I am reading through the Bible chronologically. By the way, the “books” of the Bible are only roughly chronological. Following the chronology closely requires jumping around a bit. I didn’t realize to what extent that is true before taking this journey that I am on.
Presently, I am right at the point where Moses stands on top of a mountain (east of Jericho, on the edge of the plains of Moab) to survey the land that God promised hundreds of years earlier to Abraham and his descendants. Moses dies right before they go in.
Before he dies, though, he reminds the people of all that has transpired. He reminds them how God delivered them out of their slavery in Egypt and went with them every step along the way. The reminder of God’s presence was with them by fire at night and cloud during the day.
God revealed Himself in dramatic ways to these people and instructed them through Moses down to very particular details for establishing a relationship with God through the Tent of Meeting, Ark of the Covenant and the offerings they were to make through the intermediaries of the Levite priests, among other things. They had 40 years of wandering in the wilderness with God’s presence continually among them in visual demonstration and ritual reminders.
Reading through this history of God’s interaction with the people He chose to lead eventually into a land He promised many, many generations before through a modern, intellectual lens can be unnerving. The skepticism of the age echoes in my mind and unsettles my heart.
Of particular note are the times we read that people are stricken dead for ignoring or refusing to follow the instruction. For instance, the Sons of Korah, the sons of Moses’ cousin Korah led a revolt against Moses. They and all the people who followed them died when God caused “the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them and their households, and all those associated with Korah”. (Numbers 16:1-33)
Incidences like this prompt a person of modern sensibilities to wonder, “Why would a good God do such a thing?!” It seems Draconian.
The stakes were high for these people, and even less intentional “slips” were sometimes met with the same fate. It’s hard to imagine living in those circumstances, especially in light of the grace that seems to color everything that Jesus said and did.
I am reminded as I write those words, thinking of the life and death of Jesus, that this is really the key to unlock the mystery of the seeming dichotomy between the swift and harsh justice experienced by the people God chose to lead into the promised land and the long suffering tenderness and mercy we experience as followers of Christ.
Jesus is the link. Jesus didn’t reveal to us a new God, though he did introduce a new covenant. He didn’t reject and discount any of the Scripture that we now call the Old Testament. He affirmed it. He said he didn’t come to abolish it, but to fulfill it.
We can get stuck on the details and miss the story and trajectory of Scripture that finds its fulfillment in Jesus.
I have written about “the God of the Old Testament” many times. It can be hard to wrap our arms around the seeming dichotomy between the way God is revealed in the Old Testament compared to the New Testament. I am not going to attempt to wrap my arms around it now, but I hope to shed a little light, to find in Scripture a little light to address those modern sensibilities that rumble in my mind.
I am reminded in the long address Moses made to the people gathered on the brink of the promised land recounting all that they had been through of the truths captured in the following words Moses spoke. Speaking on behalf of God to the people:
I put to death and I bring to life,
I have wounded and I will heal…. (Deut. 32;39)
And, speaking in psalm to God:
You turn people back to dust,
saying, “Return to dust, you mortals.” (Ps. 90:3)
I reminded that God gave us life. He set the parameters on our lives as humans and on all life. He gives life, and He takes it away. That is the prerogative of God, who created all things.
What can we do about it?
We can rebel. We can ignore it and go our own ways. Ultimately, though, those responses are senseless and futile in light of the reality.
God has given us a time that we have to live in our bodies that will, without fail, die. What we do with that time is of most critical importance. If we spend that time ignoring God, maybe even rebelling intentionally against Him, what does it profit us?
These stories, though harsh and shocking to our modern sensibilities, bring us face to face with this reality. Where can we go to escape God? He is everywhere. (Psalm 139) We can’t escape Him, and we will stand in front of Him eventually “face to face”.
Again, if you find this as unsettling as I do, we need to consider what Jesus reveals to us about this God who seems so distant and harsh in the stories of the Old Testament. Jesus was one with God. (John 10:30) Jesus reveals God to us emptied of “His glory” in the flesh (human like us). (Phil. 2:6) Jesus was God who came to us in human form. (Col. 2:9-10)
In human form, God appears to us differently than what He appeared at a point of eternal distance. Distilled down to human form, God appears selfless, self-sacrificing, loving and patient, desiring to heal and full of grace and mercy. We don’t see God from that perspective in the Old Testament because of the distance that separates the created from the Creator.
Yes, God gives life, and He takes it away. That reality appears very harsh to us from a distance, not knowing what is on the “other side” of this life. But we see in the life of Jesus God’s willingness to stoop as low as He needed to go to show us His heart and His character and to show us that we need not fear.
Just as He gives life and takes it away, He offers eternal life to us in relationship to Him. He “conquered death” in human form to show us that we have hope beyond the grave. The bodies we live in now are tents constructed for a temporary sojourn through the wilderness of this present life. They will take us eventually to the edge of the promised land.
And the instruction to us is like the instruction Moses gave to the people as they stood on the edge of that land God promised centuries before to give to Abraham’s descendants:
“Be strong and courageous. Do not fear or be in dread of them, for it is the Lord your God who goes with you. He will not leave you or forsake you.” (Deut. 31:6)