So, what do you do with this idea, this itchy, twitchy, unsettling feeling that the God who seems to be presented in the Old Testament accounts appears a lot darker, a lot more ‘fire and brimstone’ than the God encountered in the New Testament?
My friend Rachel asked me “How do I come to terms with a loving Father who thinks nothing of consigning entire tribes of individuals of His own creation to violent death, just because they aren’t in his favoured group of humans, selected on the tenuous basis of their genetic connection to someone who had faith?”
How can you reconcile the God who wipes out everyone bar Noah and his family, the God who wipes out the Egyptian firstborn, the God who encourages the Israelites to rampage their way through Judges Chapter 10, with the God that the New Testament tells us is born and lives amongst us and gives Himself up to a hideous death on a cross?
How can we people of faith hope to accommodate these extremes?
I read some of the 2.3 million Google hits about it (Old v New Testament God), and a lot of it seemed to boil down to, “well God’s God and we have to like it or lump it!” To me it isn’t a satisfactory answer to just say something that basically equates to, “Never mind, it all turns out nice in the end!”
So, in answer to Rachel’s question I’ve been thinking… In no particular order of preference (or indeed efficacy) …
I think we do ourselves – and the problem – a disservice by dividing things along a line of Old v New Testament in the first place. Yes, we have that time-travelling effect of turning over from Malachi 4:6 to Matthew 1:1 – one turn of the page and its 400 or so years later – but it isn’t like God took a break in the meantime, a deep breath before the Incarnation, if you will.
Loads of stuff happens in those intervening years! Just because the evangelical protestant faith is a bit sketchy of whether or not to include books like 1 and 2 Maccabees in the canon of scripture it doesn’t mean they’re not useful. Reading how Mattathias ben Johanan and family inspire and lead a 40 year long revolt against the Greek Seleucid Empire, you get a feeling of the cultural and historical grounding of much of the New Testament – such as the whole “abomination of desolation” idea. It shows a people and a God that remain intertwined throughout the turbulent history of the place and times they live in.
See, I’m a fan of the idea that there’s a story that flows through Scripture, an unfolding narrative that continually and progressively reveals the character and nature of God to a people who grow slowly in understanding and experience of the divine.
This got me thinking – naturally – of Mr Darcy in Pride and Prejudice.
At the beginning of Jane Austen’s classic, Mr Darcy is seen as a distant and arrogant snob … by the end his true character is revealed, showing him to be a man of deep integrity and no small passion.
The story of Scripture, to me, takes us as readers (and believers) along a path that draws us closer and closer to a God who was always kind, always loving and always merciful. The story draws us past some of those moments where real, honest (and merited) outrage and/or confusion reigns – for example, why would God tell Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac; what on earth was going on around Abraham that meant he wouldn’t just stick a metaphorical two fingers up to God when presented with that barbaric request? (Here’s a bit of a sermon I did around this)
For Christians, we see this idea of God slowly revealing his true character to His followers coming to full fruition in Jesus.
We seem to start with a God who issues a series of decrees, blessings and curses to His people.
We see a God that gives a set of commandments – “Thou shalt not” being a favourite phrase.
(I prefer the idea that we’re looking at nine commands and one promise, i.e. if you live your life like this – have no gods before me etc. – you’ll end up at the point where you won’t covet anyone else’s life, you’ll be content in yours!)
Then, Jesus sums up the ten in just two – love God and love your neighbour, moving from possibly negative prescriptive language to words that inspire an attitude of heart rather than a rule of behaviour.
We seem to start with a God who demands an enormous amount of blood to be spilled in order to mollify Him.
We see the institution of a sacrificial system, a demanding set of rules and regulations about what and how and when and where you sacrifice – I mean, what the dickens is a “wave offering” anyway?
But, we also see a God who consistently communicates that He “desires mercy not sacrifice” (Hosea 6:6) and that He takes “no pleasure in the blood of bulls and lambs and goats” (Isaiah 1:1).
Then Jesus comes, and puts the issue of blood sacrifice to bed once and for all – watch “The Gods Aren’t Angry” by Rob Bell for a brilliant explanation of all this.
We seem to start with a God who will order, or at best condone, the destruction of cities and entire tribes.
But we also see a God that tells His people that they are to live in peace with ‘alien’ people amongst them and to treat them as ‘native-born’ (Leviticus 19:33-34). We see a God who, through Jeremiah, reminds His people, “do no wrong or violence to the alien” (Jeremiah 22:3).
Then Jesus asks a religious, devout people who their neighbour is – who it is that they should treat as one of their own – when he tells the story of the Good Samaritan, turning the notion of “us v them” on its foolish head.
What’s going on here?
Unsurprisingly, this makes me think about atomic structure.
When I was first taught about it, the idea was that the atom was like a tiny solar system, with the electrons spinning in fixed orbits around a nucleus. That was easy to understand – and easy to draw in my science book.
Nowadays, thanks to groovy things like quantum theory and Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, the idea of this mini planetary system has long since been discarded in favour of electrons that orbit in an electron cloud of ‘probability distribution.’ Not so easy to draw in the science book that one!
Not so easy to explain to a Year 7 pupil either … you start from a point that’s relatively accessible and build on that to the more complicated stuff.
Maybe, just maybe, that’s partly how this thing called faith plays out.
What I mean with this is that as understanding grows, the picture of the thing we’re looking at evolves, changes, becomes closer to the reality – whether that’s the internal structure of an atom, or an understanding of the divine!
Being honest, I’m painfully aware that this doesn’t really answer Rachel’s original question – I’m not certain there’s ever a totally satisfactory one Rachel. At the end of it all, I’m drawn back to the idea that our understanding isn’t the final arbiter, the final word on the who, what, where and why of the experience of God for any of us. The final word is Jesus.
That’s where the hope is for me, a hope embodied in the story, life and person of Jesus saying that there is a different way to understand God – a good way, a way that says, “Here! Look at me! This is who I really am!”
And, even though it sometimes feels as though that’s a trite or an easy answer, it’s the best one we’ve got.
My understanding tells me that Jesus sums it up, that He is the picture of God that we’re supposed to see first and foremost. And, for what it’s worth, it’s my experience too – when I read the Bible thinking about it through that lens, it helped me see the righteousness, the peace, the mercy and the love of God throughout all history … even when the tensions of Old v New raise their ugly head!