This is part 2 of the series, Putting God’s Wrath in Perspective. In part 1, we focused on the necessary fact that, if God exists, God is God; so who can question or judge Him if He is wrathful? We are in no position to change God or judge Him. But we are told, if God is wrathful, that is not all He is because we are told that God is love. (1 John 1:14)
With that in mind, I continue this series on the wrath of God by focusing on God in the history revealed in the Bible. I want to pick that history up from the point when God found a man in (Abraham) who was inclined to hear his voice.
Whether you believe that men have evolved from neanderthals to modern intellectuals or believe in Adam and Eve, we have a natural disconnect between us and the divine. This is to be expected based on the fact that we are the stuff of time, space and matter, and God necessarily is not. In that relationship, we need God to reveal Himself to us because we don’t have the tools in our toolbox to understand a timeless, spaceless immaterial God on our own accord.
The biblical story is the story of God reaching out to mankind through people inclined to hear his voice. Abraham was such a man, and God used Abraham to reveal His self in history to mankind. God chose this man, Abraham, to be the vehicle by which he would bless all people because Abraham was inclined to hear God and respond to him.
Through Abraham and one miraculously born son, Isaac, God promised to create a people that would be as many as the stars in the sky. The Old Testament is the story of God establishing these people, though these people were difficult to manage. They grumbled and complained a lot. They didn’t understand what God was doing. They were more inclined to go in a different direction and live differently than God wanted them to live, but God made his promise to Abraham, and He would keep it.
The story continues with God telling Abraham to pull up his stakes and move his tent, his family, his thousands of cattle and sheep a thousand miles away to a foreign land. That foreign land would be the place where God would establish this people.
God promised to make a place for this people. God can do pretty much whatever he wants. This would be the people through whom God would begin reveal himself to mankind, so God needed to protect and nurture them in a way that His communication could be received and understand and preserved without distortion for future generations.
If God is God, he could certainly choose the right people at the right time and accomplish His goal – in spite of the reality that these people would often vacillate, would often be led astray, running after foreign gods, and would often fail to understand God or His purposes or the big picture. (As finite beings, it is no small task to understand the purposes of an infinite God.)
In fact, that was the problem – the people God chose. Not that they were any different than us. They could have been us.
But, God made his promise to Abraham, a man inclined to hear God’s voice, and God worked through other men (and women) inclined to hear His voice, though many, many of “God’s people” (most of them!) were not inclined to hear or follow His voice.
So, when God moved “His people” to the land that He promised, He had to clear out the inhabitants who lived there to make room. What we know of those inhabitants is that they were a particularly barbaric people. They routinely sacrificed their own children live on burning altars to their capricious and unpredictable gods.
Why God chose this area we do not know. Maybe He chose it because the inhabitants were so bad, so corrupted and so repugnant that justice demanded they be wiped out. This is what the narrative suggests. Maybe they were not the world’s worst inhabitants, but God needed to make room somewhere. One thing we do know is that God was concerned about protecting these people through whom God chose to reveal His self to the world from outside influences.
God was concerned that “his people” would intermarry with the inhabitants and be influenced to follow after their gods and forget Him. This concern is not egotistical or jealous for the one true God. But there is much more: God had a plan.
God’s plan was to fulfill His promise to Abraham, but not just to fulfill a promise. God’s plan was to bless all the peoples of the world through the vessel He chose, and to reconcile all the world to His self.
Therefore, God instructed His people to drive the inhabitants out of the land, and if they would not go, to wipe them out. God needed a clean slate to be able to nurture the people He had chosen to be the conduit of his message to mankind.
At the same time, we hear God’s voice through the people inclined to hear Him say that these people had it coming. His wrath was not indiscriminately directed. These people were particularly bad. The wrath of God in history that we see in the Old Testament is a combination of protecting His people (and, more importantly, protecting the integrity of His communication through these people) and judgment (or justice) meted out on the people and nations who were on the receiving end.
Even the execution of this judgment, however, was not without consideration. From the date that God promised Abraham the land, another 400 years or so would pass before the land was delivered. In that time period, the Canaanites who occupied the land were given opportunity to change their ways. The interactions and encounters with Abraham and his descendants provided them this opportunity.
The “judgment” on the Canaanites was only executed after they had been given ample time to stop their evil ways.
The wrath of God carried out in the history that is recorded in the Bible follows long periods of patience and plenty of opportunity for represented. We see the patience of God and desire of God to show mercy in the story of Jonah, who God sent to Ninevah in (located in what we call Iraq of today) to warn them of the coming judgment. They repented, and God spared them. The whole thrust of the story is God’s desire that they would repent and be spared.
The Israelites were also on the receiving end of God’s wrath at times. They didn’t drive out all the inhabitants of the land as God instructed, and that failure caused them to tend to go astray – again and again. God’s own people were continuously cycling through times of focused obedience and wanton abandonment of God for other things, including the gods of those very inhabitants that they failed to drive out of the land.
God’s wrath in history accomplishes God’s ends. It directs God’s story to the end He seeks to achieve. His wrath metes out justice which is only God’s province to employ. And this justice is only executed after long periods of patience and opportunity for people to change. God’s wrath in history, however, needs to be understood in the larger context, including the ultimate context of eternity.
See part 3 of the series on Putting God’s Wrath in Perspective – God’s Wrath in the Context of Eternity.