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God Behaving Badly: Is the God of the Old Testament Angry, Sexist and Racist?

David T. Lamb
Published by InterVarsity Press in 2011

Jesus Behaving Badly: The Puzzling Paradoxes of the Man from Galilee

Mark L. Strauss
Published by InterVarsity Press in 2015

Paul Behaving Badly: Was the Apostle a Racist, Chauvinist Jerk?

E. Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O’Brien
Published by InterVarsity Press in 2016

In his Explanatory Notes upon the Old Testament, the eighteenth-century founder of Methodism, John Wesley, strove for biblical commentary that penetrated deeply yet remained concise and clear. Discontent with mere intellectual insights, Wesley yearned to assist the “learned and unlearned” to understand better God’s ways so that they would progress in joy and character development that overflowed from knowing God and Jesus. Through his commentary, Wesley invited spiritual pilgrims of every educational level to cultivate their capacity to love God with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength.1

InterVarsity Press, in its recently published Behaving Badly trilogy, proceeds in a similar spirit. Prompted by modern Marcions, New Atheists, and other challenges of the Bible, as well as by honest bewilderment articulated by friendlier scripture-readers, the Behaving Badly books wrestle with thorny controversies pertaining to the character, words, and actions of God, Jesus, and the Apostle Paul in the Bible. Each book, at just over two hundred pages, translates biblical ethics for contemporary readers who perceive the Bible’s “hard teachings” (John 6:60) as perplexing or repugnant.2

David T. Lamb, the academic dean at Biblical Theological Seminary in Hat- field, PA, initiates the series with God Behaving Badly: Is the God of the Old Testament Angry, Sexist, and Racist? Mark L. Strauss, university professor of New Testament at Bethel Seminary in San Diego, pens Jesus Behaving Badly: The Puzzling Paradoxes of the Man from Galilee. And Palm Beach Atlantic University Provost E. Randolph Richards teams with his former student Brandon J. O’Brien, now Director of Content Development and Distribution for Redeemer City to City in New York City, for Paul Behaving Badly: Was the Apostle a Racist, Chauvinist Jerk? Richards and O’Brien conclude the series for now, though one easily imagines future titles such as John Behaving Badly: Revelation on Fire, Judgment, and New Creation or Peter Behaving Badly: Pulling No Punches with the Original “Rocky.”

The present essay surveys the Behaving Badly books, then proposes where each is effective or merits further discussion or revision. We begin with God Behaving Badly. Lamb acknowledges in his introduction:

While the God of the Old Testament does get angry, what characterizes him is love. While he may seem sexist, he is highly affirming of women. While he may seem racist, he is hospitable to all people. … As the rest of this book will show, the Bible supports these conclusions. (15)

Lamb outlines seven dichotomies surrounding God’s reputation in the Old Testament. Is God angry or loving, sexist or affirming, racist or hospitable, violent or peaceful, legalistic or gracious, rigid or flexible, distant or near? Lamb reveals how some of these descriptors distort God’s character, while others illumine each other. On anger, Lamb investigates why God was angry with Moses and with Balaam, why God decided to strike Uzzah dead in II Samuel 6, and why God killed Egyptians in Exodus and Canaanites in the Promised Land. Chapter 3, on gender, analyzes Adam and Eve in Genesis 1-3, Lot’s family in Genesis 18, and other biblical laws regarding, and depictions of, women. Chapters 4 and 5 handle Noah’s “Ham curse,” slavery, the Canaanites again, God-fearers outside Israel, the prophet Elisha letting a bear loose on hostile youths, and an angel slaughtering an Assyrian army. Chapters 6-8 look at superficially strange Hebrew laws, then at the Psalms of lament and how God can be dependable if God’s heart or mind can change.

Jesus Behaving Badly confronts “puzzling and seemingly offensive things that Jesus said and did, and tries to make sense of them. What we just might find is that when Jesus is at his most difficult, he is also at his most profound” (14). Strauss asks if Jesus was a revolutionary or pacifist, angry or loving, environmentalist or earth scorcher, legalist or grace-filled, hellfire preacher or gentle shepherd, anti-family or family friendly, racist or inclusivist, sexist or egalitarian, anti-Semitic or not, failed prophet or victorious king, decaying corpse or resurrected Lord?

