Question and Answer with David Lamb on his book Prostitutes and Polygamists

What are polygamists and prostitutes doing on the pages of Holy Scripture?

lamb prostitutes and polygamists

David T. Lamb is the Allan A. MacRae Professor of Old Testament at Biblical Theological Seminary.

Dave lived in Lexington (KY) long enough to become a Wildcat fan (age 1), lived in Downers Grove (IL) long enough to become a Cubs fan (age 5), and lived in Ames (IA) long enough to learn how to walk beans and de-tassel corn (age 18).

As a young man, he went west to Stanford (CA), where he studied economics (BA), industrial engineering (MS) and Bible (in InterVarsity). He witnessed “The Play” where the Cardinal band came on the field after the Cal player’s knee hit the ground (before lateraling the ball). He served on staff with InterVarsity (1986-1999) at Claremont, Redlands (CA), and Penn (PA).

Against her better judgment, Shannon agreed to marry him (1991), and together they created Nathan and Noah. One can never have enough advanced degrees, so he got an MDiv (Fuller Seminary), an MPhil, and DPhil (University of Oxford).

Since 2006, he has taught Old Testament at Biblical Theological Seminary. He loves to give others a love for God’s word.

Besides Prostitutes and Polygamists: A Look at Love, Old Testament Style (Zondervan), Dave has written three books: The Historical Writings: Introducing Israel’s Historical Literature (co-written with Mark Leuchter; Fortress), God Behaving Badly: Is the God of the Old Testament Angry, Sexist and Racist? (InterVarsity), Righteous Jehu and His Evil Heirs: The Deuteronomist’s Negative Perspective on Dynastic Succession (Oxford). Dr. Lamb’s fifth book is a commentary on 1, 2 Kings in the Story of God series (Zondervan, forthcoming).

1. What previous research and/or personal interests helped prepare you to write Prostitutes and Polygamists? How was this particular project born?

After I wrote God Behaving Badly: Is the God of the Old Testament Angry, Sexist and Racist?, I received a lot of questions about people behaving badly in the Bible, particularly in the realm of sex and sexuality. What about all those polygamists, many of whom are portrayed positively (e.g., Abraham, Gideon, Saul, David, Solomon)? How are we to understand the stories of prostitutes who are clearly viewed favorably (e.g., Tamar, Rahab)? What do we do with the gruesome account of the rape of the Levite’s concubine (Judges 19)? The narratives of these polygamists may be familiar but teachers of the Bible don’t usually address their polygamy. The tales of these prostitutes, and that of the Levite’s concubine frequently get ignored. Paul would say that by avoiding these portions of Scripture, we aren’t profiting from them, since all Scripture is inspired (2 Tim 3:16). I desperately want the church to profit from these sordid stories. As I discuss these stories in Prostitutes and Polygamists, it is my hope that people would have a profound encounter with the grace of God. Because, when humans behave badly, even in the realm of sexuality, God behaves graciously.

2. Who is the intended audience for Prostitutes and Polygamists? Would it benefit pastors? professors? students? lay Christians in the local church?

This book could be helpful to anyone who reads the Bible and wants to understand it better, so pastors, professors, students, all Christians, ideally. I do a lot of academic writing, but I really enjoy writing for a broader audience (we need more biblical scholars who can write for “normal” people). If you are familiar with any of the following: Arrested Development, Time Magazine, Game of Thrones, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Christianity Today, Green Acres, Sex and the City, The West Wing, Barbie, Pretty Woman, Doonesbury, Monsters University, or “I’m My Own Grandpa,” then you will find a point of connection with this book. I love to discuss Scripture, but to understand it and apply it, it needs to connect to our world and our lives. So, I tell stories and attempt humor (sometimes successfully). My audience is any one who has ever committed a sin, or who knows someone else who has.

3. What is unique about Prostitutes and Polygamists? What contribution does it make to biblical studies and/or biblical theology?

Several aspects of the book make it unique. First, it examines the ancient contexts behind these stories, helping us understand why polygamy was so common and what might lead a woman into a life of prostitution. Second, it is unusual for a more popular book like this to have so many biblical references (my Scripture index is 6 pages long); I want people to get a sense that what I’m saying is rooted in Scripture. Third, I include tables to organize material (a “Plethora of Prostitutes” on pages 68-69 and a Table of Incestry” on pages 144, 145). Fourth, while most scholars call David an adulterer, I call him a rapist for what he did to Bathsheba (see pages 127-133).

4. In the book, you approach a serious topic, using commonly misunderstood and confusing passages from the Old Testament, with a surprising amount of laugh-out-loud stories and one-liners. What made you think to tackle the subject matter in such a unconventional manner? Why is it effective?

I have been told that I sometimes make inappropriate jokes. Guilty as charged. Perhaps I made too many in a book that addresses serious subjects (rape, prostitution, adultery, incest). I would never want to make light of these sins, or to downplay the pain of anyone who has been victimized in these areas. But I believe humor serves three purposes. First, humor helps us deal with pain. I recently attended my father’s memorial service in Kentucky, surrounded by family and friends. As we shared stories of dad, we cried, and laughed. Both were therapeutic as we grieved his loss. Second, humor keeps us humble. The target of much of my humor is myself. My sons would say there’s a lot of material to work with there. Third, humor helps us speak the truth. George Bernard Shaw reportedly said, “If you are going to tell people the truth, you better make them laugh; otherwise they’ll kill you.” I pray that my humor makes people more receptive to hear truth from God’s word.

5. In addition to laughing and smiling a lot, what kind of applications can readers expect to have from reading Prostitutes and Polygamists?

Scripture records the worst sins of some of the most pious people in history in the best-selling book of all time. Why record all this dark material (rapes, adultery, polygamy, prostitution, and incest)? The pattern we see repeated throughout Scripture is that when humans behave badly, God behaves graciously. My primary hope and prayer for people—including victims and perpetrators of sexual sin—is that they would be overwhelmed by the amazing graciousness of God.

6. What section or passage of Prostitutes and Polygamists was particularly memorable to research and write? What personally edified you in writing this book, increasing your affections for Christ?

The story of Tamar, the daughter-in-law of Judah is fascinating to me (Gen 38). It curiously interrupts the much more familiar story of Joseph, leading one to ask, why is her story included here? Tamar is a Canaanite woman who was sexually exploited by at least two members Jacob’s family (his grandson Onan and son Judah). Judah wants to kill her for immorality, but then he is convicted when she subtly reveals that he is the one who impregnated her. Judah states, “She is more righteous than I” (Gen 38:26). I state, “After his encounter with Tamar the pious prostitute, Judah morphs from being a prostitute-frequenting, slave-trading brother, into a self-sacrificing, volunteer-to-be-enslaved brother” (p. 100). Tamar is also the first woman mentioned in the New Testament (Matt 1:3), right there at the beginning of Jesus’ family tree, reminding us that Jesus came into the world for all of us, even Tamar the pious prostitute.

7. What is next for you? What project are you currently working on? How can people follow your work and ministry?

In June I finished my first draft of a commentary on the book of Kings for Zondervan (the Story of God series), which will hopefully come out in 2019. In July, I wrote an article on the characterization of King Hezekiah of Judah, to be published in a volume on the book of Kings. I argue that Hezekiah trusted not only in God (see 2 Kings 18:5), but also in foreign powers (Assyria, Egypt, and Babylon). I have a blog (DavidTLamb.com), but have not be able to make regular posts on it recently. People who have questions for me, or who want to invite me to speak, can contact me via email: [email protected].


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