The Progression of God?
A sermon given by Vernon Curnock at Cityside, Sept 2006
The difference between the seemingly merciless and bloodthirsty God of early Old Testament days and the loving forgiving God Jesus portrayed has perplexed Christians for a long time.
In my early years I assumed the OT God and his rules and punishments were still valid because after all God doesn’t change. So the view of jesus was just one perspective of God. The harsher perspective of God was given prominence in church preaching it seemed and this lead to a very judgemental and unloving attitude on my part.
Then later on I struggled more and more with the incongruity of the early picture of God and that revealed by Jesus. I became quite resentful and angry with a merciless God who regularly killed so many people who in many cases I now realised were quite innocent.
Doing a degree at Bible College helped me work through these and other issues. So here are some thoughts that I hope you will find interesting and helpful.
I‘ll talk about the various ways God is portrayed in different biblical periods and then give some thoughts on what these different portrayals might mean.
Lets start with the EARLY PERIOD
The first portrayal I want to look at is the personal or family God.
In the early period of the OT God regularly builds relationships with individuals and their family. He appears to them as a person and converses as a person and is very humanlike. God walks and talks, smells, discusses, debates, has human feelings like jealousy, anger, rage, etc. God also has very human limitations, in that He doesn’t know everything that is going on and isn’t always in control as we see from the Garden of Eden story. Also in Genesis 18 God appears in human form to Abraham and talks to him about his plans. He says in verses 20, 21.
“…. How great is the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah and how grave their sin, I must go down and see if their sin is as great as the outcry coming to me, and if not, then I will know.” It appears that in order to find out what He wants to know, God has to personally go and visit.
There are other issues here, such as Abraham bargaining God down from mass slaughter to being compassionate. Compassion here comes not from God but from a human. Later on Jacob tells God he will only follow God if God does a list of things for him. God gives in. God has been with Jacob for all his life so far, but Jacob is still not a follower of God at this stage.
Next is the vengeful God
In these early days we have a rather bloodthirsty God whose answer to dealing with humans seems to be to kill them, such as in Sodom and Gomorrah and the flood story, one of wholesale death. Later on God tells Israel that he is Jealous and they are only to worship him. He institutes death for anyone who doesn’t do so.
To just grumble against God results in death. God instructs rebellious children to be stoned to death, says that certain towns are to be annihilated with every living thing killed, and in Egypt God kills thousands of male firstborn children who were quite innocent of any wrongdoing.
In Nahum 1.2 God says he is jealous, vengeful, angry, and rages against his enemies.
In 2 Sam 24 David sins but God kills 70,000 innocent Israelites for punishment, then says He regrets the evil He was doing and stops it.
In this incident and elsewhere we find God repenting of, and regretting, His own actions.
For examples see Jer 31.19, 42.10; 1 Chr 21.15; Ex 32.14; 1 Sam. 15.35
Then there’s the demanding God
During this period, God is full of demands. God says he is jealous and demands that he alone be worshipped. Worship becomes the all-consuming issue with lots of rules and punishments including death for not strictly obeying. We are told in Genesis 8 that God loves the sacrifice of animals and the sweet smell of their burning.
There is also the Whiz Bang God
In these early years God seems preoccupied with showing how powerful he is with regular displays of supernatural power, designed it seems to demonstrate to everyone that he is worthy of worship, deference and fear. For instance if God just wanted to have Pharaoh free Israel then God could have just made it happen but no, God says that whenever Pharaoh wants to let Israel go He (God) will harden Pharaoh’s heart so that God can perform the miracles. Such displays should, one presumes, convince the Israelites to follow God alone. But it does not work out that way. We constantly see the failure of miracles to convince people to follow God.
The next period is THE MIDDLE YEARS
From about 800BC we see a different message coming from God and a different approach it seems
Gone are the supernatural miracles.
Gone also are the personal appearances of God. God now talks to people via prophets.
Gone also is the vengefulness of God. We no longer see God engaging in wholesale slaughter of people. Rather we see compassion occurring and a desire to preserve life. We also see God saying through Isaiah in Chapter one that God is wearied with their sacrifices of burnt offerings and no longer delights in the blood of bulls, lambs and goats. God further says He hates their worship and ceremonies. So why does God appear to now see things so differently?
Another insight here is that God now regularly talks about love and compassion, something that is largely missing from the early period.
God now seems less concerned with preserving Israel as a nation and more concerned with the ethical quality of Israel. God and the prophets of the 8th century onwards concern themselves very much with concern for the poor and downtrodden, with promoting justice and mercy and condemning religious hypocrisy and social injustice. The famous words of Micah sum this period up. “…. He has told you o mortal what is good, and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.”
Next we have THE SILENT PERIOD
God’s desire has not been met, His relationship with Israel is not working out. God eventually says he has had enough of Israel constantly turning away from him and now he will turn away from Israel. There follows a period of about 450 years without any prophet appearing in Israel and God’s silence is deafening.
So next we have THE JESUS PERIOD
The relationship between humanity and God is so important, that God sends himself in the form of Jesus to practically show us His nature and wishes.
In Col 2.9 Paul says that Jesus was the entire fullness of God in one being. Jesus said He and His Heavenly Father were one and that He, Jesus, demonstrated God’s true nature. Yet this seems so different to the image of God we find in the Old Testament, and surprisingly Jesus changed God’s laws and stance on things.
Here are some examples of changes.
