Recently received a note from a camp director, and thought it worth blogging a response. Admittedly, what I'm offering here is from the hip, summarizing a lot of different reflections and resources I've read over the years. But perhaps an immediate, from the hip response is in some ways more helpful than an articulate, nuanced, subtle, and possibly obfuscating academic treatise.
Anyway, here's what she wrote:
Could you help me answer some of the college counselors theological questions? I would greatly appreciate your time and responses and links to any good articles or blogs.New question from college summer staff: Why does God seem so volatile and irritable in the Old Testament, yet forgiving and merciful in the New Testament?
Here's my response.
First, I'd tell them that in my experience, a lot of people who read the OT experience this difference between the OT and the NT. There simply is a lot more war, violence, and violent action directed by God in the OT and the NT. So, they were astute to notice this, clearly they have been reading their bibles.
After agreeing, in the sense that this is something anyone reading it would notice, you are right to ask why it seems this way. And I think the most fair response is that, where the OT covers a broad swath of history, and looks for salvation history in the call of a nation and all the vicissitudes of that relationship between a nation and God, the New Testament centers in on the life of one man, Jesus, and the community that is formed out of his death and resurrection.
There actually is a lot of violence in the NT, but it is almost completely directed at one person, Christ. That story is told four times in the NT. It is the violence of the world thrown at Christ while God doesn't save Christ from the violence. So in another way, there is actually a lot of violence in the NT, but it arises out of God's "passivity" rather than activity.
So why is God seemingly more volatile in the OT? Well, for one because the community that lives with this God is coming to a greater and greater understanding of God's work of judgment and mercy. In the early parts of the OT, God is clearly anthropomorphized in a variety of ways. However, as people have mentioned, God is also in the OT more merciful than we sometimes notice, especially because we get so distracted by all of the blood.
But if the OT encompasses more history than the NT, it is not surprising that God will come across in this way, since God is doing nation building, relating to nations as a whole, and so on. Furthermore, and perhaps this is why God is perceived as loving and merciful in the NT more than in the OT, in the NT we have the witness of Jesus Christ to who the Father truly is. So one way to read the OT is to read it now as Christians with Jesus goggles. Clearly Jesus read the OT and had a very different perspective on God than those who read it and find God vindictive. So read the NT, and look at how it uses the OT. Do you think those who read and interpreted the OT in the NT experienced God as volatile and vindictive? I don't. So reading about the use of the OT in the NT can go a long ways towards finding the unity in the two testaments rather than some kind of false and problematic supersessionism.
If I were going to read some theologians on this topic, I'd probably read Walter Brueggemann's Old Testament Theology, a good smattering of Ellen Davis, and any theologians working on the use of the OT in the NT, such as Richard B. Hayes.
One final footnote: Contra those who function out of an outright or disguised supersessionism (the New Testament is somehow superior or transcends the Old Testament) I would actually argue that the Old Testament is, for the most part, working out of a truer theological anthropology than the New Testament. But that would be for another essay.