Chapters 1-4 trace Jesus’s conflicts with religious leaders in the Gospels. Strauss examines Jesus’s teachings on sword bearing and peacemaking, Jesus cursing a fig tree, Jesus casting demons into swine, Jesus clearing the temple, and a biblical vision for restoring a broken world. Chapter 5 interacts with Jesus preaches “Be perfect … as your heavenly father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48) in light of his grace-filled parables.3 Strauss addresses Jesus on wealth, poverty, family, hell, Jews, Gentiles, and women, as well as Jesus’s use of hyperbole. Chapters 11 and 12 focus on Jesus’s resurrection and prophecies.

Paul Behaving Badly jettisons dichotomy rhetoric, preferring direct inquiry into whether (or how) the Apostle Paul was a jerk, killjoy, racist, assenter to or supporter of slavery, chauvinist, homophobe, hypocrite, or scripture twister. Richards and O’Brien note that the Bible presents God and Jesus as perfectly divine, but the Apostle Paul as a fallible human being. Nevertheless, dismissing Paul’s letters would be irresponsible if they are divinely inspired. The authors insist that reading Paul rightly will offend many sensibilities, but for reasons that often differ from what numerous readers suppose.

Chapter 1 explores why Paul was so zealous in certain contexts but humble in others. Chapters 2 and 7 endeavor to reconcile Paul’s “keeping up appearances” while elsewhere counseling joyful freedom. Chapter 3 appraises Paul’s language on “lazy Cretans, stupid Galatians, and Jewish dogs.” Chapters 4 and 5 contrast Paul’s guidance on slavery and gender with other pronouncements and sentiments from his era. Chapter 6 nuances biblical proscriptions of homosexuality. Chapter 8 probes Paul’s education, training, and methods for interpreting and applying the Old Testament.

Richards and O’Brien concede that the Bible portrays Paul as acting wrongly, mistaken, or misinformed in one of Paul’s disputes with Barnabas and also in Acts 15:36-41, 21:4-12, and Acts 20:22-25 in tension with I Timothy 1:3 (29-31, 194). Still, they summon readers to imitate much in Paul’s ministry. Paul “might cause us to wince on occasion … [but] we want to imitate him as he imitated Christ” (197).

Strengths and Limitations of the Series

The current section evaluates several distinguishing traits of the Behaving Badly series. First, kudos to the authors for tackling potentially distressing “sayings and doings” by God, Jesus, and the Apostle Paul. They provide a valuable service by engaging both hostile and constructive questions from people who are antagonistic toward Christianity, as well as from spiritual seekers and Christians. Readers who object to parts of the Bible for moral reasons may find their hearts softened and minds renewed through a more holistic comprehension of passages that they first experienced as disturbing or enigmatic.

Second, the Behaving Badly books invigorate interfaith dialogue or “Scriptural Reasoning” for people from different religious traditions and backgrounds when they study each other’s sacred texts together. Readers may recognize new insights, discover their joy and love for God refreshed, and develop a more robust appreciation for biblical wisdom, as the Ethiopian eunuch did after replying to Philip’s query regarding whether he understood Isaiah 53: “How can I, unless someone guides me?” (Acts 8:31).

Third, most chapters incorporate endnotes, anecdotes, literary or historical vignettes, and references to media and popular culture. Lamb and Strauss append group study questions. Richards and O’Brien omit discussion questions, but insert sidebars to demonstrate the Bible’s continuing relevance. All of these render fruits of scholarship palatable for the “learned or unlearned,” from thoughtful teenagers to university faculty.

