How do we understand God’s judgment in the Old Testament?
As I mentioned in the previous article, the Old Testament was written for us but not to us. Understanding to whom it was written will help us to make sense of the shape it takes.
Judge Not, Lest Ye Be the Judge
The recipients of the Old Testament were a group of people known as Israelites. Tradition holds that it was Moses who wrote the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible. That means that the key defining texts of Israel were largely written after they had been rescued from slavery. This identity—the identity of slaves freed by Yahweh—became foundational for how they understood their relationship to the divine. Right before delivering the Ten Commandments, God reinforces this marker of identity: “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery” (Exodus 20:2).
The slavery that Israel experienced in Egypt was marked with brutality. Israel was shaped by centuries of trauma. But their trauma would not end there. Through warfare and invasion into their land by the overwhelming Babylonians and the ferocious Assyrians, among others, they faced terrible circumstances whenever they turned away from God and His protection. It is within this context that we may hear something along the lines of, “Daughter Babylon, doomed to destruction, happy is the one who repays you according to what you have done to us. Happy is the one who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks” (Psalm 137:8-9). About this psalm (and others like it), Esau McCaulley writes,
The Bible is not silent about the rage of the oppressed. … Psalm 137 is a psalm of the traumatized. It depicts the aftermath of the destruction of Jerusalem, the sack of the city, sexual assault and brutalization of the innocent. What kind of song do you write if you are forced to watch the murder of your wife, your child, your neighbor?
The Old Testaments depicts in gritty realism the blood-drenched roads of history. It also depicts the Israelites’ visceral reactions to that brutality. That is not to say that God condones all—we should be careful to differentiate between description and prescription—but He certainly welcomes people to express their rage and despair and call on Him for justice, for the end of evil.
This is perhaps why oppressed groups have not typically been embarrassed by the stories of liberation in the Bible. Christians living in relative comfort trying to appeal to Christianity’s cultured despisers who also live in relative comfort will often try to explain away things like, say, the Exodus. The Exodus is, in a world of comfort and peace, an “embarrassing” story about a “cold-blooded, violent” God killing a lot of “innocent” people. But to those who have been oppressed the Exodus is seen in its original context: a hopeful story of a loving and powerful God who judges those who have held Israel in chattel slavery for hundreds of years.
Throughout the history of the African American struggle for freedom from chattel slavery, there was a consistent identification of themselves as Israel and those who wanted to keep them in slavery as Egypt. Their masters gave them incomplete Bibles so that perhaps they would not know the full truth about God and His care for the oppressed. But, alas, the truth got out, and the enslaved Africans learned about the Exodus. Many even renamed themselves “Moses” after learning about the Exodus, and it was the song “Go Down, Moses” (along with “Bound for the Promised Land”) that Harriet Tubman often sang or whistled to alert the enslaved that she was there to whisk them to freedom. One biographer even referred to Tubman as “the Moses of her people.” No embarrassment, no shying away from the details—only hope that, by peaceful means if possible but bloody if necessary, God would deliver His people once again.
The Civil Rights movement also found hope in the Exodus. Martin Luther King, Jr. often invoked the Exodus to describe African Americans’ modern-day struggle for freedom. King combined the ethic of Jesus to harm no one with God’s desire in the Exodus to free everyone and fought for freedom by peaceful means. Though he was a promoter of peace, there was no embarrassment at the original Exodus, only the confidence that God could and would do it again. In his famous “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech, King discussed periods of time he would have liked to personally witness for himself. One of them was the Exodus: “I would watch God’s children in their magnificent trek from the dark dungeons of Egypt through, or rather across the Red Sea, through the wilderness on toward the promised land.”
To those who have suffered great injustice, the idea of “innocence” has probably never been as intoxicating as it is for those who may be a few centuries or more away from any ancestral oppression. To those who have suffered at the hands of others, they are under no impression that humanity is inherently innocent. Quite the contrary. But that has changed today in other populations, those far away from—and not knowingly shaped by—ancestral suffering. Louis Markos looks at this question through the lens of evil and suffering and asks why the two most recent generations of Americans and Europeans, who “have seen a vast decrease in human suffering,” have nonetheless “struggled more with the problem of pain than all previous generations?” Through advances in education and technology that allow us to live more safe, comfortable, and healthy lives, “our modern age has shown itself less able to deal with pain and more quick to either blame God for suffering or to deny his existence—or, paradoxically, to do both at the same time!”
Why Do We Reject God’s Judgment?
