“THE OLD TESTAMENT GOD”
A great part of my spiritual journey has been learning how to read Scripture in light of Jesus’s revelation of ‘a more Christlike God.’ More Christlike than what? More Christlike than I had reckoned, given the hellfire preaching of the revivalists I endured in my childhood. More Christlike than the literalist hermeneutics of my training as a Biblical Studies major. And more Christlike than my impressions of the so-called “God of the Old Testament.” Note that I’ve italicized the word ‘my.’ Out of my personal experiences, training, and impressions, I developed an image of God that was not altogether Christlike, and it was easy enough to proof-text biblical narratives to confirm the disparity between ‘the God of Old Testament’ and ‘the God revealed in Jesus.’
The temptation for some is to either ignore the problem, deny the problem, or just as bad, exaggerate the problem and set aside the Old Testament altogether (as did the heretic Marcion). However, the greatest early Christian preachers recognized that neither the Bible nor God were the real problem. Their solution was not to marginalize the Old Testament or disparage its God, but like Origen, to preach Christ from every last book in the canon, applying Jesus’ Emmaus Way of reading (cf. A More Christlike Word: Reading Scripture the Emmaus Way).
Further, they did not retroactively impose their image of Christ onto the Old Testament but rather saw him everywhere embedded in the text itself. Instead of proof-texting stories to undermine Old Testament authority, they preached the gospel “according to the Scriptures” (1 Corinthians 15:3-4). They were able to see ‘the heartbeat of Old Testament theology’ (cf. Mark J. Boda) beating across its pages and especially in the Jews’ covenants and creeds.
My spiritual director, Steve Imbach, is convinced that many who speak of “the Old Testament God” with a bitter taste in their mouth must be reading selectively and missing the big themes and beating heart of God’s nature that are obvious to those who read the entire Bible front-to-back, year and after year. Like me, the critics are inclined to turn their nose up at the ‘toxic texts’ and ‘cringe moments’ but miss the central features and guiding texts that reveal how YHWH has always been Christlike.
Specifically, if the God revealed at the Cross of Christ is self-giving, radically forgiving, co-suffering love, then we can ask ourselves where that God appears in the Old Testament. The result would be a lifetime of uplifting study (as you get with Mileto, Irenaeus, and Origen) that leads us to conclude, “Everywhere!” The people of God did not primarily think of God as the violent warrior, punishing judge, absentee landlord, deadbeat dad, genie in the lantern, or fairy godmother. Rather, their central and breakthrough revelation was, from the beginning, that “God is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger, and abounding in mercy.” This refrain is found so frequently across the text that it is fair to describe it as creedal. Indeed, the Old Testament experience of the glory of the Lord was, in truth, Christ in their midst!
YHWH, THE COMPASSIONATE & MERCIFUL
Further, even the variants on this creed must be read in light of its primary focus. For example, in the foundational text where God reveals God’s glory to Moses, we read:
6 And he passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, “The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness,7 maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation.” (Exodus 34:6-7).
Even when he says, “he does not leave the guilty unpunished,” we need to read it in light of the whole promise:
- The ‘grace creed’ draws a dramatic contrast between the blessings of God (to a thousand generations) and the consequences of sin (a maximum of three or four generations). The emphasis is on the disparity of God’s generous mercy and the forbearance of God’s judgments.
- God also assures his frequently oppressed people by acknowledging the guilt of those who abuse them. His mercy is not a green light to relentless injustice and subjugation. These verses are less a threat to God’s children than they are a promise to recall after their enslavement and as they face forthcoming conflicts and exile.
- And even where the self-inflicted consequences of their own defiance presses in on them, God assures his beloved people that their affliction is finite while his mercy endures forever. In fact, in Jeremiah 31:29-30 (a prophecy of the New Covenant), God abolishes generational curses altogether.
- Now for a bit of pushback for translators who render these passages as God’s active punishment. What does the Hebrew text or the Greek Septuagint actually say in these passages? NOT “I will not leave unpunished” or “I will punish” but rather, according to Hebrew scholar Robert Alter, the text literally says, “I will not cleanse” or “acquit” those who persist in unrepentant rebellion. Their lawlessness will continue to reap its consequences, there is a reckoning for sin, but God does not allow the judgment intrinsic to disobedience to torment us forever. Does knowing we must face the meaning of our actions too painful to hear? But consider the alternative. Could we call God gracious, compassionate, and merciful if he were to say, “The unjust and the wicked may do whatever they please, without any reckoning” or “the consequences of your sin will never run their course”?
