By Dr. Brad Cole
In the movie “Annie Hall”, Woody Allen is waiting in line with his girlfriend to see a movie. Standing behind him is a very loud and arrogant man who is heavily criticizing a well known author. After several minutes of this, Woody Allen is pulling his hair out because what the man is saying is not true. Finally, he turns to the camera and says, “Wouldn’t it be wonderful if life were like this?” He then proceeds to walk behind a column and to bring out the real author who said to the man, “You know nothing of my work. You are completely misrepresenting me” – the man’s jaw drops open and he is silenced. Woody Allen, meanwhile, is intensely delighted.
The message of the Bible, as I understand it, increasingly points to the character of God as being all-good, all-loving, and even incorporating supreme humility, service and kindness. In this setting, I’ve thought of some individuals who have loudly railed against the character of God that is presented in the Bible. Mark Twain and Richard Dawkins are two that come to mind.
If one were to attempt to use the Bible to make the case that “God is just like Jesus in character” both men would be itching to respond, Bible in hand, with the challenge, “You are using this book as ‘exhibit A’ to say that God is just like Jesus? This book?” Here is what Mark Twain had to say about the Bible:
“Our Bible reveals to us the character of our god with minute and remorseless exactness... It is perhaps the most damnatory biography that exists in print anywhere. It makes Nero an angel of light…by contrast.”
“To trust the God of the Bible is to trust an irascible, vindictive, fierce and ever fickle and changeful master…”
And Richard Dawkins would say:
“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…pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.
We may be offended by these comments, but at the same time I think that even the most devoted follower of Jesus must face challenges in reconciling gentle Jesus with a violent Bible. Here is my fantasy! Wouldn’t it be great if people like Twain and Dawkins had stood up and loudly made these statements about God, but then in response imagine that I could, like Woody Allen, walk behind a column and return with Jesus?
What would Jesus say to the charge that “The God of the OT is a vengeful, vindictive, scary, arbitrary, and fearsome deity?”
As I’ve tried to consider how Jesus would respond I became thoroughly frustrated with the disciples. They didn’t merely have one brief opportunity to pull Jesus from behind a column – they lived with him for three and a half years but yet so many of our theological dilemmas were not even on their radar screen!
Why didn’t the disciples ask Jesus more questions about the scary OT stories? Just imagine the additional goldmine of information that the NT gospels would contain if the disciples had asked Jesus questions like:
- Jesus, did you really drown all but eight in the Flood?
- What about Sodom and Gomorrah and Lot’s wife?
- What about the first born in Egypt? Were they bad boys?
- Did you really open up the earth to swallow Korah, Dathan, and Abihram – Jesus, how are we supposed to spread the Good News about your character when you’re doing things like that?
- Did you really make the sun stand still for Joshua not so that your people could have more time to serve and evangelize the heathen, but rather that they could have more time to kill them?
- Did you really give commands to wipe out entire villages, women and children?
- Why did Achan need to be stoned to death for stealing…and if Achan had to die, why did the children and their pets have to be stoned as well?
- Why the severe rules that commanded such things as stoning for Sabbath breakers and gluttonous children?
- Why did Uzzah die merely for reaching out to steady the ark?
- Did you really kill the 185,000 Assyrians?
- Did you really send the she-bears to maul the youths that taunted Elisha? Why?
“Jesus, we don’t see you doing any of those things – why not?” But they never asked him any of these questions.
One reason for the disciples’ failure to stop and consider the contrast between the humble carpenter of Nazareth and the God who sent the flood is that they were so pre-occupied with this idea that Jesus would establish a worldly kingdom of power and it would seem that they actually wished that Jesus would use methods of force and violence to accomplish that end. Their constant desire was to imagine sitting at Jesus’ right hand in power and this self-centered fantasy blinded them to any real concern about the true character of the King or the true nature of his kingdom.
Amazingly, this destructive behavior continued right into the upper room, the night before Jesus died. The book of Luke describes that in the upper room, “An argument broke out among the disciples as to which one of them should be thought of as the greatest.” (Luke 22:24 GNB)
Now, how would you like this to be your legacy in the most widely read book in human history? God in human form is just about to allow his own children to torture him to death and you are standing around arguing about whether you are going to be the Vice President or the Secretary of State when Jesus finally gets over all this nonsense about service and humility and gets to the real business of establishing his earthly kingdom.
