Over many years we have read time and time again of the vengeful God of the Old Testament and the kindly God of the New Testament. From this we are led to believe that Jesus came to show that He and His Father were certainly not one, that He in fact came to declare that there was disunity in the Godhead and He would have to show the world by how He lived, show them that love was the answer, not the vindictive and tyrannical ways of His Father.
On a cursory reading of the Old Testament there are very definitely scenes which make one shudder and turn away from. There are many stories which would seem to show a God that indeed destroyed men, instructed His people to slay men, women and children. The Law itself had penalties which were to remove men from the earth.
Having been walking a road for many years attempting to discover who God is, what His character is and what our response to Him should be, we feel a need to make a further statement concerning this vexed subject.
If the God of the Old Testament is not the same as Jesus of the New, then they are liars and the whole of the Bible is lies and we should, in all integrity, refuse to believe any of it. Either Jesus came to show us His Father and His Father is one with Him and therefore the whole of the Bible holds together as one, or it all falls down. This has to be the case because Jesus cannot be a liar and the Son of God, our Creator. Also, we cannot say that the New Testament is progress from an old regime which was useless. Is anything God does useless?
So what is the answer? How do we reconcile seemingly opposite attitudes within the Godhead? And how can we do this without twisting Scripture to suit our purpose? For our purpose is definitely to prove that the God of both Testaments is the same God because the God we have come to know, be it a very little, is as compassionate and loving in the Old Testament as in the New. Our studies in the Bible have shown us unequivocally that all that took place in Old Testament times, all that God instigated was out of His love and compassion for His creation. To go through all the passages to prove this would be a lengthy treatise so we shall attempt to explain with just a few examples.
To begin with let us first recognise that God chose Israel to represent Him to the world. He wanted them to show the rest of mankind what He is really like. So He gave them His law to show them His character. To guard and observe this law brought joy and peace. Because He was very aware of the fact that they were, like all mankind, fallen, He made provision for their fallenness and gave them a graphic reminder of this in the sacrifice of animals. This being a symbol of Jesus who would eventually come and remove sin from the world. This sacrifice of animals has, in itself caused problems for many, especially when it also says that God is pleased with the aroma from them that ascends to His nostrils. The pleasure is surely in the obedience of His children, not in the death of His animals.
Deuteronomy chapter 4 verse 6 says, ‘Therefore be careful to observe them (the commands); for this is your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples who will hear all these statutes and say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.’ God wanted to display His love and righteousness to the world that had come under the spell of Satan. He wanted to win them back to Himself. It is only possible to understand the rest of Scripture if we have this as a basis. This is God’s plan and His heart’s desire. Therefore if Israel chose to disobey God and they became a nation like the corrupt nations around, then they would be misrepresenting Him and the world would not know what their Creator was like. Israel would be responsible for leading people away from Him.
There is a prevalent attitude today to assume that the law of God was restrictive and full of prohibitions. This understanding fails completely to recognise the loving motives behind the law. As we read through the law carefully sensing the reasons and seeing God’s overall character, it becomes more and more plain that it’s His care and concern that produces the commands – His character demands that He loves, He can do no other. It is our judgment on the law that misjudges God and so we fail to appreciate the care and compassion behind these commands. For instance in Deut. 4 verses 41 & 42 it says, ‘Moses set apart three cities on this side of the Jordan, toward the rising of the sun, that the manslayer, who kills his neighbour unintentionally, without having hated him in time past, and that by fleeing to one of these cities he might live.’ How concerned the Lord was that retaliation should not be unjust and He gave them places of refuge. The command not to work on the seventh day was so that they could rest and recuperate but not only them but ‘your son, your daughter,your manservant, your maidservant, your ox, your donkey, your cattle, the stranger within your gates, that your manservant and your maidservant may rest as well as you.’ This isn’t restriction, it was care.
In Deut. 15 verses 1-18 God shows a concern over debts and carefully covers every eventuality to preserve their self esteem and to encourage a generous spirit between them all. He covers the poor, the nations, servants, the brethren and instructs them how to govern their finances. The generosity they had to show to each other represented the Lord’s own generosity to His creation.
Verse 19 of Deut. 15 concerns the firstborn of their flocks and herds to be sanctified to the Lord – this was a constant reminder of the entry of death into the world because of Adam’s sin and, in prospect, to the death of God’s firstborn Son. Mankind had a great propensity for forgetting. In the wilderness wanderings they forgot so easily all that the Lord had done and was doing for them and quickly desired ‘Egypt’. God knew their hearts and gave these instructions out of the goodness of His heart so that they would learn to do these things and keep God in their remembrance all the time. To have to kill their animals was not a happy thing to do but was needful to remind them.
