Thursday, March 10, 2016

Inbox: Poor Image Management

One possible reaction to Exodus 32
Qman wonders how we can answer Bible students who find that reading about the judgments of God described in the Old Testament leaves a bad taste in their mouths and inclines them to think unfavorably of God.

It’s a good question and a common problem.

The more I read my Bible (and the older and crustier I get), the more tempting I find it to respond to questions about God’s character dismissively.

Not constructive. Got to work on that.

The Story So Far

Here’s Q’s entire question (and its background) in his own words:
“I will venture a guess here and suggest that you are probably aware of the poor image management the bible is doing with historical accounts and images like that. Such a scenario as described here in today’s terms conjures up an image of the president mustering his secret service contingent and knocking off 3000 people because they went to a bar and got drunk instead of attending Sunday services at his church. When my son took bible study courses at the Catholic university he was attending, taught by very thorough Jesuit priests who did not mince words or try to dress up the stories, he and many of his class mates became pretty upset with what is depicted here and did not think very favorably of God. Even though the teachers were very smart and knew exactly that this reaction occurred every semester they were not able to ameliorate the bad feelings leaving the students with a bad taste in their mouth possibly for a lifetime. Naturally this story and theme is exactly what supplies ammunition to the active atheist affording the opportunity to publicly denounce the idea of a benevolent God. How would you propose to answer those young and impressionable people given the times we live in?

My Kneejerk Reaction

First thoughts: when I observe the sort of half-hearted “seeking” after God that speedily recoils at every difficult concept and refuses to give God the benefit of the doubt and wait even a short while for an explanation, the crusty, dismissive old man I am rapidly becoming is inclined to respond that if the Creator God happens to be a certain way, and we don’t like it … well, so what? “You will find me,” God says through Jeremiah, “When you seek me with all your heart”. Put another way, if you don’t find me, it’s because you can’t be bothered to look.

But I suppose if I advocate for giving God the benefit of the doubt, I can at least do the same for university students who actually take Bible study courses (rare enough these days). When I was that age I tended to react first and think later. It’s not unusual in those with limited life experience to draw on and limited knowledge of God’s character to give them security.

So let’s take the passage in question (the golden calf episode from Exodus 32 in which God struck Israel with a plague and Moses struck them with the swords of the tribe of Levi in response to national idolatry) and try to answer a serious concern with equal gravity.

But before we do that, let’s talk about image for a moment.

Is God Worried About His Image?

The God I read about in the Bible does not seem overly image-conscious, at least not in the way we might anticipate. He doesn’t hire spin doctors to massage public opinion in order to maximize the number of people who think positively about him. He doesn’t mince words. He doesn’t always explain himself.

We might say He Is Who He Is.

Now he IS quite concerned that his servants represent him accurately and that our behavior is consistent with the truth we profess. But he is not beyond leaving a few rocks in our path as we seek after him to sort out the real disciples from the phony ones.

What we do with these “rocks” (or difficulties in understanding his word) is very much up to us: we may use them to build the foundation of our lives by responding to doubt with faith (“Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone … and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame”) or we may trip over them spiritually and never get up again (“The stone that the builders rejected has become … a stone of stumbling, and a rock of offense”).

It’s our call.

Exodus, Stage Left …

Qman compares the slaughter of Israelites in response to their idolatry to a president sending the secret service to dispatch people into the hereafter for going drinking instead of attending Sunday services.

But the situations are not really analogous. Israel had not “elected” God president. They had voluntarily entered into a binding covenant with a thrice-holy God that was more like a marriage than an appointment of a public official to manage their affairs. And God had, uniquely in human history, agreed to dwell with Israel along with all the dangers that posed, dangers of which Israel was completely aware.

There are four ongoing realities that characterize the earlier and later chapters of Exodus. These help me to understand God’s actions in response to Israel’s betrayal (and inadvertently explain why Qman’s presidential analogy isn’t entirely apropos). These facts put God’s actions in context. Absent context, judgment rarely seems reasonable.

