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.

Book Of Job – Defense!

This is my third installment of a series of posts taking another look at the end of the Book of Job.  (The other two are here and here.)  Today I’m going to look at Chapters 40 and 41 together.

The LORD said to Job:

2 “Will the one who contends with the Almighty correct him?
Let him who accuses God answer him!”

3 Then Job answered the LORD:

4 “I am unworthy—how can I reply to you?
I put my hand over my mouth.
5 I spoke once, but I have no answer—
twice, but I will say no more.”

6 Then the LORD spoke to Job out of the storm:

7 “Brace yourself like a man;
I will question you,
and you shall answer me.

8 “Would you discredit my justice?
Would you condemn me to justify yourself?
9 Do you have an arm like God’s,
and can your voice thunder like his?
10 Then adorn yourself with glory and splendor,
and clothe yourself in honor and majesty.
11 Unleash the fury of your wrath,
look at all who are proud and bring them low,
12 look at all who are proud and humble them,
crush the wicked where they stand.
13 Bury them all in the dust together;
shroud their faces in the grave.
14 Then I myself will admit to you
that your own right hand can save you.

This another one of those passages which we normally read “and God tells Job off”.  But let’s look more closely.  First God asks Job if he would correct God and Job declines. Job doesn’t take back anything he said earlier.  He doesn’t apologize for what he has said.  He just declines and listens.

Then God tells Job what He (God) is doing and why He (God) is coming down to speak to Job.  Throughout the Book of Job before God appears, Job has been insisting that it was not his own sin that brought this misery upon himself.  He doesn’t claim to be perfect, but he has depended on God’s mercy and forgiveness.  Job was faithful and trusts that there is an explanation for what has happened that doesn’t involve God holding some sin against him.  But Job cannot convince anyone else to see that.  Part of Job’s complaint is that those who do not know or love God are now looking down upon him (Job).  In Job’s downfall the proud find more reason to be proud and the wicked feel even more justified in taking the path of wickedness.  Where once Job’s life and faith had been a reproof to those who were proud and wicked, now that he was in such a miserable, weak and pitiful state, his life and faith looked to the proud and the wicked as evidence that God is not to be trusted.

God’s questions point to Job’s inability to counter this state of affairs.  Job cannot bring the proud low or destroy the wicked.  He cannot clothe himself in glory.  He cannot defend himself or God.  If he could, then God would not need to come down and do it for him.  You see, God did not appear to defend himself – God does not need to defend himself.  He came down to defend his servant Job.  To do for Job what Job could not do for himself.  And in this defense, God also offers a way forward for Job and others who find themselves on the very edge of destruction:

“Look at Behemoth,
which I made along with you
and which feeds on grass like an ox.
16 What strength it has in its loins,
what power in the muscles of its belly!
17 Its tail sways like a cedar;
the sinews of its thighs are close-knit.
18 Its bones are tubes of bronze,
its limbs like rods of iron.
19 It ranks first among the works of God,
yet its Maker can approach it with his sword.
20 The hills bring it their produce,
and all the wild animals play nearby.
21 Under the lotus plants it lies,
hidden among the reeds in the marsh.
22 The lotuses conceal it in their shadow;
the poplars by the stream surround it.
23 A raging river does not alarm it;
it is secure, though the Jordan should surge against its mouth.
24 Can anyone capture it by the eyes,
or trap it and pierce its nose?

Job 41

1 [a]“Can you pull in Leviathan with a fishhook
or tie down its tongue with a rope?
2 Can you put a cord through its nose
or pierce its jaw with a hook?
3 Will it keep begging you for mercy?
Will it speak to you with gentle words?
4 Will it make an agreement with you
for you to take it as your slave for life?
5 Can you make a pet of it like a bird
or put it on a leash for the young women in your house?
6 Will traders barter for it?
Will they divide it up among the merchants?
7 Can you fill its hide with harpoons
or its head with fishing spears?
8 If you lay a hand on it,
you will remember the struggle and never do it again!
9 Any hope of subduing it is false;
the mere sight of it is overpowering.
10 No one is fierce enough to rouse it.
Who then is able to stand against me?
11 Who has a claim against me that I must pay?
Everything under heaven belongs to me.

