can use the OT to read the NT. The whole series of lectures is excellent and I’d highly recommend it.

  • Karen Spears Zacharias

    I’m with the pondering group. Though when pondering it, I sometimes have to choose “ignore” to keep the anger, righteous or otherwise, from rising up within me and tempting me to become violent.

  • Anna

    I research texts that trouble me. Generally the more I understand about the context, the more sense the text makes, and principles of justice and peace often arise from very surprising texts. I am reading the Lamb book, and was intrigued by his explanation of why women were to marry their rapists/rapists were expected to marry the women they raped. Once you see that in context, as warped as it sounds to us, you see that there is a principle of justice operating. (Perhaps Dr. McKnight will lift that example up in a later post.)

    Thanks for recommending the Lamb book, I’ve been enjoying it.

  • Tim

    “Violent or Peaceful” is available on Google Book Preview, so I’ve had a chance to read through it. Some thoughts:

    Concerning 2 Kings 2:23-25 (Elisha, the boys, and the Bears), I swear I lost 5 IQ points reading the absurdly specious justifications for it. Here are a couple gems:

    “It was reasonable to assume that Elisha’s life was in danger. It is certainly not unthinkable that they were planning to rough him up a bit.”


    “The text, however, doesn’t suggest death was the result; it simply states they were “mauled” or “torn.” If these youths were killed, the text would make that clear.”

    Go ahead and read 2 Kings 2:23-25, then go back and read David Lamb’s apologetic treatment of the passage. Bang head on wall. Go back, re-read both in sequence. Bang head on wall again. Repeat until the sweet embrace of unconsciousness relieves your frustration.

    Moving on, David Lamb’s method of dealing with the mass genocides during the Canaanite conquests in Joshua by shifting the focus to a “driving (them) out” is a total whitewash. Does David Lamb deal seriously with the “herem” passages in Joshua? The bashing of babies heads against rocks? No! Just a whitewash by shifting the focus to part of the story, then a big “nothing else to see here, move along folks.”

    Then we see David moving on to Yahweh’s slaughter of Assyrian soldiers in a time of war (which I’ve already commented on – and if there is any moral fault to be had in his killing of hostile soldiers, it would have to be poor sportsmanship *tongue in cheek)

  • Blessed economist, #1: I see your point and would love to conclude that YHWH had nothing to do with it, but it sure seems like YHWH responded to Elisha’s curse by sending the bears.
    Dave, #4: As the father of 2 teenage boys who love to point out my expanding bald spot, I could use a couple of she-bears occasionally.

  • Bill Ferrell

    Good post. This is not an easy subject for me. There is an interesting post about scripture and revelation at James McGrath’s blog, Exploring Our Matrix. Keep up the great stuff!!!

  • Brianmpei

    Pondering is the only choice given that makes sense to me. It’s very difficult not to conclude that the Hebrew Scriptures only reflects their perception of God through the lens of their own culture. There is a mixture of violence and peace that runs through the text and it seems to me to make much more sense to “ponder” that rather than go through the painful looking mental gymnastics required to get past mauling bears and mass slaughter.

  • I would say handling the God of the OT is the single biggest conundrum in my faith recently, and something I’ve been blogging about with regularity. I really need to read this book, because I just don’t know how to reconcile the God of violence with the God of Jesus.

  • Tim, #8: Sorry, you didn’t find the chapter helpful. Perhaps books by Chris Wright, Paul Copan, or Eric Seibert might do a better job for you. Thanks for your honesty.

  • How do I handle the question of God and violence as expressed in the Old Testament? By accepting the plain fact that the writers of these passages lived in a time and culture when violence was the way problems were solved. And as people always do, they attributed their ways to YHWH.

    I’m about halfway through Lamb’s book, and I must say, I don’t think he’s done a very good job. Where he does defend God’s violent behavior, it’s not very satisfying. His first step is to minimize the violence (“The bear didn’t kill them, only ‘mauled’ them”), and most of the time, it comes off as laughable. Beyond that, his main approach seems to be say “Yes, God is portrayed as violent, but there are a lot of verses where God is said to be peaceful, too…so everything’s okay!”

