Monthly Archives: December 2014

Wrath and Judgment of God in the Old Testament: Part 2

In the last post, I looked at what we can learn about God’s character by examining His judgment and love in the Old Testament. I also acknowledged that sometimes, we’re still left feeling uncomfortable with what we see. This isn’t limited to the Old Testament because the world today continues to astound us with the magnitude of evil allowed to run rampant. Human sin is only a part of the story, as natural disasters destroy entire cities and rack up almost as high a death count as armed conflicts. Humans might be really good at taking each other’s lives, but we have nothing on the forces of nature.

How do we defend God’s love in the face of pain and loss? Can we ever give a satisfactory answer to why God allows the things He does? Is He judging cities when hurricanes and landslides wreak havoc or militants kidnap schoolgirls from their school in a Nigerian village?

Last time I looked at the big picture exploring the scale of God’s love and judgment in His actions in the world. It’s a lot more difficult to do with contemporary events because frankly, we don’t have the whole picture. I’m not going to try to explain why God allowed ISIS to take control of large swaths of territory or how the Ebola epidemic in Liberia proves the supremacy of God’s love. I simply don’t know enough.

What I will advocate, however, is to trust in the goodness of God based on the totality of His self revelation. I’m not advocating for blind or lazy faith, but one that can accept the mysteries of God’s will based on who God is.

I grew up in an African household which practices discipline differently from most Canadian homes. My mother loves to tell the tale of the most severe beating I ever received.  The story begins when I was two years old and I somehow wandered away from church. My parents freaked out and mobilized the church to form search parties. I was found enjoying snacks at a Catholic church some distance away clueless to the panic I’d incited. This wasn’t when I received the worst beating of my life.

It happened a few days later when again I wandered off, this time from home. My mother was the only one at home with me and had nobody to help her find me. Fortunately we lived in a gated community at the time and the gatekeeper recognized me walking out the main gate and returned me home. When my father came home from work, he heard I’d disappeared again and decided to do something about my newfound adventurous spirit.

I laugh now when I hear this story, but imagine what my two year old self thought of this. All I knew was that I went away and got snacks. I couldn’t have known how dangerous it could be so separated from my caregivers. I likely could not appreciate the risks of an ill-timed road crossing, or following strangers or even about going too long without food water and shelter. I couldn’t possibly know how frightened my parents were for my wellbeing. All I knew was that my unplanned adventure resulted in pain delivered by the ones I loved and I never did it again.

But I didn’t develop a fear of my father. I probably even cried in his arms after receiving my punishment. He still represented security and love to my toddler’s mind. Why? Because I knew his love. His kindness far exceeded his wrath. And his anger, though severe, never crushed me. The pain faded after a hour or so, but his tenderness remained.

I believe scripture calls us to a similar trust in our limited understanding. I don’t know why some things happen in this life, especially in light of God’s sovereignty. But I know that God’s love far outweighs His anger. I know that He came into our human experience and suffered loneliness, torture and death on my behalf. And He promises that one day, we will have all the answers we seek.

For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known. – 1 Corinthians 13:12

Did God order the Sandy Hook shooting to punish the parents, community, or nation for sin? I don’t believe so. The New Testament teaches our final judgment happens after our funerals, that God is patient in the meantime giving us time to repent and find forgiveness. Even the Old Testament shows God’s willingness to forgo judgment on Sodom for the sake of ten righteous people. But atrocities and catastrophes don’t represent a victory against God’s will. God is in control even when these things happen. Why does He allow them? I don’t know. Sometimes we can see the good that comes out of evil but often we don’t.

So while asking why God allows evil is a good philosophical practice, the answers are not the basis for our faith. The answer is, instead, in the character of God. In this life we will experience personal and communal devastation, and these will test our answer to the question: Is God still good?

For the Lord is good;

his steadfast love endures forever,

and his faithfulness to all generations. – Psalm 100:5

Wrath and Judgment of God in the Old Testament: Part 1

One of the most troubling incidents in my time as a Christian came shortly after the Sandy Hook school shooting in December of 2012. The loss of so many, especially children, to a random act of violence presents a shocking undeniable challenge to theodicy; that is the question of where God is in suffering. I remember reading one Christian writer’s attempt to explain that this was an act of God’s judgment against America for its commitment to sinful values, drawing on anecdotal evidence from the Old Testament. This isn’t only time I’ve encountered this line of thinking; Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and the 2011 Tsunami in Japan also elicited this public response in some Christian circles.

I suppose what makes these responses troubling is that the case presented in these forums draws upon remarkably strong precedent in the Old Testament. It makes one wonder if Christianity would have been better off if Marcion, a first century Christian leader later condemned as a heretic,  succeeded in excluding the Jewish scriptures from the Christian canon in the first century. He believed that though they provide exposition on God’s interaction with the world, these texts force us to come to face with a God whose actions appear overly cruel- perhaps even evil- towards His enemies. Could we honestly worship such a God as good?

