Saturday, May 12, 2012

Why does God seem so volatile and irritable in the Old Testament, yet forgiving and merciful in the New Testament?

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. 


  1. Clint, counselors, et. al.,
    You’ve already alluded to one important part of the answer. Actually, the same Father acts in the same ways in the OT as in the New, but we see the actions with different, more familiar eyes (with the added hindsight of Jesus' revelation.) Consider Genesis, where God has every right to take the lives of His children for their disobedience. (After all, the motivation was no “prank” or just a teenage rebellion or even to “see what they could get away with.” Rather, it was their effort to be like God—committing the fundamental original sin of putting ourselves first rather than upholding our relationship to our creator. Nothing could be more basic—it’s like the prodigal’s renouncing his bonds of family—and yet God’s reaction is not only to give humankind another chance, but to help them start afresh (animal skins.) God’s very act of providing His covenant and the system of laws whereby His chosen people could live in harmony as a model and magnet to other peoples was the Father’s grace and love in action. (Compare this connection with the chosen people’s neighbors, who thought they had to endure arbitrary and insensitive—or at least indifferent--“gods” and appease them.) Moreover, it should be remembered that the violence noted in a preliminary skimming of the OT actually applied to both the conquered Canaanites and God’s chosen people when they strayed too far from His mission for them/(us). God the Father is an equal opportunity wrath-dispenser. He doesn’t bring destruction upon the Canaanites is “complete”. He applies the same treatment to His own people when they fall away as He did to those (“Amorites” in Gen 15:16) that were conquered. Many in my congregation got agitated over the terminology that God “repented”, but we see that again and again in the OT—from Lot through Moses and the Judge stories through King Hezekiah and more. Then, too, He rescued His chosen people over and over again in the Judges stories. He never forgot His people—even in the midst of the punishment of dismemberment and exile,there was always a “remnant” preserved to start anew. (And God used unlikely avenues such as emperor Cyrus—an OT “anointed” figure—through which the chosen people could rebuild!) Though David paid a prescribed price for his heinous behavior (perhaps not atypical for kings of his era, but contrary to God’s laws), God still favored him with a promised dynasty, extending the covenant of Grace with Abraham forward toward the birth of Jesus. God sent prophet after prophet to warn the chosen people of the consequences that were building up as they strayed. The language of the prophets as they foretold the impending doom is reprised in the apocalyptic sections of Mark, Matthew, and Revelation. (However one reads Revelation, the violent imagery it utilizes renders the OT accounts pedestrian by comparison . . .) But Revelation ultimately reprises Genesis and restores the imagery of the Garden. The grace He showed us in creation, he dispenses to His faithful all over again at the end of time. Those who persevere are promised not only a glorious appearance but a glorious hereafter in the closest relationship with the creator imaginable since creation. Judgment, yes. Consequences, of course. But undeserved mercy and forgiveness throughout. In short, the God of grace operates throughout the Bible—we just have to be more alert to recognize His operation in the narrative—to get up to 30,000 feet and look at the “big picture” in the narrative rather than getting caught in the details of the streets.

  2. Sometimes it's because we read the Bible in English. When the she-bears came out and attacked the 42 "little children" in II Kings 2:23-24, only a Hebrew reader would know that these were young men, not little children; that they had surrounded Elijah and were cursing him to death, probably as a prelude to mob violence and possibly murder; and that the bears scratched, slapped and bit them, but didn't kill them.

  3. I do find it interesting that most people ask this as a literary question, and then we have a tendency to answer it as a God question... :) thanks to both of you for your additional responses. It adds to the richness of the conversation.

  4. Anonymous11:45 AM

    My main concern is that modern Christian readers not assume that the OT = "Jewish" view of God, while NT = "Christian" view of God. The view of God taught in modern Judaism is just as nuanced and complicated, as well as emphasizing God's loving kindness and self-emptying forgiveness, as is taught in Christian circles.

  5. I agree that sometimes when Christians criticize the OT, there is a latent anti-Semitism backside of their reflections.

  6. God in the first testament is THE main character - in the second, God is both at a greater distance and filtered through Jesus. God's depiction depends on what the author needs to convey about God - strength, dependability, mercy, hope, holiness. Some of the most beautiful, gracious descriptions of God are in Isaiah - as are some at God's most irritable. God in the Torah is very changeable, almost as if God is learning how to deal with us, and I love that. If we didn't have that portrait, how would we ever have hope that prayer was effective? It was an important question for the authors of Genesis and Exodus (and Deuteronomy), so that's how they show the relationship between God and Abraham, God and Moses - the humans bargain and God changes his mind.
    Randi Henderson (Mt. Comfort Presbyterian)

  7. Manisha Dostert7:38 AM

    I love this post. I would add the following:
    1. The OT covers hundreds of years of human history, whereas the NT only about 100 years, and those years were when the Christian sect of Judaism enjoyed a minority status and the joys of persecution that went along with it. If the New Testament were extended even past the time of Constantine, there would be plenty of violence in the NT.

    2. There is plenty of violence in the New Testament, both direct and implied. I always thought it was so weird that in Acts 5, just after the church is born, Ananias and Sapphira fall down and die because they lied, causing great fear to seize the church. What a violent response to a very human attribute.

    Then, there are the texts that have provided centuries of suffering in the name of Christ—torturing and killing Jews because of mob shouting "Crucify!"; demanding obedience to masters by slaves; claiming as holy submission one spouse bowing to another’s demands; telling women keeping their mouths shut; claiming whoever resists political authorities resists God's appointed institution of authority (Rom 13). In other words, you can find “violence interpreted” readily accessible and available in the NT.

    3. There is, to me, and the likes of John Howard Yoder and Stanley Hauerwas, one distinct difference between the OT and the NT: the incarnation of God as a non-violent embodiment to resisting evil and conquering sin. Rene Girard has argued it was there in the OT, but we humans need scapegoats, so we ignore it and reinterpret human history to justify our responses to sin and evil. Jesus Christ is the human and divine response to violence and sin and evil: no violence against another, but instead embodying the truth: love is more powerful than hate, goodness is more powerful than evil, and refusing to harm another is more powerful in fighting than violently tearing each other apart.