In this context it’s incredible what Jesus did next. “Jesus knew that the Father had given him complete power; he knew that he had come from God and was going to God. So…”
So, what did he do? It would seem to me that perhaps this is precisely the time to exercise some scary OT methods. You know, call down fire from heaven, maybe the earth opens up and Judas is swallowed up, or maybe at least a she-bear walks into the room and growls. What would you do? You’ve had three and a half years to reveal God’s character and the nature of your kingdom to your disciples and now this is their self-centered concern the night before you are about to die? Here is what Jesus did with all that power:
“So, he rose from the table, took off his outer garment, and tied a towel around his waist.” (John 13:3-4 GNB)
... and he washed a dozen pairs of dirty feet. Remarkably, he even washed the feet of his betrayer. A theme of this article will be to contrast God with everyone else and in this story we see the contrast between God in human form as the only one who left the upper room with dirty feet that night - - with his disciples who would all betray him in just a few hours – but yet they left the upper room with clean feet.
And so, after this incredible display of humility and kindness, we just read on a few verses later in John where Phillip asks the natural question which brings us back to that scary “God of the Old Testament”. Phillip said, “Lord, show us the Father; that is all we need."
In other words, “Jesus, we are both amazed and puzzled at your ‘off the charts’ display of love, humility, and kindness, but what about that God of the Old Testament – you know, the real God, the one who did all those violent things – could we see him? Then we will be satisfied.”
Don’t miss Jesus’ incredible reply:
Jesus answered, "For a long time I have been with you all; yet you do not know me, Philip? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. Why, then, do you say, 'Show us the Father'?’” (John 14:8-9 GNB)
“Phillip, the entire revelation of God to this planet is me! That God of the Old Testament – that was me and I have come in human form to clear up any and all misconceptions about God’s character.”
Now, that can’t be true, can it? Gentle Jesus was the God of the Old Testament?
Many times Jesus referred to himself as the “I AM” – the same “I AM” that spoke to Moses at the burning bush. In fact, just a few hours later when the mob came to arrest Jesus in Gethsemane, Jesus said to them, “Who are you looking for?” They replied “Jesus of Nazareth” to which Jesus then responded “I AM.” The “he” in your Bible is added. He literally said “I AM” and it says in the gospel of John that when he declared himself to be the “I AM” that the mob collapsed to the ground.
In 1 Corinthians, Paul said that the God who went with the children of Israel was Christ himself!
“All ate the same spiritual bread and drank the same spiritual drink. They drank from the spiritual rock that went with them; and that rock was Christ himself.” (1 Corinthians 10:3-4 GNB)
And Jesus would interpret the OT this way:
“You have your heads in your Bibles constantly because you think you'll find eternal life there. But you miss the forest for the trees. These Scriptures are all about me!” (John 5:39 MSG)
The entire Bible is the story of God – Who is God? The Son of God, Jesus Christ – who was God in human form. What Jesus is saying here that pertains to our question about the Old Testament God is that Eternal life is through a person, not a book, and this book is only helpful if we read it in such a way that all 66 books bring us to the Person of Jesus Christ.
So, Phillip is scratching the surface. He’s beginning to ask the right questions, but yet it’s very clear that the disciples could not handle all that Jesus wanted to tell them at this point. In fact, as the conversation continued the night before Jesus died, he said to them:
“I have much more to tell you, but now it would be too much for you to bear.” (John 16:12 GNB)
But now, as we turn to the Old Testament, I’d like to ask all of you to put on some glasses before reading any further.
Have any of you been to one of the new 3D movies that are becoming so popular? It’s an incredible experience! Well, we need to put on glasses – let’s just call them “Jesus glasses.”
We are going to look at the Old Testament now, through this lens of Jesus Christ dying on Calvary. This is our God as he really is. This is 3D, 20/20 vision – a clear picture of what our God is like.
In a 3D movie that I watched with my family recently, there was a slightly scary part of the movie where things were coming out at you, and my son got a little scared, so I told him, “just take your glasses off” and of course when you do, things are just fuzzy and not as scary. As we turn to the Old Testament, however, the only glasses that are safe to wear are “Jesus glasses” and I am warning you now that if you remove these glasses at any point in the remainder of this article you will very likely experience very serious side effects!
First, as we begin to adjust to our Jesus glasses, we see that Jesus very clearly told both the religious leaders in his day and his own disciples that they had misread their Old Testament. For example, very early in his ministry he was asked to read from the book of Isaiah. What Jesus did to this passage is fascinating:
“When he stood up to read from the Scriptures, he was given the book of Isaiah the prophet. He opened it and read, ‘The Lord’s Spirit has come to me, because he has chosen me to tell the good news to the poor. The Lord has sent me to announce freedom for prisoners, to give sight to the blind, to free everyone who suffers, and to say, ‘This is the year the Lord has chosen.’ Jesus closed the book, then handed it back to the man in charge and sat down. Everyone in the meeting place looked straight at Jesus. Then Jesus said to them, ‘What you have just heard me read has come true today.’ All the people started talking about Jesus and were amazed…’”(Luke 4:16-22)
– amazed or perhaps shocked would be a better translation!
