Was God Brutal in the Old Testament?
Those who've struggled with this are not alone.
It’s not only old and new atheists who have struggled with the God of the Old Testament. As R C Sproul admits in chapter 6 of The Holiness of God, some of the greatest Christians, including Martin Luther and the Apostle Paul, have wrestled to reconcile God’s holy justice with the seeming brutality of God’s judgments, especially in the Old Testament.
Before facing the difficulties head on and “staring the Old Testament God in the face,” Sproul rapidly dispatches some of the common yet unacceptable solutions to this problem. Then, instead of choosing some of the easier passages to explain and defend, Sproul takes head-on the most difficult and offensive passages in the Bible:
- The judgment of Nadab and Abihu for offering an unauthorized sacrifice (Lev. 10:1-3).
- The judgment on Uzzah for touching the ark (1 Chron. 13:7-11).
- Capital punishment for multiple crimes.
- The command given to Israel to slaughter thousands of Canaanites.
- The killing of Christ on the cross.
This chapter on God’s holy justice is the most outstanding chapter in an outstanding book, and, I believe, one of the greatest chapters Sproul has ever written. Although he deals with each of the above passages in turn, here’s my attempt to gather together and summarize the common threads in each section:
God’s judgments were pre-announced
In the cases of Nadab, Abihu, and Uzzah, God cannot be accused of unexpected, whimsical, or arbitrary judgment. Rather, God gave clear instructions and unmistakeable prohibitions and, in the case of Uzzah at least, clear and unmistakeable sanctions for disobedience (Ex. 30:9-10; Num. 4:15-20). These were not innocent men and these were not sins of ignorance.
God’s judgments are holy
As God’s justice is according to His holy character, His justice is never divorced from His righteousness. He never condemns the innocent, clears the guilty, or punishes with undue severity.
God’s judgments are delayed
Although the New Testament seems to reduce the number of capital offenses, even the Old Testament represents a massive reduction in capital crimes from original list – instant death for each and every sin.
The OT, therefore, is a record of the grace of God, because every sin is a capital offense and deserving of death. The issue is not why does God punish sin but why does He permit ongoing human rebellion and ongoing human existence. The OT is a record of a God who is patient in the extreme with a rebellious people, delaying the full measure of justice so that grace would have time to work.
God’s judgments are against sin
We don’t understand God’s judgments because we don’t understand sin. Sin is cosmic treason – treason against a perfectly pure sovereign. It misrepresents God whose image we are called to bear, and it violates others – injuring, despoiling, and robbing them. In commanding the Israelites to slaughter the Canaanites, God was not giving injustice to Canaan and justice to Israel; He gave justice to Canaan and mercy to Israel. The Canaanites were not innocent, but a treasonous people who daily insulted God’s holiness (Deut. 9:4-6).
God’s judgments were approved by Jesus
Christ called the Old Testament God, “Father.” It was the Old Testament God who sent His son to save the world, and the Old Testament God’s will that Jesus came to do. It was zeal for the Old Testament God who slew Nadab and Abihu that consumed Christ (John 2:17).
God’s greatest judgment was experienced by Jesus
The most powerful act of divine vengeance in the Bible, and the most violent expression of God’s wrath and justice, is seen at the cross. If we have cause for moral outrage, let it be focused on the cross. Yet, the cross was the most beautiful and the most horrible example of God’s wrath. It was the most just and the most gracious act in history.
God’s judgments destroy entitlement
Since we tend to take grace for granted, God reminded Israel through His judgments that grace must never be assumed. God’s judgments challenge our secret sense of entitlement, and changes the question from “Why doesn’t God save everybody?” to “Why did God save me?” But if we insist on insisting on what we deserve, we will get justice, not mercy.
(For more on this, read The Holiness of God by R C Sproul.)
David Murray is Professor of Old Testament and Practical Theology at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary and has also recently accepted the call to be the Pastor of Grand Rapids Free Reformed Church. He is the author of Christians get depressed too, How Sermons Work, and the forthcoming Jesus on Every Page. He blogs at HeadHeartHand and you can follow him on Twitter @DavidPMurray.