Thursday, 29 September 2011

Is The God of the Old Testament a God of Wrath? (Part 2)

2. Faithful Love in the Old Testament

There’s a very important Hebrew word in the Old Testament.


It occurs 251 times. It’s primary meaning is love. A love that is faithful. A love that endures. The first time it’s used is in the story of Lot escaping the destruction of Sodom:

‘You have already been very good to your servant and shown me even greater love by saving my life, but I cannot flee to the hills, or disaster will overtake me and I shall die.’

Then Abraham uses it as he talks to his wife and half-sister, Sarah:

'So when God made me wander far from my father's home I said to her, "There is an act of love you can do me: everywhere we go, say of me that I am your brother." '

After that is used four times in the story of Abraham’s servant looking for a wife for his son Isaac. The servant travels to the old ancestral homeland of Abraham’s family, and prays hard before trying to find the wife intended by God for Isaac:

‘And he said, 'Yahweh, God of my master Abraham, give me success today and show faithful love to my master Abraham.’ (Gen 24)

Once Rebekah has been found he prays again:

‘Blessed be Yahweh, God of my master Abraham, for not withholding his faithful love from my master. Yahweh has led me straight to the house of my master's brother.’

Rebekah is willing, but her father Bethuel and brother Laban still need convincing. So Abraham’s servant says this:

‘Now tell me whether you are prepared to show constant and faithful love to my master; if not, say so, and I shall know what to do.’ [here a synonym is used: emet, meaning constancy or faithfulness]

They give their permission and the story ends happily ever after – Abraham’s servant takes Rebekah back to Isaac to be married.

Yahweh has close relationships with some of his people. Joseph is one of these. We read that, ‘Yahweh was with Joseph. He showed him faithful love and made him popular with the chief gaoler.’ (Gen 40)

Another was Moses. When Moses asked to experience being in Yahweh’s presence, this is what we read:

Then Yahweh passed before him and called out, 'Yahweh, Yahweh, God of tenderness and compassion, slow to anger, rich in faithful love and constancy, maintaining his faithful love to thousands, forgiving fault, crime and sin, yet letting nothing go unchecked, and punishing the parent's fault in the children and in the grandchildren to the third and fourth generation!' (Exo 34)

Yahweh is the God who revealed himself to Moses as the God who makes a covenant of love with His chosen people:

7 ‘Yahweh set his heart on you and chose you not because you were the most numerous of all peoples -- for indeed you were the smallest of all- 8 but because he loved you and meant to keep the oath which he swore to your ancestors: that was why Yahweh brought you out with his mighty hand and redeemed you from the place of slave-labour, from the power of Pharaoh king of Egypt. 9 From this you can see that Yahweh your God is the true God, the faithful God who, though he is true to his covenant and his faithful love for a thousand generations as regards those who love him and keep his commandments, 10 punishes in their own persons those that hate him. He destroys anyone who hates him, without delay; and it is in their own persons that he punishes them.’ (Deu 7)

But the crowning glory of this word is its use in the songs of David and of the people of Israel, the book of Psalms. Here is a brief selection of the 128 occurrences in their songbook:

Kindness and faithful love pursue me every day of my life. I make my home in the house of Yahweh for all time to come. (Psa 23)

Each morning fill us with your faithful love, we shall sing and be happy all our days…
(Psa 90)

As the height of heaven above earth, so strong is his faithful love for those who fear him.
(Psa 103)

And in one Psalm the word is used as part of a refrain in each verse:

Alleluia! [Praise Yahweh] Give thanks to Yahweh for he is good, for his faithful love endures for ever.
Give thanks to the God of gods, for his faithful love endures for ever.
Give thanks to the Lord of lords, for his faithful love endures for ever.
He alone works wonders, for his faithful love endures for ever… (Psa 136)

My favourite is probably this one:

Blessed be Yahweh, my rock, who trains my hands for war and my fingers for battle,
my faithful love, my bastion, my citadel, my Saviour; I shelter behind him, my shield, he makes the peoples submit to me. (Psa 144)

It seems that Yahweh, the God who delights to have close relationships with His people, both Jew and non-Jew, enjoys it when we delight in Him and his faithful love for us. A God of wrath? Not by intention, only by exception.

(Quotes are from the New Jerusalem Bible).

Is The God of the Old Testament a God of Wrath?

1. The Nature of the Bible

The Bible was not written by God.

Not quite.

It was written by many many human authors, who were inspired by God.

There is a subtle difference. It means that the message is incarnate in the culture of whatever time the message was revealed in. In the case of Moses we’re talking about a long, long time ago. About 2,500 years. This is easily forgotten.

And Moses had an axe to grind, a people to lead, a fledgling nation to unite. So when we criticise his successor, Joshua, for genocide, we need to remember that if hadn’t been for that genocide there would have been no nation, no history of Israel, and no Messiah. How would that feel? What would that be like? It’s hard for us to imagine.

The Bible is written in all kinds of different genres. We have teaching (‘law’), prophecy, songs (‘psalms’), proverbs (‘wisdom’), parables (stories with a point), and letters, amongst others. None of these were written in a vacuum. Paul may have been aware that letter he wrote to, for example, the church in Corinth, was about to become scripture, but he still intended his message for that particular audience. Songs are not meant to be read but sung, or chanted. Parables are pithy sayings designed to make us think. They were designed to help us live. Practical stuff for us to mull over. Teaching is supposed to be followed – but like any good sermon, the teaching always gives us reasons for obeying. It is a mixture of divine wisdom from above, and grounded common sense.

Coming back to Moses, it is quite likely that his teaching was born from a life spent solving problems, as well as spending time in Yahweh’s presence in the Tent of Meeting. Eventually he appointed seventy elders to help him in his task. We can imagine him getting these elders together:

‘Hey, anything interesting happen today?’

And he would listen to them as they passed on the more interesting cases. From this wealth of experience Moses wrote some of the laws. Others were simply borrowed from the surrounding cultures, though adapted to fit Yahweh’s high standards of righteousness, justice, love and faithfulness (Psa 89:14).

So, when we sit down to read the Bible, we first need to take time to think ourselves into their time and their culture. Otherwise we may be guilty of jumping to conclusions.

The big issue, it seems to me, is this – do we take the authors’ views as God’s verbatim word to us now, as culturally conditioned, or something in-between?

By the way, this is how the Jews categorise their Bible, what we call the Old Testament:

• Genesis – Deuteronomy Teaching
• Joshua – 2 Kings Former Prophets
• Isaiah – Malachi Latter Prophets
• Psalms, Proverbs etc. Writings

The main difference is that what we blandly call ‘history’ is thought of as ‘prophecy’ by the Jews. This makes much more sense. Prophets spoke God’s word into the political situation they had to live in. If a leader (king) failed to follow God’s standards of righteousness, justice, love and faithfulness, they were eventually removed or replaced by someone who would. Or, rather, might.

More tomorrow...