What is so remarkable about this story is that right after reading from the scroll, the crowd suddenly flips out and they run Jesus out of the synagogue and try to throw him off a cliff. And you’re reading this story and you wonder, “Huh? What just happened? Did I miss something?” So we scramble over to this passage in Isaiah and discover that Jesus omitted their cherished section about God’s vengeance in this Old Testament passage. He just left it out! Here is the passage from Isaiah:
“The Spirit of the Almighty LORD is with me because the LORD has anointed me to deliver good news to humble people. He has sent me to heal those who are brokenhearted, to announce that captives will be set free and prisoners will be released. He has sent me to announce the year of the LORD’S good will and the day of our God’s vengeance, to comfort all those who grieve.” (Isaiah 61:1-2 – GW)
What kind of a grade would Jesus receive in an upper level theology class for just leaving a part of the verse out? Here’s why he left it out. The phrase, “the day of our God’s vengeance” was the section of this passage where the religious leaders all stood up and gave each other a high-5. These were the words that they longed to dwell on, because in their mind, “God’s vengeance” was something that was to be poured out on their enemies. They certainly had not read their Old Testament in a way that would lead them to love, serve and pray for their enemies – and they were deeply offended by Jesus’ reading of this passage.
By the way, speaking of how to treat enemies, have you seen this Old Testament passage in Exodus?
“If you happen to see your enemy’s cow or donkey running loose, take it back to him.” (Exodus 23:4 GNB)
I like to imagine Jesus as a boy reading this passage and thinking, “Now there is the ideal.”
The disciples were also plagued with this same false paradigm, because just a few chapters later in Luke, Jesus was rejected in a town, and the disciples, it would seem, longingly thought about some of the violent stories in the Old Testament:
“Lord, do you wish us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them, even as Elijah did? But He turned and rebuked and severely censured them. He said, ‘You do not know of what sort of spirit you are…’” (Luke 9:54-55 – Amplified)
They must have scratched their heads. “Jesus, come on, you know those OT stories, flex your muscles a little bit – have vengeance on your enemies!” It seems that they would have preferred a God who was that way, but Jesus strongly rebuked their desire for vengeance.
In fact, from the perspective of the religious leaders, Jesus seemed to be a perpetual contradiction to the scriptures. In the famous “sermon on the mount”, Jesus’ first major sermon in which he would announce his platform as king (an inaugural address, of sorts), I’m sure that there was great anticipation to hear what he would say. Maybe some were hoping that he would declare open war against the Romans and that he would use his power to lead them to a miraculous victory – hadn’t they read their Old Testament and concluded that this was the role of the coming Messiah?
But instead, he began his sermon with these words, “Happy are those who know that they are spiritually poor….Happy are those who mourn….Happy are those who are humble…Happy are those who are merciful to others…Happy are those who work for peace…Happy are those who are persecuted…” (Matthew 5)
“Happy are those who are persecuted? “Jesus we are supposed to be the ones who persecute our enemies, not the other way around!” I get the strong impression that as Jesus is giving this remarkable speech that there is murmuring in the crowd. “This isn’t what the Messiah is supposed to say!” The grumbling increases in volume until finally Jesus has to abruptly change the direction of his talk and perhaps raise his arms and shout above the crowd:
“Hold on, hold on: Don’t suppose that I came to do away with the Law and the Prophets. I did not come to do away with them, but to give them their full meaning.” (Matthew 5:17 – CEV)
In other words, “I am not contradicting or doing away with the Old Testament. Rather, I have come to explain it to you.” Or, “I have come to fill it full with meaning.”
Now, listen very carefully to how Jesus would go on to explain the Old Testament:
“You’re familiar with the command to the ancients, ‘Do not murder.’ But I am telling you that anyone who is so much as angry with a brother or sister is guilty of murder.” (Matthew 5:21,22)
Notice that Jesus is taking authority over and is adding meaning to the Old Testament. Because of course it was the Son of God who gave the command, “Do not murder” and he has the authority to add meaning to it, which is “Now I tell you, don’t even hate.” Just reading on:
“You have heard that it was said, 'Do not commit adultery.' But now I tell you: anyone who looks at a woman and wants to possess her is guilty of committing adultery with her in his heart.” (Matthew 5:27-28 – GN)
Just imagine that you are a Pharisee in the audience, and that for years you have looked at the ten commandments on the wall before you go to bed such as “Do not murder” and you would probably think, “Man I’ve been good today, I didn’t kill anyone.” You look down the list and you see the words “Do not commit adultery” and again you pat yourself on the back. “It’s been a good day today because I didn’t commit adultery.”