 The Warnings

Was Israel warned about the dangers of a close relationship with a holy God? The answer to this would be “over and over again”.

First, God gave Israel a law that was full of capital crimes: murder, hitting your parents or cursing them, kidnapping, allowing your ox to gore someone to death, sorcery, bestiality and many others. The law revealed God’s righteousness and made it clear that disobedience to it carried serious and often terminal consequences.

Second, idolatry was one of these capital crimes.

The longer-term consequences of idolatry were also spelled out:
“You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.”
Notice that the Lord is not shy about indicating here that he is jealous by nature. To enter into a covenant with a jealous God voluntarily and willingly is one thing. To violate that covenant with equal enthusiasm only days later shows a kind of blockheaded willfulness with which it is hard for me to sympathize.

What Israel did at Sinai while Moses was away was a direct violation of God’s commandment. Every Israelite that participated in the worship of the golden calf and the attendant celebration was well aware he or she was committing a capital crime.

So the question is not why Moses had the Levites kill 3,000 Israelites or why God sent a plague on them. The real question is why God left any of the rebels alive.

 The Evidence

Words are just words. Did Israel have any tangible evidence of God’s power and how he responds to rebellion?

Let’s see. They had seen Moses turn water into blood, then inundate Egypt with successive plagues of frogs, gnats and flies. They had watched the hand of the Lord strike down Egyptian livestock and afflict the Egyptians with boils, pound them with giant hailstones, strip Egypt bare with locusts and plunge the land into darkness, all in response to Pharaoh’s rebellion against the word of God through Moses. Finally, God sent an angel to strike the firstborn of every Egyptian household while leaving the firstborn of Israel alive.

Once Israel left Egypt, they stood and watched God drown their enemies in the Red Sea when the Egyptians refused to turn back from pursuing them. Later, they experienced God’s supernatural help in wiping out the Amalekite army when they were attacked on their way to Canaan.

It had to be abundantly clear to Israel that God was very much capable of punishing rebellion and disinclined to overlook sin. God was nothing if not consistent in his response to the nations.

 The Covenant

Despite knowing exactly what they were getting into and who they were getting into it with, did Israel agree to God’s terms anyway?

Absolutely. It was a deal with a very sweet side, and one that Israel considered would be very much to their benefit. A land of their own, guaranteed victory over enemies, long life, total absence of miscarriages, and many other very practical blessings to be enjoyed by Israel uniquely as a nation belonging exclusively to Jehovah. As a result, Israel was so eager to agree to the covenant that they did so once before even hearing its terms in full:
“All that the Lord has spoken we will do.”
And again, even after hearing all the terms of the covenant spelled out in detail, Israel enthusiastically agreed to it:
“All that the Lord has spoken we will do, and we will be obedient.”
It ought to be noted that no Israelite or foreigner among them was compelled to continue associating with a nation choosing to bind themselves to Jehovah with a legal contract. These dangers were assumed voluntarily. Anyone uncomfortable with the idea of serving a God that severely punished rebellion (and lavishly rewarded obedience) could have stayed behind in Egypt or bailed out at any point on the way to Canaan.

 The Reaction

This final fact is especially critical to grasp. Since the Israelites were the ones actually experiencing God’s punishment rather than simply reading about it, it seems to me their response to God’s correction is more relevant than our opinions thousands of years after the events.

And how did the people respond after God acted against them? Did Israel say, “You’ve led us down the garden path here, Moses. We had no idea some of us might actually die! Get us out of this covenant thing!”

Actually, no, they didn’t.

That may come as a surprise to us, but we didn’t live in those times and have no reasonable terms of comparison. University students passing judgment on God and his dealings with Israel never lived in Egypt, or Midian, or Amalek or any of the other pagan nations contemporary with covenant Israel. They never saw babies being sacrificed in hope of a better harvest. They never saw the depraved conditions in which these nations lived and the sorts of injustices that took place as a matter of course among them.

