The God of Israel is often portrayed as mean, and as fundamentally different to Jesus, the meek and mild. Many see God the Father as barbaric, capricious and cruel, not to mention primitive and irrational.
But I like that God, and I don’t think He is mean. In fact, I love that God – and I want to explain why it is a mistake to think that He underwent some kind of radical personality change when He came in flesh as Yeshua the Messiah.
God still speaks through the Hebrew Scriptures
There is no doubt that the Hebrew Scriptures, or the “Old” Testament if you must call it that, is a bewildering compendium. Too often people think they have got a sense of the book without really becoming intimate with every corner of it, and then declare their damning assessment: God seems kinda mean. To be fair, most twenty-first century readers would not have to read too far before experiencing major culture shock. God is authoritarian. He punishes. Quite severely. He calls the shots and decides what sin is and what it isn’t. And quite frankly, His rules often seem somewhat arbitrary.
The trouble is that even most Christians have a sketchy knowledge of the Hebrew Scriptures, never mind non-believers. The stories of Noah and the Ark, Daniel and the Lion’s den and so on are usually learned in childhood and supplemented with well-known Psalms and calendar quotes about eagles against pictures of sunsets. But there’s often not much more than that in the memory bank, if we’re honest. If you were to ask what the book of Nahum was about, most would most likely look at you blankly. The main themes in Isaiah? The historical context of Zechariah? No idea. Same sort of thing with most Jewish people. Many are squeamish about the Scriptures themselves, and prefer the fables and discussions of the man-made Talmud.
What is even trickier than getting a grasp on such a weighty tome is understanding it spiritually. As Tozer rightly said, it is a supernatural book, and can only be understood supernaturally.
For those who have the spiritual eyes to see, there are powerful themes woven between this vast array of literature, ranging from prophecies to plays, poems to historical narratives and record keeping written by an equally large range of authors – shepherds, kings and everything in between. Yet the one who inspired it all was God, and His amazing heart can be found if you have the determination to dig.
But too many cannot steady their gaze on some of the more brutal passages and believe that this mean old God has anything to say to us through them. Or they allegorise them out of all existence and meaning. However, the Bible tells us a real story of a real people who really went through those experiences – and lived to tell the tale. Israel is (and continues to be) a real thing, geographically, ethnically, and yes, spiritually. Jesus will not return to Berlin or Rio de Janeiro, but Jerusalem.
God speaks through the lines of the Scriptures, dropping powerful truths about Himself and how to cope in this wayward world if only we would stop to listen, and believe that what He has to say is worth hearing.
God of the “Old” Testament: worth listening to?
Dr Vernon McGee once said, “You might run the universe differently than God, but then again, you don’t have a universe”. God owns it. He made it. If you make something, it’s yours and you can do what you like with it. God made the whole lot – everything in existence. It all belongs to Him and He gets to call the shots. People often find this reality of God’s sovereign right to rule hard to take, and try to redefine who and what we are, how things work, and even the consequences of our choices. But God is the One in charge, and nothing can change or usurp that. Fortunately for us, God is a lot wiser, kinder, and more gracious than we are. He also has a heck of a lot more information than we do.
He sees behind the scenes, back throughout all of history, way into the future, he sees the unseen realm of principalities and powers… so basically, he’s going to do a better job than you or I with our extremely limited perspective. He chose to work through the story of Israel, He chose to act the way He did and say what He said, and He has His reasons. He is the same, yesterday, today and forever. But to feel sure that He knows what He is doing takes faith.
Can we believe that when God gives apparently bizarre instructions, far from being mean and callous, He is actually whispering a deep truth under the surface?
Could it be that He knows more about the meaning of life, the meaning of death, the meaning of man, the meaning of woman, the way evil works and how it can be defeated, and what is best for the universe than we do? And is giving us valuable lessons if we would only let Him speak?
Could it be that if there is a great gulf between us and the Bible that it is in fact us that is in the wrong, not Him? Is it possible that, far from being mean, all of His actions were actually motivated by love?
It seems that people are standing in judgement over the word of God, and declaring themselves to be kinder than God. Certainly the gulf between modern notions of morality and God’s own plumbline is vast. God actually appears to be immoral by society’s reasoning. But this just goes to show how far away from God’s truth we’ve wandered: it’s an indictment against our society, not God.