Jesus fills these Old Testament passages with the much deeper meaning that what God really wants is the law of love written on the heart. But, of course, that message is in the Old Testament, the people just didn’t want to hear it.
“It was also said, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a written notice of divorce.’ But now I tell you: if a man divorces his wife for any cause other than her unfaithfulness, then he is guilty...’” (Matthew 5:31-32)
As he continues, these words should be very cutting to us as Jesus radically tries to move his people to the ideal (you’ve all heard these words before but please read them as if for the first time just now):
“You have heard that it was said, 'An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.' But now I tell you: do not take revenge on someone who wrongs you. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, let him slap your left cheek too. And if someone takes you to court to sue you for your shirt, let him have your coat as well. And if one of the occupation troops forces you to carry his pack one mile, carry it two miles. When someone asks you for something, give it to him; when someone wants to borrow something, lend it to him.” (Matthew 5:38-42 – GN)
“You have heard that it was said, 'Love your friends, hate your enemies.' But now I tell you: love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may become the children of your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:43-44 – GN)
This is radical stuff and sadly it shows that Christians do not often follow the teachings of Christ, but the point to make for now, with regards to the Old Testament is this. Jesus’ repeated words in this sermon “You have heard it said….BUT NOW I tell you…” suggests something critically important to our understanding of the Old Testament. This may sound strange and perhaps even wrong, but please wrestle with this statement. Here it is: There is a hierarchy of truth in scripture.
Why does that sound wrong? Well, one view of inspiration is that since the scripture is God-breathed everything is on an equal plane of truth whether we are in the book of Judges or the gospel of John. But what did we just hear Jesus say? He said that the rules such as ‘eye for an eye’ were not the ideal. That rule is a very, very dim light compared to the very bright light of loving your enemies. In Jesus we can say that Gandhi was right, that “an eye for an eye makes the world blind.”
In fact, let’s consider the context in which many of these rules were given. You will recall that as the children of Israel traveled to Mount Sinai that there was continual rebellion and mutiny against the authority of Moses. We get a pretty good idea as to the state of these people standing at the foot of the mountain, by the rules that God had to give them. For example (reminder - keep Jesus glasses on):
“Do not have sexual intercourse with any of your relatives. Do not disgrace your father by having intercourse with your mother. You must not disgrace your own mother…No man or woman is to have sexual relations with an animal; that perversion makes you ritually unclean” (Leviticus 18:7,23 - GN)
Would God give rules like this if they were not needed, and if those kinds of rules were needed, what does that say about the people? If I could be so bold, even the ten commandments do not clearly reflect the ideal. For example, what would it say about your family if this morning you had to say to them at the breakfast table, “Listen, I am your only husband and father, please do not choose another! And another thing, children, please do not murder any of your classmates in school today. And, to my wife, please don’t commit adultery today.” Is your family very stable if you need those kinds of rules?
God’s family was very unruly at Mount Sinai and so he came in all of his glory, and he scared them – no question – but he did it for a reason. He told Moses:
“I will come to you in a thick cloud, so that the people will hear me speaking with you and will believe you from now on.” (Exodus 19:9 GNB)
God came in the way he did, in part, to suppress the very deep rebellion and to establish Moses’ authority in the minds of the people. Here is our question though, was God “too scary” by shaking the mountain in the way that he did? Did he over-do it? I mean, you would think that if God came to a major U.S. city in this way that most likely obedience and church attendance would pick up for a while. But what were the people doing 40 days after God’s incredible display of power, but dancing drunk around a golden calf. God did not go too far. What we see at Mount Sinai are a scary people, not a scary God.
But now, returning to the Sermon on the Mount, the Pharisees heard in this sermon a multitude of contradictions with the Old Testament. For example, they remembered Jesus’ words about divorce, and in this they saw an opportunity to trap Jesus:
“Some Pharisees came and tried to trap Him with this question: ‘Should a man be allowed to divorce his wife for just any reason?’ ‘Haven’t you read the Scriptures?’ Jesus replied. ‘They record that from the beginning 'God made them male and female.' And He said, 'This explains why a man leaves his father and mother and is joined to his wife, and the two are united into one.' Since they are no longer two but one, let no one split apart what God has joined together.’ ‘Then why did Moses say in the law that a man could give his wife a written notice of divorce and send her away?’ they asked.