In Deut. 6 verses 5&6 the Lord says, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might, and these words which I command you today shall be in your heart.’ Love was to be the basis for obeying the Lord. And in Deut. 30 verses 11-14 the Lord declares, ‘This commandment which I command you today is not too mysterious for you, nor is it far off. It is not in heaven that you should say ‘Who will ascend into heaven and bring it to us that we may hear it and do it. Nor is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will go over the sea for us and bring it to us, thatwe may hear it and do it?’ But the word is very near you, in your mouth and in your heart that you may do it.’
He places before them blessings for obedience and cursings for disobedience but both were to be the consequences of their actions. He desperately wanted His children to obey Him because He knew the outcome of disobedience – He knows the knock-on effect of disobeying, in other words they would reap what they sowed. This again would still be within the understanding of love because the suffering which comes about through the consequences of our rebellion should alert us and chasten us and bring us back to God.
Another problem is the instruction to destroy nations. Deut chp. 7 declares that they should utterly destroy them. Why? Verse 4 makes it clear that if they don’t destroy them, they will turn His people away from following the Lord, so powerful and seducing would they be. He hears them complaining and wanting ‘Egypt’, He recognises their weaknesses and wants to protect them from themselves. His desire is so strong to win the world back to Himself that He takes strong measures. These nations that are destroyed go to another realm, they are not annihilated. In fact, it is merciful to remove them so as to prevent them defiling the earth any further and preventing them committing any grosser evil. In Deut. 9 the Lord states clearly His reasons for destroying the nations and it was not because of Israel’s righteousness but because these nations are so wicked that He wants them driven from the earth. God works within His laws and He must drive rebellion and wickedness out of the earth – His mercy drives Him to prevent mankind from going to the extremes of which He knows he’s capable.
So what about an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. When quoted this phrase always summons up in the mind an attitude of revenge , a hatred and a ‘get my own back’ impression. The Law meant something very different. God’s attitude is not unrighteous revenge, so how could the law demonstrate this attitude? It doesn’t. The law concerning ‘an eye for an eye’ was the law of recompense. It was the paying back for an injury done, the necessity for the injury, in whatever form, to be made right by the person causing it. This law was the equivalent to an insurance policy today. If injury occurred which prevented the person from carrying on a normal working life, then some recompense had to be made. It was never meant to be that if someone caused the loss of an eye then their eye should be gouged out – God forbid, this is not His character – this interpretation is man’s and is grotesque. If someone lost an eye, tooth, leg etc. then the person who caused this was, in some way, to repay and make up to that person to try to enable him to lead as ordinary life as possible. Jesus was not countering this, He was teaching a personal walk before God and He was telling them not to get locked into a battle of demanding rights for wrong done if the perpetrator was resistant. This was, in fact, a more difficult way and one which, from close reading of the OT, was encouraged by the Lord even then. It was man’s interpretation which brought about the literal and harsh judgements on people. In Deut. 23:3-8 God forbids His people to allow an Ammonite or Moabite to enter the congregation of the Lord and not to seek their peace of prosperity. In Ezra 9:12 He explains why – that they may leave an inheritance for their children which was undefiled by the wicked nations. This has been interpreted as hating their enemies – a vengeful hating. But this is clearly not the Lord’s mind. He was, as we’ve pointed out many times, wanting a people to represent Him in the world and the efforts to which He goes is beyond belief. So when Jesus says, ‘Love your enemies’ He is telling them what, in their fallenness, they clearly did not grasp before. They had equated ‘not seeking their peace or prosperity’ with active hate and revenge. But all through God’s instructions through Moses and the law, He shows a care and concern which, if His people had been listening carefully, they would have picked up and copied – ‘Be ye perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect’. If their heavenly Father showed them such love, how can we, in our reading, believe that He is a vengeful and harsh God, our understanding must be wrong if we do. Our God is Truth and His integrity is maligned if we aren’t consistent in declaring the God of both Testaments identical.