I recently stumbled again on an encounter between Moses and God in the book of Exodus. Moses is facing a crisis in leadership and asks to see God’s glory to sustain his zeal. Below is God’s self revelation to Moses

“The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands (footnote suggests also: to a thousand generations), forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.”  – Exodus 34:6-7

This isn’t the first time I’ve written on this verse. Last year I reflected here on how God revealed His glory in an act of self revelation. This time, though, I want to explore what it is God actually says about Himself.

This is actually the second time in Exodus that God introduces Himself in this way. The first incidence comes at the beginning of the ten commandments, as a promise to the people but also a warning.

“I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands (footnote suggests also: to a thousand generations) of those who love me and keep my commandments.”  – Exodus 20:5-6

God doesn’t shy away from the Marcionic accusation in these passages. Yes, He is slow to anger, but check out the severity of His anger when ignited. Here is even an admission of jealousy, a trait with very few positive connotations to the modern mind.

To stop at this point, however, would be to miss out on much of who God is. This formulaic expression invites us to meet a God who values love and justice; one to a far greater degree. The depth of His love is orders of magnitude greater than His anger. The phrasing suggests that the extent of love and anger are presented qualitatively, not quantitatively. We’re not expected to count generations to figure out whether punishment is still going on for sins committed a hundred years ago. By the accounting of most biblical scholars, a thousand generations haven’t passed since God spoke these words to Moses. In case there’s any doubt, God clarifies many years later through the prophet Ezekiel that He doesn’t punish children because their parents screwed up, contrary to what had become a common proverb (Ezekiel 18:1-4).

“What do you mean by repeating this proverb concerning the land of Israel, ‘The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge’? As I live, declares the Lord God, this proverb shall no more be used by you in Israel. Behold, all souls are mine; the soul of the father as well as the soul of the son is mine: the soul who sins shall die.” – Ezekiel 18:2-4

Sin, punishment and grace in the Old Testament are huge topics, and not without difficulties. For example, what do we do with the displacement of entire nations of Canaan to secure the promised land for God’s people? Today, Jews and Arabs claim Jerusalem as a holy site, but it’s easy to forget the violent fates of the land’s previous inhabitants. Why does God instruct his people to sign no treaties and show no mercy, but to clear out the land completely?

The story begins in Genesis 9, after the flood wipes out most of humanity (another drastic act of judgment but an article for another time, maybe). Noah, the one man whose goodness found favour with God, gets wasted and blacks out in the nude. Ham, the middle child and father of Canaan, finds his dad in this state of poor role-modelship and, in the absence of instagram, does the next best thing: he calls his brothers to come share in the mockery. Noah wakes up the next morning, realizes what’s happened the previous night and curses his Ham’s descendents.

“Cursed be Canaan; a servant of servants shall he be to his brothers.” He also said, “Blessed be the Lord, the God of Shem; and let Canaan be his servant.” -Genesis 9:25-26

So were the inhabitants of Canaan paying for the sins of the father? In one sense, they were. The stage for the conflict was set years before the actors were born. And yet, the Bible mentions that the inhabitants of the land were deserving of God’s judgment in their own right. They weren’t innocent victims of their father’s sin, they had earned their expulsion from the land (Leviticus 18:24-25, Deuteronomy 9:5).

Here’s where we see God’s love outweigh his judgment in scope. Canaan was an act of love towards His people. In reading the text though, you quickly see that the Israelites were not deserving of God’s love. They whined, blasphemed, and had a party attributing God’s victory to an idol of their own creation because Moses was a few days late. They frustrated God so Moses had to intercede for them, then frustrated Moses so God had to intercede for them.

“Not because of your righteousness or the uprightness of your heart are you going in to possess their land, but because of the wickedness of these nations the Lord your God is driving them out from before you, and that he may confirm the word that the Lord swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob. Know, therefore, that the Lord your God is not giving you this good land to possess because of your righteousness, for you are a stubborn people.” – Deuteronomy 9:5-6

The people of Canaan had to earn their expulsion and the Israelites did all they could to forfeit their promise but still found God faithful. The stage for judgment and love were set many years earlier in Genesis, but the play presents the supremacy of love over wrath.

And finally, though mercy was not permitted towards the nations or tribes, those Canaanite individuals who aligned themselves with God’s people were spared. This examples we have include Rahab and the man from Bethel (Judges 1:22-26). Not only were they spared, God ensured that they would not be treated as second class citizens according the law (Leviticus 19:33-34). Rahab was even given the honor of participating in the lineage of Jesus

The Old Testament is stark and graphic in its portrayal of God’s anger and punishment of sin. So much so that we are often left feeling uncomfortable with it. It invites two knee-jerk reactions: some believers will focus on the judgment, appearing to take self-righteous pleasure in the promises that God will judge the unrighteous. Rather than leaving grievances in God’s hands, they hold on to them tighter, sure that God is on their side. Others will attempt to denounce the actions of God, choosing to run a public relations campaign for Him so nobody thinks Him a monster.

The fact is that God judges evil and He does so sometimes in this life, and sometimes quite harshly. But both testaments of the Bible introduce us to a God who is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love