Please don’t miss Jesus’ spectacular reply:
‘Moses permitted divorce only as a concession to your hard hearts, but it was not what God had originally intended.’” (Matthew 19:3-8 NLT)
In the Old Testament, divorce was remarkably cruel. You don’t like your wife, get rid of her and bring a new one in the following week. You don’t like her, send her out on the streets and get another. It was essentially the end of that woman’s life. Something had to be done and so we have Old Testament divorce rules. But notice, Jesus’ explanation of why the Old Testament divorce rules were given explains at least half of the hard to understand rules and stories in the Old Testament. Jesus admits in this explanation that his actions and rules in the Old Testament do not reflect the ideal – far from the ideal, in fact. What Jesus is saying is that “in your hard-hearted rebellion I had to say things and do things as a concession because it was the only way that I could reach you.”
Let’s give some specific examples of this principle. Does God approve of polygamy? Does he? What do you think of this command?
“If a man takes a second wife, he must continue to give his first wife the same amount of food and clothing and the same rights that she had before.” (Exodus 21:10 GNB)
“If a man takes a second wife…?” Why didn’t God say, “I forbid polygamy – signed GOD?”
There are two ways of looking at verses like this. One is to be offended that God would seem to allow for something that is so far from the ideal. Another way to view verses like this is to be amazed that God would condescend so dramatically in his attempts to bring his people out of moral darkness one step at a time and how do you bring someone out of a deep dark cave that has been there for many years? Do you bring them out into the noonday sun, or do you bring them first out at night and let their eyes adjust to the stars and the moonlight?
Another example of this principle would be the cities of refuge. In that time, if you were chopping wood and the blade flew off your axe and killed someone walking by, under the system of private vengeance it would be expected for the family of that man to hunt you down and kill you – even though everyone would acknowledge that it was an accident. And so God, rather than saying “I forbid private vengeance” created a safe place to flee. When the high priest died (which might be decades later), the obligation was fulfilled and finally the man could leave that city. Is this the ideal? Do we put this story on the same level of truth as Jesus washing the feet of his disciples?
Once again we see God patiently trying to lead his people to the ideal, but he had to take them just one step in the right direction. This verse in Hosea is very instructive for understanding the Old Testament God:
“The people of Israel are as stubborn as mules. How can I feed them like lambs in a meadow?” (Hosea 4:16, GNB)
In the Old Testament, God is reaching out to stubborn mules and to do that he must speak a language that only a stubborn mule could understand. The question we need to ask is this: “Who looks good in these stories – humanity who needed such bizarre and sometimes severe rules or God who was willing to give them?”
Do we find a scary God in the Old Testament? I would rather say that in the Old Testament we find a scary people and that perhaps only a scary God can reach a scary people.
Alden Thompson once told the story of some missionaries who went to a small country in Africa. In this area it was the tradition for men to beat their wives to show them that they love them! The missionaries were rightly offended by this and over time they were able to convince some of the men that this practice was wrong. But guess what the response was of the women whose husbands stopped beating them? “Why don’t our husbands love us anymore?” Might you need to use some intermediate steps to reach people like this and does this not help us understand the challenges that God faced in Old Testament times?
We typically view God as inflexible and changeless and that every word and every action must reflect the absolute ideal. Rather, the Old Testament reveals God as saying and doing things that are light-years from the ideal.
As another example, did God approve of the monarchy? Instinctively we might say “yes” as we think of King David and that Jesus was a descendant of David, but yet this was not God’s plan. The people said, “We want a king” God said, “No you don’t. That’s a terrible idea. He will take your men to fight for him. He will take your women to join his harem. He’ll raise your taxes. Don’t do it!” The people said, “No, we want a king.” Now, God doesn’t change does he? He doesn’t give in to anything less than the ideal does he? Remarkably, God’s reply, after telling them that it was a terrible idea was to say, “Do what they want and give them a king.” (1 Samuel 8:22)
I believe that God’s choice again and again in the Old Testament was either to abandon his people entirely, or to stoop to meet them where they were.
What about the stoning of Achan? To understand this story, we need to back up and read one of the most stunning verses in the Bible. The people are about to enter the Promised Land, and, if you have ever had the opportunity to read through the Bible quickly, up to this point, you have struggled through 40 years of severe rebellion, chaos, and mutiny against the authority of Moses and God. Finally, against the backdrop of all this and as the people enter the Promised Land they give Joshua these very re-assuring words:
“They answered Joshua, ‘We will do everything you have told us and will go anywhere you send us. We will obey you, just as we always obeyed Moses…” (Joshua 1:16-18 – GN)
“Just as we always obeyed Moses?” Wouldn’t you like to know the look on Joshua’s face when they said that? You just can’t make this stuff up!
