This is a common question among believers and nonbelievers alike. It is often raised after hearing a Scripture reading at Mass such as this one from the book of Isaiah:
From of old no one has heard
or perceived by the ear,
no eye has seen a God besides thee,
who works for those who wait for him.
Thou meetest him that joyfully works righteousness,
those that remember thee in thy ways.
Behold, thou wast angry, and we sinned;
in our sins we have been a long time, and shall we be saved?
We have all become like one who is unclean,
and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment.
We all fade like a leaf,
and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.
There is no one that calls upon thy name,
that bestirs himself to take hold of thee;
for thou hast hid thy face from us,
and hast delivered us into the hand of our iniquities.
I found it hard to say, “Thanks be to God,” after that particular reading. Isaiah said God was angry and has hidden his face from us. It is not particularly what I wanted to hear, but when seen in the context of the other Mass readings of that day, the Church is pointing to the Deliverer that will come to take away our guilt. Taken in context, these seemingly harsh words of Isaiah can actually be seen as a hopeful message that God will eventually remedy the problem of guilt and sin.
We need to keep the following points in mind as we form our opinion of God based on certain “problematic” passages in the Old Testament:
- A particular passage, though it may be disconcerting, should not be taken out of context and used as the basis of our judgment of God. We must understand his actions in light of the whole of Sacred Scripture and Tradition.
- The expressions used in the Bible need to be understood in the context of the culture in which they were written.
- Since many today believe that any physical discipline of a child is taboo, it is not surprising that many find the thought of a God chastising his people with force disturbing.
- The overall message of the Old Testament is that God is for his people, and he has special concern for the oppressed, widowed, orphaned, poor, and homeless. We now condemn slavery, though this was widely practiced and accepted by nearly all cultures for most of world history. Thus, God gave his people laws to protect the slaves among them.
- Support for the death penalty for criminals has also “softened” up quite a bit since the Old Testament mandated death by stoning for offenses such as adultery, fortune-telling, blasphemy, and murder. In most Western countries the death penalty is reserved now for first degree murder, and even that is highly debated. (For a great article on the death penalty by Cardinal Avery Dulles, click here: http://www.catholiceducation.org/en/religion-and-philosophy/social-justice/catholicism-amp-capital-punishment.html)
- The majority of the violent acts in the Bible were perpetrated not by God but by people. The “violence” of God in the Old Testament was never arbitrary; rather, it was the consequence of disobedience or was to rescue his people (from slavery, for example, in the Exodus).
- One of the most difficult passages of Scripture is the concept of Herem Warfare, which involved the complete annihilation of a tribe or people. Again, this must be seen in the larger context of creating a land for his Chosen People and protecting them from the idolatry of the nations. (This concept is explained in the book Walking with God: A Journey through the Bible, by Jeff Cavins and Tim Gray, pp.114-116.)
- Evaluate your own God-given anger when your family is threatened or a minority group is harassed or abused. God’s “anger” is roused in the Bible whenever his people are threatened.
- Even Jesus was “violent” when he overturned the tables of the money-changers in the Temple. Why did he do this? Because they were unjustly taking advantage of the people coming to worship God.
God says that “vengeance is mine.” He is the ultimate judge; his ways are just, his judgments are always true. It is not for us to judge him or his ways. We should pray for the grace to understand those Scripture passages that disturb us so that we might understand the truth our loving God wants us to see.
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