The number one phrase that makes me question whether someone has opened a Bible lately is “The God of the New Testament is loving and forgiving, but the God of the Old Testament is wrathful and demanding.” I don’t know how many times I’ve heard it and read it.
In fact, there’s a lot of love and forgiveness in the Old Testament. “Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne? Though she may forget, I will not forget you!”—which for the record doubles as an instance in the Bible where God is compared and described in traditionally feminine rather than masculine terms. God shows forbearance time and time again in the Old Testament despite the Israelites going astray. And after God has punished them for their transgressions, He is quick to forgive. The prophets of the Old Testament, who pronounce judgment upon Israel, always end on the note that God will restore His people. The last words of Amos are:
“…I will restore the fortunes of my people Israel,
and they shall rebuild the ruined cities and inhabit them;
they shall plant vineyards and drink their wine,
and they shall make gardens and eat their fruit.
I will plant them upon their land,
and they shall never again be plucked up
out of the land which I have given them,”
says the Lord your God.
There’s also a good amount of wrath and demands in the New Testament. In Luke and Matthew, respectively, Jesus preaches the following:
“I tell you, my friends, do not fear those who kill the body, and after that have no more that they can do. But I will warn you whom to fear: fear him who, after he has killed, has power to cast into hell; yes, I tell you, fear him!”
“Enter by the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is easy, that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard, that leads to life, and those who find it are few.”
You’d almost think the OT and NT were written about the same God. On a related note, Jesus talks about hell a decent amount too. Yes, Gehenna is a reference to hell. No, Jesus is not literally talking about your soul going to a burning trash pit outside Jerusalem in the afterlife. Yes, Jesus uses imagery to help his listeners understand the gravity of the situation.
Sheol/Hades (in Hebrew/Greek) is more ambiguous, mostly because our understanding of the word hell, which is an English word, is much narrower than it used to be. Rather than referring exclusively to the realm of the eternally damned, hell was used generally to refer to the abode of the dead, both good and evil. The CCC gives a good summary:
Scripture calls the abode of the dead, to which the dead Christ went down, “hell” – Sheol in Hebrew or Hades in Greek – because those who are there are deprived of the vision of God. Such is the case for all the dead, whether evil or righteous, while they await the Redeemer: which does not mean that their lot is identical, as Jesus shows through the parable of the poor man Lazarus who was received into “Abraham’s bosom”: “It is precisely these holy souls, who awaited their Savior in Abraham’s bosom, whom Christ the Lord delivered when he descended into hell.” Jesus did not descend into hell to deliver the damned, nor to destroy the hell of damnation, but to free the just who had gone before him.
7 thoughts on “Old Testament God vs. New Testament God”
Perhaps it’s not as simple as saying that the Old Testament God is vengeful and the NT God is kind, but God does seem to undergo a marked transformation between the two. I would put it down to two things:
First, God starts to act as if all people matter equally to Him, not just people from one single tribe.
Second (relatedly), God stops asking people to exterminate whole nations.
I’ve actually spent quite a bit of time thinking about the dramatic dichotomy between the OT and the NT, and my best explanation is that it stems from the two different kinds of organizations used to propagate the religion.
In the OT, the religion is a societal/communal religion. It is propagated by family ties, culture, and tradition. It relies on draconian measures to enforce the laws/practices and generally is more about obtaining obedience through fear.
In the NT, by contrast, the religion is propagated through a proselyting religion, where individuals to join by choice. In this model, obedience is given freely as a show of faith.
The difference in temperament between the two is a difference between what is required to propagate belief in those different environments.
While the OT definitely is the story of Israel and that people’s relation to God, I don’t think it’s fair to imply that the OT shows God as uninterested in the Gentiles:
Furthermore, individual Gentiles feature as righteous people in the OT (Rahab and Ruth come to mind) and even entire cities repent of their sin and are spared by God (the inhabitants of Nineveh in Jonah). Jonah is funny because Jonah wants God to destroy the whole city, and Jonah gets mad that they repented and God won’t destroy them!
