Monday, April 22, 2013

That Me-e-ean God in the Old Testament

Hubby’s reading through the Old Testament these days.  Lots of judgment being meted out there.  The Old Testament has troubled a lot of people over the ages.  I just read about a sect in the Middle Ages who taught that there were two gods; the evil god was the god of the Old Testament, and Jesus came in the New Testament to tell us about the good god.  Quite heretical, but one can see how someone could wander to that conclusion.

But something else I read recently pointed out a detail that we don’t consider much (at least I haven't).  The New Testament covers maybe seventy years of history – certainly no more than a hundred.  The Old Testament, on the other hand, covers four thousand years of history.  An awful lot of the written material is about judgment, but these judgment passages cover forty times more history than the New Testament.  And Jesus and the apostles had a lot of judgment to mete out, too – proportionately, for the time period covered, it may even out. (Plus, some of those judgment passages are reiterations of the same crime that was expounded on in other passages.)
And yes, the Old Testament is quite a bit about judgment.  One of the important lessons that Israel – and every human on earth – had to learn is that righteousness is the standard, and destruction is the consequence, and there is no obtaining righteousness in our own strength.  Only when that fact is abundantly clear, deep in our souls, do we understand Christ and can we really accept him.
Besides, there is one very famous story from the Old Testament that dispels this notion of a hateful, vengeful, unmerciful God.  Everyone knows about Jonah and the whale.  But those not up on their Bible literature don’t know the best part of the story.
When Jonah finally repents and submits to God and is spit out by the “great fish”, he travels on to Ninevah to warn them of God’s coming judgment, as God had instructed him to do in the first place.  Ninevah was an Assyrian (therefore, pagan) city, the largest city in the world for a time.  [A sidenote: scholars for years believed the book of Jonah was an allegory because there was no evidence the city of Ninevah had ever existed.  But archeologists found it. And a lot of connections have been found between the city of Ninevah and fish, including the possible worship of a fish god . . . which adds a whole new dimension to the being-swallowed-by-a-fish business . . . but I digress.]
Jonah hated Ninevah and was all psyched for God to pour destruction on them for their evil ways.  But that’s not what happened.  The Ninevites, led by the king, heard Jonah’s message and became convicted.  They “turned from their evil ways” and “called urgently on God” for mercy.  And God relented.  That was the goal.  God was hungry for their repentence, not their destruction.
[Jonah, on the other hand, wanted destruction.  I think the church would do well to study some Jonah these days.  But I digress again.]
I think this is the only instance in the Old Testament of repentance on the part of a Gentile people, and God's response is mercy.  Why do we doubt he would have been merciful if others had repented?
There are certainly difficult passages in the Old Testament, but they are not as difficult as it would seem at first glance if they are put in appropriate perspective.  As they say, sometimes a little bit of knowledge – of the Bible and of other things – can be dangerous.

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