Understanding God in the Old Testament

This blog often receives questions about Old Testament (OT) passages that seem to portray God in a way quite different than he is portrayed in the New Testament. In exegeting such passages, it is important to remember that OT references to God are not the full revelation of his being. That revelation comes only in the person and work of Jesus Christ. However, God did reveal something of his essential nature to Israel - a revelation recorded in the OT. Notable is God's self-disclosure in Ex 34:1-35. Let's note some key points.

Having broken the stone tablets containing the Decalogue, Moses is directed by the LORD to make replacement tablets, so that God might restore his people to their covenant commitments, and thus to fellowship with him. Notice Ex 34:1-9:
1 The LORD said to Moses, "Chisel out two stone tablets like the first ones, and I will write on them the words that were on the first tablets, which you broke. 2 Be ready in the morning, and then come up on Mount Sinai. Present yourself to me there on top of the mountain. 3 No one is to come with you or be seen anywhere on the mountain; not even the flocks and herds may graze in front of the mountain." 4 So Moses chiseled out two stone tablets like the first ones and went up Mount Sinai early in the morning, as the LORD had commanded him; and he carried the two stone tablets in his hands. 5 Then the LORD came down in the cloud and stood there with him and proclaimed his name, the LORD. 6 And he passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, "The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, 7 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 fathers to the third and fourth generation." 8 Moses bowed to the ground at once and worshiped. 9 "O Lord, if I have found favor in your eyes," he said, "then let the Lord go with us. Although this is a stiff-necked people, forgive our wickedness and our sin, and take us as your inheritance."
This powerful and important scene has a central place in Exodus and all the Pentateuch (and, indeed, in all the OT). Note that the focus in this renewal of the covenant is not Israel’s behavior, but who God is: He is the LORD God (Yahweh Elohim) who will be in covenant with his people. He is, in himself, full of compassion, grace, love (Hebrew=chesed, repeated twice in vv6-7), faithfulness (Hebrew=emet) and forgiveness.

Yahweh is this God’s personal name - a name that proclaims who God is, and what God does in covenant with his people, despite their failure. Yes, God holds his people accountable (“he does not leave the guilty unpunished,” v6b). However, his justice and judgment is always grounded in and expresses his covenant chesed (love) and emet (faithfulness). As we “fast-forward” to the Incarnation of God in the person of Jesus, we see that God ultimately takes his people’s failure upon himself, and in doing so provides for them true justice (atonement) through his self-sacrifice on their behalf.

In response to this self-disclosure of God’s being and doing, Moses worships the LORD God, and pleads with him to be who he is (merciful) with his stiff-necked people, and thus not abandon them. God responds in Ex 34:10-28 by inviting Israel to renew the covenant. Notice:
10 Then the LORD said: "I am making a covenant with you. Before all your people I will do wonders never before done in any nation in all the world. The people you live among will see how awesome is the work that I, the LORD, will do for you. 11 Obey what I command you today. I will drive out before you the Amorites, Canaanites, Hittites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites. 12 Be careful not to make a treaty with those who live in the land where you are going, or they will be a snare among you. 13 Break down their altars, smash their sacred stones and cut down their Asherah poles. 14 Do not worship any other god, for the LORD, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God. 15 Be careful not to make a treaty with those who live in the land; for when they prostitute themselves to their gods and sacrifice to them, they will invite you and you will eat their sacrifices. 16 And when you choose some of their daughters as wives for your sons and those daughters prostitute themselves to their gods, they will lead your sons to do the same. 17 Do not make cast idols. 18 Celebrate the Feast of Unleavened Bread. For seven days eat bread made without yeast, as I commanded you. Do this at the appointed time in the month of Abib, for in that month you came out of Egypt. 19 The first offspring of every womb belongs to me, including all the firstborn males of your livestock, whether from herd or flock. 20 Redeem the firstborn donkey with a lamb, but if you do not redeem it, break its neck. Redeem all your firstborn sons. No one is to appear before me empty-handed. 21 Six days you shall labor, but on the seventh day you shall rest; even during the plowing season and harvest you must rest. 22 Celebrate the Feast of Weeks with the firstfruits of the wheat harvest, and the Feast of Ingathering at the turn of the year. 23 Three times a year all your men are to appear before the Sovereign LORD, the God of Israel. 24 I will drive out nations before you and enlarge your territory, and no one will covet your land when you go up three times each year to appear before the LORD your God. 25 Do not offer the blood of a sacrifice to me along with anything containing yeast, and do not let any of the sacrifice from the Passover Feast remain until morning. 26 Bring the best of the firstfruits of your soil to the house of the LORD your God. Do not cook a young goat in its mother's milk.” 27 Then the LORD said to Moses, "Write down these words, for in accordance with these words I have made a covenant with you and with Israel." 28 Moses was there with the LORD forty days and forty nights without eating bread or drinking water. And he wrote on the tablets the words of the covenant—the Ten Commandments.
In this offer of covenant renewal, God promises to work mightily within Israel to display his awesome power. He will drive out her enemies from the Promised Land. However, Israel’s experience of God’s power will be conditioned on her obedience to the covenant stipulations—some of which are here reiterated. The primary focus of these stipulations is to keep Israel from further idolatry. Indeed, strong action is to be taken against temptations to idolatry: altars, sacred stones (male fertility symbols) and Asherah poles must be destroyed. Because Israel has fallen into idolatry (chapter 32) these instructions are more inclusive than those previously given in 23:24.

