By Dave Henry
A disparity exists for many Christians between their Old and New Testament theologies concerning the nature of God. For many Christians, the presentation of God in the Old Testament is unsettling, while God in the New Testament appears to be more gracious and loving. Within this theological frame of reference, the judgment of God rises as the prevalent theme of the Hebrew Scriptures, while the presentation of God in the incarnate Son, Jesus, reveals his love, mercy, and compassion in the New Testament.
This line of interpretation discourages Christians from reading the Old Testament and incorporating its contents into their views of God. This disengagement is a problem for the Christian and the church. The Old Testament is lost from view.
Ancient Controversy Today
Second-century Gnosticism sought to answer this dilemma by reverting to henotheism (choosing to worship one god without denying the existence of other gods) and thereby attributing the actions of the Creator God of the Old Testament to a minor deity. Within this Gnostic interpretation, the God of the New Testament rescues humanity from the clutches of the physical creation and that creation’s creator. Consequently, the admirable qualities of a loving and compassionate New Testament deity could find rest and liberation in the soul of the believer; two gods for seemingly incompatible stories.
The American church is not far from this same heresy. Within our own Stone-Campbell Movement tradition, phrases like “I’m a New Testament Christian” may indicate a similar misconception of God. Like second-century Gnosticism, the apparent disconnect between Old and New Testament theologies discourages Christians from embracing the greater revelation of God found in both testaments. In a subtle way, the contemporary Christian loses the story of the Old Testament; dismissing it as unnecessary. To separate the qualities of God to that extent loses much of the story of Scripture. In that separation, the God of the Bible is not seen as clearly as he should be.
Many Christians struggle with how to interpret Old Testament passages. Scriptures that demonstrate God as judgmental and harsh have not been interpreted in light of many other Old Testament passages that show God as compassionate. Often, the difficulty results in disengagement with the Hebrew Scriptures in preference of exclusive reading of the New Testament.
My brothers and sisters, this should not be! The first Christians exclusively depended upon the Old Testament Scriptures for their perspectives about God and their interpretations of his workings. Scripture gives us the opportunity to understand a beautiful and complex picture of God.
An Example of God’s Compassion
Perhaps the best place to study the compassion of God is Exodus 33 and 34. In these chapters, the blending of the holiness and the compassion of God is evident.
Moses found himself leading an obstinate people through the wilderness, and as he struggled with this endeavor, he asked God to reveal himself clearly. The request may be rooted in the golden calf incident, which occurred immediately prior to Moses’ appeal. While idolatry was the obvious sin at hand, a deeper reality of the golden calf was a rejection of both God and Moses.
As the people waited at the base of the mountain, their patience waned, but their longing to be led grew. When Moses did not return as quickly as they wished, they sought a suitable alternative, and that alternative was found in their memories of Egypt. God’s initial judgment toward the Israelites was a plague, which punished them, but did not result in complete destruction. They suffered, but many of them were spared.
In this event, Moses first experienced the compassion of God, and then so did the people. In spite of their rejection, Moses asked God to reveal himself so that the people knew whom they are following. Moses was not asking simply for a sign; he wanted to see the glory, the face of God.
Moses said to the Lord, “You have been telling me, ‘Lead these people,’ but you have not let me know whom you will send with me. You have said, ‘I know you by name and you have found favor with me.’ If you are pleased with me, teach me your ways so I may know you and continue to find favor with you. Remember that this nation is your people.”
The Lord replied, “My Presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.”
Then Moses said to him, “If your Presence does not go with us, do not send us up from here. How will anyone know that you are pleased with me and with your people unless you go with us? What else will distinguish me and your people from all the other people on the face of the earth?”
And the Lord said to Moses, “I will do the very thing you have asked, because I am pleased with you and I know you by name.”
Then Moses said, “Now show me your glory” (Exodus 33:12-18).
We may wonder how the face of God could even be seen. The request requires an anthropomorphic answer, but that answer alone does not suffice. Terence Fretheim argues that Moses was not simply asking for a glance at the appearance of God, but for something much more. Moses was asking to see God’s very self.
He wishes to be assured that God will dwell among the people in all his fullness without leading to their death. In effect, this is a request for a sign that God himself will truly dwell among them without judgment.1
Within Fretheim’s statement is the heart of the dilemma for many people of faith. If Moses sought God’s presence without the detriment of judgment, then Moses believed God could be experienced in his goodness. The tone of the passage continues to shift from judgment to presence, from an end to the next step. Up to this point in Exodus, God had led the people by the manifestations of the cloud and the fire; but now Moses sought to be led by God without the cover of the cloud or the fire.
The gift of Exodus 33 is that God’s revelation of himself did not answer the question as Moses asked it. He instead told Moses about his own actions by saying, “I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you, and I will proclaim my name, the Lord, in your presence. I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion. But, . . . you cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live” (Exodus 33:19, 20).
God redirected the question by answering Moses’ request—but only in part. Instead of revealing his glory, God revealed his character. Israel had sinned against God in Moses’ absence by worshipping the golden calf, and they had paid for that sin with a plague from God. But within the context of that sin, God passed before Moses revealing the goodness of his character.
Giving What We Most Need
The boldness of Moses’ question did not result in the showing of God’s physical appearance; it resulted in something much more. Tied tightly to the Hebrew word for the concept of glory is the face. Moses sought to dwell upon God’s very self. God chose to speak of his nature and his actions. Whether physical appearance or personal character, either view is a glimpse at the essence of God.
Glimpse is the key. In God’s mercy, he allowed Moses to experience what he was capable of experiencing and nothing more. As the revelation of God was given for Moses’ well-being, so too are the actions of God toward humanity.
The decision to show compassion and mercy rests within God’s prerogative, but, equally true, the decision to withhold that same compassion and mercy is God’s decision alone. From the earliest expressions of this Mosaic covenant, the covenant perceived as judgmental and harsh, God’s self-proclaimed qualities of compassion and mercy were the focal point. Compassion is not the alternative action of God when he tires of being judgmental. It is the core of his nature.
Exodus 33, 34 is just one example. Scriptures such as Jeremiah 18:1-10, Ezekiel 36:22-38, and the book of Jonah offer an equally strong argument that many Christians have misread the Old Testament and have left themselves with a diminished perception of God.
When we lose the content of the Old Testament, we lose so much of the story of God and our faith. Overcoming this loss happens when Christians once again seek to know God as he fully shows himself in all of Scripture.
1Terence E. Fretheim, Exodus: Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville: John Knox, 1991).
Dave Henry serves as lead pastor/church planter with New Community Christian Church in Salina, Kansas.