In my 11th grade English class, I had a teacher named Mr Dasher. He was an educated country boy from Georgia who was very disenchanted with the US Army, and had a killer music collection. Aside from introducing me to Young Goodman Brown, Giles Corey, and the French Lieutenant’s Woman, he also turned me on to Van Morrison, John Lee Hooker, and Freddie King.
We had lots of Bible beaters at the high school I attended, and one day, I overheard Mr Dasher talking to one of them. “Now, do you believe in the God of the Old Testament, or the one in the New Testament?” he asked in his lazy drawl. I don’t at all remember the girl’s response; I think I was too busy pondering his question. Of course, I knew exactly what he meant, but I think that was the first time I had ever really heard it phrased that way.
He (as well as many others) viewed God in the Old Testament as harsh, unbending, veangeful, possibly even cruel. Whereas, God in the New Testament was loving, forgiving, and merciful. I know Mr Dasher didn’t believe these were two separate gods; he was merely mocking this girl’s faith. But this is still an interesting observation, and one that I think bears looking into.
Any time you study an issue, you’ve got to have a reliable source. You’ve got to be able to go back to something (or several things) upon which you can base observations, compare your findings, gain unbiased information. God has given us such a source in his Bible. I’m not going to spend time giving proofs to the authenticity of God’s word; that would take us so far off topic we’d completely lose sight of our intended goal.
Instead, I’m going to let you know that I believe the Bible to be the inerrant, infallible, and inspired word of God. I believe that the scriptures are “God-breathed” – that “holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit” (1 Pet 1:21). And I further believe that the Bible is “profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness” (2 Tim 3:16).
That said, we’re going to look at what the Bible says about God’s character. Does he change? Why did he do certain things in the Old Testament that seemed so harsh? And do the different testaments provide two different views of God, or is there a larger picture?
Again, it’s usually in a mocking tone that people refer to the “different” gods of the Old and New Testaments. But behind the jab lies the deeper question of whether or not God acts differently between the two testaments.
For I am the LORD, I do not change; – Mal 3:6
God is not a man, that He should lie,
Nor a son of man, that He should repent. – Num 23:19
Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and comes down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow of turning. – James 1:17
God does not change. And if we go with the premise we mentioned earlier, that the Bible is true, then we have to accept this statement. So when we read the Bible and we think we see differences in God’s nature, there must have been some unifying purpose behind his actions. So what might that purpose be?
Why so harsh?
Before we can understand the purpose behind some of God’s actions, we need to identify the things that tend to stand out to people. Things like slavery, the Jews’ annihilation of foreign nations, and the seeming unfairness, at times, of God’s actions have caused some to question God’s purposes. After all, God is no respecter of persons, right (Acts 10:34)?
In Leviticus 25, God hands down his laws about slavery to the Jews. Basically, Israelites were not to be taken as slaves; at most, they could act as indentured servants for a while. However, they were allowed to take slaves of other nations. Doesn’t that sound harsh? By our standards today, isn’t that kind of inhumane?
But you know, what’s interesting is that the New Testament doesn’t condemn slavery either. Ephesians 6:5-9 talks about it. These two verses sum up the point pretty clearly:
5 Bondservants, be obedient to those who are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in sincerity of heart, as to Christ;9 And you, masters, do the same things to them, giving up threatening, knowing that your own Master also[b] is in heaven, and there is no partiality with Him.
Servants are to continue to serve their masters. Why? So they can be a godly example. And masters are to treat their servants well. But the actual practice of slavery is not condemned here. I think the reason for that is the same as when Jesus told Peter to render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s. The gospel was not meant to be political. Christians could live and serve God even in a society that practiced slavery. They would have more impact by obeying than by causing revolution. God didn’t place us on this world to live a comfortable, happy life. If we can, then that’s fantastic. But it’s not something we’re promised. Consider the following verses:
14 There is a vanity which occurs on earth, that there are just men to whom it happens according to the work of the wicked; again, there are wicked men to whom it happens according to the work of the righteous. I said that this also is vanity. – Ecclesiastes 8:14
15 As for man, his days are like grass;
As a flower of the field, so he flourishes.
16 For the wind passes over it, and it is gone,
And its place remembers it no more – Psalm 103:15-16
For what is your life? It is even a vapor that appears for a little time and then vanishes away. – James 4:14
We aren’t on this earth for very long at all. Compared to eternity, our lives here happen in an instant. Furthermore, the rain falls on the just and the unjust (Matt 5:45). Good and bad happen to us all, and that’s what it really means for God to be no respecter of persons.
