The God of the Old Testament

In 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.

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