Fourth, in a few instances, the authors need to document quotes or corroborating evidence for provocative claims. Strauss opens three chapters by only partially attributing five of his quotations (9, 15, 74). Richards and O’Brien furnish no source for contending that Luther’s “line of thought” in citing Moses “inspired the enterprising young Adolph Hitler to … consigning Jews of Europe to ‘work’ in concentration camps” (57; see also 42, 71).4

Fifth, comedy in the Behaving Badly books may fluster readers unaccustomed to sarcasm, satire, or playfulness when studying the Bible. Well-placed waggishness and wordplay lend themselves to stylish academic writing. Yet some readers will be less amused by Lamb construing lex talionis as “an eye for an eye, a wedgie for a wedgie” (105), Strauss making puns about beheading (18-19), or Richards and O’Brien observing wryly: “Paul has Timothy circumcised (Acts 16:3). This is a bummer for Timothy who was old enough that he would not soon forget this procedure” (158). One could counter that only those with misplaced priorities would take umbrage at such cheeky livening of tough topics. The Bible itself is witty at times.5 Facilitators and venders should nevertheless take into account the semi-adult humor when recommending the books for Bible studies, book clubs, classrooms, libraries, retreats, or seminars.

The theme of perception by various readers leads to a sixth point on diversity. Each Behaving Badly author to date is a male professor at an evangelical university or seminary in the United States. How (and what?) might authors or audiences from alternative backgrounds highlight as baffling biblical behavior? The global Church would benefit from voices around the world sharing what is nettlesome in their societies and how they respond productively.

Seventh, Straus occasionally obscures matters for people who are less familiar with skeptical biblical scholarship. He comments on Gospel reports that the Roman authorities placed a sign inscribed “King of the Jews” above Jesus on the cross: “Most scholars consider this to be a historically reliable tradition” (23). Strauss writes elsewhere: “Almost all scholars today acknowledge that Jesus shared a meal with his disciples (the Last Supper) during which he instituted a ritual meal that the church continued to practice after him. … [I Corinthians 11] confirms that we are dealing with very old tradition, likely going back to Jesus himself” (169-710; see also 20, 25, 64, 189). Strauss’s phrasing implies that these biblical records, and by insinuation others, are vulnerable to scholarly verification. If the Lord’s Supper “likely” goes back to Jesus, is other New Testament testimony central to historic Christianity less likely or unlikely to do so? The manner of appeal to critical scholarship here disorients and distracts.

We turn now to how the Behaving Badly books select and approach specific Bible passages. First, God Behaving Badly. On Genesis 1-2, Lamb unpacks how women, as individuals and in partnership with men, uniquely manifest the Divine image. He then remarks on Genesis 3, “If the woman was portrayed negatively and the man positively, we could reasonably argue … a precedent for biblical sexism. However … both sinned and both looked bad here” (54-55).

Lamb likewise regards racism as “blasphemous, since the Bible first informs us that the people of each and every ethnicity resemble God himself” (72-73). He elaborates on how biblical genealogies illustrate the essential kinship of all humanity, and how an inebriated Noah (not God) targeted an individual or “generation” (74) rather than a race or ethnicity in Noah’s curse of Canaan. Lamb adds that the Old Testament commends foreign exemplars, including Canaanites, while rebuking or punishing wicked Israelites.

Lamb underscores where God in the Old Testament decrees love and justice for sojourners (such as Exodus 22-23, Leviticus 19:33, Deuteronomy 23-24 and 27, Ezekiel 22, Zechariah 7:10, Malachi 3:5). Previewing Jesus in the New Testament, some of the ancient Israelites showed love for their enemies, a portion of whom were foreign. Lamb cites Exodus 23:4-5, Proverbs 25:21, Isaiah 2:4, Jeremiah 29:7, Jonah 3, Micah 4:3, King David’s treatment of Saul (not to mention David with “the fool” Nabal), Elisha and an unnamed Israelite slave girl to Naaman the Syrian, and Elisha to the Arameans (85, 108-109, 123). Remembering Elisha’s merciful behavior in other narratives, Lamb argues that Elisha’s life was in danger before two bears mauled not a group of “harmless teasing preschoolers” (96) but an aggressive horde of young men in their late teens or twenties.

Also related to accusations of unjust wrath, Lamb describes how compassion consistent with God’s care for widows, orphans, and foreigners fueled God’s fury toward Moses in Exodus 3-4. God graciously answered Moses’s first four objections from the “burning bush,” but grew angry when Moses persisted in refusing God’s call to deliver God’s people from slavery. The Old Testament additionally speaks of God as “slow to anger” and as delaying judgment so that oppressors might repent (9, 33-35, 188).

