Seeing mercy in the Old Testament

Mercy not retribution: Salvation of and in the Old Testament

Ted Grimsrud

Originally published in The Mennonite (September 6, 2005), 14-15.


We live in punitive times.  Our nation, the world’s one great superpower, exerted its military to attack, first Afghanistan and then Iraq, in part because people wanted retaliation for Sept. 11, 2001.

Our criminal justice system follows a “lock ’em up and throw away the key” philosophy.  Between 1924 and 1975, we imprisoned about 100 prisoners per 100,000 population.  Since 1975, the rate has increased to more than 500 per 100,000.

One more way we practice retribution; following child-raising “experts” advocating spanking as a core element of “raising kids God’s way.”  James Dobson, for example, writes that “we have a God-given responsibility as parents to shape the will.  When a youngster [acts out with] stiff-necked rebellion, you had better take it out of him, and pain is a marvelous purifier.”

All three types of violence often have theological bases.  It is no accident that in the United States those identifying themselves as Bible-believing Christians are much more likely than the rest of the population to support retributive acts.

Many who are troubled by seeing Christians so supportive of the punitive mindset blame the Bible, especially the Old Testament.

I once led a long-term Bible study group.  When someone suggested something from the Old Testament, another member, a frank woman in her early 80s, declared, “I don’t want to spend any more time with that bloody book!”

More recently, I had an argument with two friends about the Old Testament.  They both dismissed it as hopeless–too violent, “and look at the Bible thumpers today,” they said.  I argued that the Bible thumpers are misreading the Old Testament.

Dutch restorative justice advocate Eugene Bianchi says maybe we should apply “homeopathic theory” to our situation.  It will take a dose of what made us sick to cure us.  Since a certain biblical theology got us into this illness in the West, he argues that it may well take a dose of biblical theology to free us of it.

When I refer to “Old Testament salvation,” I mean it in two senses.  One is the salvation of the Old Testament, that is, that the Old Testament is an essential friend of peacemakers who work in Christian contexts.  It can be saved.

The second sense is salvation in the Old Testament.  We may save the Old Testament by understanding what it actually says about salvation.  This is an important way to come to appreciate the Old Testament as a peaceable book, not a “bloody book.”

The Old Testament is pretty big.  It contains some difficult passages.  My friends offered some great proof texts during out debate to show why the Old Testament may be seen is irredeemably violent.

My response to those passages is to say we need a reading strategy when we take up the Old Testament.  It is just like life, like human history.  What kind of reading strategy do we have for life?  What do we see as the most basic truths?

Do we center on evil in the world, seeing it as our natural state, and define life in terms of that evil?  Or do we center on the good, seeing it as natural, and define life in terms of that good?  Is the world a place of abundance or of scarcity?

I believe with my whole heart that Jesus took an abundance approach to life.  Not coincidentally, Jesus understood himself as a biblical person–in our terms, an Old Testament person.  In fact, that Jesus was an Old Testament person is to me the clearest refutation of those who see the Old Testament (either in rejecting it or embracing it) as a “bloody book.”

Jesus said this about the Old Testament when he was asked to identify the greatest commandment.  “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.  This is the greatest and first commandment.  And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.  On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets” (Matthew 22:37-40).

I don’t think the cultured despisers of the Old Testament take this statement seriously enough.  On these two commandments stand all the law and the prophets.  This is what the Old Testament is about–love God and love neighbor.

We may, if we choose, seek to read life itself in terms of the expressions of love and creativity, then seek to understand the bloodiness in the light of these truths.  Jesus challenges us to read the Old Testament in this way.  We may put the love of God and neighbor front and center, then read the bad stuff in light of that centerpiece.

Jesus did not create his summary of the law and prophets out of thin air; he quoted directly from the books of Deuteronomy and Leviticus.  Underlying these commands are certain beliefs about the character of God. Why is it reasonable to call people to love God with all their hearts, souls, and minds?  Because, according to the story, God loves first.

God’s love for God’s creation rings throughout the Old Testament, beginning with Genesis 1–as does God’s love for God’s people.  The biblical sense of chosenness does challenge today’s readers.  God’s love for God’s people at times seems to justify hostility toward those who are outsiders.

However, the Old Testament’s overall message affirms that God makes the chosen people God’s own in order to bless all the families of the earth, as Genesis 12:3 says.  When God’s people are not living as a blessing, they are told they risk reaping some bad consequences.

The overall message tells us that the God of the Old Testament is a God of love, a God who seeks to bring salvation to the whole world.

The Old Testament God saves straight out of God’s love.  The Old Testament does not, in its overall message, tell us that God’s holiness and perfection prevent God from simply offering forgiveness and salvation; neither does the Old Testament in its overall message portray God as a God of wrath who requires sacrificial violence to balance the scales of justice in order to save.

When the human race seems at a dead end, symbolized by Abraham and Sarah’s barrenness in Genesis 11, God intervenes to give them children, to make them a blessing for all the families of the earth.  When the children of Abraham are trapped in brutal slavery in Egypt and cry out in their misery and despair, God intervenes to set them free.

When the freed slaves wander in the wilderness for 40 years, in part unprepared to construct a society that would serve long-term human well-being, God intervenes to give them the commandments.  These commandments are a gift, meant to foster societal wholeness and justice.  They are not requirements that must be met in order to gain God’s acceptance; they are directives given because of God’s acceptance.

When the people are given the land and prove unable to sustain wholeness and justice, they reap the consequences, but God does not abandon them.  Rather, God intervenes to offer hope and empowerment, sustaining the people of the promise and giving them a future.

For one short Old Testament passage that portrays what God and salvation actually are like, consider Hosea 11:1-9.  God loves God’s people, bringing them out of slavery in Egypt.  “I love him,…I called them,…I taught [them] to walk,…I healed them,…I led them with cords of human kindness, with bands of love.  I was to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks.  I bent down to them and fed them.”

Then the text of this love comes.  The people “are bent on turning away from me.”  God then speaks of the people suffering as a consequence, seeming to point toward the stereotypical retributive justice.  The people hurt God, so God hurts back.  But no: “How can I give you up?!”  God cries. “My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender.  I will not execute my fierce anger; I will not again destroy [Israel]; for I am God and no mortal, the Holy One in your midst, and I will not come in wrath” (11:1-9).

God does not come in wrath in the end.  God comes in suffering, persevering love.  Justice for this God is about healing, not about retribution.  This God responds to wrongdoing by seeking to repair, not by seeking to punish.

Jesus draw directly on the Old Testament when he rejects retributive justice.  “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous” (Matthew 5:43-45).

God loves everyone and treats everyone with care.  This is the God of the Old Testament; this is the God of Jesus, and this is the God we should be worshiping today.

2 thoughts on “Seeing mercy in the Old Testament

  1. Michael Lum

    Your inclusion of “spanking” at appropriate times and ages with murder and assault is ludicrous. Every well-adjusted, spiritual person that I look up to has received swats once in a while as a child. Do your homework and you will see that copral punishment (not beatings) is not abusive, it is actually redemptive.Dobson was and is RIGHT.


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