The notion that there are “different Gods” in the Old and New Testaments – as if the “God of the Old Testament” is full of wrath and the “God of the New Testament” is all grace and mercy – is heretical and hurtful. Let me explain.
Disclosure: I’m a pastor, not a PhD Biblical scholar, historian, or theologian. There’s quite a bit I know, but much more that I do not know. My apologies in advance for the rough edges.
I suspect that this notion of an “Old Testament God” of wrath and a “New Testament God” of grace comes, in part, from a Christian tradition that has embraced “supersessionism” – that is, the notion that Jesus supersedes the covenants and promises of the Old Testament; that he completes, or fulfills, the supposedly unfulfilled promise of the Old Testament and Judaism; and that the Christian Church replaces the Jewish People as God’s chosen people.
If Jesus completes something that was unfinished, then that unfinished thing clearly is “lesser.” If we view it as lesser, we can give it less attention. We can dismiss it. We can mischaracterize it. It’s the “Old” Testament, after all. We have a New one now. A better one. We don’t need to give that Old Testament too much attention.
Malarkey. Here’s why.
When we start with the notion that the Old Testament is less-than, we read its tales of divine punishment with prejudice – that it is a flawed collection of books to begin with. The destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 19), or the death of Uzzah for merely touching the ark after an ox had tripped (2 Samuel 6:7), or the many attributions of suffering to God’s own hand (Psalm 51:8b, for example) sure make God out to be a bit of a wrathful jerk. And so we don’t even try to reconcile or understand these stories, because Jesus in the New Testament makes it all better. We can dismiss much of this violence because, well, Jesus and his grace is coming.
Sidebar: Have you read when Jesus said we should tie a millstone around our necks and throw ourselves into the sea? (Luke 17:2; Matthew 18:6). Millstones are big. They don’t work too well for swimming. Or, what about the time Jesus talked about cutting off our limbs because of sin (Matthew 5:27-30; 18:6-9)? Ouch. (Hey! Where have all the literalists gone?)
As I wrote earlier, this results in a dismissal of the entire Old Testament as barbaric (which gives short shrift to that barnwood art of Micah 6:8 for sale at Hobby Lobby!). If the Old Testament is barbaric, those who adhere to it exclusively (ie, the Jews) must be wretched dogs. Let’s burn their synagogues (so suggested an old and deeply flawed Martin Luther in his disgusting treatise, On the Jews and their Lies). Uh, no.
But what if we read the Old Testament on its own merit? What if we wrestled with these hard texts, and demanded of them a blessing (Genesis 32:22-32) in their own right? And, what if we read these stories not in isolation but in the fullness of the Old Testament’s story of God’s faithfulness, promise, and love? The Old Testament is a rich collection of texts bearing hope, grace, and renewal, including Isaiah 25’s feast where all nations are gathered in God’s presence, Amos 5’s calls for justice and condemnation of injustice; or Hannah’s song of transformation in 1 Samuel 2, among so many others.
Full disclosure: I’m no Biblical literalist. God is not a rock (Psalm 18:2), Jesus is not a gate (John 10:9), and since with God “a thousand years are like a day” (Psalm 90:4; 2 Peter 3:8) I don’t believe that creation (Genesis 1) took place over six literal 24-hour days of divine work and one 24-day of divine rest.
I understand the Bible as a story of faith written by people of faith who are describing and interpreting – on the fly and with the poetic memory of living tradition – their encounters and relationship with God. I trust the broad arc of Scripture, the wisdom of its stories and poetry, and the traditions of the communities who have received, nurtured, and cultivated these treasures.
Sidebar: The idea that scriptures are received, interpreted, and practiced by communities of faith is crucial. This is why, for example, Christians can’t just pick up the Koran and interpret it on our own without dialogue with Muslim communities who have prayed and sought to understand its teachings for centuries. Scripture doesn’t exist in isolation, but is part of a continuous, living community that itself has a wisdom, spirit, and interpretive tradition which necessarily shapes how we read Scripture. That nearly all of the communities which steward these sacred texts are – except for perhaps the most radical and isolated of fringes – not waging holy wars or meting out sacred justice with the sword shows us that these texts are living documents embraced by living communities of faith guided not by isolated examples of scriptural violence but by the broad spirit and story these texts convey.
I’m not going to explain away every instance of divine wrath or punishment in this little essay. What I am going to say is this: the broad arc of the Bible’s story – from Genesis to Revelation – is one of God’s saving action toward a people and a world God so loves. I do not understand every instance of violence the Bible attributes to God. Nor do I understand what the heck Saint Paul is talking about when it comes to baptism of the dead (1 Corinthians 15:29)!
But I do know that in many of these stories instances of divine wrath serve to enact God’s promises to his chosen people, Israel.
- Jericho’s walls fall and the Canaanites slaughtered (Joshua 6)?
God promised to deliver Israel into a new land.
- Sodom and Gomorrah burn (Genesis 19)?
That’s punishment for their wicked failure to extend hospitality to travelers.
- Elijah slaughters the prophets of Baal in grotesque fashion (1 Kings 18)?
False teachings are kept at bay
But Elijah the sword-wielding prophet soon thereafter exits stage right, getting relieved of his prophet duties. I contend that God’s question in the cave, “Elijah, what are you doing here?” – 1 Kings 19:13 – is spoken with a tone of anger and disappointment, not one of tender, comforting concern.
Yes, I read much of Scripture’s violence with a narrative lens – asking, “what’s happening in the story here?” – and that story-telling perspective limits my horror. I do not read these stories literally – as if they are carefully re-counted stories of history – but instead read them as truth-bearing tales of God’s promise prevailing over forces that would obscure this promise. Since I do not read these texts literally, I do not in any way glorify the violence, nor do I believe that it is our call to literally take up swords and follow some supposed example of warring in the name of the Lord. “Vengeance is mine,” says the Lord (Deuteronomy 32:35). Vengeance is not ours to enact.
Furthermore, some of the gut-wrenching violence told of in the Old Testament is certainly not blessed by God, but instead are an honest telling of human wretchedness that demands our condemnation. King David’s evil with Bathsheba (sending Bathsheba’s husband Uriah to his death and then claiming her as his own wife – 2 Samuel 11) led to his own condemnation, along with turmoil and death within his own household. The rape and dismemberment of a concubine in Judges 19 is a horrific display of human sin, set toward the end of the Book of Judges not as an example of faithful living but as a warning sign of just how evil humanity can get. This violence showcases, too, the chaos and violence that occurs in the absence of faithful, moral leadership.
The New Testament – that collection of books that tell of Jesus and his grace – has plenty of judgment, wrath, and violence of its own. As mentioned above, Jesus speaks plenty of difficult, even violent, words. In the Book of Acts, we see two disciples – Ananias and his wife – die upon hearing Peter’s condemnation of their failure to give all they owned to the church (Acts 5:1-11). Revelation, a vision rich in symbolism, describes great battles, death, and destruction.
All this is to say: stories of violence in the Bible are not unproblematic. The tradition has contended with Biblical violence in ways that I’m only starting to learn. Here’s a wonderful essay from the Jewish Chronicle on the violence perpetrated against the Egyptians at the Exodus, and the Jewish tradition’s long struggle with the ethics of this event. These stories certainly should give us pause.
But as we pause to consider the meaning of violence in these stories, we should also dare both to look in, with, and under the violence, and to step back from the violence to get a broader perspective from the Bible’s grand narrative. We should strive to find the justice in the story, seek the reason this story was told over and over again by our ancestors, and embrace the blessing – whatever there may be of it – the story itself has to offer.