Why is God angry in the Old Testament?
Can we just be honest for a moment? This is a (mostly) safe place. Reading the New Testament is so much easier than reading the Old Testament. The New Testament just feels so different.
In the Old Testament there’s death, jealously, genocide (often commanded by God), a whole lot of sex, misogyny, constant warnings of doom, extreme punishment for seemingly small sins, laws that don’t make a whole lot of sense, and sacrifices of animals to pay for it all.
But in the New Testament it’s a different story. The sick and the blind are healed, the “bullies” get put in their place, the outcasts are restored, the screw ups are forgiven, the broken are offered healing, and everyone is welcome. It just makes a whole lot more sense, except for Revelation, we don’t talk about that book…
At first glance it seems like we are dealing with two different Gods here right? Or maybe a severely bipolar God. Calm down, I’m not saying that’s actually true. Rather that there’s something happening here that we need to take notice of.
It’s not just Christians that have noted this difference. Richard Dawkins in his book The God Delusion, says, “The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.”
While what Dawkins says might seem a bit harsh, he raises some valid questions. What do we do with this Old Testament God? How can we justify such an angry God? What do we do with the first two-thirds of the Bible? How do we read it? Should we read it? And what about all those laws?
Here’s the quick answers: The Old Testament and the New Testament God are the same. We should read it. We don’t need to justify God; he can defend himself. And the laws, well we’ll talk about this in a bit.
Alright, let’s tackle some of these issues in a little more detail. Here’s a few things you should remember when reading the Old Testament.
A Tale of Two God’s?
When you first see the contrast between the Old Testament and the New Testament it’s easy to conclude that there must be two gods. But that’s an oversimplification and doesn’t take into account everything that’s going on. The Bible makes clear there is only one true God (Verses here: One God Passages).
While God’s actions are perceived to be different, what he says about himself stays the same. The issue isn’t in difference of who God is compared to the Old vs New. Rather in how he acts. In other words his character is the same. But his actions are different.
We aren’t reading a story of two different God’s, but rather a story of the same God in different circumstances.
The Old Covenant and the New Covenant
Why would God act so differently? In short, because he’s operating under different covenants. I’m not going to go into detail here, that’s a topic for another post. But when we read the Old Testament we need to recognize that God is operating under a different set of rules. When Jesus entered the picture he changed everything, but that hasn’t happened yet.
God spoke to Abraham in Abraham’s day and in Abraham’s way. God spoke to Paul in Paul’s day and in Paul’s way. And God speaks to us in our day and in our way. The point is God speaks in a way that the people he is speaking to understands. Thus when we read the Old Testament we need to understand the people God was talking to before we can understand how it applies to us today.
What About the Law?
Whenever we read about the Law in the Old Testament it is often followed by the question, What should Christian’s do with this? I’m not going to break this down too far, but if you want to read more check out my article: What’s the Point of the Old Testament Law
The Torah contains 613 laws. These laws stemmed from the promise God gave Abraham that He would bless him and his descendants. The law worked like this:
Follow The Law = God’s Blessing
Disobey The Law = Removal of God’s Blessing
God knew that His people could not do this perfectly so He made a way to atone for their sins: sacrifice. When you broke a law, something, an animal, had to die to pay the price for your sin.
This is an oversimplification, but it gives you an idea. The problem was the Nation of Israel just couldn’t live up to the demands of The Law. Their story is very cyclical. They follow God, things are good. They abandon God, things get bad. They repent, God brings them back and things are good again. Repeat, over and over again.
Then Jesus enters the picture. In Matthew 5:17-20 Jesus claims that He came to fulfill the law, a curious statement to the listening Jews. To fulfill the law was impossible. It wasn’t something you could fulfill, it was something you follow. Later in this passage He makes an outlandish claim, that for the Law to save you, you would have to follow it better than the Pharisees. There ain’t nobody that could do that. Well except Jesus. And he did, he fulfilled the law perfectly.
Why does any of this matter? To understand the Bible we need to understand how the law worked. If we don’t we can’t fully understand what Jesus did.
We Don’t Need to Justify God’s Actions
There’s a temptation when we read the Old Testament to justify or explain why God acted the way he did. We don’t need to do that. God can defend himself. I’m not saying we shouldn’t address and talk about why/what God did. We should, especially when someone has the wrong picture of what is happening. However at some point in our finite capability we will run into a wall. At that point I think it’s important that we say I don’t know.
So many Christians have come up with some crazy ideas and rationalizations that are way beyond their comprehension. There’s a point where we just have to say God is God, and I am not. We cannot fully understand what is going on. And that’s okay. We don’t need to justify God’s actions.
BUT What About the REALLY Bad Parts?
If I’m honest there are a few things in the Bible that just really make me cringe. Like when God orders the genocide of entire groups of people: men, women, and children. It just doesn’t make sense to me. I’ve read many explanations, but still it doesn’t fully add up.
The most common explanation for the indiscriminate killing is that they had sin therefore they must pay for that sin. I guess that’s true, but it still doesn’t seem to jive with the character of God. Another explanation I’ve seen is that God never actually commanded the Israelites to kill everyone. Rather they used God as an excuse to do what they wanted to do. In other words those passages are written with an inherent bias. While that offers an explanation, it’s not really founded on anything solid. There’s many more explanations, but I think you get the picture. At some point they fall apart.
So what do we do? I don’t know. I don’t know what to do, there’s nothing that really makes sense to me. I believe this is where faith comes in. I believe God is good, just, and most of all love.
Here’s how I handle difficult passages. If what I believe makes God look like a jerk, I’m going to assume I’m wrong. If what I believe or how I explain something makes God look like the bad guy there’s probably something going on that I don’t see or don’t understand. That’s faith; when things don’t make sense, I’m going to choose to trust God.
That might not work for everyone, but it does for me. I will never stop searching for answers. But I will never have all the answers. That’s where faith comes in. I choose to believe even though I don’t know things for sure. And be honest, NOBODY knows for sure. We all have faith in something. I choose to place mine in God.
We Should Read it, Don’t Ignore it
We live in the New Testament, under the New Covenant. But we should still read the Old Testament, it still has value. Through the stories, the laws, the poetry and the history we can see God interacting with his creation. We can get insight into God’s character. Through the struggles, failures, and triumphs of God’s people we can learn about the human experience. We can see the relationship between God and his people develop.
Reading the Old Testament can bring us to a deeper understanding of who God is. So read it. But keep these things in mind. The Old Testament is still valuable for us today. But it doesn’t hold the same weight as it did for the Israelites. We have to remember the Old Covenant, the weight of the Law, and acknowledge that there are elements we just won’t understand.
Your turn… What are your thoughts?
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