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.
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).