    As I said, I’m only halfway through this book, but so far it just seems like handwaving.

  • For insights into Middle Eastern cultural values, I find no one more helpful than Kenneth Bailey. His *Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes* and *The Cross and the Prodigal* (IVP) are unsurpassed. Bailey lived, taught, traveled, and researched in Lebanon and extensively studied Arab, Jewish, and Palestinian social mores and cultural norms for more than thirty years. His take is similar to Lamb’s on Elisha and the roving gangs of youth. *The prophet was exceedingly severe in his retaliation, but someone has seen and experienced the verbal cruelty of a village gang, with its scoffing and derisive choruses, that person almost delights in reading that once, long ago, they were dealt with* (Cross & Prodigal, 55). We get offended when a prophet acts with violence, but we are relieved when a drug-riddled street gang in America gets their just desserts. We need to be careful in our exegesis. Often, we impose American post-modern cultural values unto the Biblical text. On many occasions, our 21st century arrogance causes us to read the text with through idealized hyper-sensitive, middle-class glasses. We assume our values are always the right values in every situation, even when evaluating an event that happened more than two thousand years ago

  • Glenn Davis wrote: Often, we impose American post-modern cultural values unto the Biblical text. On many occasions, our 21st century arrogance causes us to read the text with through idealized hyper-sensitive, middle-class glasses.

    Actually, I think we’re “imposing” the first-century, seemingly counter-intuitive values of Jesus — at least that’s my sense of it. To attribute that as “21st century arrogance…hyper-sensitive [and] middle-glass” is wide of the mark.

  • Brianmpei

    #15 – Glenn, are you really suggesting that it’s a new value to not repay evil with violence? Is “turn the other cheek” a modern addition to the text? I’m pretty sure Jesus understood the culture and even the scoffing, derisive choruses but his approach was entirely different and, dare I say it, more God-like than Elisha’s (according to the text).

  • Scot, did you see David Ker’s “Bad Boy Bible Study” series on this text? He turned it into a meme, and here’s a link to my contribution to it which you may or may not find entertaining.

  • In response to various comments on my post, Elisha is cursing these young men not because he was “ticked off” by their rudeness, but for their rebellion toward God and his authority. The event occurred near Bethel: the capital of Israel’s apostasy. This ancient street gang was reflecting the attitude of the region: disrespect toward God and his authority, the prophets. Elisha was about to be mugged and in self-defense. He invoked God’s protection. I see no violation of the Sermon on the Mount’s concern for not retaliating when offended in a shame/honor culture.

  • Barry

    As I have been following this series, I continue to wonder how these texts of God’s ‘violence’ justify being taken literally as God really invoking death and destruction through bears, armies or natural disasters. For this to be an issue, we must first conclude that God ACTUALLY does this stuff and then try to figure out why this is appropriate for God. Compare this, for example with interpretations of Genesis, Job or Jonah which regularly employ a mythological component based on the common human experience, ANE culture and the like rather than thinking of these stories literally.

    In answer to Scot’s original question I tend to ponder, then minimize. Treating the biblical text as a cooperative God/human effort (divinely inspired, sure, but with definite human input) leads me to the conclusion that not every time the Bible says that “God did…” or “God said…” am I forced to believe God actually *did* or *said*. The author could in fact, be filling in the blank of ’cause’ to the event of ‘effect’ and does not always accurately do justice to the ‘Cause’; similar to the way in which contemporary religious leaders sometime ascribe divine intent to modern wars and natural disasters. Is it an illegitimate interpretive paradigm to include that maybe the OT / NT writers sometimes misrepresent God, badly?

    Also, is there some rule of thumb that people use to determine what God actually says or does as related in the Bible? One option would be to conclude that every phrase and action ascribed to God must be taken at face value (which leads me to conclude that Creation was a 7-literal-day event). Another would be to take whatever the OT or NT text says of God, throw it against the words of Jesus and see if they stick (my personal preference – some of this stuff doesn’t stick very well).

