Wednesday, 5 October 2011

Is the God of the Old Testament a God of Wrath (Part 3)

3. The God of the Old Testament
 There aren’t that many statements about God’s nature in the Bible, actually. We usually find out about what God is like by what he does. He rescued the Israelites from slavery in Egypt – our God is a rescuer. But there are some statements in the Old Testament about what God is like. One can be found in the Psalms:

‘Righteousness and justice are the foundation of your throne; love and faithfulness go before you.’ Psalm 89:14, NIV.

The word used for ‘love’ is, of course hesed.

Even this verse, once unpacked, comes out to explain God’s activity. Righteousness is right living, right behaviour. Justice is right judgment, good decisions. Love and faithfulness describe God’s constant, faithful love, the love that will not let us go. Take a minute to read Psalm 89. Is it describing what God is like, His nature, or is it describing God’s actions? Surely it is the latter. And it is a well-known song about God’s covenant-agreement with David, that God would always allow a descendant (‘son’ or ‘seed’ in Hebrew) of David to sit on the throne. When David wanted to build a temple, a house of God, he was told that it wasn’t his job. In a brilliant piece of irony, God replied by saying ‘you will not build my house, I will build your house’ in other words God was promising David a dynasty, a line of kings that would always sit on the throne of Israel (2Sa 7). Or a king, the son of David, that would sit on the throne of the kingdom for ever.

Now you’re going to say to me, ‘It’s all very well talking about God’s faithfulness to David and to his people Israel, but what about his commands to kill all the foreign tribes living in the promised land at the time of Joshua?’ Of course we find such things difficult. Not that life has changed that much – we only need look at Ruanda, Iraq, or even Easter Europe to see that. But for God to actually command the genocide of the peoples living in Canaan seems much more extreme. Why would God do that? Well, I think we need to understand that God, in the Old Testament, is seen as the God of all the nations, not just the God of Israel. He has the right to sit in judgment on any nation. So if a nation were to disobey him, and oppose the Israelites, or begin to carry our terrible practices like human (or even child) sacrifice, then God’s wrath is bound to fall on that nation. Just look at the Amorites. Way back at the time of Abraham the Amorites were beginning to turn against God:

‘Then the LORD told Abram, "You can be sure that your descendants will be strangers in a foreign land, and they will be oppressed as slaves for four hundred years. But I will punish the nation that enslaves them, and in the end they will come away with great wealth. (But you will die in peace, at a ripe old age.) After four generations your descendants will return here to this land, when the sin of the Amorites has run its course." As the sun went down and it became dark, Abram saw a smoking firepot and a flaming torch pass between the halves of the carcasses. So the LORD made a covenant with Abram that day and said, "I have given this land to your descendants, all the way from the border of Egypt to the great Euphrates River-- the land of the Kenites, Kenizzites, Kadmonites, Hittites, Perizzites, Rephaites, Amorites, Canaanites, Girgashites, and Jebusites."’ Genesis 15:13-21 NLT

The conclusion of this story is found in Numbers 21. The Israelites ask to pass peacably through Amorite territory. The Amorite leader refuses, and the Amorites march out in battle against the Israelites, who defeat them and occupy their land. That’s not to say that we expect to occupy land in the same way today. How terrible would that be? No, we know that the kingdom of God is not that kind of kingdom. It is a kingdom advanced by prayer, and built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets. But those who read parts of the Old Testament and judge them according to Jesus’ teaching on the kingdom or on loving our enemies are being anachronistic (out of time sequence). We don’t expect to find motorbikes in the Bible, or digital watches on the arms of Roman centurions. Neither should we expect to find Old Testament leaders following Jesus’ teaching. There was one Central Asian Bible published that only had the New Testament, Psalms, and Genesis – in that order. One old man was reading it through, got to Genesis, and said ‘Abraham was a bad prophet. He didn’t follow Jesus’ teaching!’

The other thing about the Bible is that it contains a whole range of genres, as I explained in part 1. When we read expressions of hate against the Babylonians (in the Psalms), these do not necessarily represent God’s view of those peoples. On the other hand anyone who unjustly oppresses another people, wipes out part of them, and marches the rest into captivity in their own country is bound, sooner or later, to find that they have been opposing God not man. They may find that God raises up another leader, or another people, to replace them. I’m talking about the Persians, who took over the Babylonian empire, and allowed God’s people back into Jerusalem to rebuild the city and the temple.

Well, what can we learn from all of this? It can be hard to understand all of God’s actions, but we have to trust that He knows what is right, and will always be true to those who follow Him. Those who turn against Him and start to carry out wrong or even evil behaviour will, sooner or later, find that they come up against the Judge of all the earth, who will do right (Gen 18:25).

More to follow…


DaveG said... is another article worth reading on the Old Testament. It's by Eddie Arthur (Director of WBT-UK).

Michael said...

Many an army, from Joshua to George Bush has claimed that God is on their side as they march into battle. Was Joshua right and Bush wrong (well, some believe that Bush was right)? Joshua was a man of his times, and the law was the law of the jungle, "Eat or be eaten" - or in this case, "Kill or be killed." But does that mean YHWH condoned Joshua's actions... commanded Joshua's actions? Our source was written by the winners, and of course they believed that their god was fighting with them. But as Jesus points out in his bit about the tower falling over, that doesn't make Joshua & co any more righteous or the other guys any more sinful. So I don't condemn Joshua, he was a man of his times, but it is less than useful for us in the 21st century to see YHWH through an "Eat or be eaten" filter.