But reading on, notice, what is the standard of justice that the people have? “Whoever questions your authority or disobeys any of your orders (Joshua) will be put to death.” What did Achan do just a few days later? He disobeyed God. The standard of justice, in the people’s mind is that disobeying Joshua should result in death? So, what should the penalty be for disobeying God? Do you see the dilemma God is in?
Tim Jennings has a very good illustration of this point. A few years ago an Iraqi grocer and his family were killed and the grocery store was burned down because he had the audacity to place celery sticks next to tomatoes. What’s the problem with that, you ask? Some felt that this was highly offensive because it could be interpreted as an erect male and so he was killed!
Now, if you were appointed governor of this town and you were creating law, let’s say that you decided that drunk driving was serious and that you wanted a penalty that was sufficient to deter this behavior. Suppose that you chose a $500 fine and five days in jail. What would this imply to the people? If celery sticks next to tomatoes results in death, would this not suggest that drunk driving is far less serious? What is God to do when our sense of justice is entirely warped?
But, of course, the other difficult aspect of Achan’s story is that not only was Achan stoned to death, but also his wife, children…even the pets. Why? Once again, we are dealing with a culture and time that is so different from ours. In our time and society, we champion freedom and we are deeply individualistic, but this was not true in Achan’s time. During this time, one’s person and one’s personality extended to the entire family and so Achan’s sin, in the minds of the people, equally involved everyone in his family. And so, once again, God condescended to work within a system of justice that we cannot identify with and that was far, far, from the ideal – and I think it made God sick.
Once again, scary God or scary people?
What about all the fighting in the OT? Why didn’t God just say, “No fighting! I forbid it!”
Jesus, of course, said as much:
“My Kingdom is not an earthly kingdom. If it were, my followers would fight to keep me from being handed over to the Jewish leaders. But my Kingdom is not of this world.” (John 18:38, NLT)
In Jesus we can say that God never wanted them to fight, but again, let’s try to identify with God’s dilemma in Old Testament times.
Imagine that the church next door to the one you attend was representative of the religions of the nations who occupied the Promised Land. What do we know about those religions? They were remarkably cruel – the church experience involved child sacrifice and meeting with temple prostitutes. What’s even more amazing though is that the children of Israel were continually drawn to and tempted by this false worship? Imagine that when you got up for church next week that you had a hard time deciding, “Hmmm…shall I go sacrifice my child to the god Molech and then meet with a temple prostitute, or should I go to my regular church? Tough call!” That would not say very good things about you!
It’s unthinkable that even king Solomon fell into this trap. Several times in the Old Testament God would say, “Do not intermingle. That would be fatal! That would be fatal!” And it was! God knew that his people were deeply drawn to this form of worship and so they had to stay away from them, but yet he did not want them to fight and kill these people. This is evidenced by his repeated words such as, “Let me send the hornet ahead of you to dispose of the nations.” Or “I will send my angel ahead of you.” Or:
“Don’t be afraid of them, for the LORD your God will fight for you” (Deuteronomy 3:22, GNB)
But they didn’t trust God and so it would appear that God (once again as a concession to our hard-hearts) helped them fight, but yet the repeated message was, “I really don’t want you to fight at all!” What God wanted was for them to learn step one: “Put your trust in me.” For example, the first city they conquered was Jericho where the walls miraculously collapsed with a mere shout and some trumpets. Should not the people have realized, “You know what, seems like it’s much more important that we stay connected to God than it is that we have a large army?” There are countless examples of this. Gideon and his 300 men threw an army of Midianites that the Bible describes as so large they were like the sand on the seashore into a panic with nothing more than torches, and God would summarize so many of their conquests this way:
“As you advanced, I threw them into panic…Your swords and bows had nothing to do with it.” (Joshua 24:12)
And we read that when Joshua would conquer a people that: “…he crippled their horses and burned their chariots.” (Joshua 11:9 – GN) How cruel, right? Yes it is, but God is trying to tell the people in the only language they could understand, “Please, don’t have a large military and if you would just put your trust in me, you won’t be doing any of this fighting in the first place.”
