This is the second in a six-part series of essays from a cross section of leading scholars revisiting the place of the “First Testament” in contemporary Christian faith. —The Editors
I did not always feel a certain loathing for this phrase. The church tradition in which I grew up emerged from the frontier revivals. One of the marks of good revival preachers lay in their skill of placing sinners in the hands of an angry God, often “the God of the Old Testament,” and then transferring them into the gracious and loving hands of “the God of the New Testament” revealed in Christ Jesus. This strong contrast was basic to my understanding of God throughout my youth.
Only in college and in pursuing work on a master’s degree in the Old Testament did I come to see that this contrast was a false construction at more than one level. In his posthumous collection Letters from the Earth, the theological provocateur Mark Twain hit the nail on the head when he observed that the God of the New Testament, who apparently invented hell, must be “a thousand billion times crueler than he ever was in the Old Testament.” Or how about G.K. Chesterton’s observation in The Everlasting Man that it’s difficult to mesh Jesus’ love and pity for Jerusalem with his dropping Bethsaida lower in the pit than Sodom?
But it was not just that Jesus was much harsher than the Sunday school flannelgraphs let on. On the other side, “the God of the Old Testament” proved more loving, gracious, forgiving, and compassionate than I had heard from the teachers and preachers of my youth.
God of Motherly Compassion
If we do not read the Old Testament, we miss a lot of good stuff, and not only the drinking, sex, and violence. We miss important theological material, words reflecting on the person and character of “the God of the Old Testament.” Our God.
One of the most important theological claims comes near the end of one of the low points in Israel’s relationship with God:
The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation (Ex. 34:6–7).
Not long before this affirmation, the people made a golden calf to represent the god who would go before them into the Promised Land. Never mind that this violated the second of the Ten Commandments; the people had grown impatient with Moses, who was spending too long on the mountain with God, and wanted to get on with their journey. And while Moses dissuaded God from acting in anger against Israel, Aaron could not dissuade Moses from Moses’ own anger that led to the Levites striking down 3,000 of their fellow Israelites in the name of the Lord (Ex. 32).
In the messy aftermath of Israel’s idolatry, God threatens to not go with them to the Promised Land. Even Moses’ confidence is shaken. Seeking reassurance, Moses asks to see God’s glory, in spite of the fact that God spoke to Moses at the tent of meeting as one speaks with an intimate friend (Ex. 33).
All of which leads to the proclamation of Exodus 34:6–7 as God descends on the mountain to pass before Moses. Particularly important in this statement is the virtue listed first among the others: God is compassionate. The Hebrew word behind our English word compassion is richer because, as Beth Tanner notes in her coauthored commentary The Book of Psalms, it can also mean womb. So a better translation might be “motherly compassion.”
In Exodus 34, God still calls Israel to account for its sin. But God does so based on motherly compassion. Moses demanded of God: “Remember that this nation is your people” (Ex. 33:13). God’s positive reply identifies God first with motherly compassion, which seems to say that, though God gets angry with Israel, as mothers do with their children, God would never forsake them any more than mothers would abandon their children. The God of the Old Testament is our God, a God of motherly compassion who confronts egregious sin and promises a future beyond failures. To picture the God of the Old Testament in terms of wrath reflects only one portion of God’s identity and fails to see that, according to Exodus 34, the essence of God’s character begins with motherly compassion.
Compassion Through All Generations
Many generations removed from Moses and Egypt—in fact, several generations after Israel’s return from exile—priests in Nehemiah’s day used the language of Exodus 34:6–7 in a prayer born from concern with whether God had abandoned his people (Neh. 9:17). Sadly, return from exile did not relieve the peoples’ hardships under Persian rule (9:36–37). Making their struggles more unbearable, the people heard the Torah read by Ezra the scribe and seemingly became so keenly aware of their sin that they could not help but weep (Neh. 8).
Even as the praying Levites extol God for making heaven and earth, choosing Abraham, and delivering Israel from Egypt, they also remind the people that, when they refused to obey God’s command to take the Promised Land, God forgave because God is “gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love” (Neh. 9:17).
In the face of post-exilic hardship and the people’s sin, the Levites ground their hope for the future in God, who did not abandon Israel in the past because of great motherly compassion (9:19). The people turned away from the Torah and killed the prophets in the days of the judges, yet God still responded to their cries with motherly compassion (9:27), time after time (9:28). Things did not improve with the monarchy; people continued to sin and to kill prophets. Yet God refused to abandon the people because of that great motherly compassion, because God is simply graciousness and motherly compassion (9:31).
This vision of God reminds me of a mother I knew from my first pastorate in Ohio. Her son had become hooked on drugs and found his way into a variety of troubles. She and her husband tried everything: multiple rehab centers, laying down the law, tough love. Nothing worked. Yet, every time their son came home, she forgave him, knowing that he would likely wound her heart again. But he was her son. She was his mother. Likewise, in spite of generation after generation of God’s children sinning against God—including killing God’s prophets!—God welcomed the children of Israel (and us too!) back home with motherly compassion over and over again. What else is a parent supposed to do?
