Our question has been: why is God severe in the OT but gracious in the NT? We looked first at God’s graciousness in the OT and then His severity in the NT in order to show that the assumption that God is different in the two Testaments is incorrect. He was even more severe in the NT in that judgment was revealed to now be eternal, not simply temporal. However, it is still true that God’s judgments in the OT were severe. So, let’s look at some of the severe judgments in the OT.
Death for eating fruit: It seems severe for God to prescribe death for simply eating a piece of fruit (Genesis 2:17), but it was not so simple. When we look at the natural results of disobedience — apart from God sending judgment — we see that something serious happened when Adam and Eve disobeyed. Immediately upon eating, shame began (Genesis 3:10, cf. 2:25), Adam and Eve’s relationship became divisive as Adam passed the blame to his wife (Genesis 3:12), their first son was envious and a murderer (Genesis 4:8), and the vast majority of their descendants became sinister and violent (Genesis 6:5, 11, 13).
The Flood: The Flood we call Noah’s Flood that destroyed almost all life on earth looks like God over-reacted, but the event occurred because the whole world was full of violence (Genesis 6:11). People were abusing one another and violently so. God knew this would happen, but He abhors abuse as do all those who experience it. Someone may object that God was violent in His response to people, but His response was not unjust as was theirs. In His response, He rendered to them what they had earned.
Someone may object that God was violent in His response to people, but He only rendered to them what they had earned
Noah’s curse on Canaan: That God would honour Noah’s curse on Canaan — falsely called the curse on Ham (Genesis 9:20-27) — appears unreasonable, as it was the son Ham who offended, not the grandson Canaan. However, the text says Noah knew what his youngest son had done to him. Ham is never listed as his youngest son, and the term can refer to a grandson. It seems that Canaan had set a pattern of behaviour — perhaps learned from his father, Ham — that he would pass on to his descendants. Later history reveals that Canaan’s offspring murdered their children, abused women, were incestuous, adulterous, and engaged in sex with animals.
Sodom and Gomorrah: The destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah may be viewed by many as pitiless, but Ezekiel 16:48 points out the citizens were arrogant, merciless, sexually deviant and, in light of Genesis 19, when a gang rape was imminent, all the men (Genesis 19:4; if that is hyperbole, then the vast majority) of Sodom were involved in the attempt (Genesis 19:5). Note that a similar attempt in Judges 19 was successful and ended in the murder of the victim.
Binding of Isaac: The command to offer Isaac as a whole burnt offering (Genesis 22:2) appears cruel but, from the first clause of the story, the reader knows that the command was a test (Genesis 22:1). Of course, Abraham did not know that. But from verse 8, Abraham suspected God would not go through with it, and he was right. Because Abraham passed the test, he received a status attributed to no one else. He became the “father” of all who believe God (Romans 4:1, 11). He is also the only person named in the Bible as the friend of God (Isaiah 41:8; 2 Chronicles 20:7; James 2:23). As God’s friend, his experience was similar to God’s. Jesus pointed out in Luke 6:40 that a disciple should be like his lord. Abraham was like God in this experience, for God the Father would offer His Son (Rom 8:32) to die and would go through with it to save sinners.
Plagues on Egypt: The plagues on Egypt were excruciating and might be seen as excessive, and the death of the firstborn sons was part of this. However, the Egyptians had been killing the Israelite boys for years (Exodus 1:16, 22), earning for themselves this repayment (Exodus 4:23).
Killing at the golden calf rebellion: Instruction to slay those involved in the golden calf fiasco was strict; but, since not everyone involved was slain (Exodus 32:25-28), the executions apparently were for the leaders of the rebellion. After God had shown Himself, through the plagues on Egypt, as the only God worthy of the title, those who rebelled against this truth showed ultimate disregard for and belittled all that the Egyptians had suffered during the plagues, including the deaths of their sons.
The deaths of Nadab and Abihu (Leviticus 10:1-2) may appear undeservedly severe. However, as priests, they were obligated to represent God to the people. They had even been privileged to be on Mt. Sinai with God (Exodus 24:9-10). Having become drunk, they profaned their role as mediators and so belittled both the people and God (Leviticus 10:9).