Lets start with the 10 commandments. God gave 10 commandments. In Matthew 19 and Mark 10 Jesus reduces the 10 commandments to 6 all of which are about relationship. Later, in Matthew 22 Jesus reduces them to two. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul and all your mind, and love your neighbour as yourself. Again all about relationships. Then in John 15:12 he reduces it to one. “This is my commandment that you love one another as I have loved you”. Also in Gal 5 Paul says all the law is condensed into one commandment “you shall love your neighbour as yourself”
So Jesus changes God’s commandments.
So originally it was all about how you related to God now it is all about how you relate to other people. As John puts it, God is love, if you love God you will love others….. if you love others you are born of God.
Other examples of changes. In Leviticus, Deuteronomy and Exodus, God instructs an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth as to how people should relate to one another, Yet in Luke 6 and Matt 5 Jesus says love your enemies and if anyone hits you on the cheek let him hit you on the other as well.
In Nahum 1.2 God says he is jealous, vengeful, angry, and rages against his enemies. Yet Jesus says to love and forgive your enemies and regularly portrays a loving and forgiving God. If Jesus is God or at least God’s messenger then what does this complete change around mean?
In Leviticus, God commands that a man or woman who commits adultery, must be put to death. Yet Jesus isn’t remotely concerned with this when a woman caught in the act of adultery is brought to him. His concern is the morality and hypocrisy of those who brought her to him. Regardless of her guilt he lets her go.
There are similar but less clear issues regarding, the Sabbath, lepers and unclean women.
So what does this mean? Are God and Jesus separate and at odds with each other or are they one and the same?
Something else new, was that instead of humans offering sacrifice to God, here we have God offering a sacrifice. Traditionally the one who needed forgiveness is the one who offers the sacrifice. So is God offering a sacrifice for past behaviour as some have suggested or is God offering this on behalf of collective humanity as others have suggested?
THE POST JESUS PERIOD
Here was something radical. Previously Gods spirit had only come upon certain individuals, often called prophets, at certain times for specific purposes. Now, since Pentecost, Gods Spirit was available for anyone. The emphasis of the post Jesus period is inner transformation and spirituality that is worked out in practical loving relationships. There is also something else quite radical, that of being in Gods family. In Romans and elsewhere Paul talks about us being God’s children and heirs to God and Jesus being the firstborn of many, meaning us.
So what are the implications of all that we have seen?
As it is very pertinent, there is the question of whether God can change. We have one scripture in Malachi 3:6 where God says that even though Israel keeps turning away from God, He does not change and will still love them if they will turn back to Him. Based on this one scripture there grew a popular idea that God never changes. This was a Greek idea and became known as the theology of an impassible God. This idea appears to be regularly contradicted throughout the scriptures and has fallen from favour amongst many scholars. It is an idea that does not appear to relate to the context in Malachi where God is simply saying He has always been prepared to love Israel if they would turn back to Him and that He has not changed in that regard.
So onto some IDEAS
There is the concept of Growth and Maturity
This is where God starts off as petulant, craving to be worshipped, jealous, exclusive. God has to be the best. If this were a human we would perhaps say they were hallmarks of immaturity or insecurity. God is demanding, bloody and vengeful. God then changes from demanding total obedience and worship and giving punishment, to wanting a more genuine relationship. Caring for others, compassion, love and tolerance creep in, until love is the only quality that matters. Eventually God offers to make humans part of his family. A secure, mature God who shares perhaps?
Or another slightly different angle, is God learning as He goes along? This certainly may explain the changes in how God does things and His regrets and repentances as certain actions fail to produce what God expected and also the long period of silence where perhaps during this time God produces a very radical plan, that of Jesus and embracing Humans into God’s family.
Another possibility is that God changes His approach as human society develops and grows. For instance in the early years warfare and killing were normal and a God’s superiority was based on who won battles. So God dealt with humans on that level. Gods were meant to be miraculous super beings so God did miracles. As society’s paradigms about what constitutes goodness, power etc changed so did God’s methods.
I could also add that early on it seems that God met society where it was at but later on actually started leading societal changes.
Allowing for divine inspiration, the Bible is still to some extent a human product reflecting the changing religious understanding, ethics and self-understanding of the people who wrote parts of it, and the changing history of those people. For instance it was common in ancient near eastern culture to give a God human attributes. It was also the culture of the day to attribute victories in battle to the winner’s God and often include divine intervention or commands.
Therefore a lot of the perspectives of God may be driven by Israel’s perception and culture. Were they giving divine authority to their actions and history? Which is not to say God was absent but rather perhaps God wasn’t quite involved in the way the story has been handed down over many many generations, bearing in mind much of the bible was oral tradition for generations before being written down and it also appears there has been editing of manuscripts years after they were originally written.
So in summary, God’s response to humans has changed over time from compulsion to freedom, from rules to relationship, from powerful miracles to a gentle spiritual presence, from vengeance and slaughter to forgiveness and preservation of life, from harsh punishment to compassion, from demanding sacrifice to offering sacrifice.
What these changes signify we cannot know for sure but just being aware of them and the possibilities has freed me to be a more loving and less judgemental person.
I believe now not in a God with a dark side that is still there waiting to punish us but my image of God is firmly that of Jesus.
Therefore as the most recent and most continuing view of God for 2000 years it seems that the message of Love is the most important message from God. The image of God now is quite firmly that of love and relationship.