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A variation of this question was asked a few days ago, and I can no longer find it. Having spent umpteen hours crafting an answer to the OP's question, I think it only fitting that I post his or her question and then provide an answer to it.

A couple weeks ago, an adult member of a small group I lead at my home church (Christian & Missionary Alliance denomination) made the observation that to her the God of the Old Testament seems awfully harsh, particularly in the way he dealt with Israel's enemies, commanding the Israelites at times to utterly destroy an entire city or people group, including women, children, and even livestock.

My student's unspoken assumption seems to be that Jesus presents a striking contrast to YHWH's modus operandi in the Old Testament, teaching that his disciples should love their enemies and pray for their persecutors.

What, then, is a way of dealing with this apparent discrepancy in a hermeneutically responsible way?

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  • It is a very valid question; however you haven't explained the hermeneutics you are comparing. I believe you've answered this question well; but perhaps have gotten tripped up in our 'concertina wire' about how we pose a question. Could you supply some references to the hermeneutics you're comparing and keep your answer intact? Thanks, Don.
    – Tau
    Feb 1, 2015 at 15:00
  • @Tau: When I'm rested, I'll give it the ol' SE/BHB try! Don Feb 2, 2015 at 6:08
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    No matter how many times the word "hermeneutically" is inserted here, reconciling apparent issues between OT and NT teachings is clearly a doctrinal issue. As this question does not start from a specific text nor is it about the general field of hermeneutics it is off topic for this site.
    – Caleb
    Feb 2, 2015 at 11:11
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    I vacillated about migrating it to Christianity but opted against it because I would have to promptly close it there too as it is not addressed at any particular theological tradition. That being said the easiest way I see to to make this workable on SE would be to fix it up for C.SE and if you'd like to go ahead with that I can migrate it there. I don't see any way it even comes close to working on this site.
    – Caleb
    Feb 2, 2015 at 11:11
  • There is no reconciliation needed between the OT and NT. The NT writers are first century exegetes and hermeneuts of the OT texts. How can their contribution be any less weighty than the best of the modern practitioners quoted on this site. I have voted to reopen the question.
    – enegue
    May 26, 2017 at 11:16

2 Answers 2

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Your question, though good, is not a new one. Antagonists to both Judaism and Christianity have asked the same question--with minor variations--for years. Even adherents from both religious traditions are in no small measure at a loss to explain the apparent discrepancy between the “God of the Old Testament” and the “God of the New Testament” (viz., Jesus of Nazareth).

THE UNCOMFORTABLE TRUTH ABOUT THE WRATH OF GOD

There is no getting around the instructions God gave Israel as they entered and took possession of the land of Palestine following their miraculous exodus from enslavement in Egypt. In many instances, God told Israel to destroy utterly a city and all its inhabitants--men, women, boys, girls, and even animals. The imagery of those words, destroy and utterly, convey the picture of a burnt offering, of which there is nothing left but dust and ashes. On one such occasion, for example, Israel was told not even to take any spoils of war from their defeated enemies. King Saul learned to rue the day he thought God would allow him to spare the king and some of the prize livestock of the vanquished Amalekites, whom God told Saul to destroy utterly.

How, then, do we best contextualize the apparent discrepancy between God’s actions in his dealings with Israel of old, and the words and actions of Jesus Christ who talked a great deal about love, particularly love for God and love for neighbor and enemy alike? I suggest that we can harmonize what at first seems inharmonious by asking the following question:

In comparing the Old- to the New Covenant, did God’s character and attributes change in any way?

GOD’S IMMUTABILITY

Did God, for example, somehow morph from a wrathful God into a gentle, loving, compassionate, and forgiving God in the matter of a few hundred years, such that when Jesus came onto the scene, God’s wrath had somehow mellowed? Of course not. By definition, God cannot change. He is forever immutable. His modus operandi may change from time to time and from context to context, but his essential being and attributes cannot and will not change, ever. With this the prophet Malachi agrees:

”’For I, the LORD, do not change; therefore you, O sons of Jacob, are not consumed’” (Malachi 3:6, my emphasis, but also vv.1-5; cf. 1 Corinthians 3:12-15).

God had every right to consume the sons of Jacob for the sins they had committed. Since God could never go back on his promise to Abraham, however, Israel would never become extinct. For God to “consume” Israel would be against his nature and attributes as a promise-keeping God (see Genesis 15 for God’s promises to Abraham). Time and time again, God spared a faithful remnant who remained faithful to YHWH.

Both the Old and New Testaments describe God as a God of wrath.

  • “God is a righteous judge, a God who is angry at evil every single day” (Psalm 7:11)

  • “He sent upon them [i.e., the Egyptians] His burning anger, Fury [or wrath] and indignation and trouble, A band of destroying angels” (Psalm 78:49 NASB).

  • “’He that believeth on the Son hath everlasting life,’ Jesus said. “’And he that believeth not the Son shall not see life; but the wrath of God abideth on him’” (John 3:36 KJV)

  • [John the Baptist to the religious leaders of his day:] “’You brood of vipers, who suggested to you that you would escape the coming wrath?” (Carson on Matthew, p.103, cited by Constable here).

