Making sense of the Old Testament God
In Priestly Atonement, by the Numbers, when I mentioned the apparently harsh measures (such as plagues) which God took to make sure the Israelites did His will, I acknowledged how “difficult it may be for us to grasp the importance of teaching the Israelites in this particular way”. Some readers responded by asking whether I could make God’s ways under the Old Covenant easier to understand. I can only do my best.
Misconception 1: The God of wrath vs. the God of mercy
To begin, I should clear away two common misconceptions. The first is that God is a God of wrath in the Old Testament and a God of mercy in the New. This mistake can be triggered by some of God’s apparently harsh actions under the Old Covenant, but I suspect it owes more to the legacy of certain myopic Protestant sects which focused far too much on the wrath of God. For the Old Testament is also chock full of lyrical passages reflecting God’s unsurpassable love. The most striking example, of course, is the Song of Songs. But the prophets and the Psalms are also marked by many such passages.
This misconception also suggests that a certain harshness is completely lacking in the way Our Lord deals with us under the New Covenant. Yet denouncing hard-hearted Jewish leaders, lamenting those who lead others into sin, rebuking the wealthy, condemning hypocrites, and foretelling disaster for unbelieving communities: These were all part of Our Lord’s effort to wake us up. Consider:
Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. But I tell you, it shall be more tolerable on the day of judgment for Tyre and Sidon than for you. And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to heaven? You shall be brought down to Hades. For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day. But I tell you that it shall be more tolerable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom than for you. [Mt 11:21-24]
Finally, we must not forget the decisive separation of the sheep from the goats—those who will be sent into eternal fire. In reality, the chief difference between the Old and New Covenants in these matters is that God often taught the Jews through immediate material consequences while Our Lord was able to build on the Old Testament foundation to develop a more perfect, interior and spiritual understanding of the total incompatibility between sin and life.
Misconception 2: The nature of God’s will
A second misconception is that the Old Testament authors thought of God’s will in exactly the same way as we do today. To the contrary, we make a strong distinction between God’s permissive will and His active will. If something happens that is morally evil, we understand that this is because God’s Providence encompasses His permissive will. It includes not only what He would prefer someone to do in each situation, but what He will permit someone to do in the ultimate workings of His Plan.
But in the early parts of the Old Testament, at least, the writers attribute everything to God’s will without distinction. If Pharaoh’s heart was hard, it was because God hardened it. This captures the reality that everything is encompassed in Divine Providence, but it does not concern itself with important distinctions that we can make use of as Christians in trying to understand the ways of God as recounted in the ancient Biblical books.
With these misconceptions in mind, we can proceed to three important factors in understanding some of the things that trouble us. Other commentators may be able to shed even more light.
Factor 1: Shaping a primitive culture
Our first factor should be a recognition that God’s plan for His creation is both unfolded and revealed slowly over a long period of time. The early Jews did not come ready-made with lofty spiritual conceptions and a firm knowledge of the after-life. They had to be painfully extracted from all the various peoples who were sunk in either polytheism or unwitting diabolism or both. Clearly, God judged that the best way to implement His plan, which leads over time to fulfillment in Jesus Christ, was to form a Chosen People through a long series of actual historical events with very tangible consequences—consequences which, unlike in other religions, were tied to whether this people acted in good or evil ways.
It is fairly clear that the first step in God’s plan, amid all this confusion of polytheism and tribal gods, was to hammer into an often deluded people some idea of what it meant for God to say, “I am the LORD.” Under the Old Covenant, a progressively deeper spiritual understanding was forged through long years of reflection on what the Jewish people had rather forcefully experienced. But they also faced spiritual puzzles. Why, despite impressive Divine interventions and punishments, did they find that so often those who do evil prosper, while the good suffer?
The Book of Job and many Psalms are concerned with this and similar themes. Over time, a deeper and more spiritual approach to such questions develops, which again is fulfilled in Christ. But as a cultural phenomenon—a preparation of the rich monotheistic culture into which Christ Himself was born, and against which Christ Himself must be understood—this could not happen overnight.
Factor 2: Whose responsibility?
It is easy to fall into the trap of believing that everything recounted in the Old Testament is the will of God. But in each instance we must ask whether the situation involves someone carrying out the express will of God, or his own interpretation of that will, or some completely novel concept of his own. This is our second factor.
Consider this passage from the book of Judges:
And Jephthah made a vow to the LORD, and said, “If thou wilt give the Ammonites into my hand, then whoever comes forth from the doors of my house to meet me, when I return victorious from the Ammonites, shall be the LORD’s, and I will offer him up for a burnt offering.”…So the Ammonites were subdued before the people of Israel. Then Jephthah came to his home at Mizpah; and behold, his daughter came out to meet him…; she was his only child; beside her he had neither son nor daughter. And when he saw her, he rent his clothes, and said, “Alas, my daughter! you have brought me very low, and you have become the cause of great trouble to me; for I have opened my mouth to the LORD, and I cannot take back my vow.” [Jud 11:30-35]
So now Jephthah blames his daughter for being a cause of trouble! The truth is that Jephthah had made a rash (and brutally immoral) vow. In the fist place, he should not have made it. In the second, he should not have kept it. Note also that rash vows do not always arise from unchanneled devotion. They frequently arise from a weak faith which seeks to manipulate God. In both cases, they place the emphasis on what we will do, not on what God will do in us.
