We have two collected witnesses to the work of God in our christian bible, the Old Testament (written mainly in Hebrew, with some Aramaic) and the New Testament (written in Greek). Between these two collectives is a space of 400 or so years where God apparently went through some serious PR counselling. The re-branded image of God was perceived as so significant that it caused a serious rift in the fabric of Judaism, to the point that anyone who accepts Jesus as the representation of God has, in fact, left Judaism.
So, what exactly happened here?
In this first section, I will be dealing with “apparent perceptions” of God not a “true” image of God. The goal is to present what we often perceive God to be like based on reading our bibles.
Give me that old time religion
Samuel said to Saul, “The LORD sent me to anoint you king over his people Israel; now therefore listen to the words of the LORD. Thus says the LORD of hosts, ‘I will punish the Amalekites for what they did in opposing the Israelites when they came up out of Egypt. Now go and attack Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have; do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.'” (1 Samuel 15:1-3)
Then Korah assembled the whole congregation against them at the entrance of the tent of meeting. And the glory of the LORD appeared to the whole congregation.
… Say to the congregation: Get away from the dwellings of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram … And Moses said, “This is how you shall know that the LORD has sent me to do all these works; it has not been of my own accord: If these people die a natural death, or if a natural fate comes on them, then the LORD has not sent me. But if the LORD creates something new, and the ground opens its mouth and swallows them up, with all that belongs to them, and they go down alive into Sheol, then you shall know that these men have despised the LORD.”
As soon as he finished speaking all these words, the ground under them was split apart. The earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up, along with their households — everyone who belonged to Korah and all their goods. So they with all that belonged to them went down alive into Sheol; the earth closed over them, and they perished from the midst of the assembly. All Israel around them fled at their outcry, for they said, “The earth will swallow us too!” And fire came out from the LORD and consumed the two hundred fifty men offering the incense. (Numbers 16:19-35)
As the Hebrew bible opens, we are introduced to a God who borders on bi-polar. His character traits seem to change depending on the situation or who he was dealing with. The bible opens with God creating, bringing order out of chaos, giving tasks and purposes to all creation and putting man, in his image, in the centre of it all. Once this has been done, things quickly move downhill and when next we see God, he is questioning and cursing his creation for having not trusted him. In addition, he seems slightly concerned that we have become more like him and therefore “drove out man” from the garden he created for us.
Things continue to spiral downward as God unexplainably rejects Cain’s offering and accepts Abel’s, even though there is no indication he provided any guidelines regarding how to obtain his favour through sacrifice. This leads to the world’s first murder and we see a God who hears the cry of Abel’s blood from within the ground and is compelled to act in justice. He once again pronounces a curse, but then surprisingly quickly promises to protect Cain as well. It seems while this God is quick to curse, he also has a penchant for protecting his creation and giving justice to those mistreated. An interesting combination …
Fast forward a few years and we meet Noah, who apparently is destined to “bring us relief from our work and from the painful toil of our hands”. Noah may have found favour in God’s eyes, but everything else seems to be really irritating him because he “saw the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually” and decides he is sorry he made everything and will destroy it all. Once again, in the midst of all this anger, God still rescues at least part of his creation and shows Noah a way to escape the flood.
After destroying everything living except for what was in the ark, Noah offers a sacrifice, which seems to change God’s impression of creation and he says he “will never again curse the ground because of man, for the intention of man’s heart is evil from his youth”. (Does that sound familiar? It should, it was the reason given for the flood in the first place and is now the reason for not ever having a flood again).
When next we meet God, he is upset by the fact that humans have built themselves a city. He decides it is not good for men to have one language because if they can communicate easily, nothing will be impossible for them. So he decides to tamper with human speech so nobody can understand each other.
From here, we are introduced to Abram (soon to become Abraham). With the arrival of Abram, God seems to start playing favourites. He has chosen a team to support and will put all his efforts behind making this team’s life on earth as blessed as possible. Throughout his life, and his descendants as well, we see God constantly bringing blessing on those who bless Abram and cursing those who mistreat them, even if they are completely innocent in their “mistreatment”. For example, three times Abram/Abraham and Isaac pretend their wives are their sisters and each time the nation hosting them is cursed for trying to woo these beautiful women – that seems a tad harsh. God is obviously on Abraham’s side and helps him win battles, causes his land to prosper and overlooks many things we would call “sin” today.
God establishes a covenant with Abraham, requires every male among his party to essentially mutilate their bodies – there were no clean hospitals in those days – as a sign of this covenant and promises Abraham will be a great nation despite his very old age and not yet having a true heir. After Abraham and Sarah try to take things into their own hands a couple times (and God shuts up Sarah’s womb for a while), Isaac is born. Everything seems to be going perfectly until God tells Abraham to offer Isaac as a burnt offering. He seems to require child sacrifice like all the neighbouring nations’ gods. While God does eventually provide an alternate sacrifice, he seems very concerned about un-questioned obedience, no matter how horrific the request, and likes to test his chosen people to ensure they are actually obeying him.