Israel did. Given a choice between going it alone in the ancient world and serving a God that blessed them, provided for them, cared for them, protected them, made them unique among the nations of the world … and occasionally disciplined them when it was richly deserved, they chose the latter.

Even AFTER God punished them at Sinai.

They buried their neighbours, brothers and sons, then they took off their ornaments and mourned at the thought that their God might leave them.

In Short

Israel voluntarily entered into a contract with Jehovah. They then flagrantly and almost immediately violated its terms in full awareness of the consequences, and with plenty of experience observing God’s very predictable response to rebellion. God punished them much less than they deserved (most of the damage was done by their fellow Israelites), and then offered them an easy way out of the contract, which they rejected, after which they voluntarily provided gold, silver and other precious things for the service of their God’s tabernacle in such excessive quantities that Moses had to turn them away.

Does that sound unfair to you? It really doesn’t to me, but maybe that’s because I’m old and cranky.

So who exactly are the unreasonable ones here?


  1. A very thorough review which however does also not ameliorate the perception created by the material. This kind of depth was undoubtedly used also in the classroom. Students, while grasping the intellectual content of the material and the offered explanations will not be able to relate to the emotional content. (In the Summer when I am going after a housefly with a swatter my son will stop me, trap it inside a glass jar and set it free outside.) It comes simply down to the fact that times have changed dramatically and it is now felt that people have the right to live life their way even to the point where no one can tell them what to do. God therefore seems to have changed strategy to a one on one relationship with him by encouraging reciprocity to his personal love as expressed through Christ while at the same time requiring personal responsibility by requiring consent through faith.

    1. I'm actually not unsympathetic to the problem, Q.

      I see several difficulties, though, with viewing Christ as a "change in God's strategy" designed to communicate truth to more sensitive souls who couldn't cope with the Old Testament portrayal of God:

      1) Christ was sent at a time when such delicacy did not exist. It's rather a modern development.

      2) It is well established in scripture that while God may change strategies, as you say, he does not change in his essential nature (Malachi 3:6, James 1:17, Numbers 23:19). Someone intelligent enough for university would surely see through any gloss that attempts to portray God as "developing", "maturing" or "evolving" along with human perception as being non-biblical.

      3) Christ himself, rather than distinguishing himself from the OT God of "judgment", in fact affirmed everything Jehovah did in it (Matthew 5:18). Doesn't seem as if he cared much about optics.

      At some point we have to face the fact that God is what he is. That's not going to appeal to some people. But if we are faithful, we will portray him as he is, not as we would like him to be.

      I think you are correct that the biggest issue here is that "it is now felt that people have the right to live life their way to the point where no one can tell them what to do".

      But coming to Christ requires abandoning all that.

  2. I would like to add this comment to my previous one. I just came across the material reported in the link below which reports that the Scottsdale Arizona city Council has approved that a satanic temple group will give the invocation at the April 2016 meeting. This would imply that, contrary to what we think nowadays, the God of the OT indeed still has, and indeed should have, his hands in human affairs a la OT style, and in this case quite justifiably so. His reasoning is probably if you insist on being stupid then you might as well bear the consequences. So the people who would once more want to sacrifice little babies to Baal are being given an opportunity to advance their agenda. Talking about divine punishment! Let's hope that it will be confined to Scottsdale. The punishment would of course be due to the fact that those who do not take God, and for that matter religion, seriously need to learn that it should be. Because religion seems inconsequential to the city council then why bother at all? I guess it should therefore not matter to them if ISIS gave the invocation. They will simply have to learn that humanity will never live in a spiritual vacuum and that people will always have an agenda of faith and that it is preferable that it be positive. A religion must always be defined in terms of what it stands for. The US supreme court does not appear to be very bright in spite of their learnedness by de-linking the aims of a religion from its definition. What a sloppy job!