On alleged oddities in Mosaic Law, Lamb indicates that since the vast majority of Old Testament laws are obviously good, it is reasonable to assume that seemingly strange laws spoke to particular societal dilemmas. God in the Old Testament made laws specific enough for circumstances “that he knew his people would face” (124).

Lamb concludes by celebrating the Psalms as authentic prayers that express heartache and other raw emotions to God. He praises Jesus’s use of the Psalms: “When Jesus was on the cross, he didn’t focus on a hopeful psalm or song … but on lament.” Lamb urges that at the right moments “we should too” (159).

Brevity constrains the number and depth of controversies that I (or Lamb) can address. My critique of God Behaving Badly applies to two important themes which are underemphasized in the book. First, Lamb is curiously terse regarding positive, or even neutral, portrayals of exemplary women in the Old Testament. He dedicates just one and one half pages to Deborah, Hannah, Abigail, Ruth, Esther, and two unnamed “wise women” (64-65). A book whose subtitle asks whether the Old Testament God is “angry, sexist, and racist” should attend more carefully to this matter. There is no shortage of biblical data. Genesis alone casts with varying complexity more than twenty-five women.6 One could add to these, for example, women in Exodus, such as Moses’s birth and adoptive mothers, Moses’s sister Miriam, and his wife Zipporah; the woman of character in Proverbs 31; and lesser-known individuals such as the prophetess Huldah (II Kings 22, II Chronicles 34).

Second, Lamb devotes just over two pages to Sodom, Lot, and Lot’s daughters in Genesis 19, which many atheists cite along with the Noahic Flood (that Lamb also neglects) to revile God as wrathful and sexist (11, 60-61).7 Lamb discerns that Genesis does not endorse Lot offering his daughters to the mob. He asserts, based on Genesis 18:23-32, “Lot wasn’t rescued because of his righteous behavior but simply because Yahweh was merciful to him, based on the intercession of his uncle Abraham” (61).

Both points are under-developed. Other scholars concur on the first, but the latter raises significant questions about whether God is “behaving badly.”8 If Lot and his daughters were not in some sense “righteous,” then how does God avoid favoritism or “racism” by sparing them but condemning all other residents of Sodom when Abraham implores God not to destroy the righteous with the wicked? On the other hand, if Lot and his daughters were somehow “righteous,” then why did they behave so outrageously?

First, Genesis never explicitly labels Lot righteous, but the fact that the heavenly visitors save him suggests that he is righteous relative to Sodom’s other occupants. According to the New Testament, which Lamb alludes to frequently throughout God Behaving Badly (on this passage, see 188), Lot was righteous by being tormented in his soul “by their lawless deeds that he saw and heard” (II Peter 2:7-8). Rather than serving as gracious hosts as do Abraham and Lot in Genesis 18 and 19, Sodom’s citizenry ventures to gang rape their visitors. No wonder the “outcry” (Genesis 18:20-22) against Sodom is so great! Gordon Wenham adds that Lot by himself courageously confronts the rabble: “‘He shut the door behind him,’ gives a clue to his thinking. By shutting the door, he cut off his own escape and hoped to protect those inside.”9 John Walton further vindicates Lot through Lot’s supplication, “Brothers, do not act so wickedly” (Genesis 19:7):

Is Lot truly offering his daughters to be gang raped and probably murdered? An alternative is that his suggestion implies more subtle, ‘I would as soon have you violate my family members as violate those whom I have taken in and offered hospitality!’ … [Lot’s rhetoric] is intended to prick the conscience of the mob. Just as they would [optimistically] not consider treating a citizen’s daughters in this way, so the same inhibitions should protect his guests.10