Airbrushing God – the New Marcionism
This is not a particularly new problem either. In the second century, there was a man called Marcion who declared the God of the Old Testament to be a fundamentally demonic character, who should be reviled. He tried to expunge every trace of the God of Israel from the new Jesus religion. He wanted to wipe out the Old Testament entirely, and get rid of any hint of Israel and the Jewish people, upon which the Messiah stands.
Marcion was eventually declared a heretic, but I feel we are entering a new phase of Marcionism, where people fail to see the God of Israel for who He really is, and have also turned against Israel and the Jewish faith from which our Messiah came.
But this is like chopping off the branch of the tree that you are sitting on.
The fact is that if we let the Lord lead us in our study of His word, His true character is shining there all along, through every page, offering redemption and arranging his decisive victory against the enemy of mankind. His heartbreak over sin, His boundless affection, His ridiculous patience (more patient than a donkey on tranquillizers, as Mike Riddell sagely said) can be seen in every single book.
Our loving Father doesn’t just suddenly appear in first century Israel. He’s there the entire time. And those who knew Him well really liked him!
Take Moses’ experience of God, for example. In Exodus 33, Moses asks God to show His glory, and God responds by allowing all of his GOODNESS to pass in front of Moses, His grace and his mercy. There is so much depth and profundity in that one encounter, you’ll hardly believe it. But they key thing is, God is revealed as amazingly, extraordinarily GOOD.
David was also a big fan. If you see God through the eyes of those who loved him in Israel’s history, you’ll see that they did not consider Him mean at all. David experienced God as a Good Shepherd who cares for His sheep.
Moreover, looking at Yeshua through the eyes of the religious leaders of the time, they saw an alarming maverick who wasn’t shy about insulting people and threatening people with hellfire and judgement. Those “red letters” contain plenty of blistering warnings of terrors to come to the unrighteous as well. He’s the same guy. They are one and the same. Kinda frightening, to be honest, but also incredibly good.
Strength and goodness – a great combination
I used to live in a rather rough area of a city in Israel, and there were drug dealers selling in my yard, causing all kinds of trouble. My landlord got wind of this. He was a terrifying bear of a man, but he was also a very good and upright person. He came and yelled at them with such power and authority that they left, and never troubled us again. When power is matched with goodness, the result is great. It’s amazing to have a terrifying hero on your side. That’s who God is, on a massive scale: infinitely powerful and indescribably good. And He loves me. I think He’s great.
In Yeshua’s first coming 2000 years ago, He showed great gentleness and restraint, but not because He was weak. Quite the opposite, in fact. It takes great strength to be patient and gentle, as anyone with children can tell you. No, He used His great power to hold Himself back and even to allow evil men to take His life as a sacrifice for you and I. It was His mighty power that controlled His words and actions and it was His great love that stood in our place when we deserved punishment for our sin. He is the exact representation of who the Father is. Strong, bewildering at times, intolerant of sin, but full of grace and truth. Yeshua is the very visible image of our invisible God.
The word “meek” means strength under constraint, and refers back to a method of training horses for war. “Meeking” a horse involved exposing them to fire, danger, and other temptations to react but training them to control their desire to bolt. A meeked horse is a self-controlled horse that can withstand all manner of provocation without reacting, because they have strengthened their will to stand strong and firm under duress. Jesus also held Himself in check in this way – His mighty power bridled to accomplish the Father’s will.
However, when He comes again in glory, His power will be unleashed. He’s going to look a lot more like the One the people of Israel have been expecting: Mighty in battle, victorious, and ready to dish out justice to those who have committed themselves to evil. The Lamb of God will return with a roar as the Lion of Judah: with perfect wisdom, righteousness and justice, and He will sort out the wheat from the chaff. Those who find Him “mean” at that point will realize that they never knew Him at all.
If this life of suffering is temporary and the next is eternal, if justice means rewarding good not letting evil go unpunished, if God is the only true yardstick of morality, then on Judgement Day we’ll all realize that the God of Israel has been unrelentingly good and right the entire time.
Photo by Patrick Schneider on Unsplash