Intriguingly, Markos hypothesizes that the reason for this development was Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Rousseau suggested that humans were inherently good. Suffering, therefore, is unfair since all are innocent. This idea that rejects traditional theological notions of original sin and its holistic impact upon the world eventually took on a life of its own. Rosseau also impacted the Enlightenment focus on epistemology, as his ideas, writes Carl Trueman, “led to an emphasis on the inner life as characterizing the authentic person.” People now saw themselves as inherently good and only deserving of good things, and their inner self as their true self. There is no reason, then, to change or reform any inner feeling, for it is the authentic feeling.
Frederick Neuhouser summarizes philosopher Charles Taylor’s explanation about how, downstream from Rousseau, GWF Hegel’s social philosophy attempted to draw together two strands of Enlightenment impulse: “radical autonomy and expressive unity with nature and society.” This means that, in the end, “identity requires recognition by another.” In other words, “there is a need for the expressive individual to be at one with the expressive community,” from which modern social pressure to not just accept but affirm each individual arises, since “the intuitive moral structure of our modern social imagination … places a premium on the individual’s right to define his or her own existence.” In sum, this means that each person’s inner life was redefined as innocent and pure, and as social beings we require social affirmation of this new autonomous inner self. Those who would dare to critique what one feels is true about themselves is a bigot of one sort or another.
In the end, these changes in the self’s view of the self and the role of society in affirming that self combine to create a tension with the biblical God who judges. He becomes, in some sense, the arch-bigot, and it is not a far jump to make from rejecting a God who at least allows suffering to a God who condemns, since both notions are attacks on the inherently good, innocent self. Thou shalt not judge me might be the first of a modern set of ten commandments. And while we have within us this desire that seems inherently right—that our inner self is our true self and not subject to judgment from others—there is also a growing understanding that something is wrong with the world. What happens when the inner, authentic, necessarily-expressed self is at odds with the inner, authentic, expressed self of another?
In certain movements like Black Lives Matter or the calls of election fraud and storming the capitol, we see that people very much believe that we need judgment in the world—there is something unjust seeking to oppress others or suppress the truth, and this must be remedied. In fact, some commentators have even called the #MeToo movement something like a partial rejection of the sexual revolution and the desire for a return to “Puritanical” sexual ethics. Here we see certain cultural innovations, such as the inherently good and innocent self that deserves to express itself and be affirmed in that expression, running up against the reality of humanity: it is not inherently good or innocent, and sometimes when inner selves express outwardly it simply turns inner hatred into outer violence.
It would be easy to leave the story there, but we can’t help but to look also toward the inward turn in Christian circles. If we are to be concerned with specks, we must remove our planks. The blame has sometimes been placed at the feet of Martin Luther, the great German reformer who wanted each family to have their own Bible and be able to interpret it for themselves without papal oversight. While there is much to admire about Luther’s stance and the legacy of literacy it created, it is not difficult to see how excesses (no doubt unintended by Luther) could lead to major problems. In eighteenth-century America, for instance, there was a shift away from the external and communal commitment of faith in the spirit of Puritanism to a focus more on inward piety. The loss of a social identity founded on religious community was a key moment in the development of American intellectual and theological thought. For better or worse, it was one more step away from religious authority. Indeed, historian George Marsden has called dissent an “American tradition.”
As social identities drifted more toward the political, religion followed. In the end, the “democratization” of American Christianity—the rejection of traditional hierarchical forms for more dynamic, spirit-filled, and populist forms of Protestant faith—and the freeing of individual Christian consciences were, writes Nathan Hatch, “the foremost proponents of [American] individualism even as they expected the open Bible to replace an age of sectarian rivalry with one of primitive harmony.” Every movement, even movements in the right direction, often has unforeseen and undesired consequences. It may be that this rejection of God’s judgment is found even here in this religious inward turn—which can find precedents before the Enlightenment, though may still be influenced by Enlightenment impulses as well—even though these initial stages were comprised of people very aware of the reality of God’s judgment. Nonetheless, the proliferation of denominations that would arise—again, rightly or wrongly—is a symptom of self-autonomy, self-definition, and self-actualization. It is expressiveness that must be affirmed within their social world, or else they will found a new social world.
Downstream from this democratization, it is no surprise to see the radical redefinitions of God and, consequently, redefinitions of judgment itself. Tellingly, it was from this cultural milieu where, in New England, its traditional Calvinism was “made mincemeat” through a rejection of its more pessimistic theology by different groups promoting “a benevolent God, human perfectibility, universal nonpenal atonement, and free grace for all believers.” While this is not to suggest that some things did not need to change, it is to point out that Christians also felt the desire to be affirmed in all things. Perhaps churches were just shrewdly creating spaces for a changing social imaginary, but it is likely something more common: all desire to live life as we want it without that pesky fear of divine or human judgment.
