Not for the first time, I had a conversation recently with a life long Christian, consistent in attending services, who was confused about the angry, vindictive God of the Old Testament and how that related to the kind, loving God revealed in the New Testament. Where do you suppose that comes from? Is it a faint echo of Gnosticism, of which few know much about? Is it the byproduct of overly simplified Sunday school lessons taught to children who quit learning anything about our faith after the fifth or sixth grade? For some it could be one of the popular workbook bible studies where you are required to fill in the right answer. Maybe there are televangelists proclaiming half truths that reach beyond the ears of those who tune in. Is it my own preaching? Could be.
Those of us in liturgical churches practice reading the bible out loud so that faithful worshippers will hear most of it time and again as the years go by, but hearing words mumbled out loud in the midst of hymns, prayers, sermons, and the Eucharist doesn’t sink in very far or last very long. I guess that’s why adult Christian education has been my passion, and my great frustration. I’ve been at it a long time with little to show for it. Nevertheless, it is critical to keep going. Church literature and leadership are full of handwringing over the decline in church attendance, and even fuller of scatter-shot proposals for what to do about it. We need, they say, more and better evangelism, but not of the conservative evangelical variety that has given such a bad name to Christianity to all the ‘nones’ out there. But how can the church go forth to tell the story if the troops don’t know the story well enough to tell it, and are deeply conflicted about what they think they do know?
In retirement, a few times a month I serve a small rural congregation thirty some miles distant. Most of what I can offer in the form of adult education takes place on Sunday, or in writing, I wrote the following to my friend in hopes that it might help reframe the question about how God is represented in the Old and New Testaments. See what you think. Would you have said something different, or in a better way? By the way, I’m well aware of having skipped blithely over important nuances, but it has always seemed best to start with the basics in as uncomplicated a way as possible. So here goes.
What we were taught about the bible as children can be a stumbling block many of us encounter on our way to a deeper understanding of our faith. You brought up the notion frequently taught in Sunday school that the Old Testament God was angry, judgmental, and vindictive, while in the New Testament he is gentle and loving. We also stumble over wanting people who lived three or four thousand years ago to use and understand language the same way we do, preferably in English. I want to suggest another view.
Whatever else it is, scripture is the story of God’s engagement with humanity, and humanity’s struggle to understand God. It is a process through which God revealed God’s self to us by engaging with us in our lives. Inspired by God, it was written by humans who were limited in what they could understand, and how they could express themselves, by the circumstances of the times in which they lived. Their work is not without error, and the most egregious of them are corrected by God through successive waves of revelation. Times change, and over the two thousand years of the Old Testament story, humanity’s ability to understand God, and their relationship with God, changed dramatically. That’s true for us also. The words of scripture may remain the same, but our ability to understand them is always changing.
It does not begin with Adam, Eve, and the Garden of Eden. It begins with Abraham, whose story exists in historical time. Everything in the book of Genesis up to the introduction of Abraham is pre history, what many theologians call myth, not myth as fairytales, but myth as stories told to help explain something about basic human nature, who God is, and what our relationship with God is called to be. The truth that lies within them is very deep, and worth probing. Abraham’s story is set in times known to human history. In it, he was the only person on earth, it is said, who had a personal relationship with a new kind of god, an invisible god, a god who cared about him and with whom he could converse. No one else did.
Having said that, the bible then lurches forward in confusing ways. The God of one person became the God of a small family, then the God of a few tribes, then forgotten for hundreds of years. Moses was reintroduced to God and, in God’s name, brought the tribes of the Israelites out of Egypt, but it took forty years for them to become a people willing to follow this strange God. Jahweh was the name given to him, and one of the strangest things about Jahweh was that he invited conversation. You cold negotiate with him (I’m using ‘him’ as a generic pronoun). He was a God of the people and for the people, which was not at all like the other gods that existed all over the place.
The books of the Exodus from Egypt (Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy) help us understand the process, often a painful one, of an entire people who knew only about the gods of Egypt learning about a new God, an invisible God, who was to be their God in a new land. Moreover, they had to learn about each other. The tribes were not known to get along very well: a lot of infighting and backstabbing. The laws of Moses that make little sense to our ears turn out to have been a brilliant way to form a new society in which justice for the people was important, and violence against each other was discouraged. An eye for an eye, for instance, put a lid on the escalation of violence. It’s important to recognize that while the early Israelites accepted Jahweh as their God, they were well aware that other people had other gods, and they were happy to turn to those other gods when the need arose. Baal, for instance, was an agricultural god, and if you were a farmer why not give Baal a chance to help out? We humans drove God nuts with our constant disobedience and wandering ways, but God always gave us a way out and a way forward. It’s also important to recall that in those days everything that happened was caused by one or another god. Earthquakes, floods, invading armies, all were the fault of some god who was messing with humans. Jahweh said to them, If you keep doing what you’re doing really bad things re going to happen to you. The only way they could understand that was to hear God say, If you keep doing what you’re doing I am going to kill you. That’s what gods did.
The historical books that follow the books of the Exodus move from a wandering bunch of marginally affiliated tribes into and through the development of a nation with its civil wars, wars with other nations, and defeats by the empires of the day. The books don’t always agree with each other about the details, but they do agree on the general themes. They read like adventure stories filled with danger, heroic deeds, intrigue, betrayals, murders, love, and all the rest. Throughout, God inspired ordinary, often deeply flawed persons to guide the people forward. It didn’t always work. Some rejected God altogether, leading the people to disaster. It was always a struggle for them to accept that God desired to move them in the direction of greater inclusion and love of others. Nor was it easy for them to understand God as a God of love. After all, none of the other gods were gods of love, except for some fertility goddesses, and the love they offered had more to do with sex. As for all those bloody sacrifices, no one ever worshipped a god without bloody sacrifices. There wasn’t any other way, and it never occurred to anyone that there might be another way. So God used the tools at hand to work with them.
The books of the prophets, included in our bibles from longest to shortest rather than chronologically, step away from myth and history to form another beginning. They begin the process of enlightening the people about a deeper understanding of who God is, and what kind of lives we should lead in order to enjoy the fullness of life God would have for us. Here is where we see huge pushes toward an understanding of God’s inclusiveness that goes beyond family, tribe, or even nation, to encompass the entire world. It is also here where it is finally made clear that there is only one God: there is no other. The prophets did the groundwork that prepared the way for Jesus.
Two thousand years of learning who we are, who God is, and what our relationship with God is about. That’s what the Old Testament gives us. Think about it. It’s been two thousand years since Jesus. Consider how much we have changed in that time. They changed in their time too, and it wasn’t always pretty. The bible doesn’t whitewash any of it. The good, the bad, and the ugly are right there for us to study. I believe that knowing the Old Testament well is essential to fully understanding the New Testament. By knowing it well, it becomes so much more clear how Jesus is not a repudiation of the God of the Old Testament, but the fulfillment of everything the Old Testament led up to.
Hope this is of some help.