For the sake of expediency (the Old Testament is rather large), we’ll now fast forward to the time of the Egyptians. The Hebrews were slaves in Egypt and being horribly treated by Pharaoh, so God decides he is going to rescue them. He sends Moses along with ten plagues to convince Pharaoh to let the Hebrews go. After each plague, Pharaoh is still not willing to release his prized slave workers, so God sends a destroying angel to kill all the firstborn Egyptian boys. The only way Hebrew families escape is by sacrificing a lamb and putting its blood own their homes’ doorposts.
The Hebrew people eventually head toward the land God has promised them and while God blesses them frequently, he also punishes them severely when they disobey. They are given the law and told to follow it, with harsh penalties for any transgressions. Included in these laws are some very odd requirements around keeping slaves, capital punishment and other laws we would consider barbaric today – all in God’s “perfect” law.
As Israel moves toward becoming a nation, we see God fighting battles on their side time and time again. Once they are a nation, we see the same thing, although whenever Israel does not obey God, he sends invading armies to destroy the country and take them off to exile.
This happens over and over again throughout the Old Testament and brings us right up to the time of the New Testament when the Jews are living in their own country, but are subject to the Romans.
To summarize the apparent story of God in the Old Testament (from a purely surface reading and without digging too deep), we see a God who creates, wants to bless, but cannot tolerate disobedience. He chooses a nation of priests to showcase who he is to the world, gives them a law to follow and then continually punishes whenever the law is not followed properly. All things are ordered by him and he is the one who enacts any and all punishment in order to bring them to repentance.
Behold I am Making All Things New
This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another. (John 15:12-17)
What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?
… No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:31-39)
And now we come to Jesus and the New Testament portrayal of God. Here we have a picture that is much more consistent, albeit quite different from the portrayal apparently found above. Here is a picture of a God who would enter the mess of humanity and take it upon himself to resolve the mess and redeem creation back to himself.
The New Testament starts with the incarnation – the birth of Jesus, a fully God, fully human person who is the Son of God come down to the earth with a purpose. We find out through his ministry that he is the complete and perfect fulfillment of the Old Testament and his mission is to glorify his Father by doing the will of the Father who sent him. That will is that he should not lose a single one he has been given, make the Father known and that he will destroy the works of the Ruler of this World.
He proclaims the existence of a new kingdom – the Kingdom of God, or Eternal Life as John calls is – that is opposite to the way the world thinks and he has come to proclaim this kingdom is available to all. He reveals God’s intention all along was to open his kingdom to ALL people and not just a select few. His blessing is for everyone and his desire is that all may be saved from the clutches of sin.
He teaches a way of life in line with this kingdom that is upside-down compared to our normal way of thinking, teaching how to turn the other cheek and love your enemies. This, quite obviously, stands in stark contrast to a God who would ask Israel to destroy every man, woman and child of the Amalakites (as seen above).
The only glimpses of anger (wrath) we see in Christ are reserved for the Judaic religious leaders who are making it hard for the average person to enter the kingdom of heaven by placing hard rules and impossible expectations on those who want to seek God. His aim was to free people from the burdens of the (perfect) law and show that love is the ultimate fulfillment of the law.
He takes his mission of love so far that he willingly becomes sin for us, taking on the worst the Ruler of this World can dish out, and through this he makes a “public spectacle” of darkness when he victoriously defeats death and frees us from the powers that held us captive. He does all this to show that “no one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”
After his death, resurrection and ascension into heaven, he asks the Father to send an Advocate to teach us in all truth. He is actively working on our behalf and because we are now “in him”, the Ruler of this World has no claim on our life and we are more than conquerers through him. We, his people, are the fulfillment of what Israel was always intended to be – a nation of priests to be a blessing to the world and assist him in the redemption of all things.
To summarize the story of the New Testament, I’ll turn to John;
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
… He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.
And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth … From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known. – John 1:1-18
This incredibly brief overview of the two testaments in no way is intended to provide an in-depth view of either section of our bible. My intention is simply to showcase how, on the surface, these portrayals of God could appear incredibly different and pose a challenge for some people. Seeing such sharp differences may be difficult to either understand or accept.
Now before presenting the ways I am learning to read the bible and understand the character of God, I thought it may be wise to lay down a few additional “ground rules”. These statements are at the core of what has driven me to explore this topic in the first place … so come back tomorrow for the next chapter.
1. Revealing Love – Introduction
3. Chapter 2 – Concentric Circles
4. Chapter 3 – Jesus and Judaism
5. As It Was vs. As We Are
6. 100% God – 100% Human
7. Revealing God or Revealing Culture? (pt1)
8. Revealing God or Revealing Culture? (pt2)
9. A Gradual Revelation (pt1)
10. A Gradual Revelation (pt2)
11. Checklist Time
12. Wrath + Love
13. The Vindication of God
14. Who is God & What is He Like?