Of course, all of this describes only why we reject judgment now. In fact, there has always been a rejection of judgment, only the underlying causes for that rejection have changed in particulars. Yet there are always universal similarities. In essence, we are all infected to a greater or lesser extent with the disease of Adam and Eve: the desire to be gods. And so we enter into the “paradox of humankind,” as Harold Netland puts it—“On the one hand, persons are created in the image of God and thus long for a proper relationship of the creature to the Creator. On the other hand, they are rebels and sinners and thus try desperately to hide from God.”
As we can see, human beings—whether from radical philosophical movements or conservative Christian ones—have a tendency to drift away from certain notions of justice. Since religion is largely considered a personal, individual, inward devotion today in the West, its criticisms are also considered criticisms largely of the inward, or essential person. In our modern world, we recoil from these judgments for a variety of reasons, some already discussed and many more left untouched. So, before we talk about the God of the Old Testament—you know, the “judgmental” One—we need to first say a bit in favor of judgment itself.
God’s Judgment as Goodness
Can God judge? And furthermore, should God judge? The problem with the question is, of course, many people doubt the Judeo-Christian scriptures and do not believe that it is God judging, but that it is man judging and merely proclaiming it to be God’s word. Some, however, reject the notion of a god or gods judging at all, and it is this notion that we will be interacting with here. If we can assume for the sake of argument that the God of the Hebrew scriptures is real, and that the world it depicts at least has a passing resemblance to the world we inhabit (where people are mixtures of good and evil, where terrible things happen often and yet something from inside of us cries out that this should not be), then I think we can begin to answer these two questions.
First, I want to make a general observation about judgment in the Old Testament and what I see as a strange contradiction in the critique of God. God is often criticized for judging wickedness in “harsh” ways in the Old Testament, and yet the complaint today is more that God doesn’t judge harshly at all. We lament the deaths of Canaanites who sacrificially slaughtered children for hundreds of years. They were given 400 years to repent, but apparently only got worse. Their destruction is considered by critics today as unjust and “genocidal,” which we will look at more later. At the same time, people ask how a good God could exist in a world where holocausts take place. Certainly, in the case of Nazi Germany, people desired for the abrupt end—and one could say justifiably violent end—to Nazi reign. While their reign of terror was of a level rarely seen in history (though not so rare in the twentieth century), the reign itself was relatively short-lived. So, God is judged both for the violent judgment of an infanticidal culture after 400 years of patience and for not violently judging Nazi Germany (although, one could make the case that God always judges nations through the invading armies of other nations, so to say that God did not stop Nazi Germany is not at all a foregone conclusion given how Germany was stopped and how God participates in the world). Which God do we want, then? The God who judges grave injustice or the one who doesn’t? It seems like no matter what happens, God will be accused of choosing the wrong path.
Second, and related to the last point, it is important to note that God does have the right to judge human beings. He knows the beginning from the end, our hearts, our thoughts, our intentions, and all that we did do, are doing, could do, and will do. Given the well-publicized mistakes made in the judicial system historically, we can admit that it is very easy to judge other humans incorrectly. So, to some extent, we must admit that we do not have a proper epistemic vantage point to judge whether something God has done is morally right or wrong. Those of us who recoil from His judgments are many times those of us who have not faced intense persecution by evil regimes; for those who have, they understand that sometimes violence is the only way to communicate with evil regimes. They do not desire violence, but they desire an end to suffering.
If God is perfectly good and omniscient, and we can admit that we are not, then is it possible that God may do things that are both good and just that we do not and, at least for the moment, cannot understand? This is not the argument of who are you to judge God, by the way. Rather, this is the argument of could we ever have enough data to even make such a judgment given our epistemic limitations. For example, as a child I did not understand how cavities were formed or why they were a big deal. I probably found my parents quite unjust in “arbitrarily” limiting my candy consumption. I was not in a position to understand the issues clearly, or to judge my parents’ performance in exercising their familial duties. Nonetheless, my parents had every right to deny me candy. That is their role as parents, to care for me and guide me even when I don’t understand. I’m glad they cared for me that much and did not let me make my own dietary decisions (or at least unsupervised dietary decisions) that early in life. God, because of who He is and because of who we are in relation to Him, has the right to set the standard, define the parameters, and judge those who rebel against His ways. In fact, it is loving to do so, for to let us run wild would be like letting me eat how I wanted as a child, which would have only led to a life of painful consequences.