This is probably the number one challenge of the OT. I think the first time God’s commands to exterminate made any sense to me was watching the Walking Dead. If you’re not familiar, there’s a tribe of cannibals in the show who wander around tricking people and then proceeding to eat them. My reaction (and I’m willing to bet others) was visceral. These people are *evil* and treacherous. If Rick and his crew don’t kill every single one of them, they’re going to simply wander off and find someone weaker to trick, murder, and eat. In my opinion, it would be wrong to spare them.
This is more or less the situation the Israelites find themselves in the OT. Many of the inhabitants of Canaan are evil. Not just a few people or some people but the entire tribe. If these people are not killed, they will find another chance to bring misery and evil upon Israel again, or find someone weaker instead. The Amakelites are the archetype of this kind of tribe in the OT, who ambushed the Jews on their way out of Egypt and continued to bring them misery so long as they existed:
I think the important task in understanding this situation is to remove ourselves from 2000 years of Christian influence and 3000 years of Jewish influence, and bring ourselves back to a time when an entire people could (and often did) base their entire worldview on the murder, rape, and enslavement of others, for no other reason than they could. These people would not be pleasant neighbors to have, and you might begin to understand why killing them would not be unjust.
I think that’s a more accurate assessment. I agree that the Old Covenant was designed for the conditions of the OT while the New Covenant is meant for the state humanity found itself in at Jesus’ time, and still finds itself in today.
“Behold, the days are coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant which I made with their fathers when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant which they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord. But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it upon their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each man teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.”
“The Old Covenant was formal, working from without inward, telling men what to do. This must come first. Childhood, of the race as of the individual, must begin life under rules. But the aim of the Law was to make itself superseded, by opening the way to a religious force which should work from within outward. A religion of forms, like an educational system, can never be closely personal. It cannot keep adjusting itself to the individual. It is machine work, not hand work. It fits only the average, and misfits everybody else. Gods work is with the inner heart of each human being, where dwells his truest individuality, his real life. When this is gained, the whole is won. From it flow the upright conduct, the gentle manners, the broad benisons of regenerated society. Society is not a machine to which we may bring raw characters to make them virtuous, but the effluence and product of what individual characters bring to it. Nor will religion, or a church, or any clever society or institution within the church, turn out a new generation of new souls by its most perfect adjustments. The best of them is but a path, a hand, to bring men to God, an avenue by which God comes to them. Spirit with spirit is the method of salvation.”
Thanks, that’s an interesting perspective.
Do you really think the Amalekites could be so evil that even their children deserved to die, though? That’s the part that’s hardest for me to imagine about this version of the story. The cannibals in The Walking Dead didn’t have kids, did they?
You seem to be suggesting there’s a general tendency for at least some civilizations to descend into that level of evil, without the influence of the religions of the book. I find that a little hard to believe given that none of the civilizations discovered in the well-documented history of the last two millennia were anywhere near that far gone. Including ones that previously had no contact with Christianity or Judaism.
Sorry for the late reply. I work 13 hour swing shifts half the week >_>
The tribal nature of ancient Canaan also influences this decision. First, when your sources of knowledge essentially consist of your tribe, chances are almost certain the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, excluding rare cases like Rahab (who is consequently recognized as righteous and spared along with her family). I think we’re more used to a knowledge-rich, cosmopolitan society where children have both the capability and the likelihood of ending up significantly different than their parents. In a funny way, the one person who can rightly be a consequentialist is God Himself, since God and only God knows how every person (or groups of people) will turn out and can therefore make moral judgments about what to do in the present based on (100% certain) foreknowledge. We can dig into the issue of free will vs divine foreknowledge if that tangent interests you…
Second, the children of the Amalekites would be bound to avenge their parents in the nastiest way possible. People often cite “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” as a mean passage in the OT, but the original point of that passage was equitable retribution rather than the endless and ever-escalating blood feuds that characterized many ancient cultures.
