God Behaving Badly 6

God Behaving Badly 6 June 6, 2011

Is the God of the Old Testament a legalist? David Lamb, in his excellent book, God Behaving Badly: Is the God of the Old Testament Angry, Sexist and Racist?, probes into this question by examining how the God of the Old Testament (and New Testament) is depicted when it comes to giving laws.

The caricatures abound, from H.L. Mencken’s view that a Puritan was someone who lived with the fear that someone out there might be happy, or the nuns on The Simpsons who are singing “if you’re happy and you know it, it’s a sin.” Laws are demands, and boring, and oppressive. So laws means legalism. [Actually, there are lots of folks saying things like this.]

How should we envision the God who gives laws? What terms come to mind?

David Lamb disarms this by saying the first two commands in the Bible are “have lots of sex” and “eat lots of food.” Read Genesis 1 and you’ll find just this. David also contends that it was Satan who first dreamed up the idea that God’s laws indicate that God is mean, stingy and legalistic. Read Genesis 3.

What struck me about this chp is the reminder that God is good and laws are given by a Good God for the good of God’s people. [He says we should not be asking why bad things happen to good people but why good things happen to bad people, and his point is that no one is good.]

He sketches the many laws, the random laws and the harsh laws — again observing that Mosaic laws (there are many) are not random or harsh but pointed into specific contexts and are redemptive in their time.

He brings up the notorious Numbers 15 text where a man is put to death for gathering kindling wood on the Sabbath. Again, the issue here is the sanctity of the Sabbath and the value of the Sabbath for YHWH. The problem, of course, is the seeming randomness of death … and that is where his previous points have value (at least they do for me): God is good, death is judgment, God is incredibly patient so that random death seem so arbitrary.

But this post is about legalism — God is good; God’s goodness is such that God reveals to us what God wants from us. Commands then are a sign of God’s goodness, not his oppressiveness (though many today think they are). Psalm 119 is the world of the Bible: a lengthy praise of God for giving us commands. David calls it “ordinance lust.”

His confession: “I’ve tried to live by the conviction that God is good, generous and gracious, and he gives commands not because he’s legalistic but because he wants to bless people and draw them closer into relationship with him” (134).

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Susan N.

    I’m so glad the stick-gathering incident (Num. 15:32-36) was mentioned in this post. In this chapter, that is a huge tripping point for me.

    Keeping the law of resting on the sabbath was so important to God that he was willing for the rest of the congregation to break another law — “thou shalt not kill” — on the same sabbath day? “And the Lord said to Moses, ‘The man shall be put to death; all the congregation shall stone him with stones outside the camp.'”

    Here’s Jesus, speaking to the Pharisees: “Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to kill?” This was in response to his disciples picking wheat on the Sabbath, and Jesus healing. The Pharisees wanted to have Jesus stoned for breaking the law, if I’m not mistaken.

    I don’t mind admitting here that if I felt God was commanding me to kill someone for breaking His Law, I would certainly question whether it was really God speaking to me (scary!).

    I do believe wholly in God’s goodness, mostly because of the knowledge I have of Christ. In the OT, we have stories of a peoples’ understanding of what God was telling them. In Jesus, we are a witness to God incarnate. Walking and talking directly to people, we note the absence of commands to kill or otherwise act violently toward another person.

    God’s laws are good…unless He tells you to break them (stone a lawbreaker to death)?

  • Jon G

    Susan’s points are valid. I’ll be curious to see if they are addressed in the book.

    On a different note, looking at God’s laws, it seems that you could take them two ways. Either seem them as restrictive (I can’t do this and I have to do that) or liberating (I GET to do this, or I’m FREE to do that). An analogy that has always worked for me – A fish is LIMITED by the water it swims in, however, by staying within those limits, it is FREED UP to be the most fishy it can be.

    The point? The law FREES US UP to make full flourishing possible by limiting our destructive choices.

  • Tim

    The Law in the OT is presented as coming from God with its ultimate purpose to secure his people in a covenantal relationship with him. Every Biblically-literate devout Christian as well as secular scholar knows this. But does referencing this purpose provide an adequate defense against legalism, or should we take a look at the actual laws and their implementation as well? Now, I know David Lamb does the latter, so I am not suggesting otherwise. But what I am concerned with is that by picking a smattering of “solveable” OT laws, he can reinforce his thesis that the OT is not legalistic while there exists no shortage of laws that suggest the opposite conclusion.

    But I would like to ask, what would even qualify as legalism? Could somebody please give an answer to that question? Again, my concern is that the operating definition will be continually tweaked to practically include nothing in the OT. So think on this ahead of time, what sort of laws would qualify as legalistic? With that in mind, let’s look at Leviticus 12:1-5:

    “The LORD said to Moses, “Say to the Israelites: ‘A woman who becomes pregnant and gives birth to a son will be ceremonially unclean for seven days, just as she is unclean during her monthly period. On the eighth day the boy is to be circumcised. Then the woman must wait thirty-three days to be purified from her bleeding. She must not touch anything sacred or go to the sanctuary until the days of her purification are over. If she gives birth to a daughter, for two weeks the woman will be unclean, as during her period. Then she must wait sixty-six days to be purified from her bleeding.”