  • For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness” (Romans 1:18; cf. 2:5 and Ephesians 5:6, Colossians 3:6, and Revelation 14:10 and 19; 15:1; 15:7; 16:1 and 19; and 19:15).

CONTEXT IS THE KEY

As with many apparent discrepancies and inconsistencies in the Bible, contextualizing a troublesome passage, or passages, very often harmonizes what at first seems inharmonious. The largest context of all, of course, is the entire Bible, from Genesis to Revelation.

Some hermeneutists are uncomfortable with context writ large. However, what self-respecting hermeneutist would take a chapter randomly from a book and then attempt to interpret a difficult passage in that chapter without being informed by content in the rest of the work? Interpreting any given passage in the light of the entire work is really Hermeneutics 101. This task may at first seem daunting, but it is nevertheless necessary

So it is with interpreting a writing from the Bible. So as not to develop tunnel vision, biblical hermeneutists start with the immediate context of a passage and then work their way outward in a sort of hermeneutical spiral (see Grant R. Osborne’s book, The Hermeneutical Spiral, in which he suggests there are three somewhat separate spirals in the science and art of interpretation; namely, general hermeneutics, genre analysis, and applied hermeneutics).

A thoroughgoing hermeneutic looks both microscopically and macroscopically at as many relevant and salient features of a given text as possible. As important as microscopic features are (i.e., grammar, semantics, history and culture), they should not eclipse a consideration of macroscopic features, particularly the meaning of a given biblical text in the context of the entire Bible. Some theologians label the macroscopic perspective “the analogy of Scripture,” by which they mean the best interpreter of Scripture is Scripture.

If God is described as a God of wrath both in the Old and New Covenants, then once we ascertain the word wrath and its cognates have comparable meanings in both Covenants, then we are safe to assume that God is indeed a God of wrath.

EVERY COIN HAS TWO SIDES, AND APPLES AREN'T ORANGES

As surely as God is a God of wrath, he is also a God of grace, mercy, compassion and love. One reason God delayed rescuing his people Israel from slavery in Egypt for 400 years was to give the occupants of Palestine an opportunity to repent.

”’Then in the fourth generation . . . [Israel] will return . . . [to Palestine], for the iniquity of the Amorite is not yet complete’” (Genesis 15:16 NASB Updated).

The Amorite—a synecdoche, or a part of the population for the whole population of Canaanites—did not repent, however. Their iniquity spiraled into utter depravity, and their sin became a stench in the nostrils of God. God is patient, but his patience has limits.

In the same manner, Jesus led with grace but he followed up with truth (see John 1:14). In the presence of belief, Jesus extended God’s grace to everyone, without exception. In the presence of unbelief, hypocrisy, and a refusal to repent, however, Jesus countered with rebuke and severe warnings (see, for example, Matthew 23:13 ff.). Jesus, along with John the Baptizer, preached "Repent!"

While Jesus did not come into the world to condemn sinners, since they were already condemned in God’s sight (see John 3:18), he neither forced people to repent, nor did he invite into his kingdom those who opposed his message. Moreover, Jesus spoke more about the terrors of hell which awaited those who rejected him and his gospel than he did about the glories of heaven (see Matthew 5:22, 29; and 30; 10:28; 11:23; 16:18; 18:9; 23:15; 23:33; Mark 9:43, 45, and 47; Luke 10:15; 12:5; and 16:23). .

Jesus was not interested in establishing an earthly kingdom by violently throwing off the yoke of Roman domination and oppression. “My kingdom is not of this world,” Jesus told Pilate, and again he said, “My kingdom is not of this realm” (John 18:36). Jesus did, however, begin to establish an eternal kingdom in a heavenly realm, and through his Spirit would be with his followers “to the end of the age” (see Matthew 28:20).

Some Concluding Comments

  1. What Israel as an earthly kingdom and the Church of Christ as a heavenly kingdom have in common is the primacy of faith in entering God’s forever family. Just as

”Abraham believed God, and it was credited unto him as righteousness” (Romans 4:3; cf. Genesis 15:6),

so also believers during this “the Age of Grace” in which we find ourselves today must approach God by his grace and through faith. Israel’s earthly kingdom, of which there will be no end some day, has been put on hold, as it were, until a significant part of God’s promise to Abraham comes to fruition; namely, the part that includes all of humankind, and not just Israel:

”’And I will bless those who bless you, And the one who curses you I will curse. And in you all the families of the earth will be blessed’” (Genesis 12:3 NASB Updated, my emphasis).

During this Age of Grace, God makes no distinction between Jew and Gentile, slave and free, male and female, because all true believers are one in Christ and have been given one and the same Spirit to drink, the Spirit by whom we are sealed and from whom we have the pledge of our inheritance (1 Corinthians 12:13; Galatians 3:28; Ephesians 1:13-14).

  1. In both the Old and New Covenants, we can see that God extends an open invitation to Jew and Gentile alike to become believers in the one true God, Yahweh. Even under the Old Covenant the foreigner, the stranger, and the alien living in the land which Israel was to possess (and even in the nations beyond Israel’s borders) were to be welcomed into the fold, so to speak, as long as they submitted to the Law of Moses and to the protocols by which believers were to approach God in Israel’s community of religious worship and ritual.

