Understanding the God of the Old Testament
After we have done our research and systematically dismantled the Watchtower’s doctrinal house built upon sand, most of us are left, at least temporarily, with gaping holes in our hearts, as well as in our world views. We question everything. Is there a God? Is he interested in us? Is the Bible inspired? Rereading the Bible without Watchtower “blinders” on is one place to begin our search for answers to these questions.
For many, delving immediately into the New Testament and learning about God’s grace and love as expressed in Christ provides the missing pieces needed to rebuild a new house of faith on rock instead of sand. However, for those of us who begin our study of the Bible in the Old Testament, we’re apt to react to what we read there by rejecting the entire Bible as a series of legendary tales and the concept of God as simply a human construct. So the questions then become: How can we harmonize the apparently blood-thirsty, cruel actions of the God of the Old Testament with the God of love and compassion described in the New Testament? And can an understanding of the literary style of the Old Testament help us accept what appear to be farfetched human life spans and numbers attributed to the people and events described in the Old Testament?
Perhaps the greatest hurdle for us to overcome when confronting these issues is our twenty-first century American mindset. For example, in this country we often assume that our democratic freedoms and way of life will be readily embraced by nations whose populations are culturally and educationally rooted in past centuries. How easy has it been to bring democracy to Iraq and Afghanistan or to some African countries, as well?
God approached much the same situation in his dealings with humans, going back, for our information, as far as the dawn of written history. He, however, had the wisdom and patience not to charge in and forcibly require people to adopt superior ideologies when they were nowhere near the possibility of doing so. God referred to these ages as “times of ignorance” (Acts 17:30) or when the people’s “hearts were hard” (Matthew 19:8). For the majority of nations, he “gave them over” to follow their own depraved desires (Romans 1:21-31) until the world was ready to understand and accept the “life and immortality” (2 Timothy 1:10) he wanted to reveal to them through Jesus Christ.
Even during those primitive times, God began his program of choosing a nation to represent him on earth and, when the time was right, produce the promised Messiah. However, in dealing with that nation of Israel, God did not expect more of them than they could produce. As the Creator of humans, he was well aware of the limitations to learning and higher thought processes that Abraham Maslow, rather recently (1943) described in his hierarchy of needs. Maslow posited that our basic needs for survival (food, water, sleep) and safety (body, health, security) must be met before we can have the time or capacity to appreciate the higher levels of human experience, such as self-esteem, respect for others, achievement, creativity, problem solving, and morality.
In ancient times, most humans lived in a dangerous world where they were constantly threatened and decimated by scarce resources, brutal weather conditions, incurable diseases, and barbaric neighbors. Life was cheap, by our standards. The Israelites were not spared from this world where survival and safety were their all-consuming needs. Yet at this time, God met them where they were; he dealt with them in ways they could understand, giving them life-preserving advantages over other nations, until civilizations, in general, had progressed enough for God to be able to grant them more. However, even in the midst of so much cruelty, there were outstanding men of faith, such as Job, Abraham, and Moses, who had the capacity to appreciate spiritual things and envision the future. In almost every case, these men were wealthy. They had sufficient resources to satisfy their basic needs, thus giving them time and energy to consider the meaning of life and God’s role in it.
By the time Greece became a world power, civilization in the Western world had advanced to the level where philosophy, argumentation, teaching methods, and the arts were valued and contemplated. The time was approaching when God could do so much more for his human children. As he said at Jeremiah 31:31-34: “The time is coming,” declares the Lord, “when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant I made with their forefathers when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they broke my covenant, though I was a husband to them. This is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after that time,” declares the Lord. “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. No longer will a man teach his neighbor, or a man his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest,” declares the Lord. “For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.”
This was God’s original plan for humans, to have his law written on their hearts so they would be moral because of love for God, for themselves, and for fellow humans. In general, this was not possible until they’d had enough of their basic needs met so that they could respond to grace and mercy and comprehend the future life of immortality that God had prepared for them. That is why the apostle Paul could say, “But when the time had fully come, God sent his Son” (Galatians 4:4) to bring “life and immortality to light through the gospel” (2 Timothy 1:10).