The penalties for the breaking of laws has brought forth harsh judgement. But once again on closer inspection, we find that although the penalties are stated, they are not carried out willy nilly. Chapter 13 of Deut. verses 6-11 brings consternation. Stoning to death. We must understand the motive behind the Lord’s instructions. He wanted a people to represent Him, He wanted to share Himself with mankind, through the Israelites. If they started to worship other gods, gods who were shams, made of stone, they would not be representing Him, the one true God. He knew that if this situation arose it was sheer rebellion, not innocent curiosity, because they had been warned and more than once. Death by stoning was the way it was done. The idea seems horrible and it is of course, no method of the death penalty is nice but if we conjure up an image of little pebbles and a man dying slowly, them we are mistaken. The stones would have been large and the death relatively quick. Remember that the Lord knew the hearts of His people and He knew that this was best. Also this was not the end of those who died, on the other side they would have to face their sin and repent and change, but they could not pollute the earth, the Lord had a purpose. In verse 11 it declares that the result should be that those who heard of the death would be prevented from repeating the evil. This would enable the Lord to show His compassion and mercy but He cannot show mercy towards rebellion and wickedness.
And lest we assume that these stonings were common and could happen easily, a passage in Numbers should put an end to that thought. In Numbers 15:32-36 there was a man caught working on the Sabbath day. Was he immediately stoned to death? That was the law. No, Moses had to go and enquire of the Lord as to what should be done. This shows so clearly that the law was subject to God Himself, not to man. The woman taken in adultery in the New Testament and told to go and sin no more would have had the same treatment in the Old Testament. Why do I say this? Because repentance always brings forgiveness in both Testaments. The sacrifices were instituted to atone for sin. It makes a nonsense of the sacrifices when we don’t bring repentance and forgiveness into the lives of the Old Testament people. The stonings were for the extreme cases of relentless rebellion. And this of course brings us to a very important crux. The Old Testament people were living in atheocracy, the penalties could only work as the Lord Himself directed and therefore there was no room for mistaken judgement. In fact there are many O.T. laws that cannot literally apply today, because we live in a different world system, but the principles will always apply and this is why it makes for a very stimulating and exciting study, discovering the character of the Lord and learning of the Mind behind His law.
All the way through our reading of the Old Testament we find God’s fairness, understanding, He’s ‘anxious’ that His people remember how much He loves them and wants what’s best for them. Even when He talks about the king who they will eventually insist on setting over them instead of the Lord, in Deut. 17:18-20, He insists that the king should not lord it over his people but if he copies the law and learns to fear his God then he will serve long. This constant care and concern runs throughout and must underlie everything else we read. There may be things ‘hard to understand’ but God’s character must be the thing which governs our thinking, not the circumstances we are reading about.
To summarise. The laws of the Old and New Testaments declare the care and love of a Father to His children. There are numerous laws which God knew His children needed if they were to represent Him to the nations including those given for their health and well being. Mankind had degenerated in moral terms so much since Adam that it was necessary for God to show His character through a people following these laws. The children of Israel were chosen by Him for the sole purpose of declaring to the world what the Creator was like so that they would want to worship and follow Him and so bring peace and glory to the earth. Throughout the OT God is calling His people to come to Him and obey Him and then the earth would return to Him as well. All the curses laid down in Deut. 27 are based on rebellion – each of them to do with violating their brethren in some way. They will reap what they sow and the Lord will make sure they do because (1) it’s best for them to realise that evil begets evil, (2) if God blesses them when they do not represent Him then the nations will get a very wrong message. All the blessings laid down in Deut. 28 are based on their observance and keeping of the laws because (1) blessing and happiness is an automatic consequence of obedience to their Maker, (2), the nations around will see and believe. The whole catalogue of curses strikes horror into people and they assume that only a tyrant would utter such things. But the whole point is that most of these things would be a natural consequence of their rebellion – they would reap what they had sown. The severity was based on God’s understanding of His creation, He knew that severity since the fall was a necessity to show mankind their depravity. The world today is a prime example of what happens when God is left out of life – all the curses mentioned are happening and it is a consequence of sin in the earth. The consequence of turning our backs on our Creator. God knows that compassion without us reaping consequences does us no good. The laws of God were given, not to restrict mankind but to free mankind to be what God created him to be. In legalistic adherence to that law there is bondage and Pharisaism, but in loving and observing that law, from a heart of love for the Giver of that law, there is joy and freedom. The Law “is holy and righteous and good.” The Law was not nailed to the cross, as some declare. It was the condemnation that was nailed there, so that fallen man may find life and freedom in our Lord’s sacrifice, which he could never obtain under the Law.
(Written by Rosalind after making a detailed study of Deuteronomy. We hold God’s laws in high esteem.)