Teaching the Old Testament: When God Seems Unjust

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This article is featured in the Justice in the Church (Aug/Sept/Oct 2012) issue of Circuit Rider

I make my living teaching the Old Testament, so I’m quite aware of its “problems.” You might say it’s a job hazard in my line of work. Even if people can’t cite chapter and verse, they often have a strong feeling that things in the first half (actually, the first seventy-eight percent) of the Bible aren’t quite right—that there are some disturbing things over there if you ever bother to read it (most don’t), and many of them have to do with God.

Just a week ago I was called in for something of an emergency “Save the Old Testament!” session for a Disciple Bible Study group at my own local congregation. There I heard yet again what seems to have become the standard interpretation among far too many Christians: “God is mean in the Old Testament, but everything changes with Jesus and the New Testament. What gives?”

This is a big question connected to a large number of others. I can’t solve the first, let alone the rest, not even if I had many times the space I have here, because the “best questions,” or in this case, the most difficult ones, simply don’t have any easy answers. That doesn’t mean we are relieved of having to try, however. The Mishnah has a famous saying to this effect: “It’s not your job to finish the work, but you’re not free to walk away from it” (Abot 2.21). So, here are four thoughts on the matter.

1. It’s Not Just an Old Testament Problem

The problem is not just an “Old Testament” one. It is, through and through, from top to bottom, a biblical problem in at least two ways:

(1) The New Testament also has its share of violence and wrath—“mean God” kind of stuff for short. One need only think of the Book of Revelation, or the story of Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5), or sayings of Jesus that are far from “meek and mild” to get this point clearly (e.g., Matt 5:25-26; 10:34-36; 16:2-3; 23:1-36; Mark 10:38; Luke 12:49-53; 13:3, 5; 14:25-33; etc.).

(2) The Old Testament has just as much “nice God” kind of stuff as the New Testament. Indeed, much of the New Testament’s “niceness” comes directly from the Old Testament: The Great Commandment concerning the love of God and love of neighbor, for instance (Deut 6:5; Lev 19:18), but also love for immigrants (Lev 19:34) and good deeds for one’s enemies (e.g., Prov 25:21; cf. Matt 5:39; Rom 12:20). Or, more directly to God’s wrath, consider Isaiah 54:7-10, which acknowledges God’s abandonment and anger “for a moment,” but now promises great compassion and everlasting love (vv. 7-8). It culminates in the statement that God will never be angry with Israel again—never, just as God will never flood the earth again (v. 9)! Then:

“For the mountains may depart and the hills be removed,
but my steadfast love shall not depart from you,
and my covenant of peace shall not be removed,
says the LORD, who has compassion on you.” (v. 10)

What text anywhere else in the Bible could rival this one in raw mercy and unbounded grace?

Christians who advocate the “standard interpretation” mentioned above are revealing nothing so much as their ignorance on two fronts: (1) their lack of knowledge of the entirety of the Old Testament, including its many “good parts”; and (2) their lack of knowledge of the entirety of the New Testament, including its many “bad parts.” Once again, the problem of God’s violence or wrath is thoroughly a biblical one—not just an Old Testament one.

This means, in turn, that the solution to the problem cannot be only a New Testament one, since the New Testament itself has the same blemishes. The fact that so many Christians don’t know either side of this equation reveals profound biblical illiteracy. That problem, in turn, is especially acute because it prevents Christians from finding biblical solutions to the very real difficulties posed by biblical texts concerning violence and wrath.

2. There Are Biblical Solutions

Happily, there are solutions to the problems of violence and wrath posed by the Old and New Testaments. Let it be underscored that these are biblical solutions, not restricted to one testament (invariably the New) over the other (inevitably the Old). These solutions will not satisfy everyone, and each difficult text deserves separate, case-by-case attention. It must suffice here, and speaking only of the Old Testament, to again highlight that it knows as much grace as the New Testament (recall Isaiah 54), and that it built into it what might be called “strategies of containment.”

