My column this week (see "Don't waste your poision ivy") deals with God's goodness, so it's appropriate on this page to discuss what village atheists call God's badness. How should we reply? David Lamb's God Behaving Badly (IVP, 2011) suffers from political correctness in spots and has too many cutesy section headings ("Epidurals and Combine Harvesters"). Nevertheless, when a wise-in-his-own-eyes sophomore wants to undermine another's faith in the Bible by snide questions-"Why is God smiting?" or "What's this don't-mix-wool-and-linens thing?"-some of Lamb's explanations may be useful. (I'm not saying they're definitive.)
For example, when Lamb discusses Uzzah's punishment for putting his hand on the ark when oxen stumbled (2 Samuel 6), he notes that the ark should never have been on an ox cart in the first place: Israelites were supposed to carry it as other peoples carried thrones on which kings sat, but "carts and wagons were for things. ... Placing the ark on a cart was an insult. ... They were in essence saying the ark was cargo," and they were treating it as the Philistines did. (Others, of course, exegete this passage and those below differently.)
Why did Elisha call out the bears when some kids called him "baldie"? Lamb exegetes the 2 Kings 2 passage and concludes that "this was not harmless teasing by a group of preschoolers, but serious taunting by a pack of teens. It is reasonable to assume that Elisha's life was in danger." (Besides, Lamb says the bears' attack on these teenagers was violent but not fatal.) Four chapters later, Elisha stands up against the desire of the king to slaughter captured Syrians; instead, he tells the king to prepare a feast for the captives, and the result is peace.
Another oft-questioned passage is the one in Numbers 15 where God commands that a man who gathered sticks on the Sabbath be put to death. Lamb asks, "What kind of a God would send someone to death for gathering sticks for a fire?" He then explains, "The supposedly innocent stick gatherer would have known that he was committing a crime with a punishment of death. ... Yahweh decided not to be lenient at this point, lest a precedent be set for rebellion. ... The man's lack of trust in God's provision is shocking, considering he had been supernaturally fed with manna each day since they left Egypt."
And what about that Deuteronomy 22 prohibition on wearing clothes made of interwoven wool and linen? Lamb notes the difficulty of understanding cultural context by writing, "Imagine how advice given in a 2010 sermon about lust would sound to a reader in the year 5010: 'Don't buy Sports Illustrated in early February, and avoid the red-light district.' Most males today understand that the SI swimsuit issue comes out right after the Super Bowl and that in a certain section of town they can expect to find prostitutes"-but will that make sense in 3,000 years?
Lamb adds, "Commentators suggest that the wool and linen command might be connected to practices of magic, so an equivalent command might be, 'Don't play with a Ouija board,' or it may have to do with prostitution." Commentators make other suggestions as well: The purpose of the holiness code could be merely to induce holy separation from surrounding sinfulness. In any event, here's what's crucial: The precepts of the Lord are good.
Ron Miller's Sellout: Musings from Uncle Tom's Porch (Xulon, 2010) shows how Miller looked beyond standard African-American politics and became a black Christian conservative. Liberals who don't want others to follow Miller's path contribute to the problems: Juan Williams decries that in Muzzled: The Assault on Honest Debate (Crown, 2011).
I think he's wrong, but those looking for a defense of theistic evolution might read Denis Alexander's Creation or Evolution: Do We Have to Choose? (Monarch, 2008). Readers who love reminiscences of growing up in the rural south might enjoy Homer Myers' Homer's Porch (WinePress, 2011).