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In defense of the wrath of God in the Old Testament
How does a peace lover read the Old Testament?
Reading the Bible is a hard thing to do. I think it’s so hard that most people, and most Christians, barely do it. I blame that in part on the condemning Evangelical upbringing that some of us had that “required” reading the Bible in order to learn that we did not need “requirements” to be saved. But I also blame that on the fact that reading the Bible is complicated and confusing. Especially when we start venturing into the Old Testament, where God seems to be angrier or more violent (four years ago, I wrote about that subject here).
Us Anabaptist types are in love with the nonviolence of Jesus, and so when we face the violence of God in the Old Testament, it can be hard to stomach. So much of our faith is about God’s compassion and grace despite our wrongdoing, that it can be hard to imagine a God that has any sort of wrath or retribution. But a God like that is manifestly in the Old Testament. What can we do with our cognitive dissonance? What can we do with the revenge and violence of God? I’m nervous to say that, but it requires some faith to get over the hump. But I pray for your deepening, and I am confident God will empower you to deepen.
God is particularly retributive in a certain section of the text that some people call the “Deuteronomistic History” or DH for short. That’s the section that goes from Deuteronomy to Kings, but you can find that motif in other areas. If you read the Prophets, you’ll often find God curbing God’s wrath as the Prophets make it known. There is always a seed of hope at the conclusion of God’s wrath. But in general, the God of the Old Testament is set to punish disobedience, but God regularly forestalls God’s judgment.
Jesus inaugurates a new reality
As Christians, we live in a new reality, where Jesus’ kingdom is inaugurated and forgiveness and reconciliation are the rules of the land. We are liberated from our oppression and free to love one another. This is a radical reality that we’re trying to bring to the world; it is why I am a Christian, and I participate in Circle of Hope. It is why I am a cell leader, too.
We often don’t want to create alternative reconciling communities because we are too busy trying to make a better America. We are involved in statist activism turned into statecraft because we want make a better nation state. We want a better emperor, and we’re praying that our Lord and Savior Robert Mueller gives it to us (never forget). We want political power because we still think whoever owns the guns will save the world. And even in our gun control pursuits, we want the people who control the violence to deliver us our liberty.
That’s why I keep going back to Anabaptism. And why I keep going back to how we are doing things in Circle of Hope. But that alternative vision only works if we are truly addressing and upending the systems of power that hold so many down. This new vision of Jesus, this extension of God’s grace to the whole world is not just about forgiveness, it’s about reconciliation and liberation.
Make sure your community isn't a gated one
However, I want to go back to that retributive God in the Old Testament. There is a large segment of the church that has no problem reconciling that God with Jesus because they assume that God killed Jesus in order to release God’s unquenchable wrath that was otherwise destined for humanity. That’s how the cross works in what we call penal substitutionary atonement. On the other hand, many people believe in hell, too, a place of eternal damnation, that God sends people God elects to send there, or people who failed to make the right confessions on earth. So for many theologies, even, the retributive God of the DH might not be too bad.
But for most of my friends, their image of God is distinct from that of Classicalist’s (who might insist on hell) or conservative Calvinists (who might insist on penal substitution). So the retribution of God contradicts their image of God. But let me back up for a moment.
The vision I described earlier can be painfully suited for established people who are in power. The alternative is easy to create if you don’t get resistance from the state and haven’t experienced. But people are often not in power and they need more liberation expressed as more than a “private club.” Our alternative might just be a gated community if we’re not careful.
A retributive God can comfort the oppressed
One of the reasons I think people gravitate, and rightfully so, toward a nonviolent God is because the ruling powers of the world were violent. Constantine made Christianity an imperial religion, and all of a sudden the Church started expressing the wrath of God. In many respects, Christianity and the Church became the institution and even became oppressive and Jesus, through his Spirit and new vision for humanity, offered a new vision. This is the seed of our alternative movement. And it’s a seed for all people. But if we make too many assumptions about how people get there, we might miss them, altogether. Not everyone comes to this alternative from “above.” And it can be confusing to some who have minimal or less societal power to consider laying down their arms or even their pursuit of rights for the sake of the Gospel. The violence inherent in politics is less offensive to the oppressed who might be trying to use every tool at their disposal for some relief.
And when you read the Old Testament through a lens of the oppressed, the retribution of God, one who consistently preserves the poor and the oppressed and protects them in the Bible, when it's reserved for the disobedient, the idolatrous, or the powerful, when it’s for Israel’s leaders who have allied with foreign territories or collected power for themselves instead of trusting God, is actually a relief.
A privileged person today might think of having compassion on the victims of the Red Sea massacre. On the other hand, an oppressed person doesn’t see an angry and violent God killing innocent people, rather, they might see the God of All, liberating God’s people and freeing from captivity and moving them into the Promised Land.
I am not offering this solution because I think we should celebrate violence nor do I mean to encourage violence today. This is not about direction, it is about empathy. It is about understanding people from different contexts than yours, whether they are contemporary or from a different time and place. The alternative vision we have for the world cannot just include one type of person, and as such, we need to empathize and understand the people around us in order to better include and serve them.
And believe it or not, understanding why the retributive passages in the Old Testament are comforting to some people is part of that process. A God who protects the oppressed and punishes evildoers has a place for people whose government fails to do that (and who might oppress them further), and whose churches ignore them when they aren’t as pious as they need to be. Yes, there are pitfalls there, but it seems fruitless to only point them out. Start with understanding.