And we’re back!
Sheila (who blogs at http://agiftuniverse.blogspot.com/) asks: “Why is the God of the Old Testament so different from the God of the New? One minute it’s the flood, fire and brimstone, and the next it’s ‘God does not desire the death of the wicked.’ One minute it’s ‘sacrifice these animals in this way,’ and the next it’s ‘I desire mercy not sacrifice.’”
This is a question which troubled the Church in the early days. It boils down to the apparent contradiction between the harshness of God in the Old Testament and the gentleness and love of Jesus in the New Testament. Jesus is supposed to be God, right? Well, then why does He pretty much contradict what God said to the Israelites?
There are three basic ways of approaching this question.
The first is that the Old Testament and the New Testament tell the story of two different gods, one harsh and evil (that would be the Old Testament) and one good (Jesus in the New Testament). This was the belief of the Gnostics, whom we’ve discussed before. Typical monotheists don’t like the idea of having two co-eternal, equally powerful deities, one pure good, the other pure evil. Besides, Gnostics had a whole bunch of other beliefs that made their argument rather unpleasant. As discussed in the post on Gnostics and my reflections on the phrase “I believe in one God” from the Creed, belief in multiple gods doesn’t work. So we don’t have two gods fighting.
The second idea is worse than the first. There isn’t agreement between the two parts of the Bible on the most important point, that of the nature of God. How, then, can we trust the Bible? We can’t. Therefore, it’s a bunch of [insert preferred insulting word]. While we’re at it, we can’t even know if God exists. He must not, since if God did exist, and was good, we wouldn’t be in the mess we’re in. God must be made up.
Clearly this idea has problems too, the main one being that it rejects the existence of God. While we don’t have time to get into the arguments for the existence of God, let’s leave it at this: Something can’t come from nothing. This is discussed in greater detail in my earlier post on belief in God, mentioned above. Its one thing to read the Bible and decide that God is mean, cruel, and terrifying; it’s another to claim it is entirely made up. Many of the arguments that Jews and Christians invented God stem from the arguers preconceived ideas that all religions are inventions of people. The widespread use of this argument is surprising, since it’s hard to argue using a source (the Bible) that the arguer has claimed to be unreliable.
But there is a better way. . .
The third idea is that maybe, just maybe, we need to look at the Bible as a WHOLE, searching for points of continuity rather than disunity. When that happens, a remarkable image appears. God is not a vicious “god monster,” as one atheist wrote; rather, He is a loving parent, a loving Father, wanting the best for His children.
Let’s start with the Old Testament.
We first meet God in the first verse of Genesis, the first book in the Bible: “In the beginning, when God created the Heavens and the Earth, the Earth was a formless wasteland and darkness covered the abyss, while a mighty wind swept over the waters” (Gen 1:1-2). God is Creator, and in the course of creation makes everything good. The first Creation account uses the statement “God saw that it was good” as a refrain, showing that ALL of creation, mankind especially, is good. Thus God creates everything. Why did He create? Not because He was lonely, but out of love, for it is better to exist than not exist. In that sense, because He created all things and is the origin of all that is good and whole, God is called Father.
The rest of the Old Testament tells the story of God as Father to the human race. Like any father, God faces rebellious children. This rebellion started with Adam and Eve, the first humans, who rejected God’s instruction to avoid eating from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil (on a related, though not strictly theological note, the comedian Bill Cosby has a hilarious standup routine where he compares the Fall of Adam and Eve to “brain-damaged” children). From then on, God had to play that most unfortunate role of parents: Disciplinarian. Now, I don’t have children yet, but I do teach them (or at least teenagers, who are sometimes more childish than children), and I hate having to be the disciplinarian. You tell students to do something, and to avoid doing this other thing, and before you know, they have done the very thing you told them not to do, and have somehow forgotten what they were supposed to do. So it was with the people of God.
Trace the story of Salvation History and you can see this. Adam and Eve are kicked out of the Garden of Eden, and have two sons: Cain and Abel. Both are supposed to offer sacrifice to God, and they do, but Cain’s is half-hearted; without giving his heart to God, his sacrifice is moot. When God prefers Abel’s sacrifice to Cain’s (Abel was righteous, and therefore gave his best to God), Cain kills Abel. He is exiled from the family, and he starts his own, each generation separating themselves more and more from God, eventually becoming the “men” mentioned in Genesis prior to Noah’s Flood (Gen. 6:1-4). Meanwhile, God’s blessing bestowed upon Adam at creation is passed down to Seth (born after Abel’s murder), from whom Noah is born. Noah listens to God, while the rest of mankind doesn’t (Genesis notes regarding the men of that time: “every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually”), and as a result God wipes out the rest of the human race. It was not out of some evilness on God’s part that he wiped out everyone but Noah. The other people of that age were so evil that they had no room in their hearts for God, for any goodness. Hence Noah and his family are spared. The often used metaphor of cutting off limbs to prevent the spread of disease is apt here: in order to save mankind, Noah and his family needed to be protected from the evil that infected man.