    Now, a woman is unclean for twice the time if she gives birth to a girl than a boy. Why? What aspect of this law brings the covenental people closer to God? What aspect of this law is for the people’s own welfare perhaps? Now, I’m referring specifically to the doubling here in the time unclean with respect to birthing a female infant.

    How about this one?

    Deuteronomy 23:2

    “Those born of an illicit union shall not be admitted to the assembly of the LORD. Even to the tenth generation, none of their descendants shall be admitted to the assembly of the LORD”

    Wow, for 10 generations. That’s a long line of “sons” who pay for the indiscretion of their father.

    Now, I didn’t even pick the laws about killing or maiming or any such thing. These are PG-rated laws. But are thy legalistic? If not, why? What would make them legalistic? Is the Koran legalistic then? Is anything else? Is the defense against legalism really found in a ground-up honest look at the OT laws, or is it imposed top-down via a “conclusion” that the OT laws are for beneficial and covenantal purposes with each and every law interpreted in light of that “conclusion”? If the latter, then does such an approach even engage the arguments of the “critics”, or more or less step around them?

  • Tim, great points as usual. So much apologetic effort seems to go into redefining fairly common terms (legalism, love, justice) when having these discussions that one wonders if our words have any conceptual utility at all any more.

    For all obvious observances, these religious rules, covenant demands, sacred behaviours, cultural norms of whatever term you wish to place on them all fit my definition of legalism.

    Jesus’ inclusivity must be contrasted with much of the OT cultural observances. Why? Because the contrast is obvious like an elephant… in the linen cupboard. Changing the meaning of words is a rather unconvincing sidestep.

  • Susan, #1: Students asked me about the stick gatherer passage (Num. 15) in the middle of class one time and I didn’t have a good answer. This chapter is my attempt to give a better answer, but it’s still a brutal text.

    Jon, #2: I like the analogy, perhaps with the slight modification that God’s limits keep pushing us back into a place of closer dependence on him (so he’s in the fish tank with us?).

    Tim, #3: That’s a great point, that there are a lot of other “unsolvable” texts that appear to undermine my thesis. Although by choosing Num 15, I intentionally picked an example that isn’t easily solvable, one that is notoriously problematic. I didn’t have time or space to cover all the problematic OT, and even if I write a sequel, I won’t be able to cover them because there are so many. In the book I try to pick a few examples and give people tools to work through them. I’m sure theists, agnostics and atheists will all come to different conclusions on these texts, because we all approach the text with differing suppositions.

  • Tim

    David Lamb@5,

    Thank you for your reply, and I hope you saw my apology on the last thread for my caustic tone.

    With respect to your response in #5, I have a couple things to note. First, violating anything “sacred” in the OT has a ready explanation, so I don’t myself consider Numbers 15 difficult to resolve within the ANE concept of the sacred, and how serious that was.

    Out of curiosity, is Num 15 considered a “problem” passage in more in Biblical scholarly circles or lay ones? I would guess the latter. In that instance, tackling what the laity perceive as problems when there are ready answers in the scholarly community could be like shooting fish in the barrel.

    With respect to your comment:

    “I’m sure theists, agnostics and atheists will all come to different conclusions on these texts, because we all approach the text with differing suppositions.”

    To me, this seems like the pat Presuppositionalist conversation-killer we often hear from Evangelical circles, particularly among Fundamentalists (which I am sure you are not of the latter). In fact, it really fits the profile of the thought-killing cliche. So to add to “God’s ways are not our ways”, and “The wisdom of God is the foolishness of man”, we can add “Well, we all come to this with different presuppositions.” Such statement don’t facilitate either conversation or thought, in fact, just the opposite. Preferable to this would be to identify where common ground may exist among the varying presuppositions, and try to work from there. Or alternatively, try to identify the role varying presuppositions may play, and work through how they impact the conclusions, addressing arguments as to warrant or backward-reasoning in the process.

  • Susan N.

    David Lamb @ #5 – thanks for affirming the ongoing difficulties of the Numbers 15 passage. I can certainly appreciate the perspective from a scholarly position that there is not a short, simple answer here, which kind of makes a case against “proof-texting” or pitting the OT against the NT in trying to understand the nature of God.

    I like some of what is presented in subsequent chapters which offered me a means of holding together the OT Yahweh with the NT Jesus.

