Who Is the Old Testament God?

Human understanding of who and what God is has at least as many variations as there are religions. Even within the bounds of Christianity, the faithful stumble over perceived contradictions about the nature of God. In particular, many find the God described in the Old Testament to be a very different personality from the God described in the New Testament, the first being harsh and judgmental, while the second is full of grace and mercy. How can we understand the God of the Old Testament today?

While concepts of God held by many in the Christian community today have their roots in antiquity, major events throughout more recent history have helped cement some of those ideas in people’s minds. In 14th-century Europe, for example—a time when the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches held sway over the continent—bubonic plague ravaged and terrorized the population. The region was a breeding ground for fear in both a secular and a theological sense. Many attributed the extreme suffering to the wrath of God—divine vengeance on sinful man. The churches would have found support for this with scriptural pronouncements; for example, “I will heap disasters on them. I will spend My arrows on them. They shall be wasted with hunger, devoured by pestilence and bitter destruction” (Deuteronomy 32:23–24).

With a third to a half of the population killed by the plague, also known as Black Death, it was not difficult for people to accept this explanation. The God who had created humans was simply angry, and at His hand they could expect to suffer bitterly for their shortcomings.

It was into this kind of setting that the young Martin Luther stepped to begin his theological journey in the early 16th century. Luther’s personal fear of death provided the basis for what developed over time as his view of the God revealed in the Hebrew Scriptures. Luther came to resent the Roman Catholic Church’s guilt-producing power over people, and to see the Old Testament as having little relevance for Christians. His focus was on a loving and forgiving Christ; the Old Testament was of value only insomuch as it supported Christ. Luther’s ideas not only led to the Protestant Reformation but also contributed to a distancing of the New Testament from the Old, even if that was not fully his intention.

The New Testament, Marcion insisted, revealed the true God in the coming of Christ from heaven. Unlike the Demiurge, this God was a God of love.”

Marvin R. Wilson, Our Father Abraham: Jewish Roots of the Christian Faith

This was not the first time, however, that a theologian had reached such conclusions. A Greek heretic by the name of Marcion traveled to Rome in the second century and presented to Roman church authorities his developing theological opinions. He could not reconcile the God of the Old Testament, whom he called the Creator God, with the God revealed by Christ, whom he called the Supreme God. Marcion viewed the church Christ had founded some 100 years earlier as heavily tainted by Judaism and thus by the law of the Old Testament. To him, this law was an expression of a just, stern, wrathful God who required blind obedience and fearful reverence. The Catholic Encyclopedia says Marcion “wanted a Christianity untrammeled and undefiled by association with Judaism.” Abraham J. Heschel, former professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, was a little more direct: “Marcion wanted a Christianity free from every vestige of Judaism. He saw his task in showing the complete opposition between the Hebrew Bible and the Gospels. Repudiating the Hebrew Bible in toto, he put in its place a new Scripture, the nucleus of which was the letters of Paul” (The Prophets, 1962).

Because he couldn’t reconcile the God of love and goodness in the Gospels with what he saw as a harsh Old Testament God, he concluded that there were two Gods: the just but vengeful God of law—the demiurge, God of the Jews—and the good God, the Father of Jesus Christ. Tertullian wrote in the early third century, “We were aware that Marcion sets up unequal gods, the one a judge, fierce and warlike, the other mild and peaceable, solely kind and supremely good” (Adversus Marcionem 1.6).

Whether Marcion’s teachings had any influence on Martin Luther is difficult to gauge. Their approaches appear to have similarities, however; both espoused the idea of separate deities for the Old and New Testament, and the writings of the apostle Paul featured heavily in the theology each man developed. For Luther, however, the Hebrew Scriptures did provide some basis for understanding Christ (for example, prophecies concerning the Messiah). Still, his developing focus became the apostle Paul’s writings.

Luther’s struggle to understand the law was undoubtedly hindered to some degree by his growing hatred of the Jews. Like Marcion, he concluded that the God of the Jews and Judaism had nothing at all in common with Christ. For Luther, the law was something given to Israel and had meaning only if viewed in light of the gospel.

In this connection church historian Bernhard Lohse notes, “The Old Testament contains not only the Decalogue but also Israel’s national law. . . . To that extent, it has no significance for Christians. Against the fanatics Luther could say that ‘all such Mosaic teachers deny the gospel, banish Christ, and annul the whole New Testament. I now speak as a Christian for Christians. For Moses is given to the Jewish people alone, and does not concern us Gentiles and Christians’” (Martin Luther’s Theology, 1999).

Jewish theologian Heschel wasn’t surprised at such declarations. He noted that “Marcion’s proclamation about the God of Israel has been stubbornly preserved in the mind of Western man to this day.”

Bible scholar Marvin R. Wilson concurs: “Though often cunningly concealed, in today’s Church rather strong vestiges of Marcionism have survived. But we are polite. Hardly aware of its subtle presence, we do not call it ‘Neo-Marcionism,’ ‘heresy,’ or ‘anti-Judaism.’ Nevertheless, in our concerted effort to be ‘New Testament’ believers, we have too often unconsciously minimized the place and importance of the Old Testament and the Church’s Hebraic roots” (Our Father Abraham: Jewish Roots of the Christian Faith, 1989).

The Bible: A Continuum

If the legacies of Marcion and Luther continue to hinder a clear understanding of God, how is the God of the Old Testament to be understood? A beginning point might be to change how we view the Bible itself. In its desire to distance itself from the Church’s Hebraic roots, the developing Christian orthodoxy made a distinction between the Hebrew Scriptures and the Apostolic Writings. The Latin for Old Testament and New Testament thus came into wide use by the third or fourth century. But the apostle Peter didn’t make that distinction. He indicated that his fellow apostle Paul had written a number of epistles that were already being considered part of “the Scriptures” in the first century (2 Peter 3:14–16).