God is said to be a “jealous” God (34:14)—meaning that as Israel’s sole ruler, he will tolerate no rivals (see 20:3). Israel is thus not to make treaties with idolatrous people. Doing so will lead to involvement in their sacrificial communal meals (34:15), to intermarrying their daughters (many of whom were spiritual and/or physical prostitutes to their gods), and to making of molten images (34:17; 20:4) as they had already done in making the gold calf (see 32:4). Tragically Israel does not heed these warnings and becomes involved in worshiping the false gods of the Canaanites and others. Ultimately this will lead to their expulsion from the Promised Land.

Having described the types of idolatrous worship that Israel must avoid (34:12-17), God reminds them to worship him through the festivals given in the Mosaic Covenant. Three major feasts are enumerated (vv18, 22) with the promise that celebrating them properly will result in God giving them the Promised Land and keeping it safe (v24). The Feast of Unleavened Bread is to be observed in Abib (March-April), the month of the Exodus, and the firstborn are to be dedicated to the Lord. These two are associated because of the link between the 10th plague (death of the Egyptians’ firstborn) and the Exodus.

Before mentioning the second and third feasts (34:22), God reminds Israel of her obligation to rest each week on the Sabbath day (see 20:8) even including in the busiest times of the year (plowing season and harvest). The harvesting season is mentioned because it leads naturally to the next two annual feasts, both pertaining to harvests. The second feast, the Feast of Weeks (also called the Feast of Harvest and Pentecost) occurs at the beginning of the winter wheat harvest in the Spring. The third feast, the Feast of Ingathering (also called the Feast of Tabernacles) is to be celebrated at harvest time in the fall. All male adults in Israel are to appear before God for these three feasts (which later meant traveling to Jerusalem to the tabernacle or the temple). These pilgrimage feasts bind the nation together in worship. God promises that while the men are away worshiping the Lord, he will protect their property.

As with the giving of the Book of the Covenant the first time, Moses is now instructed to write down God’s commands (see 24:4). After 40 days, which is the length of his first sojourn on Mount Sinai (24:18), Moses receives the tablets of stone containing the Ten Commandments—the general stipulations of the Mosaic Covenant. Now notice the rest of this key passage (Ex 34:29-35):
29 When Moses came down from Mount Sinai with the two tablets of the Testimony in his hands, he was not aware that his face was radiant because he had spoken with the LORD. 30 When Aaron and all the Israelites saw Moses, his face was radiant, and they were afraid to come near him. 31 But Moses called to them; so Aaron and all the leaders of the community came back to him, and he spoke to them. 32 Afterward all the Israelites came near him, and he gave them all the commands the LORD had given him on Mount Sinai. 33 When Moses finished speaking to them, he put a veil over his face. 34 But whenever he entered the LORD's presence to speak with him, he removed the veil until he came out. And when he came out and told the Israelites what he had been commanded, 35 they saw that his face was radiant. Then Moses would put the veil back over his face until he went in to speak with the LORD.
In contrast with the anger that Moses evidenced when descending the mountain with the first set of stone tablets (32:19), this time his face radiates with the reflection of God’s glory (see 2Cor 3:7). However, Moses is unaware of this. This makes the people afraid, but he encourages them to listen as he tells them the stipulations of the renewed covenant. Apparently the people tell Moses about his shining face, because he covers it with a veil (2Cor 3:13). But in the Lord‘s presence, Moses removes the veil (2Cor. 3:18).

Whereas Moses’ fellowship with God is direct, Israel’s is indirect—mediated through Moses, and thus “veiled.”  This is the nature of the Mosaic Covenant itself—it is a veiled “shadow” (see Heb 10:1) of what comes to fullness only in the New Covenant though its one Mediator, Jesus Christ.

This section of Exodus is of great importance to understanding who God reveals himself to be in covenant with his people. This self-revelation of God, to and through Moses, serves as the theological heart (and exegetical key) of the Old Testament. Then in the New Testament, God’s self-revelation comes to fullness in the person and work of Jesus Christ. Thank God that we have this full and final revelation! It is on that basis, and with this light that we can study and understand the story of Israel given in the OT, and on that basis understand all of Holy Scripture. Let us read the Bible with Jesus!