At the same time, Lot is morally ambiguous in Genesis 13-14, as are his daughters in Genesis 19. Nor does Lot fully escape the consequences of his actions. By the end of his story, Lot was afraid (the text does not specify why) to stay in Zoar after leaving Sodom, living with his daughters in a cave (Genesis 19:30). Lot, who in Genesis 13:10 chose to dwell in what he thought would be paradise, ends up destitute. After verbally submitting his daughters for sexual abuse, Lot becomes a victim of abuse through his daughters’ trickery. Lot’s wife amplifies Lot’s hesitancy to leave Sodom by lingering or looking back to the point of death. Because she rebuffs the heavenly visitors’ warning, she is engulfed by salty fallout.11

One sympathetic reading of Lot’s daughters is that the carnage and isolation traumatizes them. They fear they have no prospective husbands to carry on the family line, as is custom in “all the world” (19:31). Their incest doubles as an unflattering origin story for Israel’s sporadically troublesome Moabite and Ammonite neighbors (19:31-38).

If Lot and Lot’s daughters are righteous relative to their fellow residents, then their dubious coping and copulating strategies serve to accentuate Sodom’s depravity and God’s justice in destroying Sodom. Arch-New Atheist Richard Dawkins is inadvertently apropos: “If this dysfunctional family was the best Sodom had to offer … some might begin to feel a certain sympathy with God and his judicial brimstone.”12

God’s actions eloquently answer Abraham’s petition on behalf of any righteous inhabitants in Sodom, as well as Abraham’s rhetorical question, “Shall not the judge of all the earth do what is just?” (Genesis 18:25). God did not allow the comparably righteous Lot or Lot’s daughters to perish with Sodom, yet God refused to allow Sodom’s maleficence to persevere unchecked. God in these ways exercised a moral acumen in Genesis 19 at which even finite human perspectives can marvel, though the emphasis is on mortal life versus eternal reckoning.

Jesus Behaving Badly

In Jesus Behaving Badly, Mark L. Strauss helpfully outlines some ways in which Jesus was revolutionary and why Jesus spoke so harshly to the Pharisees and Sadducees or scribes. Appointed to shepherd Israel, these religious leaders recurrently operated instead as hypocrites, blind guides, and children of hell (42). Compassion energized Jesus’s antagonism toward them.

Strauss could improve his presentation by incorporating other Bible passages that elaborate on these themes. For example, in Mark 12:38-40 and Luke 20:46- 48, the scribes or teachers of the law “devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.” Jesus’s anger is appropriate and worthy of imitation as he confronts those who bilk widows under a pretense of piety.

Second, it is imperative to note that Jesus’s anger was not vindictive, but included a yearning to restore even children of hell such as these. Jesus lamented like a mother for her wayward children, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” (Matthew 23:37). F. F. Bruce fathoms the duplicity and “unwillingness” that these teachers of the law display in attributing Jesus’s healings to Satanic empowerment (Mark 3:29):

to avert disaster, “they would not have anyone ‘play the judge’ (v. 9), an eerie echo of the erstwhile appellative, ‘Judge of all the earth’ (18:25).”
12Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2006), 241.

If some people looked at the relief which [Jesus] was bringing to the bodies and minds of men and women and maintained that he was doing so with the help of their great spiritual oppressor, the prince of the demons, then their eyes were so tightly closed to the light that for them light had become darkness and good had become evil. The light is there for those who will accept it, but if some refuse the light, where else can they hope to receive illumination?13

Third, Strauss implies that in the “cleansing of the temple” Jesus implicated the temple leadership as a “den of robbers,” but less likely intended to denounce the sellers and moneychangers for extorting or charging exorbitant prices (50). However, this need not be an either-or proposition. Jesus in John 2:16 rebukes those selling doves to the poor: “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” (see Leviticus 5:7). The moneychangers and sellers of cattle, sheep, and doves were wrangling in the only temple space available for non-Jews to worship.14 Even if some parties were more blameworthy than others, one could responsibly infer that the temple leaders, moneychangers, and sellers were collectively complicit in violating Isaiah 56:7 that designated God’s temple as a house of prayer for all nations. The Gospels also apprise that the sellers, buyers, and animals were among those who fled Jesus’s whip. The Gospels do not depict physical harm or injury in this scene, but if the people Jesus reprimanded were not at fault, Jesus would be subject to accusations of misdirected ire.

