I cringed when I got this book from the library.
I cringed because the librarian who checked it out for me is a tiny little grandmotherly Christian woman, and I could see her peering at the cover in confusion. It occurred to me that, to her, the book I was picking out could very well be an atheist paean that ended in an affirmative YES to all of those questions in the title, and I didn’t know quite how to explain to her that this was indeed a book meant to affirm and assist believers.
I settled for blurting out “God bless you!” as I left and thinking that I probably hadn’t done anything at all to help her confusion.
But for all that, I’m glad I got the book. I came to it first via Laura Martin’s review over at Enough Light; the title alone was interest to intrigue me, and her words about it encouraged me that this might be a useful and interesting text. She was right; this is worth reading, especially for Christians who find themselves bewildered by some of the more troubling/bizarre passages of the Old Testament.
The goal of the book is simple. David Lamb is a scholar who wants to push back against popular culture and secular portrayals of God as…well, as angry, sexist, and racist. If you’re not already aware, the idea of God as all of those things – as a hateful figure who embodies absolute bigotry – is actually pretty prevalent in many learned circles. And though that concept of God is a straw man argument at its very heart, Lamb seems to understand that such a portrayal of God makes us uncomfortable not just because we know it to be false, but because – if we’re honest – a lot of us have no idea how to handle or explain some of God’s behavior in the Old Testament.
Think back, if you will, to the story of Elisha cursing the youths for making fun of his baldness. Or the story of Tamar’s rape and ruin – and her response to it. And what about all those rules for women? And those times God wiped out massive swathes of people on Israel’s behalf?
A lot of believers don’t know what to make of moments like these. In the best-case scenario we often ignore or gloss over them, even as we quietly wonder what in the world that’s doing in Scripture. And in the worst cases, misinterpretations of these passages can be used as a justification for unacceptable behavior or ideologies. But Lamb is willing to take many of these stories on, and to contextualize them for us and tease out the depth and the meaning behind them.
And context really is the name of the game here: cultural-historical context and context within Scripture. Within the broader confines of a spiritual story, or with a deeper understanding of a culture’s mores and values and ways of living, we can see that those “bizarre” moments in the Old Testament that defy our contemporary sensibility often make sense, have thoughtful reasoning behind them, and serve a meaningful purpose. Spoiler alert: Lamb comes to the conclusion that God is not, indeed, angry, sexist, or racist. But the way in which he does so speaks to a problem that many people – including believers! – have with reading the Bible: we all too often read it piecemeal, cherrypicking what we like (or what we don’t) and making wild extrapolations from it, and reading it with disregard for any cultural, historical, or social context.
My only real struggle with the book is that it necessarily functions as a survey and so, in some cases, doesn’t have the depth that I’d wish for. Lamb is looking at a lot of accusations against God, and a lot of moments in Scripture, and because of that he is necessarily limited in the degree to which he can examine each accusation. This is a shame, because he’s a wonderful, conversational writer with a heavy and evident background in Old Testament scholarship and an ability to really dig deep into the heart of the Bible. I found myself wishing as I read that he’d written a whole book on the Elisha story alone, or spent four or five chapters discussing God’s treatment of women. But this isn’t a fault of his writing by any means. It’s just a necessary function of the book.
If you are one of those Christians who gets uncomfortable when God is accused of being angry, sexist, or racist, this book will do a lot to spell out to you why you’re uncomfortable and how to approach that discomfort. If you’re ever been absolutely bewildered by the Old Testament or God’s behavior in it (or found it to be seemingly contradictory to who you know God to be), then this will be an excellent starting point. In the end, all of us have the tendency to project a lot onto the Old Testament – but a proper reading of it will show how thoughtful, how loving, and how compassionate God really is and will also go a long way in dispelling our erroneous notions about Him and about the Biblical figures we think we know so well.
So if it sounds like something you’d like, pick up a copy! Just be prepared to confuse your librarian when you do.