A while back, I met a young woman through a community of believers who I’m in connection with here in Australia. We chatted for a while about all sorts of things, including who we both knew, what we did for a living and other general chit chat. At some point, our conversation naturally moved onto the subject of God – as it usually does with me. I asked her how long ago it was that she got saved. She said she met Jesus only a few months ago, and to my question about how strong her relationship with Him was, she replied that having come out of a terrible past-relationship and moving over a thousand miles away from her home town, yeah! – her relationship with Jesus was awesome. Just by looking at her, I could tell she was truly saved – her countenance proved that, with a smile that could make any human being feel amazing.
After the big reveal of her amazing shift from a life of darkness to a life of pure joy, where she’d also found many passionate Christians to do life with, I felt the need to ask her about the bible. I wanted to know if she was a brand new reader, or if she’d already been introduced to this book we Christians hold in high regard. I suppose I just wanted to know, either way, how she saw the bible now that she’d experienced the nature of God in a way that wasn’t through biblical teaching or religious argument. I wanted to know if the words on the pages leaped out with new understanding, or if she found the God of the bible was different to the God of her experience.
When I brought up the subject the bible, I asked her which book of the bible was her favorite to read. I was expecting her to say the book of John or the book of Acts, so it wasn’t surprising to me when she told me she loved reading the book of Matthew. Why? Well, because the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are all about Jesus and they contain the exciting stories of His travels, the people He met, the miracles He performed, the desperate people He touched with His compassion, and of course, the moment He asked God, His Father, to forgive the people murdering Him because they didn’t know what they were doing. When she met Jesus for real, reading the gospel of Matthew revealed the man who saved her, which further validated her experience and also gave her written truth about what He did to restore her from a destroyed life.
Now that she’d me told that she was brand new to reading the bible and that she loved reading the New Testament gospels, I had to ask her about what she thought of the Old Testament. Did she find the Old Testament confusing, bloody, graphic, scary or just plain exciting with all the epic stories that have made it onto the silver screen dozens of times? Did she find the God of the Old Testament to be similar to God, revealed in the New Testament? To tell you the truth, it wasn’t surprising to find that she didn’t read the Old Testament at all, and not for a lack of trying. She told me that she had a crack at reading the prophets of old and the chronicles of the kings, but she just couldn’t fathom it. As I suspected, she didn’t like God in the Old Testament, so yeah! – she was confused. Therefore, rather than getting a bad taste for God, she played it safe and left the Old Testament to collect dust in the corner.
Is this what new Christians should have to do? Should they avoid reading the Old because God is too gruesome and judgmental, and only read the New because Jesus in His loving ways is more relevant? Not in my opinion, and I’d like to tell you why, just like I told this young lady whom I believe I met for just this reason – to give her the amazing truth about why God seems so crazy in the bible and how wonderful He is for sticking it out through over a millennia so that we could have the gift of His Son. You see, God not’s delicate about how He’s portrayed in the Old Testament, in fact, He’s happy to reveal His-story; the history of Him and His people – the Israelites – so that we can understand His Character and His faithfulness to His word.
Through the eyes of a famous Atheist, Richard Dawkins – he writes, “the God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully”. Does God appear this way because He is that way, or are we missing something? In Psalms 138:2, David the Psalmist prophesies that God has exalted His word above His name, in other words, God wants you to know that you can count on Him being true to His word despite having the name above all names. He will keep His word, even if by keeping it, His name gets dragged through the dirt. And that’s what we see in the Old Testament – His name tarnished by the recourse He had to take on an adulterous generation, simply because He remained true to a promise He made long ago to a man He called a friend.
So, I asked the young woman if I could help her understand why God appears ugly in the Old Testament – to give her a new lens to look through so she can appreciate God and the first part of the bible in a fresh light. With gladness she welcomed what I had come to learn. She was excited to be able to read the entire bible in context to a God of love – a God of faithfulness to His word and to His relationships with us. I began by telling her about a guy mentioned in Genesis named Abraham. When God met him thousands of years ago, He immediately loved this man for His faith. All God had to do was ask him to pack up shop and leave everything he knew, everyone he’d known, all his family and friends, to go to a land somewhere in the world he’d never been – and at the request of a God he never knew existed, Abraham listened and obeyed. This faith must have been super attractive to God, because before Abe knew it, God was cutting a covenant with him, and he didn’t have to do a thing to earn it – he didn’t even have to do anything to keep covenant with God, all he had to do was receive the promises God made to him like a present from Mom and Dad on Christmas. It was a gift-covenant.