Strauss concurrently analyzes Jesus “cursing” a fig tree and acquiescing to a demonic entreaty to infest a herd of pigs. Was Jesus cruel to plants and animals? In the first instance, Strauss sees Jesus enacting a symbolic parable drawing on prophetic Old Testament fig imagery to illustrate God’s judgment against Israel’s fruitlessness and “failure to respond to God’s word” (68). He also defends Jesus as reasonably expecting some fruit even prior to a later lusher “season for figs” (Mark 11:13). “(Ficus carica) generally produces two crops a year … ‘early figs’ … are harder and less edible … [yet] Jesus … at Passover in the Spring … looks for some of the early fruit” (68). Strauss leaves out at least one justification for why Jesus was not “throwing a low-blood-sugar-induced Monday morning tantrum against an innocent tree” (68). Some scholars interpret Jesus not as causing but as predicting the tree’s death.15 A proper translation of Jesus’s words to the tree would then be, “you will never bear fruit again.”

As for dealing with the demons, Strauss states that Jesus held in mind mitigating factors: “The death of the pigs likely sends [the demons] to the very place of captivity they feared the most—the Abyss. … Ancient peoples viewed the sea as a place of chaos, darkness, and destruction … the demons get what they deserve. Jesus agrees to their request, but it ultimately leads to their demise” (60-61).

Strauss next puts forward what some might construe as a technicality: “Jesus did not kill the pigs, the demons did. … God is at war with Satan, and there are casualties in this war … this world is a fallen place” (61). Did Jesus not know that the demons would devastate the pigs? Richard Swinburne is among those who support a third option: Jesus in this instance may have faced a quandary between saving human or animal life.16

Finally, we must take account of how Jesus’s compassion contrasts with the local townspeople. F. F. Bruce is again incisive: “The man who was in the place of the dead (and surely would soon die) is delivered … the townsfolk miss the point when they see only their loss of pigs and fail to see the delivered man.”17 Scrupulous contemplation of the Bible passages above intuitively reduces notions that Jesus was behaving badly here.

Paul Behaving Badly

In Paul Behaving Badly, Richards and O’Brien are erudite in exegeting Paul’s teachings about law and grace, gender and sexuality, joy, and Christian faithfulness. My first critique of Paul Behaving Badly is a lack of clarity about the authors’ theory of scriptural inspiration. If Paul as a Christian misheard the Holy Spirit in Acts 21, why should readers have confidence that Paul’s canonical writings communicate the Holy Spirit accurately? Moreover, if God “worked within” the biblical authors’ ancient comprehensions of the cosmos (17), what tools should contemporary readers employ to extract the nourishing wheat from chaff? Paul Behaving Badly is comparatively quiet concerning these controversies, though Richards and O’Brien inspect Paul’s hermeneutical method (166-90) along with ethical trajectories in Paul’s writings (105, 120, 138-140, 208).

Two Bible verses that many Christians cite to affirm God’s inspiration of the New Testament are II Peter 3:16, that classifies Paul’s letters with “the other scriptures,” and II Timothy 3:15-16, that christens the Holy Scriptures as “able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.” It is unfortunate that Paul Behaving Badly is without even a pithy explanation of Paul’s inspiration. II Timothy 3:15-16, from the Pauline corpus, is absent from Richards and O’Brien’s scripture index (223). They cite II Peter 3:16, but only in a truncated form to recall that Paul’s letters contain “some things that are hard to understand” (13).

Since Richards and O’Brien cast doubt on Paul’s reliability in Acts 15 and 20- 21, their audience would profit from indications of why and how God inspired Paul’s letters, and to what end. If God inspired Paul, Paul’s writings reflect on God. If God did not inspire some or any of Paul’s teachings, the stakes are lower in defending and emulating Paul. This deficiency in Richards and O’Brien’s discussion threatens the practical and theological urgencies of their book.

