In nearly every Bible study and Sunday school class I teach, the following question arises in one form or another: Why does it seem as if the God of the Old Testament is sometimes vengeful and mean, and the God of the New Testament is loving and gracious? This question often refers to stories about the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah or the seemingly God-ordained genocide of Canaanites in the time of Joshua.
My first response to the question is, God is God, and God doesn’t change. The God who is behind the events and writings of the Old Testament is the same God who is behind the events and writings of the New Testament. I agree that it doesn’t always seem this way, and that’s a challenge. But keep this in mind: God is bigger than words, which are very imperfect vessels for communicating the nature of a transcendent God—the one who is Other than anything else we know. God is therefore bigger than the Bible.
This means, among other things, that sometimes the writers of the Bible portray God in very human terms—as if God were just a bigger, stronger, more perfect version of themselves. They project their human points of view, motives, and emotions onto God. This is anthropomorphism—making God seem human. And there’s nothing wrong with this: We are trying to put into words that which is utterly beyond words. We have to relate God to something we know and understand.
But even as we do so, we know that the best—indeed, perfect—revelation of God is Jesus Christ, the God who spoke to us not through words alone, but through the Word. In Jesus, God spoke himself into human existence. In Jesus, we no longer need to translate or interpret words, which are merely symbols representing reality. We have the reality itself, living and breathing among us. The thoughts, words, and actions of Jesus are identically equal to the thoughts, words, and actions of God. Everything we need to know about God, we learn from Jesus.
One objection we might raise is, “Yes, but in understanding Jesus today, we’re still stuck with words—mostly the words of the New Testament. We have to interpret and translate those.” That’s true, but we don’t do so alone. We have God the Holy Spirit, the active presence of Jesus among us, speaking to us through these words. And the Spirit guides the Church in helping us understand who Jesus is and what he’s saying to us.
It is perfectly appropriate for us Christians to view the God revealed in the Old Testament through the lens of Jesus. They are necessarily the same. Where the image of God-who-is-Jesus seems fuzzy in the Old Testament, let’s assume the problem is with us humans—and our interpretation of events—not with God.
After all, the children of Israel are in the process of learning who their God is, even as they are re-telling the stories of their God and writing them down. (We’re all continually learning who God is.) Besides, the image of God-who-is-Jesus that emerges from the Old Testament is usually not very fuzzy.
Our Jewish friends rightly say that we Christians get it wrong if we imagine that the God of the Hebrew Bible (no Old Testament to them, thank you very much) isn’t also a loving God whose every interaction with humanity is based on grace. Even the sacrificial system described in the Torah should not be understood as a means of earning God’s forgiveness. This is how Israel’s pagan neighbors interpreted sacrifice to their gods; not the Hebrews. Sacrifices were primarily about expressing contrition for sin and gratitude for grace and forgiveness already extended.
And let’s not forget poor Jonah! Here’s a prophet who understood all too well exactly what kind of God he was dealing with when he initially refused his commission to go to Nineveh. God wanted him to go and preach judgment against Israel’s hated enemy. “Tell them their time is up; their goose is cooked; they’re doomed,” God said (in so many words). And Jonah didn’t want to do it. Why? Was it because he didn’t want God destroy the Ninevites? No, it was because he did want God to destroy them, and he knew—deep down—that God wasn’t going to do it.
Jonah says as much in chapter 4:
O Lord! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.
It’s not hard to see the God revealed in Jesus in this passage.
In a recent interview, theologian, author, and Anglican clergyman N.T. Wright briefly discusses these issues pertaining to God in the Old Testament (as he does at length in several books, including this one).
Matthew: In looking at the OT, events like the Canaanite genocide, and the prevalence and endorsement of the war seem very problematic. Why do you find [this] troubling theologically?
Wright: Because it really does look as though Israel’s God was endorsing actions which to us today – not least with Christian sensibilities – look morally problematic. There’s no point not facing that directly. But at the same time the OT itself is full of hints that actually all this is partial and ambiguous. I have tried in Evil and the Justice of God to grapple with this a bit.
Matthew: How does/should this affect our understanding of NT ethics?
Wright: Part of our problem is to imagine that the Bible is designed as a book of ‘moral examples’. It isn’t. It is the story of how the creator God is rescuing his creation, and doing so as it were from within – coming to work ‘inside’ the situation rather than simply blitzing it from the outside and beginning over again. That ‘inside’ working inevitably involves God in deep ambiguity, which comes to its head in the crucifixion of God’s own second self, the incarnate Son.
Only when we learn to live within that great story can we begin to understand the call to live as renewed human beings, which is the basis of all Christian ethics. Hunting through scripture imagining that it’s all really about moral example is like walking through a grocery store looking for hammers and nails.
One thing I take away from this is a point that Bishop Richard Wilke made years ago in the first video series of the Disciple I Bible study: that when God chooses to reveal God’s self to humanity, God chooses to work within “the stuff of history.” God had to start somewhere. If it is God’s plan to work with humanity on his project of rescuing us—instead of simply working against us—then God meets us where we are, not where he would like us to be. Isaiah talks about where God would like for us to be when he gives us the vision of a peaceable kingdom, in which swords are beaten into ploughshares and spears into pruning hooks.
We’re not there yet.
Among other things, however, the resurrection of Jesus Christ means that we’ll get there—at the end of history as we know it.