An Argument In Support of an Angry God

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.

10 thoughts on “An Argument In Support of an Angry God

  1. This is good, Rebecca. I think wrath and love are opposite sides of the same coin. As sinful humans, it’s difficult for us to comprehend both, but God’s love does not exclude his wrath, and his wrath does not exclude his love. He fulfills them both perfectly. Wow! You’ve done so much study. What a tough post to write and read!

  2. “I’m starting a war for peace.”

    A god who orders “his” people to rip open the bellies of pregnant women and “leave nothing left alive” including women, children, babies, and animals, does not get my vote as someone who has thus proven himself “loving”. I think the Canaanites and the first-born Egyptians would agree with me (if only they had survived God’s “love”.)

    The NT did not invent love. It existed in other cultures long before these Biblical demonstrations of divine, barbaric wrath. So, none of these cruel deaths were needed for someone to finally hit upon the idea of love, or even of a god of love.

  3. Rebecca, some questions I have for you:
    1. If Jesus Christ is truly God incarnate, God in the flesh, how is it that you think Canaanite genocide is compatible with Jesus’ teachings? For example, why did Jesus (who is God) promote ideas such as the ones found in Galatians 3:28? “There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

    2. Findings in the field of archaeology or Biblical archaeology have not found any evidence that a genocide of the Canaanites ever actually happened. In light of this, what do you think this says about the type of literature that the author(s) were writing when they wrote Joshua?

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    1. Alex, thanks for stopping by and commenting!

      My argument is that although God does not change, people and even circumstances do. It’s like parenting. If my 10 year old took the car out for a spin, he’d be in a great deal of trouble. But at `16 I’ll actively teach him how to drive. It’s not that I’ve changed or my standards have changed. Or if I was living under an oppressive regime and wanted to get myself and my family out, I may instruct my children to do things like lying, being deceptive or even stealing as part of the plan. But that doesn’t mean that I generally approve of lying, being deceptive or stealing and when we escape, it wouldn’t really be inconsistent for me to then emphasize the value of honesty. Circumstances are important.

      Also, our perceptions change over time. When my boys were young, they thought I had no sense of humor because I don’t find fart jokes funny. Today they think I’m one of the funniest people they know. So, the Hebrews may have believed that God authorized genocide because he cared for them more and wanted them to have the land. I can look at the same story and come to an entirely different understanding of God’s motivations.

      I am aware of the lack of evidence for the Canninite genocide. I am also aware that the war stories in the OT bear similarities to the way that surrounding cultures described their wars and conquests. It may well be that the events in Joshua never actually happened or have been greatly exaggerated. But even if that is the case, the stories are there and I presume it is for a reason. I don’t view the bible as a history book and am no literalist myself. However, I have found that it is much more interesting and usually productive to wrestle with the text than it is to say, “probably didn’t happen anyways” and just leave it at that. Plus, this approach minimizes the division in the body between those who are more literalist and those who hold the word more loosely. Hopefully by wrestling with the text I can find truths which are helpful and enlightening whether the stories are literally true or not.

      1. Thanks, Rebecca, for the explanation. It has given me food for thought. I’ll definitely be continuing to wrestle with this issue (which is a good thing).

  4. With regards to whether the Canaanite genocide actually happened– what if it wasn’t the purpose of the Hebrew writers to give a factual account? What if they were purposefully using exaggeration and superlatives in order to emphasize the power of their God, and that their God was giving them the land and taking it away from the other peoples? What if this was a perfectly acceptable literary form to use according to their own culture? And what if God accommodated this mindset in light of God’s intention to send the Messiah through this people?

    In short, maybe God never ordered genocide in the first place, and that’s why it didn’t happen– and we’re just expecting the Bible to be a different kind of book than it, in fact, is.

    1. Well, then we should be honest about it and not call the OT “God’s Word” anymore.

      If there is a God, then equating him/her/it with Jehovah of the OT would be about the biggest insult one could hurl at him/her/it.

      1. Hmm. To me, this seems a misunderstanding of what Jehovah of the OT was about. I see God as always needing to accommodate any revelation about God to the understanding and mindset of the peoples who received it. What if it could still be God’s word if understood in those terms– as an incarnation of divine revelation in terms of human understanding?

        In any event, “God’s Word” in capitals, as far as I can tell from the Bible itself, means Jesus, not the written word.

      2. So God wanted them to understand him as someone who demanded them to disembowel pregnant Canaanite women, and run their swords through children’s bodies, and to “not let your heart feel sorry for them”? That’s how this “God of love” wanted to be understood by them?

        Evidently these people had some sense of empathy which “God’s word” demanded that they suppress in order to steal the land and murder all of the inhabitants. It seems a no-brainer to me that “God’s word” was written by people who wanted a war god to justify their cruel actions and persuade the masses to override their empathy in order to engage in genocide. Religion has ever been used in this manner to manipulate ignorant people into committing atrocities in its name: atrocities they would not otherwise be likely to commit.

        The Bible even relates that this God purposely “hardened” people’s hearts in order to show off in what spectacular ways he could punish the innocent. Even Moses and Abraham expressed dismay at the destructive tendencies of this god: asking him to show a little compassion. So I don’t think it was a case of God dumbing-down his image to them in order to come off as the war god they would understand; the Bible shows them not understanding his cruelty in some cases.

        There’s a simple solution to the dilemma: Reading it without preconceived notions of a divine origin quickly reveals that the Bible is obviously not something inspired by any god. It is simply the product of superstitious, barbaric men.

  5. PS. I see that the above hypothesis is probably fairly close to the premise of Douglas Earl’s book. For myself, this is only one of the questions I’m currently asking. No conclusions reached yet.

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