If like Peter we see the Bible as a developing whole, a book that progressively reveals God and His message, a different picture of God begins to come into focus. Paul, whose writings are often taken to rebuff the God of the Old Testament, had no difficulty connecting his understanding of God and gospel with the Hebrew Scriptures. He wrote to Timothy, a younger minister, remarking that “from childhood you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus” (2 Timothy 3:15, emphasis added). As the Apostolic Writings were not yet in existence in Timothy’s childhood, the Holy Scriptures to which Paul referred are the books that make up the Hebrew Scriptures—the so-called Old Testament. Paul clearly believed they could help people have faith in Jesus Christ and could set them on the path to salvation.

It is also interesting to note Jesus Christ’s example. In teaching and preaching, He often quoted from the Hebrew Scriptures in order to reinforce His point. A major purpose of His coming, He said, was to magnify the law, not to annul it (Matthew 5:17–19; Isaiah 42:21). Far from dismissing the Old Testament, Jesus used it as an authority on which to bring His followers to a better understanding of God and His purpose.

Jesus began His ministry in Galilee; Gospel writer Mark records that He went to that region “preaching the gospel of the kingdom of God” (Mark 1:14). Another Gospel writer, Luke, records that around this time Jesus entered a Galilean synagogue on the Sabbath, and to emphasize His message, He read to the assembled audience a section from the book of Isaiah. This suggests that Jesus regarded this Old Testament reading as preaching the gospel (Luke 4:16–21); He shed light on His “New Testament” covenant through the prism of the Old Testament.

Hundreds of years earlier, the prophet Jeremiah taught of one God acting across past, present and future. In Jeremiah 32:26–42, he begins by rebuking Israel and warning them that God is very displeased with their idolatry. This might be interpreted as evidence of an angry Old Testament God. Yet Jeremiah continues by reassuring them that at some point in the future God will deliver them and bring them back into a loving relationship: “They shall be My people, and I will be their God” (verse 38). Note that there are two elements to the prophecy. One was fulfilled several centuries before the time of Christ: “I will give this city into the hand of the Chaldeans, into the hand of Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon, and he shall take it” (verse 28). The other awaits a future fulfillment: “I will bring them back to this place, and I will cause them to dwell safely. They shall be My people, and I will be their God” (verses 37–38). Jeremiah refers to the same God in both prophetic statements. In other words, the God of the historical fulfillment is the same as the God of the future fulfillment.

The Covenant, Old and New

Probably the strongest evidence of God’s continuity throughout the Bible relates to “the covenant,” a special contract or agreement. The God of the Old Testament made a covenant with Abraham (Genesis 15), which He then extended to the nation of Israel at Mt. Sinai: “If you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, then you shall be a special treasure to Me above all people” (Exodus 19:5). And immediately prior to their entry into the Promised Land, Moses reiterated the promise: “Today the Lord has proclaimed you to be His special people, just as He promised you, that you should keep all His commandments, . . . and that you may be a holy people to the Lord your God” (see Deuteronomy 26:16–19).

At Mt. Sinai Moses received from God two stone tablets on which He had written “the words of the covenant, the Ten Commandments” (Exodus 34:1, 28). Forty years later Moses instructed the people to write “all the words of this law” on large stones as a reminder of the agreement that they were to become the people of God through obedience to His laws (Deuteronomy 27:1–10).

The biblical record shows that the Israelites did not obey, however, and they came to ruin. But the same God, speaking through the prophet Ezekiel, still referred to the covenant—this time in terms of its future fulfillment: “‘And I, the Lord, will be their God. . . . I will make a covenant of peace with them. . . . Thus they shall know that I, the Lord their God, am with them, and they, the house of Israel, are My people,’ says the Lord God” (Ezekiel 34:24–30).

Reference to the covenant is also found in the New Testament, where it is called “the everlasting covenant” in Hebrews 13:20. But in the New Testament the relationship God extends to His people is also referred to as a “new” covenant. It is not new in the sense of being a different agreement, however; the Greek word connotes newness in the sense of being unused, unworn or fresh. The covenant given to the nation of Israel went unfulfilled or unused because the people never held up their end of the contract. Instead of Yahweh being their God and they His faithful people, they persisted in breaking God’s laws and following the countless pagan gods of the nations among whom they lived. Human sin thus stood in the way of the covenant’s fulfillment; Christ’s sacrifice was needed before the people might finally be reconciled to their God.

And I will establish My covenant between Me and you and your descendants after you in their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and your descendants after you.”

Genesis 17:7

What made the covenant new or fresh is the fact that the law was now to be written not on stone but “in their mind and . . . on their hearts” (Hebrews 8:10); it would become a way of thinking and doing, a way of life, made possible because Jesus died, was resurrected, and sent the Holy Spirit to strengthen those who were committed to following God. This section of Hebrews (8:8–12) quotes Jeremiah 31:31–34, and both hark back to Deuteronomy 26:16–19 (see also Deuteronomy 29:9–13; Genesis 17:7–8). In each case, the common thread is “I will be their God, and they shall be My people.”

God desires a relationship with His people—“Israel” in not only a literal sense but, since the time of the apostles, also in the much broader figurative sense of “spiritual Israel” (composed of all peoples), whose spiritual father in the faith is Abraham. That relationship is a continuum, just as the Bible is a continuum, and the same God presides throughout.