    This stick-gathering and stoning on the Sabbath passage by itself just disturbs me. God’s Laws = good for me. Obey God’s Laws = everybody’s happy/blessed. Except for the guy who got stoned to death. So, if I were a member of the congregation being commanded by the Prophet Moses to participate in the stoning, I would have been a sinful rebel for refusing to execute God’s command to kill the offender. Yet, if in breaking the Sabbath law of rest, the stick-gatherer jeopardized his own good/blessedness as well as the obedience and blessed status of the whole group, I question what it did to God’s people to kill another human being. What must the brutality of the act of stoning do to a person’s soul? I can’t see how that could have been good for a person’s spiritual well-being. Aaacckk!

  • Tim, @6. I did see the apology. Thanks for that.

    Num 15 isn’t as problematic for biblical scholars because they approach the text as an object of study and aren’t concerned as much to justify God’s “inappropriate” behavior. Lay people would be more concerned about Num. 15 if they ever got around to reading Numbers, but the book is generally ignored.

    My final comment this morning comment wasn’t intended to shut down the conversation, but just to acknowledge the perspectival nature of these interactions. As a Christian, I have a bias, I’m trying to make God’s behavior less problematic. As an atheist, Richard Dawkins is trying to make God’s behavior more problematic (although Dawkins likes Jesus, he had an “Atheists for Jesus t-shirt). I love interaction about these texts (but this will probably be my last comment today, I’m procrastinating on other projects).

  • Tim

    David Lamb@8,

    Again, thank you for your response. With respect to Num 15, I would again say that profaning the sacred from an ANE point of view does quite often entail harsh punishment. What judgement would we expect if an Israeite stolled into the temple and took a load off on the Ark of the Covenant? Again, profaning the sacred is a serious violation, so profaning the Sabbath woud be a serious offense. I don’t see how this passage is difficut to resove from a Biblical point of view that recognizes how serious issues of sacred and profane were to the Israeli people (as they were to other cultures in the ANE).

    Moving on to your discussion of bias. We can of course all agree that we all approach knowledge, including interpretation of the Biblical text, with bias. However, within Evangelical circles it is not uncommon to recognize this basic fact and then use that as a justification for maintaining bias in one’s understanding and arguments. While bias is never escapable, in many scenarios there are methods to attempt to mitigate bias’ influence with respect to attaining a more accurate understanding of reality.

    I would argue that while your bias may be in favor of justifying “problematic” OT passages, and Dawkin’s bias may be in favor of representing such passages as even more “probematic” than they are, there is no reason to expect that one has to take one of these two positions. The Biblical scholar can take the possition of attempting to understand the passages in their original cultural context (insofar as we can ascertain) and go from there.

    Take the ANE concept of herem for instance. Any intellectually honest scholar should recognize that the concept is at play in many of the conquest texts in the OT. Why should such recognition demand a maximizing or mimizing of how “problematic” such passages may be for devout Christians? The interpretation could be merely descriptive, and not apologetic or anti-apologetic.

    So, I would argue that in conversations such as these, one could attempt to make their argument to the ideal, though of course never realized, “impartial observer.” Someone who has not taken up a priori positions for or against what is being discussed, but is looking to the conversational participants to inform his or her views. If you think about it, this really is how most discussions follwoing the best form in civil discourse proceed. You don’t demand ahead of time that people agree or disagree with your presuppositions or bias, rather you seek to build arguments from the ground up based on what a reasonable, impartial third party would find convincing.

    So, what would a reasonable, impartial observer think of the OT? Would they understand the “problem” passages as immoral or what have you, or alternatively would the Biblical apologist’s arguments hold water for them? This is the audience that shoud and MUST be addressed if you intend on having an meaningful discussion outside the bounds of just “preaching to the choir” so to speak.

  • DRT

    Having consumed this chapter, this post and the responses I still feel god is legalistic (may he not smite me with lightning) in the text. Perhaps I see this incorrectly, but engaging in legalistic behavior is legalistic even if you do it for the purpose of getting them to love you more and be closer to you.

  • DRT, can we not engage in loving behavior which, to those who don’t know God’s steadfast love, appears legalistic? ISTM that the more we love others as God loves others, the more naturally we rejoice in doing what matches the law. We lovingly discipline our kids because we know, even in our imperfect knowledge, (some of) the outcomes of their behavior that they cannot assess. (Gal. 3:19-ff.)

  • DRT

    Ann F-R, I get the parent analogy. I also think that there are some things, like ritual worship or something like that, that can be expressions of love and closeness. But if we were to pull an arm from a child for not following our rules then we would have stepped over the line.

    I suppose it is possible that the only thing the people would learn from is legalistic behavior, but then the answer to the question is a yes, god is being legalistically but we don’t know why exactly. Just as our parenting could be legalistic, but we engage in it anyway.

    As far as the Psalm 119:134, ISTM that confused subjects of a legalistic parent/king/leader/god would have a choice to learn to like the legalism or to be miserable. If feels like the Psalmist is engaged in some advanced form of rationalization…