Even when David killed Goliath, we miss the words of David as he charged at the giant:
“You are coming against me with sword, spear, and javelin, but I come against you in the name of the LORD Almighty, the God of the Israelite armies, which you have defied. This very day the LORD will put you in my power; I will defeat you and cut off your head (those aren’t the words I was referring to). And I will give the bodies of the Philistine soldiers to the birds and animals to eat. Then the whole world will know that Israel has a God, and everyone here will see that the LORD does not need swords or spears to save his people.” (1 Samuel 17:45-47 GNB)
After watching a boy defeat a giant, did Israel get the message which was “Hey, God does not need swords or spears to save his people!” Fantasize with me for just one second that this event caused the people to have an epiphany. They turned to each other and instead of chasing after the Philistines they proclaimed, “From this day forward we will place our absolute trust in the Lord. The Almighty One will take care of us. Instead of killing our enemies let’s turn our swords into plows. Let’s become a great light to the world about the kind of Person that our mighty God is."
Can you imagine how dramatically different the course of human history would have been? Of course, unfortunately, even David, the one who said those words to Goliath, spent most of his life fighting and killing. And so at the end of his life when David asked if he could build a temple for God, it’s almost as if God had to get it on record, in print, that “I hate this fighting” and God did not allow David to build a temple for him because he was a man of blood.
The Old Testament reveals a scary people, not a scary God or perhaps we could say that only a scary God is capable of reaching a scary people.
To drive this point home, one last Old Testament illustration – what has been called the worst story in the Bible. A man is traveling with his servant and a concubine. It’s getting late and the servant suggests that they spend the night in a heathen town, to which the master replies, “We’re not going to stop in a city where the people are not Israelites. Come on, haven’t you read the story about Sodom and Gomorrah and what the men wanted to do to those two angels? Let’s travel to an Israelite town.” Finally they arrive at Gibeah, a Benjamite city but no one would take them in. Finally an old man took them to his home, but then, God’s people in an eerie parallel to Sodom and Gomorrah, surrounded the house:
“They were enjoying themselves when all of a sudden some sexual perverts from the town surrounded the house and started beating on the door. They said to the old man, ‘Bring out that man that came home with you! We want to have sex with him!’ But the old man went outside and said to them, ‘No, my friends! Please! Don’t do such an evil, immoral thing! This man is my guest. Look! Here is his concubine and my own virgin daughter. I’ll bring them out now, and you can have them. Do whatever you want to with them. But don’t do such an awful thing to this man!’ But the men would not listen to him. So the Levite took his concubine and put her outside with them. They raped her and abused her all night long and didn’t stop until morning. At dawn the woman came and fell down at the door of the old man’s house, where her husband was. She was still there when daylight came. Her husband got up that morning, and when he opened the door to go on his way, he found his concubine lying in front of the house with her hands reaching for the door. He said, ‘Get up. Let’s go.’ But there was no answer. So he put her body across the donkey and started on his way home. When he arrived, he went in the house and got a knife. He took his concubine’s body, cut it into twelve pieces, and sent one piece to each of the twelve tribes of Israel.” (Judges 19:10-29 – GN)
Where is God? As you read this story in Judges, why is there no commentary from God? No fire from heaven. No action, it would seem. Remarkably though, God did comment on this story if we read on to the book of Hosea:
You got your start in sin at Gibeah— that ancient, unspeakable, shocking sin— And you’ve been at it ever since…When Israel was only a child, I loved him. I called out, ‘My son!’—called him out of Egypt. But when others called him, he ran off and left me. He worshiped the popular sex gods, he played at religion with toy gods. Still, I stuck with him. I led Ephraim. I rescued him from human bondage, But he never acknowledged my help, never admitted that I was the one pulling his wagon, that I lifted him, like a baby, to my cheek, that I bent down to feed him…My people are hell-bent on leaving me. They pray to god Baal for help. He doesn’t lift a finger to help them. But how can I give up on you, Ephraim? How can I turn you loose, Israel? How can I leave you to be ruined like Admah, devastated like luckless Zeboim? I can’t bear to even think such thoughts. My insides churn in protest.” (Hosea 10:9; 11:1-10 MSG)
This is a great summary of the Old Testament. What did God do with the rebellion of humanity? “Still, I stuck with him.” How did he feel? “My insides churn in protest!”
Now I ask you, in contrasting this terrible story with the tearful words of God in Hosea, are we dealing with a scary God or a scary people?
