The God of the Old Testament

god-of-old-testamentIn the rough and tumble world of online discussion of just about any current theological issue, eventually one is sure to come across a denunciation of the God of the Old Testament. His detractors deride Him as cranky, vengeful, wrathful, unreasonable, arbitrary, blood-thirsty, and (in the always colourful words of Richard Dawkins), “as the most unpleasant character in all fiction”. And, I am compelled to admit, I have no clue as to what they are talking about. The very first time I seriously read through the entire Old Testament as a teenager and new convert to Christ, my initial impression of the God revealed in the Old Testament was one of love, condescension, compassion, and almost infinite patience with rebellious sinners. And that impression has endured and (if anything) has grown deeper with the passing of years.

I understand some of this denunciation of the Most High on online forums and the like—some people are simply angry at Christianity and happily use any stick with which to beat Christians. They take some Old Testament verses out of their literary context and entirely out of their cultural context and start shouting. What is more perplexing to me is finding some Christians arguing that the Old Testament deity is insufficiently Christ-like. I expect the unbelievers to throw large chunks of the Bible angrily across the room. But I expected believers to be more respectful of what is for them, after all, Holy Writ.

My perplexity is increased at finding some Orthodox Christians talking as if the Old Testament painted a picture of an unworthy and wrathful God. After all, the Orthodox are the ones who supposedly value history and Tradition, and the heresy of Marcionism was soundly condemned a long time ago. It is late in the game to be taking pages out of his playbook. Marcion (as described by the Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church) held as his central thesis “that the Christian Gospel was wholly a Gospel of Love to the absolute exclusion of Law. [For Marcion] the God revealed in the Old Testament had nothing in common with the God of Jesus Christ”. In this reading of the Bible, the Old Testament God was vengeful; the more Christ-like God of the New Testament was not at all wrathful, but only ever loving to everyone.

One may object to Marcion and his modern disciples therefore on two counts: 1. that the Old Testament God is not at all as His detractors portray Him; and 2. the portrayal of the God of the New Testament is entirely consistent with His earlier portrayal in the Old Testament.

On the first count: the Old Testament God is one who unfailingly and tenderly cares for His people, even when they betray Him, deny Him, turn away from Him, and generally act abusively towards Him. Look at the histories recounted in Judges, and 1-2 Samuel and 1-2 Kings. One could summarize this centuries’ long and lamentable history of apostasy as God Himself did through His prophet Jeremiah: “They turned their back to Me and not their face, though I taught them, rising up early and teaching, they would not listen and receive instruction. But they put their detestable things in the House which is called by My Name to defile it, and they built the high places of Baal to cause their sons and their daughters to pass through the fire to Molech” (Jeremiah 32:33f). Or listen to the cry of divine hurt through His prophet Micah: “My people, what have I done to you and how have I wearied you? Answer Me! Indeed, I brought you up from the land of Egypt and ransomed you from the house of slavery” (Micah 6:3-4). Or read the whole sorry indictment of Israel’s unfaithful betrayal in Ezekiel 16: here God says that He found His people like an abandoned baby, left to die in an open field, and took them in and cared for them, only to have them grow up and abandon Him for others. Salvation history is the history of heartbreak, of a God who has done everything possible for His people only to have them turn away to other gods, gods which could not possibly save them, gods which commanded that they sacrifice their children in the fire. You can almost feel the divine perplexity at such perversity, like an open and bleeding wound in the heart of God: “My people have committed two evils: they have forsaken Me, the fountain of living waters, to hew for themselves cisterns, broken cisterns, that can hold no water” (Jeremiah 2:13). Here we see an abandoned and broken-hearted God. The shadow of the Cross begins to loom even before the birth at Bethlehem.

We can also see how truly Christ-like is God’s character in the Old Testament—He is a God who commands that when His people take eggs from a nest, they may not take the mother along with the eggs (Deuteronomy 22:6-7). He is a God who commands that every seven years all financial debts be forgiven, and that one must take care to loan money to a neighbour even if the year of forgiveness approaches and the loan therefore cannot be recovered—“for the poor will never cease from the land, therefore I command you, ‘You shall freely open your hand to your brother, to your needy and poor in your land’” (Deuteronomy 22:7f). He is a God who cares for the poor, commanding His people to leave some food ungleaned in their fields so that the poor might have it (Leviticus 19:9-10). In Facebook forums people often scream about how Christians should not be guided by Leviticus, but this aspect of Leviticus and the Law seems to escape them.

On the second count: this Old Testament deity continued to reveal Himself in the New Testament through His Son. In ancient times God took no delight in the death of the wicked (Ezekiel 33:11f), and in later days He continued to prove Himself the God of love, and called the whole rebellious race of man back to Himself through the proclamation of the Gospel. If despite their monstrous sins (see Nahum 3:19), God still cared for the people of pagan Nineveh (Jonah 4:11), it is not surprising to see Him later calling back tax-collectors and prostitutes to His mercy. Indeed, though the whole human race had defected from His love and preferred idolatry and sin to serving Him, He still sent His Son to die for such ungodly rebels.