My second critique of Paul Behaving Badly is that in at least two locations Richards and O’Brien mislead selective readers or browsers. They write under a subheading entitled, “What did Paul really say?”, “Paul even appears to encourage slaves to remain slaves and not to pursue freedom: ‘Let each of you remain in the condition in which you were called. Were you a slave when called? Do not be concerned about it’” (77). They postpone quoting the rest of the verse to eight pages and two subsections later: “although if you can gain your freedom do so” (85). This is not a trivial delay for clarifying what Paul really did say about slavery.

Furthermore, in “Was Paul a Chauvinist?,” Richards and O’Brien initially wield the Bible to construct a cumulative case against Paul for representing women as less virtuous, less intelligent, and “quite simply, lesser … categorically … than men” (103-104). They cushion this slightly with modifiers such as “suggests” and “give the impression” (97-105), then compare Paul’s expressions with worse misogyny expressed by others of his era (106-109). The problem with this arrangement is that Richards and O’Brien write at first as though they endorse their opening salvo against Paul, thereby diverging from more tactfully anticipating (or sympathizing with) protests as they do in other chapters. Immediately following this with how other people were worse reinforces notions that Paul was a chauvinist indeed, just not as severe as were some of his contemporaries! Reading the chapter to the end will amend this perception. Even so, students and others who thumb through only the first half of the chapter will adjudge Paul guilty as charged.

Concluding Comments

I have three concluding comments on the three books in the Behaving Badly series and on my perspectives on them in this essay. First, I propose everything in this essay to be constructive. My goal is reciprocal enrichment through exegetical, theological, and ethical excellence that builds up, not tears down. Quoting Proverbs 27:17, “Iron sharpens iron, and one person sharpens the wits of another.” I hope that other authors and readers take my substantive feedback seriously, utilize it where applicable to filter gold from dross, counter or dismiss whatever is devoid of traction, and critique in return.

Second, I once sat in on a Hebrew Bible class at Harvard University in which one student cited popular atheist polemicists as persuading him not to believe in Christianity or any other religion. This student testified that these atheists “just made more sense.” Each Behaving Badly author helps readers “make sense” of the Bible by clearing away flawed arguments, ignorance, and misconceptions that regularly obscure God, Jesus, and the Apostle Paul in the Bible. All four authors are conscientious scholars and nimble wordsmiths. They convey with gentle liveliness and respect a ready defense of the hope that lies within them (see I Peter 3:15). In assessing their potencies and liabilities, I have tried to advance African Bishop Mvume Dandala’s injunction: “Dialogue refines not only beliefs themselves but also how beliefs are expressed.”18

Third, what type of people does the Bible beckon its readers to be? Based on the Behaving Badly books, our primary motivations for anger ought to be compassion for victims and the redemption, not merely thwarting, of oppressors. We will be astute in how and to whom and for what purposes we exercise anger. We will be honest with God, each other, and ourselves. We will progress in justice, courtesy, and love in our relationships with adversaries, family, foreigners, the poor, and neighbors of every race and gender. We will be perceptive to circumstances, steward the natural world, and oppose chauvinism, hatred, hypocrisy, and slavery in all of their pervasive forms.

In his Explanatory Notes upon the Old Testament, John Wesley sought to foster growing joyfully in the love of God with all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength. I commend God Behaving Badly, Jesus Behaving Badly, and Paul Behaving Badly to the extent that they nurture these qualities and the endeavors that flow from them.19

Cite this article
Benjamin B. DeVan, “God, Jesus, and the Apostle Paul Behaving Badly—A Review Essay”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 47:2 , 179–190