Such was God’s plan. But, as is often the case with God and men, God’s will is contingent (for more on this, see Dr. William Marshner’s lecture series on Predestination from the Institute of Catholic Culture), and man fallen human nature rejects what God had planned. No sooner had Noah and his family descended from the ark than sin appears again in mankind’s story. A drunken, passed out Noah is unable to prevent his son Ham from having relations with Noah’s wife (Ham’s mother). The biblical phrase “And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father” (Gen. 9:22) refers to this sin (see Leviticus 18). A curse comes down not only on Ham but on Ham’s son, Canaan, who would be the fruit of the incestuous relationship. Why the curse on the son? Often in the Old Testament, when some curse falls upon the descendent of an evil person while the evil person gets off free, there is more to the curse. Deacon Sabatino Carnazzo at the Institute of Catholic Culture explains in an audio lecture that Ham, by having sexual relations with his mother, shows that he was trying to take over the family, for in those days one took control of a family or kingdom by having relations with the mother. Ham, as the youngest of the sons, would not hold a place of authority in the family. He wanted to control Noah and the whole family, and his son Canaan would allow him to do just that. The curse that made Canaan the slave of the other brothers ruined Ham’s hopes to rule.
Similar stories abound throughout the Old Testament. Whenever the Lord establishes a chain of command or sets up some regulations, people rebel or try to usurp the authority of the legitimate leaders. Why the elaborate laws of Leviticus? The Israelites had been led out of Egypt, and therefore shown the power of God over the false gods of the Egyptians. But when Moses was up on the mountain talking to God, the people got impatient and had Aaron, Moses’ brother, set up a golden calf for them, their attempt to continue the Egyptian pagan worship they had partaken of while slaves in Egypt. As a result, the original laws and plans that God had given Moses were nixed, and thus God gave the Israelites the ENTIRE book of Leviticus. Everything is specified, particularly how the people are to worship, how they are to live, how they are to interact with each other. There is nothing, NOTHING, left out, or at least nothing that the Israelites might need. Hence the heavy burden of the Law the Israelites bore throughout their history. Yet even with these rules, the people managed to mess things up. Hence the “wrath of God” flaring up every once in a while.
Again, think like a parent. God laid out the rules for the Israelites, but they couldn’t listen, so he clarified it, and clarified it, and clarified it. Soon there were hundreds of laws, and still the people turned from God. Even the priests and scribes began abusing their position among the people. It was why God spoke through prophets, condemning the empty sacrifices and prayers of the priests, who were more concerned with outward rituals than internal devotion. Jesus frequently quoted these passages. In fact, most references to the merciful, loving God from the New Testament are connected with Old Testament prophecies. “I desire mercy, and not sacrifice,” though spoken by Jesus to the Pharisees who complained about Jesus dining with sinners, comes from the prophet Hosea. The New Testament passage follows the calling of Matthew by Jesus. Our Lord says, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, `I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners” (Matthew 9:12-13). We should follow our Lord’s instructions. The prophecy in Hosea reads as follows:
Therefore I have hewn them by the prophets,
I have slain them by the words of my mouth,
and my judgment goes forth as the light.
For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice,
the knowledge of God, rather than burnt offerings.
But at Adam they transgressed the covenant;
there they dealt faithlessly with me. (Hosea 6:5-7)
The story of Salvation History is as follows:
1) God lovingly gathers His people to Him, and makes a covenant with them.
2) The people follow God for a while, until they get distracted like Doug the dog from Up. They usually start worshipping some false god, usually influenced by their pagan neighbors, and there are usually women involved.
3) God sends/allows some horrible thing to happen to His people (natural disasters/enslavement/conquest by an enemy).
4) God sends a prophet, calling the people to repent.
5) The people cry out to God, saying they are sorry for their sins (or they reject the prophet, often beating or killing him).
6) God lovingly gathers His people to Him, and makes a covenant with them (or, if they rejected the prophet, worse things happen to them. Do you know what happened to the lost tribes of Israel?)
Viewing the Old Testament from this perspective changes everything. No longer is it a chronicle of a wrathful god against an innocent people. It is a story of a loving Father who time and again offers His hand to His children, only for them to run away. But when the children find themselves in danger, in pain, or trapped by evil, they call out to their Father, and He answers and helps them. It is our story too.