Yet His kindness is balanced by His severity (see Romans 11:22)—judgment will fall upon the impenitent if they resist to the end His call to repentance. In the New Testament as in the Old, our God is a consuming fire, and it is a terrifying thing to fall into His hands (Hebrews 12:29, 10:31). In fact, given that God’s love is the more abundantly poured out in the New Testament dispensation, the cost of rejecting it is correspondingly higher: “If the word spoken through angels [in the Old Testament] proved unalterable and every transgression and disobedience received a just recompense, how shall we escape if we neglect so great a salvation?” (Hebrews 2:2-3) The one who set aside Moses’ Law died without mercy—how much severer punishment will he deserve who has trampled underfoot the Son of God and insulted the Spirit of grace? (Hebrews 10:28-29) Ananias and Sapphira discovered this to their cost—when they lied to God, they were struck down dead for it (Acts 5:1f). St. Luke concludes his telling of their story by remarking that “great fear came upon the whole church and upon all who heard of these things” (v.11).

Here, I submit, is our problem today, for great fear no longer comes upon us when we read of such things. We have driven a wedge between the God of the Old Testament and the God of the New and have distorted the features of both. The God of the Old Testament is all severity; the God of the Gospel is all kindness. This latter is no longer a father, but a grandfather—old, indulgent, toothless, and harmless even when defied and ignored. It is not a fearful thing for impenitent rebels to fall into His hands. If any neglect the great salvation He has provided, it will all come out fine in the end. Love wins, and the fires of Gehenna will be extinguished in the end. Ananias and Sapphira (and with them Hitler, Stalin and all others like them) will be tremendously relieved for, as it turns out according to this view, righteousness and justice are not the foundation of His throne after all (Psalm 89:14).

It is a natural temptation to want to remake God into our own image, and it is not that hard. Marcion did it superbly. But it is a temptation we must resist.

 

 

 

 

4 comments:

  1. I often wonder if those who understand the God of the Old Testament as vengeful, arbitrary, and somehow different from the God of the New have ever actually read the Old Testament. It would seem to me that one could only hold to such a view based upon the caricatured ideas rather than an actual reading.

    But although reading the OT on one’s own is not without profit, it is infinitely better (as with all Scripture) to hear it in the context of the worship of the Church. Only in worship do we encounter and actually come to know – rather than simply read about and attempt with our feeble minds to comprehend intellectually – the God who is the same yesterday, today, and forever. This is hard to do, however, if one only comes to the Divine Liturgy on Sundays. For the Church’s manifold liturgical use of the OT is primarily heard in her other services (Hours, Orthros, Vespers, Feast Days, Holy week, etc.). It is in these services that the OT is not only read a great deal but also revealed in a liturgical manner that ‘explains’ (as it were) its meaning as llumined by the revelation of God in Christ

    As the priest chants immediately after the Old Testament reading during the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts,

    “The Light of Christ illumines all.”

  2. Dear Fr. Farley,
    I agree with your thesis, but I wonder if you haven’t cherry picked the easy cases from Scriptures, rather than tackling the hard cases straight on. For example, in Joshua, every living thing in Jericho was slain (apart form Rahab and her relations). In Exodus, the Lord struck down all the first born of Egypt “even to the first-born of the slave girl”. If one reads those passages literally, how unreasonable is it to start making comparisons with Herod’s slaughter of the innocents? Is the solution then that we should read those hard passages typologically and only typologically? What are the typological readings of those passages? Do they all prefigure Christ (John 5;46)? If yes, how? Melito of Sardis, in On Pascha, reads Exodus this way: “This is the one [Christ] who struck down lawlessness and made injustice childless, as Moses did to Egypt.” (On Pacha 68). Is that the only reading? If that is the level of abstraction at which we have to view the typology, then it’s probably only teenagers who might be able to grasp it. Does that mean its better not to share the details of those hard passages with younger children, because they just can’t reason at that level of abstraction and can only comprehend it literally?

    1. Dear Michael: Thank you for your reasoned and thoughtful response. A partial reply to the violence found in such places as the Book of Joshua may be found in my blog piece The God of Joshua (accessed at: oca.org/reflections/fr.-lawrence-farley/the-god-of-joshua ) . The whole subject requires a longer treatment than any mere blog piece can provide. Part of such a reply can be found in the book Did God Really Command Genocide? by Copan and Flannagan, which attempts to place some of the controversial Old Testament material in the cultural context of its time, which includes a study of the use of hyperbole in ancient culture. For myself I think part of the way forward is to frankly admit that warfare, with all its horrors, was an inevitable part of creating a new nation like Israel, and of seeing the horrors of war through ancient eyes, not through our modern ones. The latter approach can only lead to reading the text anachronistically, and thus missing its main point, which was the supremacy of Yahweh over all the other gods. It is true that this means teaching the Old Testament to very young children will present its own challenges–but then so will teaching them the Song of Solomon. Ultimately the Scriptures are very adult reading.