    Am I missing something or does ALL of this hinge on one’s understanding of the inspiration/inerrancy/infallibility of Christian Scripture and that, unless we agree to a common root way of reading, this is just one more of those irreconcilable differences of which we are all forced to agree to disagree?

  • Barry

    Glenn (#19), it appears that if Elish was about to be mugged and called on God in self-defense that, in line with the Sermon on the Mount, God would have just told him to “turn the other cheek”.

  • Joe Canner

    @Glenn #19: I wholeheartedly agree that we need to interpret Scripture in light of the shame/honor culture that was (and is) predominant in the region. I would say, however, that the Sermon on the Mount flew in the face of that culture, rather than supporting/reflecting it.

    The shame/honor culture is what is responsible for the endless sequences of retribution common in such cultures as well as things like killing daughters/wives who commit sexual offenses and death warrants for those who blaspheme. What separates Christianity from those cultures/religions is the ability to break the cycle of violence, to forgive, to extend grace, etc.

  • I’m in the “ponder” category. I don’t think the Elisha/bear story is supposed to be an example of how we preachers ought to respond to taunts about bald heads and flabby bellies. So why is the story there? It is it one of those odd stories that is too true to be fictional? How often does God use bears as a response to mockery of his servants? I don’t doubt that God was involved in this scenario with the bears. I would assume that the taunt of the boys justified the attack of the bear. God did use a flood…. I suppose that the Elisha/bear story had a different effect for the original audience then it does for us. And that’s where my pondering goes: what would this story have been about for that intended audience. Maybe it was a refreshing story: finally, somebody who mocks a prophet gets a little justice. We think of it as God overreacting, but then we use timeouts for misbehaving boys.

  • Lyn

    Scot, you write: “Recently I’ve been pondering violence and God some, and I wonder if violence isn’t the way of the world and that God is depicted as entering into the violent ways of humans in order to redeem us from the ways of violence.”

    Are you thinking of Abraham’s attempted sacrifice of Isaac? I assume that God’s order for Abraham to kill Isaac, which would be in line with the various regional gods’ capricious commands, is an object lesson in reverse. That is, God is saying, “Here is what the other gods require, but for me, child sacrifice is out. Get the memo.”

    Sort of like Jesus saying (ironically/metaphorically, I believe) in Mt 18.8 to cut off the parts of the body if they cause us to stumble. Well, dang, if parts of the “body” of Christ are so offensive at times that we have to “cut them off” then we have nothing left of the body. In other words, the way of violence simply leads to more violence and destroys God’s people.


  • scotmcknight

    Lyn, I’m thinking more generally: if the way of violence is the way of the world, for God to enter into our world is to enter in that violence in order to redeem it. And here’s the other thought: Is violence not a distortion of something true about God?

  • Tim

    David Lamb@13,

    “Sorry, you didn’t find the chapter helpful. Perhaps books by Chris Wright, Paul Copan, or Eric Seibert might do a better job for you. Thanks for your honesty.”

    Well, first off I want to apologize for my tone. I think I was far too caustic and, frankly, you deserve better – particularly given the way you’ve conducted yourself on these forums.

    I suppose my tone stemmed from my frustration with some of your arguments and overall apologetic approach.

    Let me give an example.

    In the Elisha & the Bears passage, you make two claims that seem like selective pleading to me, and they both cut in opposite ways.

    In the first instance, you claim something that is not even remotely hinted at in the text, that the youth were placing Elisha in danger for his life.

    In the second instance, you claim that something that is explicitly implied, death by being “mauled” or “torn” by bears (death being the most probable outcome of being mauled by a bear), isn’t in fact likely at all because the “the text would make that clear”.

    So, why would you plead FOR something the text does not “make clear” in one case (i.e., the youth presenting a mortal danger to Elisha), while in the other case argue AGAINST accepting the the most probable outcome of a bear mauling (i.e., death) because the text fails to “make that clear”? To me it just seems like typical selective pleading to justify apologetic conclusions by shoehorning the exegesis to fit them.