See, God has perspective. He views things from a standpoint of eternity, but we often only view things from a standpoint of now. When you view things God’s way, you can see how what happens to us in this life doesn’t compare with the life to come. As Paul said:
17 For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, is working for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory, – 2 Cor 4:17
So with slavery, we see that God’s stance didn’t change. Either way, servants were to obey their masters, and masters were to treat their servants well. As always, their physical states were not as important to God as their spiritual states.
Annihilation of Israel’s Enemies
Here’s another one that often bothers us. Several times throughout Israel’s history, they were instructed to utterly destroy the inhabitants of a certain land. In Joshua 6, all the inhabitants of Jericho were destroyed – men, women, children, and animals. The only people left alive were of Rahab the harlot’s household, because she had harbored the Israelite spies.
Why? Why did God have them completely destroy all those nations? The answer is given here:
31 “And I will set your bounds from the Red Sea to the sea, Philistia, and from the desert to the River.[b] For I will deliver the inhabitants of the land into your hand, and you shall drive them out before you. 32 You shall make no covenant with them, nor with their gods. 33 They shall not dwell in your land, lest they make you sin against Me. For if you serve their gods, it will surely be a snare to you.” – Exodus 23:31-33
God had them destroy those people in order to avoid temptation. Does that still seem harsh? Remember, God deals in eternity. All of us will die… does it really matter how it happens? It wasn’t as though all those people were condemned to Hell. Even though none of them were God’s chosen people – the Israelites – we know that some of them were still saved. Paul, in his address to the Athenians, explains why:
30 Truly, these times of ignorance God overlooked, but now commands all men everywhere to repent – Acts 17:30
God judged these people on some sort of moral law, so when the Israelites were commanded to destroy them, it was to prove a point. It was to show the Israelites that God as no place for sin. We’re taught the same lesson in the New Testament as well.
22 Abstain from every form of evil – 1 Thes 5:22
11 But you, O man of God, flee these things and pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, patience, gentleness. – 1 Tim 6:11
34 Awake to righteousness, and do not sin; for some do not have the knowledge of God. I speak this to your shame. – 1 Cor 15:34
God commanded the Israelites to wipe out the nations around them so they wouldn’t be led astray. The Israelites didn’t completely do everything God had required of them, and they were subsequently led into the very idolatry that God had warned them about. Gal 3:24 tells us that we use the Old Law as a tutor – we learn from it. And from these examples, we can see that God despises sin, and that if we don’t remove sources of temptation from our lives, we will almost certainly be led astray. God’s methods may have been different between the two laws, but the purpose was the same.
Finally, there are a few stories in the Old Testament that seem to go against our ideas of fairness. For instance, in 1 Chronicles 13, we have the story of David transporting the ark of the covenant. Now, God had decreed that the ark should be transported on the shoulders of the Levites. However, David decided that it would be more convenient to ship it on an ox cart. As the cart was traveling along, one of the oxen stumbled, so Uzza, who was driving the cart, stuck his hand up to steady the ark. When he touched it, God struck him dead.
Isn’t that harsh? Uzza only wanted to ensure the ark didn’t fall from the cart. And it wasn’t his idea to transport it that way, it was David’s. Yet God punished him. Why?
Again, God used that instance to teach. His commands couldn’t be taken as mere suggestions; his word had to be respected. It was unfortunate that Uzza had gotten in the way, but God had warned them about what he wanted. Was what happened unfair? Not at all! In fact, I’d say it was extremely fair. God didn’t bend the rules for Uzza; he simply followed through with what he had commanded. He was, by no means, being a respecter of persons. And for us, we learn that God means what he says.
What’s the Bigger Picture?
So after looking at all that, does God contradict himself? Does he show different qualities between the two different testaments? No. As we stated earlier, God is the same. The entire Bible shows the progression of the relationship between God and man. In the beginning, man has a direct relationship with God in the Garden of Eden. Sin destroys that, and the rest of the Bible tells the story of our redemption.
The Old Testament is given to establish a specific people that would be set apart from everyone else – an entire nation to serve God. He gives them a law to teach them how to serve him. Prophecies were established to “set the stage” for Christ’s coming, and the New Law came to complete the process, giving man an avenue to be “reunited” with God in Heaven.
When we see God’s strictness, in either testament, it’s to show us that God means what he says. He is strict. But he’s also merciful. The New Testament tells us that:
28 “Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. 29 Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.” – Matt 11:28-30
And so does the Old Testament:
12 “ Now, therefore,” says the LORD, “ Turn to Me with all your heart,
With fasting, with weeping, and with mourning.”
13 So rend your heart, and not your garments;
Return to the LORD your God,
For He is gracious and merciful,
Slow to anger, and of great kindness;
And He relents from doing harm. – Joel 2:12-13