12 “I will not fail to speak of Leviathan’s limbs,
its strength and its graceful form.
13 Who can strip off its outer coat?
Who can penetrate its double coat of armor[b]?
14 Who dares open the doors of its mouth,
ringed about with fearsome teeth?
15 Its back has[c] rows of shields
tightly sealed together;
16 each is so close to the next
that no air can pass between.
17 They are joined fast to one another;
they cling together and cannot be parted.
18 Its snorting throws out flashes of light;
its eyes are like the rays of dawn.
19 Flames stream from its mouth;
sparks of fire shoot out.
20 Smoke pours from its nostrils
as from a boiling pot over burning reeds.
21 Its breath sets coals ablaze,
and flames dart from its mouth.
22 Strength resides in its neck;
dismay goes before it.
23 The folds of its flesh are tightly joined;
they are firm and immovable.
24 Its chest is hard as rock,
hard as a lower millstone.
25 When it rises up, the mighty are terrified;
they retreat before its thrashing.
26 The sword that reaches it has no effect,
nor does the spear or the dart or the javelin.
27 Iron it treats like straw
and bronze like rotten wood.
28 Arrows do not make it flee;
slingstones are like chaff to it.
29 A club seems to it but a piece of straw;
it laughs at the rattling of the lance.
30 Its undersides are jagged potsherds,
leaving a trail in the mud like a threshing sledge.
31 It makes the depths churn like a boiling caldron
and stirs up the sea like a pot of ointment.
32 It leaves a glistening wake behind it;
one would think the deep had white hair.
33 Nothing on earth is its equal—
a creature without fear.
34 It looks down on all that are haughty;
it is king over all that are proud.”

OK, there’s a lot here and I’m not going to go deep into detail.  But I’m going to point out a few things and then I would suggest going back and re-reading this section with these things in mind.

First, God speaks of the Behemoth.  God says that he made it the same way that he made us.  So, it seems reasonable to think that it’s a real animal.  Based on the description, many people think that it refers to the hippo.  I don’t see anything in the description that contradicts this, so I’m going to assume that it’s a reference to a hippo as well.  A hippo, unlike the other animals that God speaks of in chapter 38 is one that we humans have never come remotely close to domesticating.  As a matter of fact, to this day a hippo is the most dangerous animal in Africa.  It is so dangerous to those who it perceives as a threat that God himself says that he would use a sword to approach the animal.

After pointing to an animal of His own making, God points to the Leviathan.  Unlike the Behemoth, no one has come up with a credible real-life creature that fits the description of the Leleviathan.  I believe that this is because the Leviathan is not a real creature.  It is one of the mythical creatures that we humans have imagined ourselves.

As God points out, this creature – a product of our own minds – knows how to respond to attack.  God contrasts the way that his own creation – the Behemoth – and our creation – the Leviathan – respond to threats, attacks and attempts to enslave them to the way we respond to these same things.  When faced with threats, attacks and attempts at capture, we beg and bargain and are even willing to offers ourselves as slaves and pets.  This is the way of the domesticated animal.  But God is saying – look at your own creation, the Leviathan.  We have it in us to envision an animal just as – if not more – difficult to attack, capture and enslave than anything God has created in the physical world.  Everything in creation belongs to God, not just because it belongs to Him, but because it reflects something in himself that he was able to bring forward into a physical reality.  We can’t create a Leviathan in the physical world, but it is a creation that comes out of something in ourselves as well.  God is telling Job and us that we do know what to do to face down an attacker (The Accuser) who would like to capture and enslave us.

Job knows that he isn’t suffering because of his own sin – both because of his faithfulness and because he knows that God is just as faithful with his mercy and forgiveness.  He knows he is right but he can’t convince anyone else of this reality.  He is sitting on the ground, suffering and being ridiculed.  So God appears to defend Job where he cannot defend himself and also to tell Job how to defend himself.  Fight.  When the enemy attacks, we can’t act like a domesticated animal and become a slave, a beast of burden or a pet.  We were not made to be domesticated by God’s enemy.  When we are attacked, we should fight back in such a way that the Accuser “will remember the struggle and never do it again”.