The Old Testament is the story of God teaching humanity how to love.
The journey these articles have taken us through in the Old Testament has been, as Paul McCartney might call it, a long and winding road. No doubt questions remain, not just from the Old Testament, but also questions philosophical, theological, and ethical. My hope is that you have seen something surprising in the Old Testament God. Perhaps you have seen a gentle fierceness and a fierce gentleness. As CS Lewis wrote, “The hardness of God is kinder than the softness of men, and His compulsion is our liberation.”
When I first tried understanding the seemingly inscrutable God of the Old Testament, I was stunned by what I found. Once I filled in the relevant context, I found myself seeing the wisdom of God’s ways. I could see the connections forming between God’s ways and how He impacted the world I inhabit, especially through the life of His Son, Jesus. I realized that I think it is right to love even my enemies and serve those who have nothing to give me in return because of the precedent that God Himself set. I realized the awkward position I was in: it was hard to be ethically opposed to God once I realized I was using ethics derived from Him for my opposition.
At the beginning of this set of articles, I started with two quotes, one from Richard Dawkins and one from Thomas John Carlisle. Both give different visions of the Old Testament God. The vitriolic one was written with an acontextual understanding of the Old Testament. The other was written with an understanding of the way of humanity and the way of God. As Carlisle wrote, “God is still waiting for a host of Jonahs … to come around to his way of loving.”
Both Abraham and Moses had to plead with God to save human lives and relent in His judgment at various times. God’s anger is always just and His wrath always deserved, so one would expect that He would push them aside and simply do what He wants. But God was swayed by their calls for mercy (Genesis 18:16-33; Exodus 32:11-14). We might get the impression that God had to learn compassion from humanity. Certainly some theologians have said this is precisely the case. However, these were merely first steps in the process of bringing the world to His way of loving.
I remember going to the grocery store with my parents when I was younger and every now and then seeing a firetruck parked in front. They would sit there all day filling up a fireman’s boot with donations for muscular dystrophy. My parents had been teaching me to love others by being nice to my siblings, thankful for my toys, and gentle with animals. When we got to the grocery store, it was my turn. “Can I please put money in the boot?” I would ask. “Well … I suppose,” they might respond. The firefighters there would thank me for the donation. I would thank them for being there. I didn’t realize then that I was being prepared to go to the grocery store that day by my parents, at the right place at the right time to donate. And I hadn’t considered that perhaps my parents had given me money so I would donate it later.
Now that I think of it, the fact that my father was also a firefighter for that department only solidifies the notion that this was all a setup! I wasn’t teaching my parents altruism by begging to donate—they were teaching me their altruism by getting me to want to donate. If they had said, “today you’re going to take your money and put it in a boot and not be able to spend it on yourself,” I might have caused a global uprising against parents. Instead, the conspiracy worked and my heart was being formed into one that loves and would rather give than receive. I was being brought around to their way of loving, like Abraham and Moses.
By the time we get to the Book of Jonah, at least 600 years after Moses, the Israelite world has become fully aware of God’s real agenda. He had taken them on this journey for long enough. They had been blessed for loving well and punished for their brutality to others. That had learned time and time again that God’s wrath is slow and His mercy relentless, not the other way around. Rather than Jonah pleading with God to have mercy, His plea is something else—he wants God to strike them. God directed Jonah to go and preach in Nineveh, the capital of the dreaded Assyrian Empire. The Assyrians’ viciousness was well-known to Jonah and Israel. And so, Jonah responds like many of us would, in Amy Winehouse fashion, God told me to go to Nineveh, but I said no, no, no. But why? Well, Jonah tells us in Jonah 4. Right after God had mercy on the Assyrians, Jonah became angry and said,
That is what I tried to forestall by fleeing to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity.Jonah 4:2
Yes, by now the cat had been let out of the bag. Jonah doesn’t want the Assyrians to receive mercy, and he doesn’t want to play a role in the meting out of that mercy. But Jonah and fellow Israelites had been let in on God’s little secret: He has a heart of gold. No one expected gods to have hearts of gold back then. They thought it would be much better for the gods to have hearts of cold steel. God had apparently treated Abraham and Moses like those people who will do what you want them to if you can convince them it is their idea. He had treated them like my parents treated me. He had been (you’re beginning to pick up on the chorus now) bringing the world around to His way of loving. Jonah knew this and ran the other way, eventually returning to God’s way of loving.