Perhaps trying to get the big picture here will be helpful. If this life on earth is a series of educational events designed to teach humans that using their gift of free will in the service of God and fellow humans rather than in selfish pursuits is the only way to be successful and happy, then God will make sure, in the end, that all of his children will have had a fair opportunity to learn this lesson. As I have written in a past blog (Do We Have To Jump From the Watchtower’s Frying Pan Into Hellfire?), I believe God’s judgment after this life will be a long and complex process, wherein those of us now in Christ will be judges (1 Corinthians 6:2, 3). Apparently, God saw the possibility for those Canaanite nations he executed back in the Old Testament to someday repent, when conditions were right for it. As Jesus said at Matthew 11:20-24:
Then Jesus began to denounce the cities in which most of his miracles had been performed, because they did not repent. “Woe to you, Korazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! If the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. But I tell you, it will be more bearable for Tyre and Sidon on the day of judgment than for you. And you, Capernaum, will you be lifted up to the skies? No, you will go down to the depths. If the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Sodom, it would have remained to this day. But I tell you that it will be more bearable for Sodom on the day of judgment than for you.”
Therefore, I choose to assume the best about God. If he executed corrupt nations for their depravity at the time, in order to bring about, eventually, the opportunity for everyone’s salvation, then he would be justified in doing so. That is my hope and prayer, based upon the personality of God that Jesus displayed in the New Testament (John 10:30; 14:9) and on the words of scripture, such as:
This is good, and pleases God our Savior, who wants all men to be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth (1 Timothy 2:3, 4).
For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive (1 Corinthians 15:22).
. . . at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (Philippians 2:10, 11)
So then, if getting the big picture of God’s plan for humans helps us accept God’s actions in the Old Testament, then an understanding of Hebrew literature may help us accept what appear to be unbelievable numbers of years attributed to human life spans and events in the Old Testament. Since few people could read and write in ancient times, and even fewer had materials upon which to write, stories were preserved both orally and aurally—spoken and listened to. The storyteller and the listeners all needed mnemonic devices at regular intervals in these stories in order to remember them and give them a kind of continuity. Some forms of poetry provided memory hooks through rhythm, alliteration, and repetition; often prose did the same thing through word play and numbers.
In many cases, these numbers were not to be taken literally, but rather as expressing contrasting periods of time or circumstances. For example, in Egyptian writings, deaths at the age of 110 have been attributed to numerous persons of rank and authority, too many and too coincidentally to be taken literally. Therefore, when both Joseph and Joshua were said to have died at 110 years of age (Genesis 50:26; Joshua 24:29), the Hebrew listener (who was accustomed to Egyptian culture) would have understood that both Joseph and Joshua had lived full lives and served in similar capacities. Joseph introduced the people into Egypt, just as Joshua introduced them into the Promised Land. By saying that Moses died at 120 years, the narrator is giving him an elevated position in contrast to the others and informing the listener that Moses was the human bridge between Joseph and Joshua. Likewise, in Egyptian writings, the number of 318 able-bodied men was an oft-repeated way of indicating a significant entourage. So when the Bible at Genesis 14:14 describes Abraham’s entourage of 318 men pursuing the kings who had captured his nephew Lot, those who heard the account understood that Abraham was a man of means.
Viewing the Old Testament in the light of the culture and literary styles of that time is not a denial of its inspiration by God. The New Testament assures us that Jesus and the early Christians all believed that the characters and events of the Old Testament were real. The Hebrew Scriptures were written to teach us and encourage us (Romans 15:4), especially when we learn how beautifully so many of the Old Testament events and prophecies were fulfilled in Christ. It is my hope, in writing this blog, that former Jehovah’s Witnesses will accept the information in the Old Testament in the light of context and culture and go on to concentrate on the grace, mercy, and love expressed through the person of Christ in the Christian Greek Scriptures.