It’s said that the God of the Old Testament is nasty and angry – then he changes in the New Testament to the nice, meek and mild Jesus. I hear this all the time.
Well, it’s what I used to think, too. Then I actually read the Bible.
The character of God is the same, though the culture he speaks to isn’t. I’ll try to explain. First we’ll look at some of the actions of God – then at some of his commandments.
(It’s worth pointing out that most of the horrible things that happen in the Bible are clearly not ordered by God – and are in fact in direct opposition to God and his commands. There are many stories of flawed individuals in scripture, and even the heroes don’t get things right.)
God’s actions: judgement and the slaughter passages
Let’s start with the toughest parts – where God is said to command the Israelites to slaughter whole communities, including men, women and children; or when he destroys a whole town, such as Sodom and Gomorrah.
Now, these commands certainly don’t apply to believers now. For today, Jesus commands love and service. The OT commands were for a specific time, for the Israelite communities way before Jesus came to Earth. So Christianity, or Judaism, is not like certain other religions, who have commands to wage war and so on that are current. But why would God do those things, even thousands of years ago?
If you start to read the whole of the Old Testament, God’s anger becomes more understandable. The behaviour of the people at the time was horrific – much worse than anything we encounter on Earth at present. Here’s some of the nice things that they did in those days:
- They burned their children alive on fires, to worship other gods. (Jeremiah 7:31)
- Whole communities (male) gang raped visitors to a town (Genesis 19:5)
- People would steal, murder, commit adultery and lie (Jeremiah 7:9)
- Pride, gluttony and laziness while the poor needy suffered (Ezekiel 16:49)
Of course some of this behaviour still takes place, but not in an organised and deliberate way. In the cultures at the time, these atrocities were the norm, and were celebrated. The Bible reports that God repeatedly sent people to warn of the consequences of such evil actions, and to try to help them change (see Jeremiah 7:25-26). But they refused.
I’m pretty sure that if there were cultures nowadays that were as evil as burning children alive or wantonly raping men, then there’d be an outcry, and a United Nations resolution for ‘peacekeeping’ would be sent to go and restore order. So why didn’t God do this? Well, humans weren’t anywhere near as advanced. The societies were very primitive. There weren’t child welfare agencies to take people away and care for hem. Such things would come later – inspired by Christian teaching, I might add! And if we didn’t have any other options, I bet that most people nowadays would rather the town was bombed and destroyed than see such terrible evil and suffering continue – it makes Saddam look saintly.
So God was acting in order to stop great evil and suffering, in those days. Luckily there isn’t anything as horrible on Earth at present, and we have other ways of dealing with it too.
And Jesus tried to teach us a different way of dealing with the evils we see in our life – to give people a chance and encourage them to change. With the help of his Holy Spirit, we can try to teach people to love, with love. That’s not to say that today, if people don’t change their ways, that God wouldn’t still give them the consequences of their actions. But the circumstances of how this is brought about is different now, as it is a completely different world.
Shellfish, periods and adultery: the instructions of God
How about the commandments of the Old Testament, that are said to be pointless, foolish, or even bad? Now, there are commands that do sound strange to our culture today. Why not eat shellfish? Why can’t you touch a menstruating woman? Why destroy a house because it’s mouldy? If you think about the Bronze age culture in which they lived, these instructions become more understandable. There was no soap, no medicine, no disinfectant and no bleach. Cleanliness and hygiene involved avoiding things rather than washing them. So God’s commands were helping them to stay healthy – they were motivated by love.
And as for the death sentence for adultery and suchlike – well, there were no prisons. There was no antibiotics to treat sexually transmitted diseases. The consequences of sexual sin were much more serious in those days in the physical sense. Of course the emotional consequences of such sins are the same – the break-up of families and the hurt of adultery are the same – which is why God still commands us not to do it. But these were sins that could threaten the lives of whole towns, back then. So, the consequences were understandably much more serious.
Now, can all of the commands of the Old Testament be understood by our culture today? No. But every one that I’ve really thought about, I’ve started to see a good reason why that command might have been given at the time. So, I trust God, that his commands are loving and trustworthy, and for our own good.
Things are different now, though. Christians do not have to obey all the OT laws. There are changes in the commands given by Yahweh in the OT and the commands of Jesus – but that doesn’t reflect a change in character, it reflects a change in context. Why is there a change? Well, Jesus tells us explicitly that some of the commands of the OT were given because at that time, Israelite culture wasn’t advanced enough to do any better. In Matthew 19:8, Jesus explains that divorce was allowed in the OT “as a concession to your hard hearts, but it was not what God had originally intended”. This would also explain why there is a form of slavery permitted in OT times - a type of slavery, by the way, which is thought to be much more humane than the types of slavery in surrounding cultures at the time - and why there are tough death sentences for what seem (to us) like minor crimes.
There are also many laws in the OT that are very progressive and would be judged to be good by anyone in our culture. Take a look at the commands given about poverty, for example (see mentions of the word ‘poor’ in the OT here). People were commanded to leave food for the poor in their fields. They were told to care for orphans, for widows (both of whom would have few options for earning income in those days), and foreigners.
OT laws can seem strange to us. But luckily, Jesus came to explain and refine the law, which you can read in the New Testament – in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. It’s summarised in two commands – love God with all your heart, soul and mind, and love your neighbour like you love yourself. He tells us not to be angry, not to judge, and to be kind. He explains we must care for the poor, and not be greedy. He doesn’t say that crimes don’t deserve the death sentence – he just points out that all humans are inadequate to carry it out, as we all sin, and so we should not judge, in John 8.
Also, like God as described in the OT, Jesus gets angry at times – at people’s hypocrisy and their lack of compassion, for example. Anger isn’t a bad thing if what you’re angry about is wrong – particularly if you’re God, so you can accurately judge and assess a situation! The point is that God always offers forgiveness for those who repent and want to change. He offered it again and again in the OT, and he does too in the NT. In fact, Jesus went to the Cross so that we could be free of all these dark sins and evil ways.
The more you know God, the more you realise that his love and his goodness are so much greater than our own, so that you can trust him whatever happens. Would you like to know God better?
You might also like to read “Is God a Moral Monster?” by Paul Copan.