August 9th, 2010 | 13 Comments
Second century heretic Marcion was quite a character. Because the only contemporaneous descriptions of his beliefs that survived are those of his detractors it’s hard to say definitively, but his distinctive teachings seem to have originated in the belief that the god of the Old Testament, Yahweh, was a cruel and evil god challenged by the good god represented by Jesus; for Marcion, this schema accounted for what was even then recognized as a sharp contrast between the harshness of God’s behavior in much of the Old Testament and the essentially loving nature of God as revealed in Jesus.
What has emerged as the “orthodox” way of dealing with the contrast in OT/NT divine dispositions is a vehement denial of any such contrast. And indeed, as I have said on this blog, the OT’s Yahweh is extolled as full of ever-new mercies and unending lovingkindness, and much judgment and hellfire is found in the sermons of Jesus. We are far astray if we deny that Jesus was said to have come “to bring a sword”; the aspect of the historical Jesus as apocalyptic prophet speaking the doom of the current age should never be too far underplayed. Instead, what we should emphasize is the explicit characterization of God’s motives for judgment as reflecting personal concern and a desire for restoration, not a craving for vengeance and some sort of legal satisfaction of abstract requirements. The religious leaders of Jerusalem were condemned because they caused the little ones to sin, because they did not care for the fatherless and the widow, and because they had proved themselves faithless “hirelings” by their indifference to the welfare of those over whom they were given supervision. The desire for restoration and concern for the marginalized is, again, something not at all alien to the later Old Testament writers; Jesus simply put the focus more squarely on those things by virtue of his place as the “image of God bodily.” God has an interest in judgment but not because of a desire to wreak revenge on those who have personally affronted Him disguised as disembodied “justice”.
Another danger lies in entertaining the idea that the OT depictions of God are completely erratic, when, quite to the contrary, there are actual reasons God was conceived of as the mastermind of the Canaanite Conquest when we consider the history of the Old Testament writings. We can learn lessons from the Canaanite Conquest by recognizing Scripture as something other than pure, undistilled divine truth. Keep in mind that whatever influence a man named Moses might have had on the customs of the early Israelites, it is manifestly clear from several features of the language in which the Pentateuch is recorded that significant redaction (editing) must have taken place between his time and the time those sources were recorded in the form we have them now. Few biblical scholars argue convincingly that there is no ancient tradition behind the OT texts we have, which were all written down and/or redacted into their current form somewhat late into Israel’s history by her religious leaders. With this in mind, consider this.
See, when the Israelite leaders, sometime after the destabilization of the nation of Israel (let’s not worry about exactly when for now) attributed their loss of national integrity to the judgment of God, they did so because they believed that God would not have let go of His people capriciously. If God let Israel and Judah undergo the hardship of being displaced by foreign conquerors, they were convinced it was because of conscious divine judgment upon them.
So, retracing their steps to see where they went wrong, they saw that so many of their people had become lax with the teachings passed down from of old — surely this was the cause of their nation’s fall! Naturally, they attributed their laxity with the laws and rituals of Yahweh to their close familiarity with the indigenous pagan peoples. The bitter “if only!” regret of pious Israelites over having fallen into the ways of the neighboring peoples was expressed in the sharpest terms by their conviction that they should have disposed of all pagan influences (the “good kings” are the ones who carry this out in the Kings and Chronicles), and projected further, they saw that it should have been must surely have been God’s intent for them to “nip it in the bud” by cleansing the land of all indigenous people as a show of devotion to God’s holy commandments. The herem commands attributed to God were merely a logical way of accounting for the predicament post-monarchical Israel was in, assigning the blame not on God’s impotence or unfaithfulness, but squarely on Israel.
What they apparently failed to fully appreciate — for which they can certainly be forgiven, lacking full revelation — was the breathtaking scope of God’s love. The author of Job tried to tell them, as did (Deutero) Isaiah: sometimes God’s servant suffers not because of God’s judgment but simply because of the selfish and hateful reactions of other men. God did not spare his own Son from evil men, but allowed him to be sacrificed; He promises both the redemption of suffering and commensurate vindication, demonstrated once and for all in the public display of the first Passion play. The lesson slow to be learned was that even though God rarely (if ever) intervenes in this life, He remains in control; the faithful response is not to come up with elaborate ways to blame, credit, or (as with the annihilation mandate) excuse God for actions He allowed in the functioning of His universe, but to look forward to how He is going to bring life from them. It is to hold His hand through the storm, holding on to the ideals He taught you in the calm even when you can’t feel His hand, and trust His character and ability to bring about good through it all.