True enough, pagans were not converging on Israel’s doorstep by the millions, eager to be assimilated into the nation of the one true God, yet the invitation went out, and foreigners to the covenant experienced miracles and compassionate treatment (e.g., Naaman, the Syrian commander—1 Kings 5:1 ff., and the widow of Zarephath—1 Kings 17:9 ff.). They even became important players in redemption history by being included in the lineage of Messiah Jesus (e.g., Rahab the harlot—Joshua 2:1 ff., and Matthew 1:5; and Ruth the Moabitess—the book of Ruth, and Matthew 1:5).

  1. If you are willing to research the depths to which the nations around Israel had sunk, morally and ethically and spiritually, you will discover a level of degradation that beggars description. No wonder God commanded Israel to wipe out entire people groups. God himself destroyed utterly the “cities of the plain” in the days of Abraham (viz., Sodom, Gomorrah, Zeboim, Zoar, and Admah) for their exceeding wickedness. In recent years, archeologists have not only determined the location of the cities of the plain, but they have unearthed the product of the "fire and brimstone" which God used to annihilate those cesspools of humanity.

When a people group becomes utterly corrupt, God resorts to graphic metaphor to describe why that people group must be wiped out:

”'Do not defile yourselves with any of these things; for by all these the nations are defiled, which I am casting out before you. For the land is defiled; therefore I visit the punishment of its iniquity upon it, and the land vomits out its inhabitants” (Leviticus 18:24-25 NKJV, my emphasis).

  1. Israel’s covenant with Jehovah concerned an earthly kingdom, a theocracy, if you will. Israel was to be the "city on a hill" whose light would attract seekers of the one true God. Israel was to be an example to the world of what a nation can become when the one true God is worshiped in Spirit and truth, and then obeyed by a transformed people. The people groups which occupied Palestine prior to Israel's conquest of the land were given an opportunity to repent, but by and large, they refused.

The new covenant in Jesus’ blood, however, concerns a kingdom which is not of this world. This kingdom cannot be measured in acres, real estate, bodies of water, and all the rest; rather, it is measured in regenerated souls whose treasure is in heaven. The Church Universal, like Israel of old, is to be a city on a hill, the citizens of which are to be ambassadors to the world, urging people to repent and be saved. Their mission is part demonstration and part proclamation, with the two tasks complementing each other as Christians earn the right to be heard.

"By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another" (John 13:35 ASV).

To be sure, God is not finished with earthly Israel. His covenant with Abraham and Abraham’s descendants, including King David, is an eternal covenant. Currently, Israel is scattered all over the world—the Diaspora, as James calls them (see James 1:1). The actual real estate, the country called Israel, was re-established as an independent nation in 1948, but today her people are, by and large, far from God, spiritually. Her people have a tremendous commitment to the land, but their commitment to the living God is sadly lacking. Israel may have more than her share of religious people, but the nation at large is clearly secular.

One day, Israel’s earthly enemies will be utterly destroyed, and God will install his king on the throne in Jerusalem, which will truly be a city of God's shalom. Before Jesus takes his rightful place at the center of the universe, however, the world must first undergo a great tribulation. During that time, God will unleash his wrath on Satan, his minions, and unbelieving humanity in an unprecedented scale. At the battle of Armageddon the carnage will make Joshua’s and Caleb’s and Saul's and David's exploits look like a Sunday school picnic. As the Battle Hymn of the Republic tells us,

Mine eyes have seen the glory

of the coming of the lord,

He is trampling out the vintage

where the grapes of wrath are stored,

He hath loosed his fateful lightning

of His terrible swift sword,

His truth is marching on

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This is a question that exercised the minds of many Christians in the post-apostolic era.

Richard Valantasis says in The Beliefnet Guide to Gnosticism and Other Vanished Christianities,page 64, that when Marcion of Sinope (c 85-160 CE) read the scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, he could not understand how the vengeful, judgemental and angry God of the Old Testament could be the same as the God of Jesus in the New Testament. His explanation was that the creator God of the Old Testament was a lesser demiurgic God and his whimsical, violent, and irrational creation stood in opposition to the true God, the God of Jesus, whose world was loving and consistent. The demiurge had total sway over the physical world, while the God of Jesus controlled the spiritual world. Belief in the demiurge as a lesser God continued in some form or other among some gnostic Christian groups for several centuries.

Of course, modern Christian belief excludes the demiurge, and can not use the explanation that seemed to credible to Marcion. Answersingenesis provides an answer that this conservative Christian site believes exonerates God for his actions and commands in the Old Testament, although this still does not actually reconcile the Old Testament with the teaching of Jesus even to love your enemies. Answersingenesis gives the example of the biblical flood, saying that the people of Noah's time - even the children - were surely so corrupt and sinful that they deserved to be destroyed. In any case, the site says that with the extremely long lifetimes attributed to the people, there probably were very few children anyway.

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