The execution of the blasphemer looks intolerant (Leviticus 24:10-16). But the man’s execution emphasised the seriousness of disrespecting God and departing from a relationship with God. Jesus said, centuries later, that blaspheming God’s Spirit leads to eternal death (Matthew 12:31).
Deaths and 38 years of wandering after Kadesh-Barnea (Numbers 14:33; Deuteronomy 2:14): The verdict of dying in the wilderness for the unbelief shown at Kadesh-Barnea looks intolerant until one recognises that the people had repeatedly distrusted God (Numbers 14:11). This was not their first rebellion (Numbers 14:22) — they had a lifestyle of unbelief in God’s promises. So, they did not live to see fulfilled the significant promise of a land of their own. It was not unusual for people over 20 to die within the following 38 years.
The people had a lifestyle of unbelief in God’s promises, so they did not live to see fulfilled the significant promise of a land of their own
Baal Peor: The deaths of those involved in the sexual infidelity at Baal-Peor (Numbers 25:1-9) are severe until one realises that the men committing the sins were apostatising from the only true God in order to worship the gods of their new consorts, as well as disrespecting all that God had done for them and disrespecting their own wives and families.
Slaying of Canaanites: People who object to God’s severity in the Old Testament usually present the order to not marry but to kill the Canaanites (Deuteronomy 7:2-3), including women and children (Numbers 31:17; Deuteronomy 2:34; 20:16; Joshua 6:21). At least four considerations need to be given here. First, Israel was not commanded to kill the women and children in battles outside Canaan (Deuteronomy 20:14). Second, 700 years earlier, the people in the land of Canaan were already known for their sinfulness (Genesis 15:16). They failed to improve in seven centuries and one wonders if it was likely they ever would. Third, when someone in the land declared allegiance to the true and living God, as Rahab did (Joshua 2:9-11), she and her family were spared (Joshua 6:22-23). Fourth, subsequent history showed that God was correct in his prediction of the Canaanites’ dangerous influence: the Israelites did not expel or exterminate the Canaanites, lived with them (Judges 1:27-36), became like them (2 Kings 17:15; 2 Chronicles 36:14), turned away from God (Judges 3:5-6), and abused and mistreated each other (Judges 19; [Israel:] Amos 2:6-8; 4:1; 5:7, 10-12; 8:4-6; [Judah and sometimes Israel also:] Isaiah 2:21-23; 3:15; 5:20, 23; Micah 2:1-2, 8-9; 3:1-3, 9-11; 6:10-12; 7:2-6; Jeremiah 5:8; 6:13; 7:5, 9; 22:13, 17; 23:14; Habakkuk 1:2b-3; Ezekiel 20:26, 31; 22:6-12, 27, 29). To believe that the women among the Canaanites would not cause this religious compromise is naïve and uninformed, overlooking what actually happened and ignoring the events at Baal-Peor. The killing of the children is more problematic, and books have been written on it. One religion has professed that if one gives a child to them for seven years, that child will always be an adherent of that religion. If this principle is true, the slaying of idolatrous children relates to the danger of living with them in Israelite society.
Often, false accusations are made against God — blaming him for what disobedient people did.
There are some events in the Old Testament that are glaringly severe for which people blame God, but He did not prescribe them. The slaughter of the men of Shechem (Genesis 34) was an act of violence God did not order or condone. The mutilation of Adoni-Bezek was what he had done to others (Judges 1:6-7), but was not ordered by God. The sacrifice of Jephthah’s daughter (Judges 11:30-40) was abhorrent to God (Jeremiah 7:31). However, Jephthah was ignorant of or disregarded the Law of Moses that instructed people on how to redeem someone from a commitment (Leviticus 27:1-8). When Israel massacred the tribe of Benjamin (Judges 20), they did not do this at God’s command, but acted rashly.
As we see from the NT, God eventually judges those who repudiate Him and who commit acts of violence and injustice against other people. His two priorities for humans are that we love Him and that we love each other. Disregarding these values is a serious offence.
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