  1. John Wesley, “Preface to Old Testament Notes,” esp. §§10-18, john-wesley/john-wesleys-notes-on-the-bible/preface-to-the-old-testament-notes, accessed August 8, 2017.
  2. Slightly longer but also recommended are Joshua Ryan Butler, Skeletons in God’s Closet: The Mercy of Hell, The Surprise of Judgment, The Hope of Holy War (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2014); Paul Copan and Matthew Flannagan, Did God Really Command Genocide?: Coming to Terms with the Justice of God (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2014); and Matthew Richard Schlimm, This Strange and Sacred Scripture: Wrestling with the Old Testament and Its Oddities (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2015).
  3. All Bible citations are from the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV).
  4. Richards and O’Brien (203) cite one of Luther’s essays without detailing where or how it inspired Hitler.
  5. Richards and O’Brien (51) note briefly that Jesus had a sense of humor; see, for example, Howard R. Macy, Discovering Humor in the Bible: An Explorer’s Guide (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2016); Elton Trueblood, The Humor of Christ (New York: Harper & Row, 1964); and Douglas Wilson, A Serrated Edge: A Brief Defense of Biblical Satire and Trinitarian Skylarking (Moscow, ID: Canon Press, 2003).
  6. Eve (Genesis 1-4), Adah, wife of Lamech (4:19-23), Zillah (4:19-23), Namah (4:19-23), Milcah (11:29, 22:20-23, 24:15-47), Sarai/Sarah (11-18, 20-21, 23-25, 49), Hagar (16, 21, 25), Lot’s wife and daughters (19), Rebekah (24-29, 35, 49), Keturah (25), Judith (26:34), Basemath (26:34, 36:3-17), Mahalath (28:9), Rachel (29-31, 33, 35, 46, 48), Leah (29-31, 33-35, 46, 49), Bilhah (29-30, 35, 37, 46), Zilpah (29-30, 35, 37, 46), Dinah (30, 34, 46), Adah, wife of Esau (36:6-16), Oholibamah (36:2-41), Timnah (38:12-14), Mehetabel (36:39), Tamar (14, 38), Potiphar’s wife (39), and Asenath (41, 46).
  7. See Benjamin B. DeVan, “New Atheists on Genesis 1-11 and 19,” Journal for the Study of Religions and Ideologies 11 (2012), 37-75,
  8. E.g. Christiana de Groot, “Genesis,” The IVP Women’s Bible Commentary, edited by Catherine Clark Kroeger and Mary J. Evans (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2002), 14-15.
  9. Gordon J. Wenham, Word Biblical Commentary: Volume 2: Genesis 16-50 (Dallas: Word Books, 1994), 55-56.
  10. John H. Walton, The NIV Application Commentary: Genesis (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001), 477, but contrast parallels in Judges 9:24-25 where a substitute in Israel is actually given to a mob.
  11. Lot’s wife, daughters, and betrothed sons-in-law are unnamed in Genesis. Their anonymity may imply censure, as with Potiphar’s wife in Genesis 39. The sons-in-law likely reside in Sodom, and may be among the throng when Sodom’s residents “to the last man” surround Lot’s house. Kenneth A. Mathews, Genesis 11:27-56:26 (The New American Commentary, Volume 1B) (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1996), 232-233 sees Lot’s sons-in-law as microcosms of the men in Sodom. In both cases, Lot “‘Went out(side)’ the house to meet them (vv. 7, 14) … in both cases they reject Lot’s admonitions (vv. 9, 14).” At the Sodomites’ final opportunity to avert disaster, “they would not have anyone ‘play the judge’ (v. 9), an eerie echo of the erstwhile appellative, ‘Judge of all the earth’ (18:25).”
  12. Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2006), 241.
  13. . F. Bruce, in Walter C. Kaiser, Peter H. Davids, F. F. Bruce, and Manfred T. Brauch, Hard Sayings of the Bible (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1996), 415.
  14. See, for example, Lamb, 43.
  15. For example, W. D. Davies and Dale C. Allison, The Gospel According to Saint Matthew: 3 Volumes (International Critical Commentary) (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1991), 3:149-150.
  16. Richard Swinburne, The Resurrection of God Incarnate (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), 90.
  17. Bruce, 374. For other allegations against Jesus, see, for example, Benjamin B. DeVan and Thomas W. Smythe, “The Character of Jesus Defended,” Christian Apologetics Journal 5 (2006): 109-140.
  18. Mvume Dandala, ed., “From Africa: Something Old, Something New” The Epworth Review 27 (2000), 77.
  19. I am grateful to Karen DeVan for her comments on an earlier draft of this article.

Benjamin B. DeVan

Emory University
Benjamin B. DeVan teaches at Palm Beach Atlantic University