Now look at the New Testament. How does the story of Jesus fit with the story of the Old Testament? It’s not a mystery; Jesus explains it in a parable:
One day, as he was teaching the people in the temple and preaching the gospel, the chief priests and the scribes with the elders came up and said to him, “Tell us by what authority you do these things, or who it is that gave you this authority.” He answered them, “I also will ask you a question; now tell me, was the baptism of John from heaven or from men?” And they discussed it with one another, saying, “If we say, `From heaven,’ he will say, `Why did you not believe him?’ But if we say, `From men,’ all the people will stone us; for they are convinced that John was a prophet.” So they answered that they did not know whence it was. And Jesus said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things.”
And he began to tell the people this parable: “A man planted a vineyard, and let it out to tenants, and went into another country for a long while. When the time came, he sent a servant to the tenants, that they should give him some of the fruit of the vineyard; but the tenants beat him, and sent him away empty-handed. And he sent another servant; him also they beat and treated shamefully, and sent him away empty-handed. And he sent yet a third; this one they wounded and cast out. Then the owner of the vineyard said, `What shall I do? I will send my beloved son; it may be they will respect him.’ But when the tenants saw him, they said to themselves, `This is the heir; let us kill him, that the inheritance may be ours.’ And they cast him out of the vineyard and killed him. What then will the owner of the vineyard do to them? He will come and destroy those tenants, and give the vineyard to others.”
When they heard this, they said, “God forbid!” But he looked at them and said, “What then is this that is written:
`The very stone which the builders rejected has become the head of the corner’?
Every one who falls on that stone will be broken to pieces; but when it falls on any one it will crush him.” The scribes and the chief priests tried to lay hands on him at that very hour, but they feared the people; for they perceived that he had told this parable against them. (Luke 20:1-19)
Jesus, of course, is the Son. What’s more shocking is that the people listening to the parable KNOW that Jesus is the Son. Jesus ends the parable by saying, “What then will the owner of the vineyard do to them [the tenants]? He will come and destroy those tenants, and give the vineyard to others.” In other words, God will give the blessing, the special place of the Israelites as the chosen people of God, to all the nations, rather than the Israelites. The scribes and priests know this is what Jesus means, for they respond, “God forbid!” But they do what Jesus prophesied anyway. Did they recognize that they were fulfilling the prophecies of the death of the Messiah? The Scriptures do not say, though we can imagine many a heavy heart the night of Good Friday as more than one mouth uttered, “Truly this man was the Son of God.”
The Bible is all one story. God’s wrath and Jesus’ love are the same, just as a parent who punishes does so out of love, for the benefit of the child. How will the child know that what he has done is wrong if he is not told so, or punished when he has done wrong? So also with the Israelites.
So also with us.
The difference between God’s portrayal in the Old Testament and His portrayal in the New is one of perspective. Frequently the Old Testament tells the story of God having to punish His unruly children. The New Testament provides a view of Him reaching out His hand to us, so that we can take the hand of Jesus and walk with Him into eternal life. Recall what Adam and Eve would do before the Fall. They would walk with God. When Adam heard God walking in the garden after Adam had sinned, he hid. There is a story from the Eastern Church fathers that, when Christ went down to bring from Hell (not Hell proper, but what is sometimes called the “Limbo of the Just”) the Old Testament heroic men and women who had been waiting for their chance to enter Heaven, Adam was the first to meet Christ. Adam, the story goes, heard the footsteps of Our Lord, recognized them as the footsteps from the garden, and rather than hiding, ran to meet his Lord, to walk with Him again.
A story, yes, but a beautiful one. We too should run to Him, so we too can walk with our Lord.
Now, Sheila, this is only a brief look at this question. Unfathomable numbers of words address this issue in much greater detail, and with much more finesse. Hopefully I have at least turned you in the right direction.
For more information:
Carnazzo, Sabatino. “Swords and Serpents: A Study of Salvation History.” – Describes the whole Bible as one big book (in just 6 hours!). Shows how God has worked throughout Salvation History.
________. “Genesis: In the Beginning.” – In-depth examination of the book of Genesis, with particular attention paid to the first few chapters of the book.
Carroll, Warren H. A History of Christendom. Volume I. The Founding of Christendom. Front Royal, VA: ChristendomCollege Press, 1985. – Traces God’s hand in human history, drawing from Biblical and pagan histories, from Genesis through the ascension of Constantine to the Roman imperial throne.
Catholic Answers Live, April 11, 2011 (with Timothy Gray) – Radio show, the first half of the show deals directly with this topic.
Marshner, William. “Are You Saved? The Catholic Doctrine of Predestination” – Discusses the details of God’s will in history and in our lives and how our choices can affect God’s contingent will.
Olson, Carl E., “The ‘Angry God’ and the ‘Loving God’: Can We Reconcile How God is Portrayed in the Old and New Testaments?” Catholic Answers Vol. 27, No. 2 (May/June 2013), p. 12–14. – Pages refer to the print edition (online edition also available). Includes a short discussion of the classic example of “Angry God,” that of the war against the Canaanites.