One of the major keys in understanding God in the Old Testament is to understand the promises God made with Abraham. Despite Abe’s faults, which were many – I mean, he was only human like us – God promised to have his back as long as he was alive, and also as long as his family bloodline was alive. Yep, Abraham was the forefather of the entire nation of Israel. The major promise God made to Abraham was that He would bless all nations through Abraham’s seed – in other words, Abraham’s descendants would be the source of blessing to all the other nations in the world. Abraham’s descendants would later be named Israel and some seven hundred years later, they would be recognized as a nation in and of themselves.
About six hundred years after Abraham started his covenant journey with God, his family had multiplied exponentially and for many reasons that I’ll not go into here, the entire family – which by then numbered into the millions – had found themselves in slavery to Egypt. That’s right, God’s people who were still the recipients of God’s promises were in bondage to a pagan nation. Because of God’s faithfulness to His promises, He broke them out of slavery and brought them into a land of freedom. But before He would walk them into the inheritance of His covenant with Abraham, God wanted to make a new covenant with them as a nation of people – He wanted to propose to them and bring them into a marriage covenant where He would give them all direct access to His presence and make them all priests, representing the one true God and blessing all the nations of the earth.
Remember how I said that the key to understanding God in the Old Testament is to understand the covenant He made with Abraham – well, it’s at this point in Israel’s history that everything changes. You see, God wanted to make them a kingdom of priests and a holy nation who would exercise authority in the earth on behalf of God, but that generation had only know slavery – they only knew how to think as slaves, not priests. When God presented Himself to them on Mount Sinai, He didn’t descend from heaven in a rainbow, or with a soft serenade of angels singing and playing harps, instead He covered the mountain in dark clouds with thunders and lightning and loud trumpets blasting throughout the earth.
What attracted God to Abraham was his faith, to move when asked despite the abnormality of the request. This is called faith, and Israel had none when God requested them to enter into His presence. It was because of Israel’s slave mindset that they unanimously voted not to receive the gift-covenant God was proposing, instead they counter-proposed a covenant that allowed them remain in the comfortability of their slave ways and asked Him for a deal that was like what the other pagan nations of the land had between each other. If they were going into an agreement with God, they wanted to be able to control their end of the bargain – they wanted a covenant with rules to follow because they only knew how to value themselves based on how well they performed the tasks Pharaoh gave them back in Egypt. They couldn’t fathom a God who would value them based on who their father was, by simply being the children of Abraham.
So, this blog is all about coming to understand the Old Testament and learning how to view the God of love despite how He appears during the time of the Old Covenant, and it’s at this point in Israel’s history where this becomes abundantly clear. Israel rejected God’s proposal of a gift-based covenant, and asked for a rules-based covenant. God didn’t want to give them this kind of covenant, as it would require Him to punish them if they failed to uphold the rules. A rules-based covenant, like the ones the other pagan nations had with each other, had consequences included in it for behavior meriting either blessing, or cursing. In other words, in a rules-based covenant, God would have the pleasure of blessing them if they behaved well, but He would have the displeasure of having to curse them if they performed poorly. God knew they would fail constantly, and He knew ahead of time that He’d have to constantly curse them for breaking the rules.
So, why did God agree to this kind of covenant that Israel asked for? It wasn’t like He could go against His nature and force them through controlling methods to agree to a gift-based covenant. Why did God make this covenant with them that would force Him to operate in a way that would essentially drag His beautiful name through the mud of religion and atheistic contempt? Simply, because God exults His word above His name and is faithful to His covenants to the end. God’s covenant with Abraham promised that through him and his descendants, God would bless every nation of the earth. God’s intention was to bring forth His Son, Jesus, from the family line of Abraham, and through Jesus, the anointed One from above, we all would be blessed through the gospel message of union with God.
When I told the young woman about the covenant God made with Abraham, and because of His faithful nature of love and His enduring faithfulness to His word, this is why God in the Old Testament seems rough and hard-handed – it was all done in order to keep the family of Israel alive so that God could give us the greatest gift of all – Jesus. It was Jesus who saved her. It was Jesus who saved us all. He saved us from death, but He also saved us from religion. God endured being in a rules-based covenant of religion so that He could give you the life of freedom Jesus died and paid for. So the next time you read the Old Testament, and you come across passages that describe God in a way that fits the atheistic description Richard Dawkins gave, you’ll now see Him with new eyes.
Biblically, Jesus is the perfect representative of the entire family of Israel. Prophetically speaking, Jesus is Israel. When the bible prophesied that God would make a new covenant with Israel, it referred the New Covenant God the Father made with His Son when Jesus shed His blood at Calvary. This New Covenant is a better covenant than the Old. It’s better, because it has better promises – promises that were given to Abraham – promises that pertain to you and you being blessed with every spiritual blessing of freedom and life. You are the object of God’s desire, and His faithfulness to His word has proven His great love for you. May I suggest that when you start reading the Old Testament, start with the Psalms of David, and see who he saw in the midst of the Old religious Covenant – a God of love and a God of faithfulness to the end.
Written by: Drew Fraser