Longing for the Divine

What about God’s Wrath? God’s Aversion to Retribution—Part 2

“For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Lord God.”

Ezekiel 18:32, ESV

In part one, we discussed that God’s wrath is not some petty vendetta or vengeful anger that’s ready to let a lightning bolt loose from the fury of heaven. Thinking of God’s anger as unpredictable or irrational is unjustified. God’s anger is His love directed against whatever exploits and abuses people and the earth. That’s good news as far as it goes, but what about the wrath unleashed as retribution against people in the Old Testament? How are we to reconcile Old Testament violence with a loving and compassionate God?

The Old Testament contains both an acceptance of divine judgment and a genuine dissatisfaction with violence. Such dissatisfaction becomes a outright protest with Abraham and Moses.  Abraham argues God’s way of doing justice with the nations when a curse instead of a blessing was in the land (Genesis 12:1-2; 18:22-25). Moses is recorded as protesting God’s right to declare judgment upon the Israelites, and God declares Moses to be in the right (Exodus 32:7–14; 33:11-14). In the same way, might we rightly question God about His retributive justice and violence in the Old Testament?

Numbers 31 tells the story of a divine war specifically initiated by God. It begins with God’s express command to take vengeance on the Midianites—men, women, and children. Given the situation, the call is just, but the story contains clues of God’s ambivalence. In fact, verses 19–20 seem to suggest God’s countermand: those who carried out the violence are placed in a state of defilement. They have to purify themselves and keep away from His dwelling place. 

Why would carrying out God’s command for retribution make a person unclean? In Scripture, the word “unclean” signifies the absence of purity and wholeness, suggesting damage and loss of life. Since God seeks to give life and resist death, all forms of death and disorder are seen as creation destroying realities and must be be kept away from His sanctuary. Death is not cleansing or whole-making, and those who kill humans become part of a death-related abomination that requires a period of purification and atonement. We might argue that exercising such justice served some good, but it’s not the final solution for holiness. God desires to eliminate death from the earth and thus reverse the need for any further commands of violence. 

Jesus confirms that God gives less than ideal commandments to a flawed and less than perfect society (Matthew 19:8). God is working with fallen hearts prone to mistaken motives and misunderstandings about wielding power (1 Samuel 8:7; John 6:15). Scripture tells stories of humans who are self-willed and stubborn, insisting on going their own ways. God speaks directly into human society with all of its failures in order to infuse His ideal into the world. Seeking to regulate and reduce harm, God provides the ideal to be applied in real-world situations but finds it necessary to intervene when conditions reach intolerability. When faced with clear dangers, God takes steps to prevent much greater tragedies, so evil will not completely take over the earth. God does no wrong, as humans set themselves up for such divine interruption. Our merciful and loving God conforms, as far as possible, to the conditions of His people. He even accommodates existing practices (i.e., law of retaliation) while working to reform them (i.e., eye for an eye to avoid angry killings), choosing to travel with His people through all tortured disappointments and tragedies to woo them towards hope for the promised future. Thus, those who follow God realize in time that loving one’s neighbor reverses previous permission for activities like slavery, war brides and making things like holy war a non-repeatable action.

When we read Old Testament texts, we find tiny seeds that suggest God’s dissatisfaction with violent retribution. For example, altars for worshiping God are to be made without iron tools, which are used for war and therefore carry the shadow of death and violence. David is disqualified from building the place of God’s presence because he is a man of war and bloodshed. The Bible speaks of God’s compassion for people and His desire to eliminate suffering and death from the world: “They shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore” (Isaiah 2:4, ESV). Instead of Genesis 6:11 where, the earth is filled with violence, God says: “They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain; for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea” (Isaiah 11:9, ESV). Such seeds suggest God’s aversion to violence and war, and broader and greater themes of justice and mercy emerge when Jesus waters those seeds (Matthew 5:5-7; Luke 9:52-56). These glimpses allows us to see these problematic texts through the lens of God’s ideal for love and goodness.