Lastly, not really a point so much as just worth knowing, the Israelites were pretty dang bad at wiping people out anyways. The groups they were supposed to wipe out kept showing up in the Bible. Of course, failing to wipe out a people does nothing to justify attempting it :P
Just chiming in with my two cents, and the short answer is: no.
I do not believe that the God of the Old Testament commanded the Israelites to kill the children of the Amalekites. I also do not believe that the authors of the Old Testament would have expected, desired, or even anticipated that anyone reading the text would come to that conclusion.
I am far from an expert in this field, but–from reading those who are–my understanding is that the Book of Joshua in particular is written as a conquest narrative. This is a specific kind of genre, in the same way that a sit-com (like Big Bang Theory) or a procedural (like Law and Order) is a genre. So, for that matter, is a news telecast.
Imagine for a moment that there are two new shows that haven’t been aired yet and nobody knows a thing about them. Once is a sit com. One is a procedural. Imagine I sit you down in front of a TV and randomly pick one of those three things (the sitcom no one has heard of, the procedural no one has heard of, or a nightly television with a new anchor from a new network). How long would it take you to tell which of the three you were watching? Minutes? Maybe even seconds? If there’s a laugh-track, you know what you’re watching. If there’s one person speaking directly into the camera sitting behind a desk while an infographic is shown over his or her shoulder, you know what you’re watching. If there’s a dead body discovered within the first five minutes and a couple of detectives show up and make quips, you know what you’re watching.
We have our genres. The ancient Semitic peoples (of which the Israelites were just one) had their’s. And one of their’s was the conquest narrative, which was a story that showed how awesome a leader was by the scale of their conquests. These were routinely exaggerated well beyond what we find plausible today, and there’s every reason to suspect the audiences at the time also knew that they weren’t being told something literally true. However, the scale of the exaggeration was meaningful: it reflected the scale of the victory. So, if a leader lost, they would often describe the battle in victorious terms that, if you read between the lines, actually revealed they had failed.
I believe there’s a famous one from an Assyrian king who led an unsuccessful siege of a city and then commemorated how he had trapped the enemy leader “like a bird in a cage” before going home again. Sounds pretty good, but it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that the purpose of a siege is to actually get into the city, not just keep the defenders inside. Inside is where they want to be. So this is a genre: readers would have understood what was really going on in context in a way that we–lacking the social queues of a culture 3,000 years removed from us–don’t.
Which brings us back to Joshua. The Book of Joshua depicts all kinds of whole-sale genocide of peoples who show up all over the rest of the Bible. Either the writers of the Bible were incompetent liars, or they were not even expecting to be taken literally. Think about a laugh-track for a sit-com. It’s not remotely realistic and–if you’ve never heard one before–it might be weird (who is laughing!?) or even obnoxious (why are they trying to manipulate me into laughing?) But we don’t think twice about it because it’s part of our cultural matrix.
My understanding is that the same is in play here. The stuff about God saying “kill everyone” and then the Israelites killing everyone–combined with the obvious fact that the rest of the Bible shows that these people were still there–is a way of writing the ULTRA CONQUEST NARRATIVE. After all, Isreael’s God wasn’t just some local nature deity. He was supposed to be the God of the whole Earth. And so you had to show his power by cranking up the conquest dial to 11. And genocide is 11. Thus, the purpose of all the violence and of the total annhilation of killing every man, woman, and child (and their livestock!) was not intended as a literal statement of what Israel did or what God commanded, but simply a genre-work (like a sticom or a procedural) that was using the conventions of the genre (like infographics for news or a laughtrack for a sitcom) to convey a particular message: Israel’s God is supreme.
To me, this is the explanation that makes the most sense theologically, ethically, historically, and textually.
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