QUESTION: Why does God appear to be so severe in the Old Testament?
Iconfess: I don’t always understand God’s actions. That doesn’t necessarily bother me, because I know His actions flow out of His love, holiness, mercy, and justice—that is to say, from His unique nature. I recognize that human moral values find a point of contact in the character of God and that therefore I should be able to understand most, if not all, of the moral dimensions and implications of His actions. So I should always seek understanding.
Your concern is that in some cases our understanding of what is good or evil appears to be in tension/contradiction with what we read in Scripture. I won’t deal with one specific case, but I will share with you some general guidelines that may be useful.
1. There Is Only One God: The biblical text makes it clear that the God of both Testaments is the same God. This point hardly needs elaboration. Therefore, we cannot place one against the other by suggesting that in the Old Testament God is a wrathful God, while in the New Testament He is a loving God. The God of Scripture is a God of mercy, whose love is everlasting. Wrath is not a divine attribute, but His reaction to human sin and rebellion as He seeks to save sinners (e.g., Ex. 34:6, 7).
2. Study Each Case: There are a good number of cases, particularly in the Pentateuch (the five books of Moses), in which divine wrath appears to be merciless; and some punishments for the violation of certain laws seem too severe (e.g., Ex. 21:15, 17). No one explanation could clarify all of them; it’s necessary to study each one by itself within its own context. In most cases we can find a proper moral rationale for the action or the legislation. Others remain somewhat obscure. Comparing the biblical legislation with ancient Near Eastern legal practices reveals that biblical law is more humane. This indicates that God was aiming to elevate the moral values of His people.
3. God’s Condescension: God addressed His people within the cultural and legal contexts in which they lived in order to raise them to new moral and spiritual heights. This was a slow and at times painful process in which God came as close as possible to the human condition without sacrificing His moral integrity. He had a clear plan that He proceeded to implement.
He didn’t choose one of the nations of the earth to be His people; He decided to create one for Himself. He called Abram, and out of him came 12 tribes. The law of the clans and tribes was very strict, and, in cases of violation, quickly enforced. The unification of those tribes into one nation was not an easy task, even for the Lord. Tribal law was appropriated and modified by the Lord, who also became its enforcer. In His hands the intention of the law was to protect the interests not of one clan or tribe but of the whole nation. God was responsible for preserving and restoring order within the community. Insubordination and rebellion that could threaten the very existence of the community was not tolerated within the theocracy. The severity of the punishment revealed the seriousness with which God took sin and rebellion, and served as a social deterrent.
The inscrutability of divine will and actions remain with us. There are ways of reading the text that reveal its moral and ethical significance, but I acknowledge that everything is not crystal clear. However, God’s actions and laws in the Old Testament were manifestations of His character, and they found their fullest expression in the Person of His Son. The final answer provided by the Bible is the cross of Jesus and His role in the final judgment.
The cosmic judgment will make clear that God was righteous and just in how He dealt with the sin problem by answering the question: “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?” (Gen. 18:25).
The answer then, as now, will be: Yes, He has done right!