All God’s Children
The Book of Jonah functions a bit like a meditation on God’s great compassion extending beyond the borders of Israel, even among Israel’s enemies. Here is one story the flannelgraph got mostly right. God told Jonah to go to Nineveh, the capital city of Israel’s Assyrian oppressors. But Jonah ran away; God intervened and got Jonah thrown off a ship and into the belly of a big fish. Having some time to reflect on his life choices, Jonah prayed and the fish vomited him back onto dry land. Jonah finally fulfilled his original charge and proclaimed the imminent overthrowing of Nineveh. Much to the readers’ surprise, Nineveh repented and God forgave.
Perhaps Jonah was also surprised when Nineveh repented. But he was not surprised that God forgave. What I don’t recall from the flannelgraph was how angry Jonah became because he knew, just as Moses and the priests in Nehemiah’s day knew, that God is a “gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity” (Jonah 4:2). Jonah ran away because, even if he could not predict what the Assyrians would do, he knew what God would do: Inevitably, in compassion, God would forgive the Ninevites at the first sign of repentance.
After all, the Assyrians are God’s children too. I remember back at that same church in Ohio the harsh tones with which one of the elders set to disparaging “the Japanese,” whose industrial acumen threatened US industrial stability. Yet these too are children whom God bore. Likewise, recently many Christians have expressed anger with our Muslim neighbors, feeling threatened by their presence, fearing they are taking over the country. Yet these Muslim neighbors too are children whom God bore. The Old Testament is full of enemies of Israel, and we feel no lack of enemies against our country and our way of life. The Book of Jonah reminds us that God’s motherly compassion extends even to our enemies, because we are all God’s children.
Of course, mothers are not merely the most likely people in our lives to forgive us to a fault. They also come readily to our defense in times of trouble. My own mother is this way. I remember when my sisters and I were younger that the bank was not making our lives easy as we tried to deposit money into a Christmas savings account without any identification. My mom marched us into the office of the vice president of the bank and explained that we were her children and she expected us to be treated better. I do not recall that we had any problems after that.
The psalmist who prays Psalm 86 calls out to God to express motherly compassion in a similar way, though the psalmist’s trouble certainly outstrips our little incident with the bank. The psalmist knows God’s forgiveness (Ps. 86:5) but comes to God to guard his life (v. 2), to answer in his distress (v. 7) on account of the foes who attack, the “ruthless people . . . trying to kill me” (v. 14). And as the psalmist stares into the face of his ruthless foes, he also remembers this strong claim echoing within Israel and beyond: “But you, Lord, are a compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness” (v. 15).
The psalmist knows that God looks on his situation with motherly compassion that moves him to rescue the child from the burning house, giving up his very life to save the fruit of his womb. Motherly compassion stirs within a passionate defense of the life of the one to whom you gave birth, to fend off the attacker and to offer a place of safety within a violent world. This too is the God of the Old Testament, our God, who in motherly compassion comes to save (v. 16).
Going and Loving Likewise
If you look at the Hebrew behind this term in a Strong’s Concordance, you will see that the various forms of “motherly compassion” occur some 150 times in the Old Testament. What if, instead of ignoring the great theme of motherly compassion because we see some wrathful, vengeful, Old Covenant deity who is somehow not the same God revealed in Christ Jesus, our churches took a yearlong walking tour of these 150 occurrences and motherly compassion became a part of our steady nourishment from Scripture?
Hopefully, one thing that would happen is that we would come to worship and prayer with greater gratitude to our God, who “is the same yesterday and today and forever” (Heb. 13:8). When we participate in the Eucharist, we would see that the expression of God’s forgiveness in Jesus is the latest act of God’s motherly compassion for all God’s children, whom God has loved since the birth of the first children in the Garden of Eden. And in that same bread and wine Jesus offers, we would see that the act of deliverance from the power of sin and death in Jesus is the culmination of the many acts of salvation from enemies that God has enacted time and time again for God’s children.
And hopefully our churches would become even more the places of welcome to broken humanity that God intends them to be. When we see every place in the Old Testament where God expresses motherly compassion—and the people of Israel follow suit—wouldn’t we be moved to get past our too-easy self-righteousness and past our too-easy denigration of enemies and to open our communities to all God’s children in compassionate welcome? Wouldn’t we be moved to protect the lives threatened by death in our cities and communities?
Maybe we would realize that we let first impressions mislead us and that the God of the Old Testament is more complex and vibrant and, well, motherly, than we knew. Maybe we would quit saying “God of the Old Testament” and simply say “our God.”
Robert L. Foster is a lecturer in New Testament and religion at the University of Georgia. He is the author of We Have Heard, O Lord: An Introduction to the Theology of the Psalter(Fortress Academic).
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