Tuesday, March 03, 2015

Why Did God Order People Destroyed in Old Testament Times?

Any time Christians start to delve into the Old Testament, the questions are bound to come up:

  • Why does God call for the extermination of the disobedient of His people?
  • Why does God command the extermination of other peoples?
  • Is this the same God we meet in Jesus and the New Testament? (A corollary to which might be, "How is the God of the Old Testament different from the deity claimed by terrorists who associate themselves with Islam?")
Good questions.

They came up again today during the noon Journey Through the Bible discussion of Deuteronomy, chapters 1 to 21, at Living Water Lutheran Church.

What I can offer is not so much answers as approximations, guesses of a believer and a student of Scripture.

The first thing to be said is that the God of the Old Testament is the God of the New Testament, revealed in Jesus Christ. "I and the Father are one," Jesus says in John 10:30. 

Jesus never once repudiated any action of God in the Old Testament. In fact, He upheld them and all of God's commands, even those we deem problematic. 

"Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets..." Jesus says in Matthew 5:17. 

So, if there are things about God in the Old Testament that don't seem to comport with our picture of what God should be like, clearly we need to be willing to have our picture amended or expanded.

This wouldn't be a first, of course, for believers. In last Sunday's Gospel lesson, Mark 8:27-38, Peter confesses that Jesus is the Messiah, God's anointed redeemer king. But when Jesus explains that in His role as Messiah (or Christ), He would have to be rejected, suffer, and die, Peter flinched. He rebuked Jesus for misunderstanding what it meant to be Messiah. Jesus forcefully disabused Peter of his point of view. As Messiah and God-in-the-flesh, He told Peter that He would have to change His definition of Christ's role. We must do the same when we encounter Biblical portrayals of God that jar our preconceived notions of what God should be like.

The second thing to be said is that God doesn't desire the destruction of any human being. In Ezekiel 18:23, God says: "Do I take any pleasure in the death of the wicked? declares the Sovereign LORD. Rather, am I not pleased when they turn from their ways and live?" 

And in the New Testament, the apostle Peter writes: "The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance." (2 Peter 3:9).

God wants all people to turn from sin (for more on the two ways in which the Bible uses the term sin, see here) and trust in Him so that have life with Him. But God doesn't force repentance on people

The third thing is that the peoples outside of Israel whom God ordered destroyed had lived in open and long-term rebellion to God and utterly refused to repent. In Old Testament times, when people refused to repent, it led to disastrous consequences. Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed. Once God had called His people, Israel, the descendants of Abraham and Sarah, into being, they were often used as instruments of His justice against unrepentant peoples.

Throughout the first 21 chapters of Deuteronomy, for example, God sends His people with orders to utterly destroy nations who engaged in idolatry--worshiping things other than God as God--and, as a result, engaged in injustice. Failure to worship God as God always results in injustices. When God is supplanted as God in people's minds, they feel they have license to play god with anyone they wish.

On the other hand, cities and kingdoms that repented in Old Testament times were spared, their cultures revived. Think of Nineveh after hearing the reluctant Jonah preach.

The Old Testament pattern is that God allowed peoples to engage in rebellion for long stretches, often sending emissaries to them to call for repentance, desiring that they turn to Him and live. But there would come a point of no return, when the rebellion, idolatry, injustice, barbarism, and hedonism reached such a point that God would stand for no more. Then the orders for destruction would come. (I believe that this still happens today.)

God would also order Israel to engage in the annihilation of others peoples lest, on conquering a land, His people adopt the idolatries of the conquered peoples. 

The fourth thing to mention has to do with why God called for the deaths of people within Israel for their rebellion. Israel was called together by God to be holy, a people set apart by Him not because of their inherent virtue or intrinsic strength. In fact, God's people are nothing without God making something of them. But God called Israel into existence in order to be "a light to the nations." 

Israel thus had an important role to play in the salvation of the world. It was to Israel that God revealed that God cares about relationships--our relationship with Him, our relationship with each other. 

To Israel, God revealed the nature of sin and that salvation comes not through works, but by faith in the God Who cares about us despite our unworthiness (check out Deuteronomy 19:1-12 and Ephesians 2:8-10, for example). 

And God set aside Israel to be the people that would become the nursery and the home of God in the flesh, Jesus Christ, Whose death and resurrection would make it possible for all people--Jews and Gentiles--to repent and believe in Him and live eternally with God. 

In a sense, the life of ancient Israel was like Lent on the modern Christian calendar. God formed and disciplined a people of His own making so that some--the early Christians, all of whom were from God's people Israel--would be ready to receive redemption. 

In Old Testament times, God purged His people of idolatry and sin and the resultant injustice so that at least some who paid heed to Him would know the Savior when He arrived in our world. 

God refused to risk having His truth utterly adulterated by countenancing false faith among His chosen people. This was the historic burden of God's people. 

Tevye, the lead character of Fiddler on the Roof, might well have spoken for God's Old Testament people when he said to God: "I know, I know. We are Your chosen people. But, once in a while, can't You choose someone else?"

There are several things that distinguish all of this from the justifications of contemporary terrorist groups for their activities. 
The most important reason though is that in Jesus Christ, God has taken all the destruction for sin, idolatry, and injustice upon Himself. He stands in our place on the cross so that, when He rises all who surrender to Him may rise with Him.

Christ then, has ushered in a new covenant. the fulfillment of the old covenant initiated with the likes of Abraham and Moses.

In Christ, God has destroyed the power of sin and death and their earthly manifestations (like injustice) over the lives of those who repent and believe in God revealed in Jesus. 2 Corinthians 5:21 says: "God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God."

The call of God's people today, the Church, is to proclaim and live the good news of new life through faith in Jesus Christ. This is how God conquers today. This is how God displaces evil. 

But all that God ordained in Old Testament times was a necessary prerequisite for the coming of Jesus and for the Church's proclamation about Him. May we be faithful in our call to proclaim Jesusl! 

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