One example: the problem of the conquest and settling of Canaan, and thus the problem of Holy War, bothers modern sensibilities. How could this be part of God’s purposes and plans in the world? Here again is a serious issue; it cannot be addressed simply or simplistically. That granted, it is worth noting that the Old Testament does not repeatedly enjoin this kind of military activity on subsequent generations of Israelites. Nor does it continually evoke the conquest as a metaphor for faithful life with God.

This should be quickly contrasted with the exodus, which is everywhere mentioned and used as a way to describe even much later acts of God, such as the return from exile. The point of comparison is that, in the very way the Old Testament speaks of these things, it suggests that the conquest of Canaan is a limited, time-bound phenomenon never to be repeated; the exodus, however, is the way God works, period (cf. Amos 9:7). That doesn’t fix all the problems with the conquest, but it is a start.

3. It’s Not a New Problem

The problems of violence, wrath, and the like—as well as the “standard interpretation” of these—are nothing new. They are very old indeed, running back at least to the arch-heretic Marcion in the second century.

Marcion was the first to articulate the standard interpretation in full-blown fashion and he ended up throwing the entirety of the Old Testament out (interestingly enough, his position also required jettisoning a good bit of the New Testament!). Marcion’s theology was predicated precisely on antitheses like evil/good, judgmental/merciful, old/new. The church declared Marcion a heretic and resolutely retained the Old Testament (and a fuller New Testament).

The early church father, Tertullian (ca. 160-225), wrote five books against Marcion. Among other things, Tertullian said that a God who disapproves of nothing (that is, who lacks the capacity or disposition to judge or discipline), is unable to approve of anything and thus cannot save or deliver those who experience injustice. Marcion’s “god” may be unambiguously “good” but this goodness makes no (biblical) sense and cannot provide justice for those who suffer. One must be very careful to define what one means by the word “good”—and it should take more than a sentence or two! Moreover, robust Trinitarian theology means the Three are One. To say that one (the Father) is mean with the other (the Son) nice is to introduce unorthodox distinctions into the Godhead. Anyone who believes that a “mean God” inhabits the Old Testament and a “nice God” lives in the New, is making divisions that are not only uninformed, biblically-speaking, but also far too simplistic—even, dare one say, heretical.

4. There Is No Simple Solution

Finally, the previous point means we must steward ourselves to prevent any speech or thinking about God that is too simplistic. God, the Infinite, can never “get said” quite right—not even with many words or even all the books in the world. If we can imagine a situation in which God appears to be as dumb as one of the Three Stooges, we aren’t thinking about God or the problem with sufficient complexity. It would be a mistake to think that we are smarter than God, or the book about God.

Again, that is not to say that the problems of wrath, violence, and so forth (and there are many of the latter!) aren’t real or significant. They are both, and just as they admit of no easy solution, they are not easily understood. Then again, maybe they aren’t meant to be solved or understood. St. Augustine said the following in a sermon:

“[Scripture] can only be understood in ways beyond words; human words cannot suffice for understanding the Word of God. What we are discussing and stating is why it is not understood. I am not speaking in order that it may be understood, but telling you what prevents it being understood. . . What I am saying is how incomprehensible is the passage that was read to us. But in any case, it wasn’t read in order to be understood, but in order to make us mere human beings grieve because we don’t understand it, and make us try to discover what prevents our understanding, and so move it out of the way, and hunger to grasp the unchangeable Word, ourselves thereby being changed from worse to better.”

Augustine wrote that about John 1:1-3! If it holds true for that text, then certainly it holds true for even more perplexing texts. And so it is that one finds a rich history of interpretation in both Jewish and Christian circles about the most difficult of texts—including and especially ones concerning God’s wrath and violence.

Much more could be said. Much more should be said. But this is a beginning. Perhaps if ministers spoke more about these texts, addressing them in ways like I have done here but adding to that and expounding upon it, the “intractable” problems of the Old Testament would suddenly become tractable after all, and people would find themselves confronted afresh and anew with the whole counsel of God, not just the last 22 percent of it. That would be a victory in more ways than one!

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