  3. “For whatever things were written before were written for our learning, that we through the patience and comfort of the Scriptures might have hope.”

    + Saint Paul’s Epistle to the Romans

    “If something has been recorded in the Old or New Testament to have happened historically, and this or that deed was manifestly accomplished, and we interpret it for our own purposes, using ideas and thoughts for our own spiritual edification, do not suppose that we have disregarded the letter, or rejected the history. By no means! We neither condemn nor reject the perceptible event that has been committed to history. Since, however, we are [in] the world, we benefit today by interpreting everything that happened yesterday for our own purposes.”

    + St. Nilus of Sinai, Letter 2.223

    Allegory is very useful method of application of the Scriptures to our lives, but it needn’t be to the exclusion of history. It seems that some are so embarrassed by history that they cannot bring themselves to admit to it. And because something happened (often at the command of God) that seems repugnant to modern sensibilities they cannot bring themselves to accept that “God could do such a thing.” But just because these things happened (again at the command of God) at a specific time and within a specific context doesn’t mean they apply in the same way to us. This, it would seem, is what some (wrongly) think they must admit if such things actually occurred.

    The conquest of the Canaanites provides the most fodder for embarrassment in our modern culture. But it is all-too-easily forgotten, or simply not known, what sort of cultures was destroyed. Although it is hinted at elsewhere in the Scriptures, the book of Wisdom is clearest and most direct in this regard…

    “Therefore chastenest thou them by little and little that offend, and warnest them by putting them in remembrance wherein they have offended, that leaving their wickedness they may believe on thee, O Lord. For it was thy will to destroy by the hands of our fathers both those old inhabitants of thy holy land, whom thou hatedst for doing most odious works of witchcrafts, and wicked sacrifices; And also those merciless murderers of children, and devourers of man’s flesh, and the feasts of blood, with their priests out of the midst of their idolatrous crew, and the parents, that killed with their own hands souls destitute of help that the land, which thou esteemedst above all other, might receive a worthy colony of God’s children.”

    Nor do many understand the patience and mercy extended to them…

    “Nevertheless even those thou sparedst them as men, and didst send wasps, forerunners of thine host, to destroy them by little and little. Not that thou wast unable to bring the ungodly under the hand of the righteous in battle, or to destroy them at once with cruel beasts, or with one rough word: But executing thy judgments upon them by little and little, thou gavest them place of repentance, not being ignorant that they were a naughty generation, and that their malice was bred in them, and that their cogitation would never be changed. For it was a cursed seed from the beginning; neither didst thou for fear of any man give them pardon for those things wherein they sinned.”

    Nor do many remember when they judge by modern humanistic standards…

    “For who shall say, What hast thou done? or who shall withstand thy judgment? or who shall accuse thee for the nations that perish, whom thou made? or who shall come to stand against thee, to be revenged for the unrighteous men? For neither is there any God but thou that careth for all, to whom thou mightest shew that thy judgment is not un-right. Neither shall king or tyrant be able to set his face against thee for any whom thou hast punished. Forsomuch then as thou art righteous thyself, thou orderest all things righteously: thinking it not agreeable with thy power to condemn him that hath not deserved to be punished.”

    God is never unjust or unmerciful.

    Naturally some will say,” But what about the innocent children?” They themselves were spared either from being sacrificed to demonic idols (often by being burned alive, no less) or reared in such wickedness, quite possibly to their eternal destruction. Physical death is far from the worst thing imaginable. Nor is death the end for anyone, for in Christ there is life and hope even for the dead.

    Moreover, Israel was (to the extent that they obeyed the command to kill everyone) spared from their growing up and seeking vengeance, as well as from being infected by the utter wickedness of the Canaanite culture. And Israel was ultimately infected and destroyed by it – precisely because they failed to obey fully.

    This is obviously the lesson for us: “Therefore put to death your members which are on the earth: fornication, uncleanness, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry…” If we disobey, if we “have pity on them” or “make a covenant with them,” and allow them to live they will come back to destroy us.

    My wife and I reared two sons, one of whom is now an Orthodox priest. When they were very young we certainly didn’t dwell on the fact that children were killed in these stories. Nevertheless it is quite natural for children to relate to justice and the punishment of wickedness. It is, perhaps, what draws them to stories of fictitious super-heroes. Righteousness (truth, fairness, love, compassion, right-order) resonates in them because, I firmly believe, they are created for the righteousness of God.

    “But you must continue in the things which you have learned and been assured of, knowing from whom you have learned them, and that from childhood you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus.”
    + Saint Paul’s letter to Timothy

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