One of the modern criticisms of Christianity is that God seems different in the Old Testament than in the New. In the Old Testament, God is wrathful, commits genocide, is angry, etc, etc. Then in the New Testament he shows up and says, “love!” I have long held that it was the people who changed, not God. Maybe people were more civilized by the time of Jesus. After all, apparently they weren’t regularly stoning adulterers, although the practice hadn’t ever been renounced. Or maybe they had turned over the messy business of putting people to death to the Roman Empire. But even that was compromising with their own laws. At any rate, it has always seemed likely to me that human civilization was in different places in the OT and the NT and that God adjusted tone accordingly.
Then last week, a slightly different theory struck me. You seem I read the outstanding book Ideas that Changed the World by Felipe Fernandez-Armesto last week. In it he points out something I have heard from other sources as well; that the ancient Hebrews were the source of the idea of a loving deity:
The idea that God should take an abiding interest in creation and especially in some particular part of it seems rashly speculative. Most Greek thinkers of the Classical era ignored or repudiated it. . . The starting point of the thinking that led to the idea of a God of love was raised by the ancient Jewish doctrine of creation. If God created the world, what was in it for him? The Old Testament compilers had no obvious answer, but they did postulate a special relationship between God and his “choosen people.” Occassionally, they called this “faithful, everlasting love” and likened it to the feelings of a mother for a child at the breast. . . The identification of God with love, which was enthusiastically taken up by Christ and his followers, was emotionally satisfying – a powerful, spiritual, creative emotion, known to everyone from experience. By making God’s love universally embracing, rather than favoring a chosen race, Christianity acquired universal appeal.
I have heard it argued that all of the wrath, war and judgement of the Old Testament were the reaction of a righteous God to a sinful people. However, what if there was a lot more at stake? What if it was this particular idea – that God is loving – that motivated God to be so wrathful and willing to send people off to war?
Some people would reject outright that this idea of a loving God could ever justify the crimes of the OT. God is too good and loving, they believe, to ever actually co-sign, much like advocate violence and war. A God of love and a God of war are mutually incompatible. I would likely have agreed with this perspective some time ago. However, a while back, I spent a substantial amount of time meditating on what it says about God that we live in a world where animals eat each other. Not only to they eat each other, but if you have ever seen a carnivore consume its prey, it does it with an almost startling ruthlessness. Its prey may not even be dead before the hunter starts to rip into its flesh. Most meat eaters chew their meat while just looking around, unconcerned about much of anything. From our human perspective, the whole thing is quite unseemly. After spending a couple of years meditating on what this set-up is telling us about God, I came to the conclusion that it reflects a certain ruthlessness that God has when it comes to re-establishing his relationship with humanity. The same God that would command his people to war allowed his own son to be put to death. Every saint testifies that their intimate relationship with God came out of suffering of the most intense sort. And they all say it was worth it.
Perhaps in the end, it all comes down to what it is that God was fighting for. There is a great deal of truth to the idea that such measures were needed for the Hebrew people to survive in their rather brutal world. However, is that actually an important enough for God to dirty himself with all that wrath and war? A particular people, worship, even recognition as the ruler of the universe all seem too petty to justify the carnage to both Hebrews and their neighbors. But does it change things if what God was actually fighting for was this idea: that He is a loving God?
We should not underestimate the importance of this idea. If the gods are petty, warring, immoral and power hungry, then the humans who follow them have a particular model of the proper structure of a society, the behavior of rulers from kings to fathers. Human rights as we understand them could never come from a society ruled by the gods of ancient Sumer. A God of love recasts all of our relationships both with each other and the divine. Love is one of the only things really worthy of dying for. The protection of this idea and the demonstration of what love looks like with this one group of people would have been a massively compelling reason for God to dirty his hands with our barbaric ways. If the Hebrews needed to survive in order for this idea to move forward and out into the whole of the world for the redemption of mankind, then God’s willingness to resort to what were probably necessary extremes seems a bit more understandable.
Anyhow, just some ideas? What do you think? Can God be both the God of love and have a hand in the violence of the O.T.? Is love a good enough reason? Or are love and war so mutually incompatible that God cannot or would not watch over both?
Anyhow, just some thoughts.