Len Joson said…
Great explanation Pastor Ted! Thanks!
Anonymous said…
[From Sellappan]
Thanks for the post.
Many are still not convinced why the OT God was so harsh and the NT God so gracious. The see a dichotomy - they see 2 different gods. Some explain this like this: Israel demanded a king (with laws and judgements) like the rest of the nations (1 Sam 8:1-22). So God gave them what they wanted. He gave them laws (10 commandments, etc) and if they broke, they would be judged accordingly. They wanted it and God gave them. So He appeared very harsh. Their request was works- based, not grace-based. That was the Old Covenant (OC) which became obsolete after Jesus' death and resurrection. The New Covenant (NC) is grace-based, so there is no condemnation.Thus we see a very gracious God. In other words, OC was law-based, so there was condemnation. The NC is grace-based, so there is no condemnation. The explanation does makes sense to me.
Ted Johnston said…
While it is helpful to distinguish between God's dealings with Israel under the Old Covenant and his dealings with humanity under the New Covenant, it is important to understand that it is the same Lord God who is involved. Moreover, this God deals at all time with all people out of his love and grace - in short, "God does what God is," despite how humans are toward him. God delivered Israel out of Egypt entirely on his own initiative and in pure grace. Israel did nothing to earn or to merit this favor.

The Old Covenant was then given to God's people Israel to shape their life in the wilderness and then the Promised Land. That Law of Moses (as the Old Covenant is also known) is not a basis of works-righteousness. Rather, it is a way for Israel to walk in obedience to God who, in grace alone, makes Israel his people. Of course, Israel was unable to keep that law, and that is part of the point God was making through Israel to all humankind.
Anonymous said…
Thanks for response. Yes, it's the same God who deals with all people at all times - Sellappan.
Robert Mahoney said…
I think the problem with the dichotomy is that it really isn't there. Most people unknowingly fall into the error of Marcionism. It's not that they willfully seek out the philosophy of dualism, they just pick it up the way clothing picks up lent, they just bump into it and it sticks.

Most people think that God was harsh in the OT, but the author of the letter to the Hebrews issues a stern warning

1.This is why it’s necessary for us to pay more attention to what we have heard, or else we may drift away from it. 2 If the message that was spoken by angels was reliable, and every offense and act of disobedience received an appropriate consequence, 3 how will we escape if we ignore such a great salvation? It was first announced through the Lord, and then it was confirmed by those who heard him.

Hebrews 2:1-3

In other words, if you thought the God of the OT was blood thirsty, you haven't seen anything yet. Look at how God dealt with people when they rejected His message that He gave them by way of angels and prophets. What do you think will happen to those who reject the message He gave them His very self?

When you read the bible through the lens of the person of Jesus Christ, you began to see a bigger picture.

In the same way, Sodom and Gomorrah and neighboring towns practiced immoral sexual relations and pursued other sexual urges. By undergoing the punishment of eternal fire, they serve as a warning.

Jude 1:7

Taken by itself it paints a pretty grim picture of the fate of the people in the passage. But, when you come to understand what Christ accomplished in the incarnation, OT passages began to make much more sense.

48 As surely as I live, says the Lord God, not even your sister Sodom and her daughters did what you and your daughters have done! 49 This is the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were proud, had plenty to eat, and enjoyed peace and prosperity; but she didn’t help the poor and the needy. 50 They became haughty and did detestable things in front of me, and I turned away from them as soon as I saw it.

51 Samaria didn’t sin even half as much as you did. You’ve so outstripped her in multiplying your detestable practices, with all the detestable things you’ve done, that you’ve even made your sisters seem innocent. 52 Bear your disgrace, which has actually improved your sisters’ position. Because your sins and detestable acts were greater than theirs, they are now more righteous than you. Be ashamed, and bear the disgrace of making your sisters righteous! 53 I will improve the circumstances of Sodom and her daughters and the circumstances of Samaria and her daughters. And what’s left of your fortune will go to them, 54 so that you will bear your disgrace and be humiliated by all that you’ve done to make them feel better. 55 Then your sister Sodom and her daughters will return to their former state, and your sister Samaria and her daughters will return to their former state. You and your daughters will return to your former state,

Ezekiel 16:48-55

Here God is promising that He will restore Sodom and the neighboring villages to their former state. But, how can that be? He destroyed them. Yes, He did destroy them, but in Christ He was reconciling them to Himself.

Once you embrace the incarnation, all you have left to lose are you doubts about God and His character.
Anonymous said…
Wow! Thanks Robert.

What a wonderful God! If he can heal Sodomites, then who cannot be healed? There is an awesome future for all humans. We can rest from our efforts to cover up sin and failure. Our best efforts and choices offer no hope, but we continue to do our best to participate, because we know he will never forsake us.

Lee S.