Let’s survey a sample of the grace creed’s occurrence across the Old Testament, with minimal commentary. This should help us develop a more accurate picture of the true and Christlike nature of the “Old Testament” God.
Then the Lord passed by in front of him and proclaimed, “The Lord, the Lord God, compassionate and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in faithfulness and truth.
For if you return to the Lord, your brothers and your sons will find compassion in the presence of those who led them captive, and will return to this land. For the Lord your God is gracious and compassionate, and will not turn His face away from you if you return to Him.”
Note here that God has never turned his face from them. It is they who turned away. If they re-Turn (turn again toward him), what will they see? God’s gracious and compassionate face, his forgiving and merciful disposition, always waiting and welcoming, as in the parable of the prodigal son.
‘The Lord is slow to anger and abundant in mercy, forgiving wrongdoing and violation of His Law; but He will by no means leave the guilty unpunished, inflicting the punishment of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generations.’
Part of me cringes at the combination of mercy and forgiving alongside the assurance of punishment. But as above, a good and merciful God wants his children to know he has their back. Our enemy doesn’t just get away with anything—even when we are our own worst enemy.
They refused to listen, and did not remember Your wondrous deeds which You performed among them; So they became stubborn and appointed a leader to return to their slavery in Egypt. But You are a God of forgiveness, gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in mercy; And You did not abandon them.
Nehemiah 9 is the ‘gospel in chairs’ of the Old Testament. Again and again, God’s people turned away and followed their rebellion, idolatry, and injustice into a pit they had dug for themselves. And repeatedly, they find that when they turn toward home, the Good Father is still there. Not just waiting, but running to them and even after them. This is the Good Shepherd who searches for his lost sheep and even suffers along with them.
Nevertheless, in Your great compassion You did not make an end of them or abandon them, for You are a gracious and compassionate God.
But You, Lord, are a compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger and abundant in mercy and truth.
The Lord is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in mercy.
Slow to anger, maybe. Okay, but eventually he does get angry, right? The early church recognized this expression (along with ‘wrath’) as an obvious anthropomorphism. To say God is angry is to project human reactions onto the God who is not subject to reactivity. That doesn’t make the words vacuous. The ‘anger of God’ is a loaded metaphor expressing two aspects of our experience: (1) divine consent to the painful consequences of our own sin, despite God’s repeated and patient warnings, and (2) God’s ongoing opposition to our self-destructive trajectories. God’s heart is to save us. But because our actions begin with turning away from God’s divine care, we tend to see the painful outcomes as if God were actually angry and actively punishing us. But that’s a bit like blaming my mom for burning me when I disobeyed her loving ‘command’ not to touch the hot stove.
He has caused His wonders to be remembered; The Lord is gracious and compassionate.
Light shines in the darkness for the upright; gracious, compassionate, and righteous.
Gracious is the Lord, and righteous; yes, our God is compassionate.
The Lord is gracious and compassionate; Slow to anger and great in mercy.
And tear your heart and not merely your garments.” Now return to the Lord your God, for He is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger, abounding in mercy and relenting of catastrophe.
… I knew that You are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abundant in mercy, and One who relents of disaster.
The Lord is slow to anger and great in power, And the Lord will by no means leave the guilty unpunished. In the gale and the storm is His way, and clouds are the dust beneath His feet.
This final example is fascinating in that the prophet exchanges the term ‘power’ for ‘compassion.’ And instead of mercy, Nahum focuses on images that suggest a vengeful ‘storm-god.’ Yes, and there’s a reason for that. The book of Nahum uses Nineveh’s aggression and violence as a place-holder for our ultimate enemy of every human—“Belial” (Nahum 1:11, 1:15)—i.e., a Jewish name for the devil. And in God’s goodness (1:7), a gospel of peace comes (1:15): Yahweh saves (Jesus’s name!). So the power and might are focused, not against his people, or even (in the end) against their human enemies! The question in Nahum 3:7 (“Nineveh is devastated! Who will have sympathy for her?”) is answered in Jonah 4:2, where God’s gracious and compassionate character overflows even onto that evil empire!
Ultimately, God’s compassion and mercy are revealed to the whole world, promised to Abraham, fulfilled in Christ. Christ will reckon with satan, sin, and death through his death and resurrection. This is the ‘Old Testament God’ of Abraham, Moses, David, and Isaiah—fully and finally revealed in Jesus Christ, there all along for those with ears to see. These creedal statements are hermeneutical keys by which I can see and worship the Christlike God in every book of the Bible.