The angry, violent, vindictive God of the Old Testament often seems completely at odds with the loving Father of the New Testament. It is difficult to reconcile the two and sometimes believers, along with non-believers and ex-believers, question the actions of God recorded in the Old Testament because they seem atrocious and outside the character of a good God.
Defenders of God often respond in one of two ways. Some try to explain how the seemingly cruel actions of God in the Old Testament are proper given the circumstances: God killed people because they were evil, as he did in the flood; and he killed Israelites in order to enforce obedience, and so forth.
Others simply point out that God is not accountable to anyone and has the right and power to do as he pleases—he is above reproach. Neither answer seems satisfactory; the acts still seem incompatible with a good God. I believe both answers are misguided.
One early bishop took this objection very seriously and concluded that the God of the Old Testament was not the same person as the Father of the New Testament.
Bishop Marcion was the son of the Bishop of Sinope, a seaport city in northern Asia Minor. Recognizing the conflict between the concepts of God in the Old and New Testaments, Marcion taught that the Father whom Jesus describes is the universal God of love and compassion, while the God of the Old Testament was a lesser being and the jealous tribal god of the Israelites. Marcion had many followers.
Marcion addressed a real issue, but I believe his answer was mistaken. I believe the answer lies elsewhere and here it is: God did not do what the Old Testament claims he did.
Who Wrote the Old Testament Biography of God?
The problem with the Christian defenders of God’s violent behavior in the Old Testament, and with Marcion’s conclusion that this God was a completely different being than the Father, is that they both believe that the things written about the God of the Old Testament were accurate.
But who wrote about God in the Old Testament? Was it God writing his own story, or was it people writing about God as they understood him? I think it was the latter. The Old Testament is a collection of material written by many people, in many situations, over a long period of time. What they had in common was that they felt a connection to God or with the nation Israel.
Perhaps God provided special insight to some writers in some way, but we don’t know to what extent, and it seems that they had a very incomplete understanding of God. The Old Testament idea of God certainly reflects many of the same assumptions about gods held by the surrounding cultures of that day—assumptions we should no longer maintain.
The writers of the Old Testament were bound by the times and cultures in which they lived, and their ideas of an angry, violent, vindictive God were products of their limitations. It is an incredible burden on them to expect that they were perfect in everything they wrote.
It is important to realize in this regard that violent images of God are not the only ones found in the Old Testament. There are many references to a gentle God. When Jesus announces his mission, he does so by reading from Isaiah 61. Luke 4 reports his words:
The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
However, the angry, violent images are there; they grab our attention and we must account for them.
Inerrancy of the Bible
Inerrancy is the belief that every word of the Bible is inspired of God and is accurate and authoritative. Accepting and defending the Old Testament descriptions of God’s behavior as fact is necessary for those who hold to inerrancy. A reader commented recently, “I am continually challenged when confronted with the thought that it isn’t ALL INSPIRED by God. If it isn’t, then what is the point of the Bible? Why bother believing any of it.”
This concern is sometimes called ‘cherry-picking’ the Bible. But were we to read a compilation of works on medicine from writers over a period of 2000 years, we would certainly use the best of the works and ignore the rest. We would not throw out the entire collection because of the varying quality.
Neither must we accept the Bible as inerrant in all things in order to accept the good news of Jesus.
Jesus and the Father
What does Jesus say about the Father? How did he get his information? How does it relate to Old Testament descriptions of God?
Over the next few posts, we will discuss some of the things Jesus tells us of the Father.
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