Obviously we are only scratching the surface on a handful of the challenges in the Old Testament. But let’s skip all the way forward to the Babylonian captivity. Ezekiel writes from Babylon where the glory of Israel is gone. God’s chosen people who were to be a light to evangelize the entire world to the one true God, have failed. But notice how God described their failure:
“Wherever they went, they gave me a bad name. People said, ‘These are GOD’s people, but they got kicked off his land.’ I suffered much pain over my holy reputation, which the people of Israel blackened in every country they entered. ‘Therefore, tell Israel…I’m not doing this for you, Israel. I’m doing it for me, to save my character, my holy name, which you've blackened in every country where you’ve gone. I’m going to put my great and holy name on display, the name that has been ruined in so many countries, the name that you blackened wherever you went.” (Ezekiel 36:20-23 MSG)
The terrible Old Testament stories reflect negatively on us (humanity), not God. We have ruined God’s reputation. It is in this context that we should consider the arrival of Jesus on the scene and we read in John chapter 1 that:
“No one has ever seen God (because God simply could not clearly reveal himself in Old Testament times – the rebellion and the chaos of his chosen people was so severe). But the unique One, who is Himself God, is near to the Father's heart. He has revealed God to us.” (John 1:18 NLT)
God came in human form to clear up any misconceptions as to what God is like. Just the way he came should say so much to us about who our God is. The God of the Old Testament, the Creator of the Universe, moved into the neighborhood by transporting himself into the womb of one of his sinful creatures and then began the nine month process of growing, cell by cell, into a baby boy.
As we consider the fact that God became a baby, fully dependent on one of his own creatures for milk and diaper change can we still seriously consider the possibility that God may be a severe, vengeful tyrant?
But in closing, the story of a scary people and a loving God has a very disturbing twist.
God could have come at any time in human history. In fact, how do you think Jesus would have been received by any of the rebellious generations that I have described? Of course, we would expect that a kind and humble God would be killed by a group of rebels, and he would have only learned that a group of rebels hate a loving God.
But God waited until, it would seem, that perhaps he had the most devout followers and rule keepers that ever walked the planet. Did they attend church? Every week without fail. Did they pay their tithes and offerings? Jesus even commented on the fact that they even tithed their seeds, they were so careful. Were they still intermarrying with other nations? No, they had completely separated themselves from the heathen. Did they keep the law? They even made an extensive additional list of rules in their zeal to keep the commandments that God had given. Were they involved in mission and outreach projects? Yes, Jesus commented on the fact that they would send missionaries all around the entire world to win one convert. Did they not eagerly await the first coming, just as many of us await the second coming? Did they keep the Sabbath? It is one of the most stunning verses in the entire Bible!
“Then the Jews, since it was the day of Sabbath preparation, and so the bodies wouldn't stay on the crosses over the Sabbath (it was a high holy day that year), petitioned Pilate that their legs be broken to speed death, and the bodies taken down.” (John 19:31 MSG)
Why did they petition Pilate to break the legs of Jesus on Friday night, just as the sun was setting? Because they were afraid that he wouldn’t die fast enough before the Sabbath began and so they wanted to break his legs to speed death. And so they rushed home from the Cross to keep the Sabbath – to worship God. Who is God? The One they had just crucified.
The most devout rule keepers of all time tortured to death the Son of God – once again, a scary people not a scary God.
How is it possible that rebels in the Old Testament, and rule keepers in the New Testament could all hate God so much? “Eternal life is to know God” (John 17:3) and what we see in the Bible is rebels in the Old Testament and rule keepers in the New Testament who both missed the one key essential ingredient: they did not know the truth about what God is like in character. Both groups did not have an intimate relational knowledge of God. They did not know the truth that sets us free, which is the knowledge about the character of the true God – that God (though he is limitless in power) is also the kind of Person who loves his enemies, that God is also kind, gentle, humble and supremely forgiving. They did not know God as a friend.
It seems to me that religions worldwide today place much emphasis on God’s sovereignty, power, and holiness, but as Christians we should come to the world with the message about God’s character that Christ revealed. Doctrine #1 and the foundation of everything else that is important is this: God is exactly as Jesus revealed him to be. Is our picture of God Jesus Christ? That is 20/20 vision.
We who call ourselves Christians, those of us who are wearing the Jesus glasses, have such a unique message for the world. Do you see the one humbly washing the feet of Judas? That is our God. Do you see the one hanging out with tax collectors and prostitutes? That is our God. Do you see the one that chose a group of fishermen to be his disciples? That is our God. Do you see the one dying on a cross and forgiving those who did not even ask to be forgiven? That is our God!
Dr. Brad Cole is chief of neurology at the Loma Linda VA hospital and is the director of neuroscience and neurology education at Loma Linda University (LLU). In 2003 Brad and his wife Dorothee began a weekly Bible study that focused on God’s character with a group of medical students at LLU. This class has steadily grown and can be heard at GodsCharacter.com. Brad and Dorothee coordinated the Good News Tour conferences and also edited Servant God, a multi-authored book about God’s character that was published in 2013 by LLU Press. They have three children and live in Redlands, CA.