From The Creation of the Heavenly Bodies fresco on the Sistine Chapel by Michelangelo
Sometimes a particular Old Testament passage can cause us to struggle in wondering if God is indeed a good God, or if he is unjust, immoral, bloodthirsty, too strict, or just downright mean. Especially when it comes to issuing the death penalty for disobeying one of his commands. For example, take Exodus 31:14-17:
“‘Observe the Sabbath, because it is holy to you. Anyone who desecrates it must be put to death; whoever does any work on that day must be cut off from his people. For six days, work is to be done, but the seventh day is a Sabbath of rest, holy to the Lord. Whoever does any work on the Sabbath day must be put to death. The Israelites are to observe the Sabbath, celebrating it for the generations to come as a lasting covenant. It will be a sign between me and the Israelites forever, for in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, and on the seventh day he abstained from work and rested.’”
Why would God issue the death penalty for doing work on the Sabbath? Isn’t that a little extreme? Could you accept it if you were an Old Testament Jew that when your spouse or child decided to work on the Sabbath, the LORD ordered his death for the violation? We today, who are not under the old Mosaic Covenant, struggle with even reading about a God who orders the death penalty for his chosen people. We do not like it. We think it is too strict. We are conflicted because while we know God is good, we don’t understand his actions and decrees and think it is not like him.
We also struggle with a God who seemingly needs to be talked out of killing the people he just rescued out of Egypt. After Moses is on the mountain with God, the people make a golden calf and begin worshipping it. The text reads
“I have seen these people,” the LORD said to Moses, “and they are a stiff-necked people. Now leave me alone so that my anger may burn against them and that I may destroy them. Then I will make you into a great nation.”
But Moses sought the favor of the LORD his God. “O LORD,” he said, “why should your anger burn against your people, whom you brought out of Egypt with great power and a mighty hand? Why should the Egyptians say, ‘It was with evil intent that he brought them out, to kill them in the mountains and to wipe them off the face of the earth’? Turn from your fierce anger; relent and do not bring disaster on your people. Remember your servants Abraham, Isaac and Israel, to whom you swore by your own self: ‘I will make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and I will give your descendants all this land I promised them, and it will be their inheritance forever.’” Then the LORD relented and did not bring on his people the disaster he had threatened. (Ex. 32:9-14)
Did Moses really dissuade God from killing those people? Yes. If Moses does not say what he does, God would have destroyed them. But I thought God loves all people and only wants to do good to them, one may say. I struggle with reading how God wants to kill his people, another may say.
But the story does not end here. It turns out that when Moses comes down and sees the Israelites’ revelry for himself, he actually gets so angry that he breaks the tablets with the commandments on them (Ex. 32:19). He calls the Levites to him and orders the deaths of the idolaters:
Then he said to them, “This is what the LORD, the God of Israel, says: ‘Each man strap a sword to his side. Go back and forth through the camp from one end to the other, each killing his brother and friend and neighbor.’” The Levites did as Moses commanded, and that day about three thousand of the people died. Then Moses said, “You have been set apart to the LORD today, for you were against your own sons and brothers, and he has blessed you this day.” (Ex. 32:27-29)
It is ultimately the LORD who orders the killings, to purge the camp of the idolaters.
But here is something to consider. One rule for the interpreter (that’s you and me) is that if there is something we read about in the Bible that causes us to struggle with viewing God as unjust or cruel, the problem is not with God and his actions. The problem is with us—more specifically, we may not understand something properly. In the case of the cruel, murdering God of the Old Testament, it is not God who has the flaw, but us, if indeed we view him that way.
Many get confused with seeing an Old Testament holy God who orders the deaths of his people as compared to seeing a New Testament Jesus who says if someone strikes you on one cheek, turn to him the other also (Luke 6:29). One appears too ready to let loose his wrath while the other appears too loving and gracious. This is what causes some critics to say that the God of the Old Testament is a different God than that of the New Testament. But before we buy a lie, let’s re-examine the facts, specifically, the facts about the nature of God (and let’s not forget that the same Jesus who said to turn the other cheek will also at the Last Day return and “Out of his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations. ‘He will rule them with an iron scepter.’ He treads the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God Almighty” (Rev. 19:15)).
The facts about the nature of God lead us to the answer to our struggle. While I have written about the nature of God in a bit more detail in Why the Death of Jesus?, a brief explanation is appropriate. God is a spirit being who has personhood and therefore a nature. In other words, he has a certain way about him, and it is glorious.
First, God is righteous. This simply means that he always conforms to who he is by his nature. God will never be or do something that goes against his nature.
Second, Scripture says God is love. Because God is love by nature, he is not suddenly going to be unloving, as that would be impossible. We never have to worry about God suddenly deciding he no longer cares to love his creation.
Third, as Scripture says, God is holy. This means that by his awesome nature he is separate from sin, cannot sin, and will never sin. In fact, because God is holy, his response when sin confronts him is to destroy it, he hates it so much. It is directly against him. He pours out his wrath against sin by nature and destroys it.
So we have a God who always conforms to who he is by nature, and he is both loving and holy. While we definitely see a loving God in the Old Testament, we also see a holy God who pours out his wrath when sin is present before him. Every law God ever gave Moses has its genesis in God’s very own nature. He simply wants us to be like him. And when we disobey his law, we sin against him. When we sin against him, his nature requires him to deliver a punishment. That punishment ultimately is death, or eternal separation. (This is ultimately the purpose for Jesus’ death on the cross, as it was the punishment for sin (Isaiah 53:5)).
It only takes one sin against a holy God, regardless of its severity, to justify and elicit a response from him. The wages of sin is death (Rom. 6:23). In fact, God would be unrighteous if he somehow went against his holy nature that requires him to deliver punishment and wrath against sin.
It is true that not every law in the Old Testament carried with it the death penalty, but some did. So let me ask you this: is God unjust for punishing a law breaker (a “sinner”) with the due penalty? Even if it is death in some circumstances? Do you see that because God has a nature that is holy that he will pour out his wrath against sin when it confronts him? God is justified in punishing sin however he deems appropriate, and in those situations he is not unjust, immoral, bloodthirsty, too strict, or just downright mean. He is holy.
I admit it is hard to read some of those Old Testament stories (and New Testament ones too like Acts 5:1-11) where we see God pour out his wrath against the people we all know he wants to love. But they are present in the Old Testament nonetheless. I think it is even more glorious to God that he allows us to see that side of him, to let it serve as a warning to us from what is coming to those who refuse to repent and accept Jesus and his work of redemption.
But we should not let it cause us to view God as if he were unjust, unholy, or mean. We should let it remind us that our God is a righteous, holy God—a consuming fire (Heb. 12:29). When we understand who God is by nature, we understand why he does what he does, and all we can do is fall to our knees and take the same attitude as the psalmist:
Ascribe to the LORD the glory due his name; worship the LORD in the splendor of his holiness. (Ps. 29:2)
Worship the LORD in the splendor of his holiness; tremble before him, all the earth. (Ps. 96:9)