Last night I preached a message that got unnecessarily complicated—in fact, I think it was probably the most scatter-brained message I’ve ever preached. I cringe as I even try to listen back to the recording. Truth be told, some things are just easier to write out or teach in a Bible study than to preach on. Therefore, I thought I’d just take a few moments to clarify the real narrative I was trying to get at 🙂
When God puts on flesh and lives among us as Jesus, He depicts God as a Father full of unconditional love and grace. But if you’re like me, that’s sometimes hard to believe because of the other depictions we’ve been given of God—especially the depiction of God as a warrior who could destroy us. How are we supposed to see this violent warrior as the loving Father that Jesus described to us?
To find the answer, we must look at the idea of “progressive revelation”—that is to say that nowhere in the Bible does God reveal every last detail about Himself, but instead He reveals Himself more fully to us over the course of time. He often works within the culture of the people He’s reaching rather than expect them to immediately and completely change their culture to look like His.
With this in mind, we begin to see that Abraham might have thought of Yahweh (at least as first) as a “personal” or “family” god, as this is how his culture might have caused him to perceive Yahweh. John H. Walton explains.
The way in which Abraham and his God interact would certainly suit the paradigm of relationship with a personal god in Mesopotamia… it is not impossible, and may even be likely that Abraham’s understanding of his relationship to Yahweh, in the beginning at least, was similar to the Mesopotamian idea of a personal god. In Mesopotamian language, Abraham would have been described as having “acquired a god.” That he was led to a new land and separated from his father’s household would have effectively cut any ties with previous deities (located in city and family), and opened the way for Yahweh to be understood as the only deity to which Abraham had any obligation. By making a break with his land, his family, and his inheritance, Abraham was also breaking all of his religious ties. In his new land Abraham would have no territorial gods; as a new people he would have brought no family gods; having left his country he would have no national or city gods; and it was Yahweh who filled this void, becoming the “God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob,” the “God of the Fathers.”
Whatever the perception Abraham had of Yahweh, we at least know that God had not revealed Himself in full to Abraham, because we can see Abraham practicing things we know God doesn’t approve of, like sleeping with a concubine. God will eventually make it clear to us that this wrong as He progressively reveals Himself, but he did not seem to communicate it to Abraham (as far as we can tell, anyways).
God will also make it clear that He is so much more than just a “personal” or “family” god as He continues to reveals Himself over time. Eventually He will liberate all of Abraham’s descendants (the Hebrews) from Israel, and in doing so He will inherit a whole nation of people. Now the world will start to see him as more than a minor deity or a personal or family God—now they will see Him as a national deity and a major god. And as God does powerful signs and wonders and demonstrates His power against all other spiritual beings, the world will start to realize that He is not just a major god and national god, but He is the one and only God, and no other spiritual being He has made can even come close. God has now revealed His full authority to the world: He is the the one and only God who has created all things, whether physical or spiritual. This may have possibly not have been clear to Abraham at first, but now it’s clear to everyone.
Now in the same way that Abraham may have culturally thought of Yahweh as a “personal god,” so the Hebrews may have culturally thought of God as a “warrior God;” for the other major gods in the Ancient Near East were often depicted as warriors. And therefore, they may have committed so many acts of violence in God’s name simply because they culturally thought that was what God would have them do. But despite all this violence in the Old Testament, we actually catch some specific revelations of God that show Him as non-violent.
For example, in Exodus 23, it is indeed God’s plan to move His people into the promised land, but He doesn’t tell the Hebrews to kill all the people living there in order to receive it. Instead, He says He’s going to chase the people who live there out of the land very slowly over time by sending hornets into the land.
Other illustrations of God’s peaceful ways in the Old Testament are seen in the fact that an angel tells Joshua that He doesn’t choose sides in war (Joshua 5:13-14) and in the fact that God won’t let David build Him a temple because he’s a man of war and have shed blood (1 Chronicles 28). This is especially revelatory because in this moment God downplays David’s violence while his culture glorifies him for it.
With Bible passages like this in mind, we again can’t help but wonder if the Hebrews subjected God to their conception of a warrior deity, rather than let God do things the way He would have done things. As Greg Boyd notes,
How it must have grieved God when his obstinate children instead viewed him as a merciless ANE [Ancient Near Eastern] warrior deity and placed their trust in the sword, mercilessly slaughtering entire populations of people in his name. So too, knowing on the basis of the cross that God’s love for each Canaanite was incomparably greater than the love they received from their closest loved ones or that they had for themselves, we must try to imagine the immense pain God endured because of his decision to remain in solidarity with his covenant people and to further his historical purposes through them, not withstanding their godforsaken conceptions of him and their godforsaken slaughtering of people he loved.
As mentioned above, Boyd’s reason for trying to do away with the violent image of God in the Old Testament, is because Jesus shows us an unconditionally loving Father. As the cross proves, God loves everyone the same, and that includes His enemies.
And since Jesus is the ultimate revelation of God—for Jesus is God—we must always ground ourselves in Him and His teachings. Abraham, Moses, David and the other popular characters of the Old Testament only caught glimpses of God, but when we look at Jesus, we see the Father (John 14:9). And so when we look at Jesus, we are given a glimpse of God exactly as He is and all other revelations and depictions must bow before the revelation and depiction of God in Jesus.
The New Testament Bible writers held Jesus up as the primary example of who God was. They even interpreted Old Testament passages in strange new lights because of the way the Holy Spirit was now illuminating such passages in Christ.
This is a long path to go to get us back to the topic of grace, but it’s important for people like me who feel like God is a loving Father on one hand, but fear that He’s a warrior deity out to get us on the other. In order to come to full revelation of God as a gracious loving Father, the Spirit must help us deal with the older depiction first. And when He’s done that, the fuller revelation of grace is able to take more control in our lives and be lived out through us.
Walton, John H. Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament: Introducing the Conceptual World of the Hebrew Bible. Ch 6.
Boyd, Gregory A. The Crucifixion of the Warrior God: Volumes 1 & 2. Fortress Press. Kindle Edition. p. 536
Further reading on top of those mentioned above…
Enns, Peter. Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament.
Claiborne, Shane. Jesus for President.
Claiborne, Shane and Tony Campolo. Red Letter Revolution: What If Jesus Really Meant What He Said?