    This reminds me of a particular scientific cartoon lampooning creationists. The scientist says, “here are the facts, what conclusions can we draw from them?”, while the creationist says, “here’s the conclusion, what facts can we find to support it?”

    I suppose more than anything, apologetic approaches that resemble the “here’s the conclusion, what facts can we find to support it?” approach are the ones I find most frustrating.

    Let me illustrate why this is frustrating.

    You have scholars and authors who, making what they feel are the most reasonable inferences from the Biblical text arrive at a conclusion that the God of the OT IS immoral. Then you have the Biblical apologist who starts with the conclusion that the God of the OT is NOT immoral and searches for arguments to support that conclusion. What is the point then in even having the conversation? Where is the opportunity to look at the evidence in a balanced light and ascertain whose inferences are more supportable? If you don’t plan to engage the “critic’s” arguments, then be upfront about it. Perhaps highlight that what you are producing is a devotional work meant to edify the Christian or some such thing. But if you really are intent on engaging the critical arguments on even footing, then I don’t see how you feel the apologetic approach you’ve taken is going to get you there (for reasons I just articulated above).

  • Barry

    scot, are you suggesting that there is a righteous violence compared with an unrighteous violence? In other words, our fallen violence can be redeemed to be like the ‘good’ violence of God?

  • #9 David
    The incident shows the power of words and curses. YAHWEH had appointed Elisha as a prophet, which bound him to honor Elisha’s word.

  • Susan N.

    I was able to read the chapter last night; the comments I made (#3) prior to reading haven’t really been changed.

    I would like to share the strongest argument (imo) for God’s goodness offered in this chapter:

    In response to Denis of Devon’s letter to the editor, which presumes that for something to be recorded in the Bible we can assume that God intends for us to glorify it, David Lamb suggests: “…[W]e need to examine the context of a biblical story to determine whether the action is condemned or praised by the text.” (p.94)

    I think by “context”, this is not only to be taken as meaning the historical setting of the text/event, but also as meaning the context of the whole biblical narrative. The author does compare/contrast the OT violence to the Person and teachings of Christ. In the final analysis, what message are we to take away and apply in our lives today? If at all possible, be at peace with all…make peace a priority. Amen!

    One other comment — In the analysis of some of the disturbing OT passages, which on the surface portray a violent God, the necessity for “R-rating” of this material with young children was acknowledged. Until abstract thinking is possible, I agree. I do feel that at the point when youth are able to examine these “hard” passages of the Bible, parents and churches should be willing to look at these troubling texts courageously with their kids, and have open dialogue about it. Maybe a failure to do that is a big part of young adults falling away from their faith in college? Eventually, our kids are going to run up against this stuff — better to teach them how to “gird up their loins” now when the doubts and storms of life hit.

  • With respect to the Assyrian invasion, why is it such a stretch for some to see God defending Israel/Judah? Are those troubled by this incident wanting God to set-up a peace conference and sing camp songs, trade off land for peace? The Assyrians would have destroyed the nation; and if they would have, then people would have wondered where God was when that happened.

  • Susan N.

    Mark – #30, Yes indeed…when the Jews were taken into captivity in Babylon, or the temple was destroyed in AD70, people were wondering “where God was.” Sure, God had a covenant with the nation of Israel in the OT, but when they failed to honor their part in that covenant (failing to bless the surrounding nations and be a light to them pointing to God), it seems that God was willing to defend the “enemy” and let His chosen people take their lumps, too. Maybe we can say that the goodness of God is not in defending a particular person or nation, but in defending what’s good and right and true and just? God is willing to deconstruct what is flawed/failing, in order to build up, recreate, restore, redeem what fulfills His purposes?

  • Heather

    I want to approach this problem of God’s violence from the position of not having any view of the Bible to protect. Too often we start out feeling we have to protect some notion of how scripture ought to function, and work from there. But as best as I am able, I want to approach this without any such bias – see it for what it is. Will I see it as something worth making apologetics for or something else entirely? I’m not sure. I’m just beginning this experiment.