Monday, December 13, 2010

Why is the God of the Old Testament so mean?

I am very excited! In a post last week, I asked for topic suggestions, and got some great questions about Scripture. 

Now, I'm not a Scripture scholar... far from it! But I do have a dear friend who teaches Scripture, and I always run to her like a little child when I have a question that's too much for me! She is the same dear friend that I shoved out of the way to get to Fr. Tad last month! She graciously forgave me, because she is a super-classy broad!!

Anyway, I'm doing a dance, because this dear friend, Gayle Somers, has kindly agreed to be the honorary Bubble Scripture lady!! She will help us when we need answers regarding a question of Scripture!! I am giddy, aren't you???

Here's a small peek at her many credentials: Gayle was an evangelical Christian for nearly thirty years of her adult life. She has her Masters in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, taught Scripture and lectured for decades as a Protestant, and was a contributor to The Women's Study Bible. She was received into the Catholic Church in 1995, and she's been leading parish Bible studies since 1996. Gayle is the author of three published Bible studies, she blogs on the Book of Romans at Catholic Exchange, and is a research fellow with the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology, which promotes biblical literacy for laymen. She also has her own website, Cor Ardens Catholic Scripture Study.

Whew! And that's just for starters!! So, she's got the killer credentials, and now she has...................... 

her own Bubble icon!!!!!

What more could a woman achieve in one lifetime?!

So, let's get to it. 

Our first question comes from God Alone Suffices, who asks about the harshness we see from God in the Old Testament, a harshness we don't find in the New Testament, "almost like there are two different Gods": 
Why would God give the Jews such a harsh Law? The stoning and burning people just disturbs me. I had a history professor tell me that God created the Law and it was impossible to follow, and that's why they needed Jesus. Well, why would God give them a Law that was impossible to follow in the first place? I'm sorry if I'm not making any sense! I've just never really received a satisfying answer to this question, and it keeps bugging me! :) 

Gayle's answer:

There seem to be two questions here:  (1) Why were OT punishments harsh?  (2) Why did God give the Jews a law they couldn't keep?

(1) First, we want to remind ourselves that punishment from God is a sign of His love, not His hate. Parents know that punishment is an important part of taming a child's natural self-serving (and often destructive) impulses. A parent is willing to inflict temporary suffering on his beloved child (a spanking, a time-out, a grounding, etc.) in the hope of sparing him a greater suffering should his impulsive behavior continue and become a habit. We should be happy to see God punish His people in the OT, for it proves they are His children and not chattel. 

Second, it helps to know that God had to give His people a "second law" (Deuteronomy) in the wilderness because they proved, by their infidelity to the covenant He made with them, that they were not ready to live as a kingdom of priests as He intended (read Ex. 19:4-6), spreading the knowledge of Him throughout the world.  

The Mosaic (deuteronomic) Law was given after the 10 Commandments (God's unchangeable moral law) in recognition that Israel could only live like the other nations at that time in their development, and not in fulfillment of their original vocation.  

Their civil law looked much like the civil laws of the surrounding nations. Whatever harshness it contained was a taste of what life is like outside covenant life with God, although it should be noted that Israel's civil law was far more just and humane than the laws of its neighbors. It was going to take time for Israel to be ready to live by the law of love -- they had to live their history to reach the place of humility and longing for God to be in their midst. Jesus was born in the "fullness of time." They were ready.  

Thirdly, before we lay any charge against God for His punishments in the OT, we need to read the entire OT with a yellow marker, noting all the places of His forgiveness, mercy, provision, protection, and guidance. When we get the final tally sheet of punishment/kindness, we can figure out if the God of the OT is the same God of the NT. My prediction: We won't get beyond Genesis 3 before we realize that God's love for us is "crazy love," as St. Catherine of Sienna said, the self-same Love we see on the Cross.  

Lastly, we must recognize that there is always a tension in the OT between God's justice and His mercy. We are supposed to feel it when we read it. Harsh punishment tells us that sin is serious; God's forbearance tells us He is merciful.  Only in Jesus does the tension get resolved: Sin is serious and is punished (justice), but Jesus takes it for us (mercy).

(2)  The problem with the 10 Commandments wasn't in the Law -- it was in the heart of man. When parents make rules for a household, do they expect children to always perfectly keep them? When a society writes laws for its citizens, does it expect them to be perfectly kept? We could ask, "Why bother?"  Yet we know why we bother -- we all need a standard of behavior that is explicit and preserves the idea of both moral and civil order.  

God's law for Israel was simply a codification of what is inscribed on all our hearts: We should love God and man. If we are not able to keep the law (as Israel wasn't), we find out something very important about ourselves.  Something is wrong with us! Humility replaces pride. We are ready to ask for help. We need forgiveness and can freely accept the help of a Savior. The law was a "tutor" until grace arrived, as St. Paul tells us. Never underestimate the importance of self-knowledge in life with God.

I don't know about you, but I learned a lot from this answer!! If any of you have a Scripture question you'd like Gayle to address, either email me or put it in the comments, and I will pick one to give her for the next installment of "Ask Gayle Somers"! (a.k.a., "Gayle in the Bubble"!)

Thanks so much, Gayle!!


  1. Oh my goodness! I can't believe I was mentioned in a Bubble post! lol Wow! Again, thank you (and Gayle!), for taking the time to do this!

  2. Thank you Leila and Gayle (in the bubble). I struggle with the OT too. I love the suggestion of highlighting all the times of forgiveness and mercy. Sometimes I wish my own kids would focus on that more.

  3. I LOVED this post!!!! Fabulous answer, Gayle! I loved your insight about going through the OT with a yellow highlighter marking God's mercy. You're so right. Interesting how that can get overlooked. I also love how you pointed out the tension between God's judgement and mercy. SO TRUE. In a high school class Great Theological Controversies, we had a debate on whether God was just or merciful. It's amazing how difficult it was to reconcile the two. Thanks for the wonderful post.


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