God In the Old Testament

Perhaps controversially, we shall commence our brief reflection on God as depicted in the Old Testament (variously called the ‘First Testament’ and the ‘Hebrew Bible’) by quoting the world-renowned atheist, Richard Dawkins. In his popular work, The God Delusion, he writes:

“The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.”

It has to be said that viewed through a particular lens, Professor Dawkins has a point. However, his observations begin to unravel as soon as some attention is applied.

To begin to understand God as depicted in the Old Testament, we have first to take in the whole story. The critique offered above ignores any of the ways God is described by these early writers that expand and contradict this selective reading. There is more to the God of the Old Testament than God’s apparent dark side. While that does not excuse the angry excesses of Dawkin’s God, we wonder about the agenda behind being selective.

The second thing we might acknowledge is that the depiction of God culled from the Old Testament is also, not coincidentally, applicable to the human race. We need only think back over the history of humanity in the last 100 years to see how easily Professor Dawkin’s words could be applied to us. Simply begin the paragraph with “The human race is arguably the most unpleasant…etc.” and you will see what is meant. This is not an attempt to be clever. Instead, it tells us something about the way that the early people of Israel could not help but recreate God in their own image, placing on God their own motivations, inconsistencies and weaknesses. The fact is, the way each of us describes God (and this includes Professor Dawkins) reveals an enormous amount about ourselves.

To be fair, there are certainly apparent contradictions in the Old Testament depiction of God. On the one hand, bringing order out of chaos (see the creation stories of Genesis 1 & 2) and on the other bringing chaos back (see the flood story in Genesis 6 & 7). At times loving and merciful (see Exodus 34:6-7) and then again harsh and vengeful (Deuteronomy 4:213 – 24). There is no easy way to account for this apparent contradiction, except to observe that this inconstant God is in many ways a mirror image of the very people who experienced God and wrote about him.

In another section, we will explore how it is that Jesus Christ begins to clarify the reality of who God is for us. But for now, a further observation. A human being’s experience and awareness of anything of any consequence changes and develops over the years. Things that we once regarded as certainties (e.g. the existence of Santa Claus, the unerring belief that our parents are always right, the teenage belief that he or she always knows best etc.) change and develop with experience and, hopefully, the growth into wisdom. That does not mean that the way we used to think is somehow wrong, just that it was appropriate at a particular time and now it no longer is. It needs to be thought about, reinterpreted and integrated into a more authentic way of seeing things.

If this is true of each human being, it is also true of a People. We see in the Old Testament how God impacted unexpectedly on a warlike and primitive people. He encounters them on their own terms and, it would seem, reflects back to them their own attributes. But all in the attempt to lead them forward from a primitive relationship with the divine to something much more subtle, authentic and beautiful. God becomes part of their story and, over millennia, impacts on that story.

Catholics belong to a faith tradition that has long recognised the power of story. The opening lines of our sacred Scriptures commence with two different stories: both accounts of the creation of the world. The truths that these stories seek to relate are not, primarily, historical truths nor scientific truths. They are much more significant than either of those: they seek to teach us what it means to be in relationship with the God who holds us in being. The truths they convey are eternal. They depict the goodness of creation and our utter dependence on God. They teach us that we have been created to have an eternal relationship with the One who called us into being. They reveal that, through our selfishness, we have distorted that relationship. They promise us that God desires to restore that relationship to its original strength and innocence. These are a few of the truths that these stories communicate.

The story doesn’t end there. Through the lives and experiences of our many spiritual ancestors, God reaches out to us again and again. To Noah, God teaches what it means to trust. To Abraham and Sarah, what it means to have faith. To Ruth, that God is concerned for all people, no matter their race, status or gender. To David, that God is at work in those that human beings often dismiss, and what it means to be forgiven. To Solomon, what it means to be truly wise. To Gideon, what it means to have confidence in God. To Jonah, what it means to respond to God. To Job, what it means to hang on amid darkness and confusion. The list goes on and on.

Jesus is the central point of the story: the one who brings it all together. For everything authentic that is taught to us about God in the Old Testament comes to birth in him, and is revealed in his life, death and resurrection. In Jesus, the storyteller who is God becomes one of us. God’s story becomes aligned with ours.

 “…As an old saying put it, the New Testament lies hidden in the Old and the Old Testament is unveiled in the New.” Catechism of the Catholic Church #129 (reference is to St. Augustine of Hippo).

Original text by Shane Dwyer
Photo of clouds by Rodrigo Rodriguez on Unsplash

Fr Anthony Mellor, 30 October 2019

Archbishop Mark Coleridge, Archbishop of Brisbane, 30 October 2019

30 October 2019

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