We had a couple of perennial questions arise at our cell last week. We were reading Exodus 15, which is a great paean to victory. God intervenes on behalf of the escaping Israelites and drowns Pharaoh’s army in the sea — the women dance and sing.
When certain Old Testament tales are considered, three questions regularly arise:
1) You are always talking about love. The God of the Old Testament hardly looks universally loving. What’s with that?
2) A big change seems to have taken place between the Old and New Testaments, what am I to think about God and the Bible?
3) I’ve been taught that God never changes. If God has actually developed a new kind of love, isn’t that wrong?
Lately, it seems like I have become audacious enough to attempt answers to giant questions in a blog post. This is another of those attempts. I won’t get too far, but I want to stay in the dialogue.
Let’s talk about God’s love
What people call love these days is often social tolerance (“Love me, love Slovenia”) or consumer preference (“I love Cheetos. I am part of the Frito Lay community”). People think God loves like they do and then get mad at him for being out of line. Given the way a lot of people think about “love” these days, when God intervenes in anyone’s life with any kind of judgment or strategy that seems WAY out of line. So Exodus causes problems.
Intervention looks like intolerance. People might ask: “Why would God be on Israel’s side? If the Pharaoh’s soldiers were just doing their jobs, why would God kill them for it?” Their questions are based on a “democratic” idea that love is protecting someone’s right to be themselves.
Intervention looks like a denial of choice. People might ask, “Why would God get in the middle of people making their choices and be so domineering?” Their questions are asked assuming everyone is a consumer following the invisible hand of the marketplace, not the personal hand of God.
We’re all about expertise and politcs, these days, but God’s passion for the redemption and health of creation is more complex than social and economic theories. His love is not subject to such theories. But that doesn’t mean we can’t understand him; God’s purposes are hardly secret. God is well known and her plans for humanity have even been written down for about 3000 years. His invitation to love has been consistent. Should she violate the most recent philosophy that has arisen to oppose him or debunk her, that would not be unusual.
If your issue is, specifically, how God’s love and Old Testament violence goes together, a nice piece on what God is doing in relation to all the violence in the Bible can be found here.
God in the Old and New Testament
Merely comparing and contrasting pieces of the Bible, is not listening very carefully to the Holy Spirit; it is more like Sesame St. characters trying to teach us that “one of these things is not like the other.” I think it is much better to think of the scripture in more relational terms. We should think of God as a parent, like Jesus does, not as an abstraction, like modern science might (or like Greek philosophy, for that matter). Then it is easier to understand how the scripture relates to us.
God is not a static thing, and human understanding of how to relate to God is a growing experience. Creation was designed to grow and change, and God is responding accordingly. The scripture notes all that movement and variation. Talking to different eras of the world, as scripture does, is like talking to different cultures today — Nigeria is not Thailand, but believers are having a fine time with God in both places. What’s more, you are probably reading this paragraph with a different emphasis than someone else. If we wrote down all the different emphases, that wouldn’t mean that I, the writer, were accordingly different. What is consistent, among many things, from the beginning to the end in the Bible, is the theme of being freed from slavery to people, to sin and to death. That goal is fulfilled in Jesus — there is not a difference, but there is a development.
God is love. But God’s goals are not necessarily for everyone to feel loved. The creation is tested by sin and is facing death. The goal is salvation. The need is redemption. We may often be like toddlers who need basic convincing we are safe; I think the Lord is all for that. But we are designed to grow up into our fullness as embodied spirits, which includes seeing history as God sees it and finding our place in it. Seeing the Testaments as a flat study in character development rather than a testament of God’s work over thousands of years of history is too tiny. Testing the material to see whether God can be trusted, rather than seeing how God has shown his passion for us again and again, is too small.
Does God change?
Clark Pinnock wrote a controversial book not long ago that I liked. He debunked the Greekified notion that God is Aristotle’s “unmoved mover.” Instead he posited that God’s covenant with us made him the most-moved mover. Relating to God as if he were an element on the periodic table is strange.
God’s character and goals are consistent. He actively, personally holds the universe together. He can and will create and end time as we know it. She has developed in relationship with us as a species as we have developed. He changed the universe when we were created, which changed his experience, as well. Reducing God to a predictable, changeless definition, rather than a living, generative Spirit, may be comforting in some small way, but it is not true enough.
These thoughts probably don’t go far enough, but I am convinced the Holy Spirit of God will enlighten us if we keep in dialogue with God and his people. In our Men’s meeting last night, we were talking about what wisdom we might have to offer to the next generation. We had a lot to think about. But one thing was for sure — this generation is passionately engaged with principles that are not revealed as God’s way; they are fairly ignorant about God’s cross-bound love. No matter how inadequate we feel to speak back to the onslaught of antichrist thinking, we need to stay in the dialogue, and pray. God will amplify what little wisdom we have. I hope this little bit helps with the development.