Of course, this still leaves us episodes in which God is portrayed as clearly commanding the Jews to do something we consider horrible, like wiping out every member of particular communities that stand in their path, resisting God’s plan, and posing a spiritual danger because they worshipped false gods.
Factor 3: Providence rules everything even now
It is just here that we must go a little deeper to realize the greater truth that constitutes our third factor. For things have not changed as much as we imagine. God is our Creator, He sustains us in existence at every moment, and everything that happens to us (whether “good” or “bad”) is encompassed by His Providence. He alone has the right to use us as He will, and in reality He and He alone determines whether and when we come into existence, as well as what we will be permitted to suffer, including how and when we will die. All of this is encompassed by His infinite Wisdom and Power, without violating anyone’s free will.
In this context, the portrayal of some of God’s actual Providential decisions in the Old Testament—whether He makes use of other peoples to bring suffering and death to the Jews or makes use of the Jews to bring suffering and death to others—ought not to strike us as so astounding or so confusing. Is there a significant difference between reading what God has done to this or that person or this or that people in the Old Testament, either directly or indirectly, as compared with the manner in which He appoints our lives, including the circumstances and agencies through which we will die, and which He alone both knows and contains within His own Providential limits?
In reality, both cases are the same case—except that one is written down and interpreted for us, and the other is not. Ultimately, we cannot fathom the mystery of Divine Providence. The Old Testament itself directly addresses this mystery, especially in the Book of Job. Though we know far more through Christ and the Church than Job knew, including the immense spiritual benefits of suffering, our own case is still little different from his. Then as now, after anyone has made his complaint to the LORD, the LORD answers:
Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? ....Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?... Have you commanded the morning since your days began, and caused the dawn to know its place….? Where is the way to the dwelling of light, and where is the place of darkness, that you may take it to its territory and that you may discern the paths to its home?...Can you bind the chains of the Pleiades, or loose the cords of Orion? ...Will you even put me in the wrong? Will you condemn me that you may be justified? Have you an arm like God? [Job 38:2 —40:2]
And, beholding such mysteries, our only answer even now must be Job’s answer:
Behold, I am of small account; what shall I answer you? I lay my hand on my mouth. I have spoken once, and I will not answer; twice, but I will proceed no further…. I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted…. Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know…. I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes. [Job 40:3-42:6]
Everything in Christ
Ultimately both Jews and Christians believe uniquely on the authority of God revealing. For us as Christians, this authority is unmistakably established in the Resurrection of Christ. Therefore, we know beyond doubt that God “desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim 2:4). We know that even the hairs of our head are numbered (Lk 12:7). We know that we are not to fear those who can kill the body but those who can kill the soul (Mt 10:28). We know, above all, that God gave everything to redeem us, because God is love (1 Jn 4:8,16).
But we are very limited; we can neither encompass nor transcend the great mysteries of Providence. For us the opposite is true: Our insight depends on our humility. We must trust in God for so much that we cannot understand. And we are wise to do so, no matter how disturbing events may be. As I have said before, our Faith comes down to nothing if it does not come down to this: “In everything God works for good with those who love him” (Rm 8:28).
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Next: On the importance of doing God’s will (contra mundum) [Deuteronomy]
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Posted by: Randal Mandock -
Jul. 24, 2017 7:07 PM ET USA
A difficulty arises when trying to distinguish the laws of God from the laws of men. Take the 613 commandments of Moses. By my count, 178 of these are morally good commandments sealed by Christ, who came not to destroy the law but to fulfill it. The other 435 are either morally neutral or downright morally evil. Did these latter commandments come forth from the mouth of God, or were they inventions of Moses (and perhaps others) for sanitary, disciplinary, and ritual reasons? In steps the Talmud.
Posted by: eileen1636 -
Jul. 20, 2017 7:35 PM ET USA
It is with great balance and insight that you've shared this. Originally born Jewish and 57 years later finalized my journey here in the Church, am delighted with this re-centering that many folks miss out on.
Posted by: FredC -
Jul. 19, 2017 10:48 AM ET USA
Someone commented on an unrelated article: God allowed the people doing evil to die to prevent them from doing even more evil. Doing more evil would put them farther into hell.
Posted by: alexanderh167577 -
Jul. 19, 2017 12:40 AM ET USA
It is interesting that our (or at least my, and I assume that of some others) initial inclination is to read "God hardened Pharaoh's heart" with a much different causal sense than "God made Pharaoh angry," when really they mean pretty much the same thing.