Third and finally, God should judge. Law means nothing if there is no one to enforce it. While it is true that God is merciful, He is also just and very much stands against injustice. And the world today is still weeping and crying out for justice seemingly everywhere. The constant cry is not that we need less justice but more. The God of the Old Testament promises that all people will be held accountable and none will escape judgment. This is not “judgmental” in the way we typically view the word today with negative connotations. Ask those who have faced injustice in the world from people who escaped justice in their lifetime. An eschatological judge is a beacon of hope for those kicked around in this world. And yes, it is also a fearful thing. But human experience shows us that the ideals of love and peace rarely reform the most wicked among us something more forceful instead must be pressed upon those malevolent agents.
We will discuss this final notion more in the section to come on wrath. But for now, let us hold onto these beautiful hopes for the future. God “reveals the deep things of darkness and brings utter darkness into the light” (Job 12:22); He loves justice (Isaiah 61:8); He “longs to be gracious to you. … How gracious he will be when you cry for help” (Isaiah 30:18-19). Indeed, Isaiah begins his prophetic book by quoting the words of the Lord: “Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow” (Isaiah 1:17). Yahweh is a God of justice because He is a God who loves human beings, despises their mistreatment, and is always seeking to bring them into relationship with Him so that He may gift to them a world where injustice is no more.
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Image: Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944), “The last judgment,” 1912.
 Esau McCaulley, “What the Bible Has to Say About Black Anger,” The New York Times, June 14, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/14/opinion/george-floyd-psalms-bible.html.
 Ramon Tuason, “The Biblical Exodus in the Rhetoric of Martin Luther King,” The Stanford Freedom Project, accessed April 18, 2022, https://stanfordfreedomproject.com/multi-media-essays-on-freedom/the-biblical-exodus-in-the-rhetoric-of-martin-luther-king.
 Louis Markos, Apologetics for the Twenty-First Century (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2010), 137. Emphasis original.
 Carl Trueman¸ The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2020), 56.
 Ibid., 58.
 Ibid., 59.
 Ibid., 62, 63.
 This is not to compare the movements or state that I find them somehow the same thing, nor is it a comment on the merits or demerits of them. It is simply a social observation. See Kay S. Hymowitz, “The Sexual Revolution’s Angry Children,” City-Journal, Spring 2018, https://www.city-journal.org/html/sexual-revolutions-angry-children-15827.html and James Eglinton, “A ‘New Puritanism’? Those Who Sneer at #MeToo Could Stand to Learn from the Puritans,” ABC, March 2, 2018, https://www.abc.net.au/religion/a-new-puritanism-those-who-sneer-at-metoo-could-stand-to-learn-f/10094942.
 See Mark Noll, America’s God (Oxford University Press, 2005).
 George Marsden, Religion and American Culture, 2nd ed. (Boston: Cengage Learning, 2000), 38-39.
 Nathan O. Hatch, The Democratization of American Christianity (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1989), 213.
 Noll, 153; Stephen A. Marini, Radical Sects in Revolutionary New England (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1982), 137.
 Harold Netland, Encountering Religious Pluralism (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2001), 334-35.
 One of the purposes of the Law in the Old Testament was to retrain the Israelites—who had spent centuries in Egypt—to live as God’s people. This meant being unlike any of the surrounding cultures. Specific vitriol is saved up for the Canaanites and their god, Molech, however. Molech was a god who desired child sacrifices. Leviticus 18:21 commands Israel to never offer their children to Molech. Deuteronomy 12:31 lists child sacrifices as one of the practices of the Canaanites that the Lord detests. Israel drifted away from their God many times throughout their history, and even sought to worship the specific gods they were told not to, and practice the rituals that had been forbidden to perform. In Jeremiah 7:31, God confronts the wicked actions of Judah, confirming that He is not a God of child sacrifice, for He has never commanded it, nor has He ever entertained the idea. In Ezekiel 16, Yahweh recounts to the prophet Ezekiel how he rescued the Israelites like they were a child discarded in the elements to die a painful death (vv. 3-6). But now, God says, they have prostituted themselves out to other gods, as evinced in their acceptance and practice of child sacrifice: “And you took your sons and daughters whom you bore to me and sacrificed them as food to the idols. Was your prostitution not enough? You slaughtered my children and sacrificed them to idols. In all your detestable practices and your prostitution you did not remember the days of your youth, when you were naked and bare, kicking about in your blood” (vv. 20-22). God’s harshness in judging Canaan was due to the contagion of sin that spreads rapidly. We see the devastating truth of that notion in these tragic examples. God would rather judge harshly if it saves the lives of children who do not deserve this terrible treatment. God is always about protecting the vulnerable.