God: Just and Fair, or Macabre?

Read Exodus 32 here.

I understand that I’m dipping my toe into some awfully deep water.  For this reason I want to give you some other resources also.  These links are to sites where the authors have considered this topic in a lot more detail and depth than I have:

  • Patrick Mead – Tentpegs – this series of articles takes an irregular approach to the topic of “Genocide & Jesus”.
  • A bibliography from about 2004 on “The Bible and Violence” – compiled by Patricia K. Tull a professor at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary.  (I don’t know anything about her, but hey, it’s a bibliography!)
  • www.TheGospelCoalition.org (a conservative, evangelical, para-church organisation) a blog post here and here, and a series of posts here (four articles under the heading “Book Summary”).

Okay, that was a lot of Googling on my part to find some reputable articles that I hope saves you some time!

I’m writing on this topic because I’ve been preaching on Exodus 34:6-7, where God reveals his character to Moses:

Yahweh!The Lord!

The God of compassion and mercy!

I am slow to anger

and filled with unfailing love and faithfulness.

 I lavish unfailing love to a thousand generations.

I forgive iniquity, rebellion, and sin.

But I do not excuse the guilty.

I lay the sins of the parents upon their children and grandchildren;

the entire family is affected—

even children in the third and fourth generations.”  (NLT)

Generally, this is a cuddly portrayal of God.  I would like this God to tuck me into bed at night.  This OT God isn’t at all offensive or inconsistent with the NT.  But the second half of verse 7 warns of God’s punishment of sin, and sinners.  This description also needs to be read in the context of Exodus 32:28 (just two chapters earlier) where God orders 3,000 people killed for worshiping an idol.  (That’s more than the fatalities in the Twin Tower attacks of 911!)  Then in v29 Moses commends the Levites for killing their friends and family members.

In introducing my own thoughts I firstly need to acknowledge that the acts of violence and even genocide found in the Old Testament are offensive.  In fact, for some people Old Testament violence is THE barrier to hearing the message of Christ.  When we think of “Oh, that nation deserved to be punished”, it doesn’t seem so bad.  But when we think of the terror and suffering thousands of individuals, elderly, women, children, men, experienced at the hand of God, it’s traumatic.  When we put ourselves in the sandals of an ancient villager harvesting grain one moment and fleeing “God’s soldiers” the next, it doesn’t seem so holy.

Presuming we don’t want to abandon the Old Testament, or our relationship with God, here are a few (simplistic?) ideas that you might find useful as you think about this topic.  My suggestions relate specifically to the events of Exodus 32 which is described as punishment of God’s people for making and worshiping an idol.  So some of my points may not generalise to attacks by Israel against other nations.

  • We need to consider, “Why does the New Testament  teach that ‘the wages of sin is death’?”  Read Romans 6:22-23
  • We need to have a really firm understanding of God’s holiness.
  • Is it really unjust if someone doesn’t receive as much grace as another?  Can we argue that we deserve more grace?  Doesn’t that subvert the definition of grace?
  • Part of God’s covenant with Israel is that they would be a holy (pure, sinless) nation.  Read Exodus 19:5-6, 8
  • The first two of the 10 Commandments address idolatry.  God viewed idolatry as a holiness cancer that needed to be removed.  So he did.  Idolatry wasn’t just a sin, it completely undermined the covenant relationship they were in the process of making.
  • Everyone had the opportunity to repent and turn back to God, apparently these 3,000 refused to do so. Read Exodus 32:26  (I think this is the most important point in this story.)
  • The nation of Israel could have been as large as 1 million people at this time.  Even though the idolatry was wide-spread, only 3,000 people were killed.  (Yes, still an incredibly large number but a lot less than 1 million.)  Tens of thousands of people repented.
  • Finally, I think the individualistic nature of our culture makes it difficult for us to relate to the honour-shame society of these ancient times.  If our families have a “black sheep” we generally distance ourselves from that persons thoughts or actions.  In an honour-shame society, the actions of the “black sheep” stain the whole family.  So yes, God does sometimes take a seemingly callous corporate view of families, cities, and nations.  In critiquing this we need to be careful that we don’t arrogantly presume that our individualistic worldview is the right one.  Consider how in Joshua 7 Achan’s sin impacted God’s people Israel and eventually his family unit.  This is a good example of the honour-shame principle.

I’ll stop there.  I hope you find it helpful.  Again, I want to reiterate that there’s a lot more that could be written.  These are just a few ideas to get your theological juices flowing.

If you’re aware of other helpful online resources, please leave a link in the comments below.


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