The final battle to come will be a bloodless one. Jesus will be the warrior. One sword—the word of the Word of God (Revelation 19:11-21)—will defeat the dark prince of evil once and for all. As Martin Luther wrote, and we sing,
The prince of darkness grim,
we tremble not for him;
his rage we can endure,
for lo! his doom is sure;
one little word shall fell him.
Luther most likely had in mind Revelation 12:10 when he wrote this verse. Perhaps he was also harkening back to more ancient promises, such as this messianic prophecy of peace from Zechariah:
Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion!
Shout in triumph, Daughter Jerusalem!
Look, your King is coming to you;
he is righteous and victorious,
humble and riding on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
I will cut off the chariot from Ephraim
and the horse from Jerusalem.
The bow of war will be removed,
and he will proclaim peace to the nations.
His dominion will extend from sea to sea,
from the Euphrates River
to the ends of the earth.
As for you,
because of the blood of your covenant,
I will release your prisoners
from the waterless cistern.
Sometimes I try to imagine what that world will be like. A sudden peace? Will I have memories of this broken world? Or will I be made mercifully ignorant? Whatever the case, I know that the long, winding, painful road has been made only to lead me back to where it started, in the cool of the day walking with, rather than running from, the Lord (Genesis 3:8). Like the Israelites in the desert, the longness and windingness of the road is entirely our own doing. That there is a road leading back at all is a loving miracle.
The Old Testament God is the same God that we see in the New Testament, constantly and relentlessly approaching us in love and forgiveness. He meets us on our winding path and offers to make it straight. He lifts up our lifeless arms and asks if we want to rise. He approaches our broken hearts and asks if we want it whole again. He placed our shame upon Himself 2,000 years ago and asks if we would like to feel the weight of our burdens be lifted. He surveys our dead bones and offers to make them live. That which is required to be in relationship with God is provided by God (Leviticus 17:11; Matthew 20:28). He has not only provided us the means to travel and lit the pathway, but He has arrived at our doorstep to accompany us the whole way. It has always been His way. He has always approached us as our love, gracious, merciful Redeemer. And he does so even to this day.
All articles in this series:
Old Testament Violence | Part 1 Introduction
God’s Judgment | Old Testament Violence, Part 2
God’s Jealousy | Old Testament Violence, Part 3
God’s Wrath | Old Testament Violence, Part 4
God’s Hatred | Old Testament Violence, Part 5
The Fear of God | Old Testament Violence, Part 6
Warfare in Ancient Israel | Old Testament Violence, Part 7
Did God Destroy the Canaanites? | Old Testament Violence, Part 8
Did God Destroy the Amalekites? | Old Testament Violence, Part 9
Plague on the Firstborn | Old Testament Violence, Part 10
The Flood | Old Testament Violence, Part 11
Understanding Old Testament Law | Old Testament Violence, Part 12
Death Penalty in the Law | Old Testament Violence, Part 13
Women and the Law | Old Testament Violence, Part 14
Slavery in Ancient Israel | Old Testament Violence, Part 15
To His Way of Loving | Old Testament Violence, Part 16
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Image: Marc Chagall (1887-1985), “Exodus,” 1952-1966.
 CS Lewis, Surprised By Joy (San Francisco: HarperOne, 2017), 280.
 Thomas John Carlisle, “You! Jonah!” in You! Jonah! Poems by Thomas John Carlisle (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1968), 64.
 Martin Luther, “A Mighty Fortress is Our God”(1529), on Hymnary.org, accessed April 28, 2022, https://hymnary.org/text/a_mighty_fortress_is_our_god_a_bulwark. Emphasis mine. This connection pointed out to me through William J. Webb and Gordon K. Oeste, Bloody, Brutal, and Barbaric? Wrestling with Troubling War Texts (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2019), 346.
 Bryce Young, “What ‘One Little Word’ Will Fell Satan?” Desiring God, August 20, 2017, https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/what-one-little-word-will-fell-satan.
 Zechariah 9:9-11, CSB. Emphasis added. The imagery of releasing prisoners from a waterless cistern is an image of salvation, of giving those dead of dehydration the living water of God, delivering the dead to life eternal.