Moreover, alongside its devastating judgments, the Old Testament contains glorious prophecies of redemption and love. The serious warnings, reproofs, and judgments should cause us to pause and pull back, making our lives more meaningful. While we should not regard God as waiting to smite us, the threats and warnings should elicit some genuine concern for the consequences of evil. When we take the time to unwrap the stories, we will find they are not about vindictiveness and revenge, but rather about notions of consequence and truth. At a time when God was most prone to wrath, He is presented as grieved, even showing merciful judgment by arranging the Ark to save both humans and animals. After the ravages of the flood God comes to Noah and pronounces—never again (Geneses 9:11-15). God’s mighty armament, in the form of flood, is no longer an object of fear but the “bow” of protection (Psalm 7:10-13).

Although law is stated in absolutes and unchangeable at it’s core, the Old Testament is not fundamentally narrow in meaning. The commandments that come from God are not given to a community merely as codified law but as a teaching commentary for an ongoing conversation with the Author Himself, which is made part of human history by His special revelation. You see this intimate conversation playing out with Moses on Sinai and later with the disciples who converse with Jesus on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:44–45). The Sermon on the Mount makes this connection with Moses on Mount Sinai. There, we hear Jesus saying, “You have heard it said, but I say to you…” Listening and reading the fine print of this commentary leads us to the One who has “made God known” to us through the conversation now made flesh (1 John 1:18). It is only through the testimony of Jesus that we enter into the illuminating conversation that reveals what God has said and intended all along.

Too often, religion considers a stern voice as more authentic than a voice of love and compassion (Romans 11:22). Jesus says that our righteousness (justice) must exceed that of those who expertly critique the law and claim its strict prohibitions as their guide (Matthew 5:20). When the disciples call for omnipotent vengeance against the inhospitable Samaritans, we see Jesus reluctant to defend the retributive action of the Old Testament, as their narrow and divisive ideas of punishment did not reflect the nature of God’s character (Luke 9:52-53). The disciples want God to be altogether like them—against the other nations when their national pride for conquest is offended but Jesus “turned and rebuked them” (Luke 9:54). They hear “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy,” but Jesus makes clear that this isn’t what God said (Nahum 1:2; Exodus 23:4-5). In an easy discourse on God’s law, Jesus disagrees with the stoning of a woman suspected of adultery (John 8:1–11). Jesus doesn’t object to affirming the law against adultery, but when the command for stoning is in His rightful hands, the love of God that was applied to the law of stoning takes control. Similarly, in Luke chapter 4, Jesus deliberately omits the phrase “the vengeance of God” when reading the Isaiah scroll (Isaiah 61:2). In His mission of liberation and rescue, Jesus says nothing to the hometown He grew up in about enacting holy war against the hated Romans. The weightier principles of the law do not permit such a practice, as they present the better world that we are waiting for God to bring to earth. Those who care enough about God’s law to love foreigners, their neighbors, and even their enemies will not participate in cruel acts of disregard for others.

Jesus comes to reveal God’s character beyond the mere surface and letter of the Old Testament. There is no need to amend the law in favor of what some call grace. God’s grace is present in the Bible’s details, suffused with goodness from beginning to end, but the Old and New Testaments present different settings, and God’s retributive statements of wrath must be considered within these settings. Divine judgment must be understood in combination with the obligations for love and mercy. Wrath and retributive justice is not God’s ruling passion. It remains alien work, disclosing only part of God’s way in working with man (Isaiah 28:21). God’s stance is not wrath but love and compassion. We can be confident that the Son of Man comes not to condemn and destroy men’s lives but to save them (John 3:17). There are two basic outlooks we can take on the Old Testament, but there is nothing greater than the certainty of hope for a better world for which we live, a God whose perfect love we seek to imitate.

Stay tuned for part three.

Craig Ashton Jr.

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