Is the Old Testament Consistent?
Does the Bible give a consistent message over its span of a millennium and a half and over its many authors, and genres of literature? To cover every thread of Biblical teaching, or even every author is beyond the scope of a blog. So I will take one theme only and just a few authors spread over the timespan of the Bible. This week : the Old Testament.
I accept that Moses wrote most of the first five books of the Bible. Tradition holds this and it seems the most probable explanation since he was educated in the Egyptian royal court and so would be literate. (interestingly Mohamed nearly two thousand years later could not read or write and his first followers had to memorize his sayings)
So in Exodus we have early 13th century BC writings. Let us look at just one passage in this incredibly early writing; a passage where God says something about his own character.
Exodus 34:6,7. (YHWH) “passed in front of Moses proclaiming: “YHWH, YHWH the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, and forgiving wickedness rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished ...”
In the narrative of God's dealings with his people throughout the Exodus period, this is certainly born out time and again. But let us see if it is in later writings.
In the book of Judges we have historical cameos from the period covering a few hundred years after Moses' death.
Here there is a recurring theme: The Israelites are loyal to God for a while, then they forsake him to worship foreign idols. Then God withdraws his aid. Then the Israelites are subjugated by more powerful neighbours. Eventually they cry out to God for help. God (usually) sends a messenger to tell them to throw away their idols and return to God. Then God raises up a national hero who beats back their oppressors and they enjoy a period of peace. Then the cycle starts again.
In this we see in action that God is: compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, forgives (when people repent!) wickedness and rebellion, but does not leave the guilty unpunished (in these instances he withdraws his aid and they are oppressed by their neighbours).
The same elements of God's character are illustrated in his dealings with individuals and the nation of Israel throughout the “historical” books of the Old Testament, as anyone can easily check for themselves. Now let us look at a different genre of literature in the Bible.
Those psalms that are ascribed to David are 10th / 11th century BC poems and worship songs. They depict God's character consistently with Exodus. For instance:
Psalm 23:6. “surely your goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life...”
Psalm 32. “Blessed is the one whose transgressions are forgiven … then I acknowledged my sin to you … and you forgave the guilt of my sin ...”
Psalm 37:9 “… Those who are evil will be destroyed ...”
Psalm 40. “I waited patiently for YHWH; he turned to me and heard met cry. He lifted me out of the slimy pit. Out of the mud and mire; he set my foot o a rock and gave me a firm place to stand.”
This barely scratches the surface, but should suffice to illustrate that several hundred years after Moses, and in a different genre of literature, the same character of God is depicted and worshipped.
Amos was an early 8th century BC prophet. His task was to warn the northern kingdom of Israel that God was about to punish them and urge them to repent and change their ways. Here we see that God, as he said, is one who “does not let the wicked go unpunished”
For example Amos 2:6ff “This is what the Lord says: 'For three sins of Israel even for four I will not relent. They sell the innocent for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals. They trample on the heads of the poor … and deny justice to the oppressed ...” … “Now then I will crush you as a cart crushes when loaded with grain … declares the Lord.”
True to God's self description to Moses, Amos' warnings end with a promise of hope.
Amos 9: 9ff “I will give the command and I will shake the people of Israel among the nations … all the sinners among my people will die by the sword … In that day I will restore David's fallen shelter – I will rebuild its broken walls … I will bring my people Israel back from exile.
He people did not heed Amos' warning. In 732 BC the Assyrian army devastated Israel and dispersed its people throughout their empire because they had rebelled against their Assyrian overlord.
The scroll of Isaiah may have have been written over a long period. However the first 39 chapters are clearly 8th century BC,
I am not going to try to expound Isaiah's message, merely isolate some parts of that message which indicate that, prophesying in the 8th century BC the same characteristics that God pronounced to Moses are being exemplified (where applicable) in speaking to the situation at hand.
God said to Moses that he “does not leave the guilty unpunished” this is repeated over and over in Isaiah. Just one example is:
Isaiah 10: “Woe to those who make unjust laws … to deprive the poor of their rights … to withhold justice from the oppressed of my people … making widows their prey and robbing the fatherless … what will you do on the day of reckoning … nothing will remain but to cringe among the captives or fall among the slain.”
God spoke to Moses of his compassion and forgiveness. This theme also flows through Isaiah, for instance the promise in Ch. 11 of the restoration of the nation and a new Davidic ruler (in terms only truly fulfilled by Jesus and realised in heaven)
“A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse (King David's father) … The Spirit of the Lord will be upon him … with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth … he will slay the wicked … the wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat … they will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain, for the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.”
God said to Moses he was “abounding in love and faithfulness” Isaiah foretells a time when God acts and his people will say: (Isa 12) “I will praise you Lord, although you were angry with me your anger has turned away and you have comforted me. Surely God is my salvation I will trust and not be afraid. The Lord, the Lord himself is my strength and song, he has become my salvation.”
Again these few examples are barely scratching the surface, but suffice to illustrate the point.
Jeremiah was a 7th century BC prophet. He had the difficult task of telling the southern kingdom that God was about to punish them for their sins and those of previous generations, but if they repented, this could be averted. They did not repent and the nation was destroyed by the Babylonians. Here are some examples of God's proclaimed character as one who punishes, and one who forgives the penitent.
Jeremiah 1: 16 “I will pronounce judgement on my people for forsaking me, in burning incense to other gods and worshiping what their hands have made” with Jeremiah 2: 8ff “The priests did not ask 'where is the Lord?' … the leaders rebelled against me … the prophets prophesied by Baal … on your clothes is found the lifeblood of the innocent poor ...”
Jeremiah 3: 12,13. “'Return faithless Israel', declares the Lord, 'I will frown on you no longer for I am faithful' declares the Lord. 'I will not be angry forever. Only acknowledge your guilt – you have rebelled against the Lord your God, you have scattered your favours to foreign gods under every spreading tree, and have not obeyed me'.”
Even in the midst of prophetic warning, the theme of God's compassion and mercy and his abounding in faithfulness and love shines out. Fir instance Jeremiah 23.
“Woe to the shepherds (ie the national leaders) who are destroying and scattering the sheep of my pasture. (ie the people) Because you have scattered my flock … I will bestow punishment on you for the evil you have done. I myself will gather the remnant of my flock … I will place shepherds over them who will tend them … The days are coming declares the Lord when I will raise up for David a righteous branch, a king who will reign wisely and do what is just and right in the land.”
Malachi, the last and latest book in the Old Testament is mid 5th century BC. His task is to call his nation to repent. He points out they have broken their covenant with God: By offering blemished sacrifices; By divorcing their wives; By injustice and by not paying God's tithes. Also people have been speaking arrogantly against God. But some people have remained true to God. Here is a segment near the end: (4:1ff)
“'Surely the day is coming, it will burn like a furnace. All the arrogant and every evildoer will be stubble and the day coming will set them on fire' says the Lord Almighty. 'Not a root or branch will be left to them. But for you who revere my name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its rays. And you will go out and frolic like calves'.”
Again a God who does not let the wicked go unpunished, but shows compassion, forgiveness and constant love to the penitent and faithful.
Next Week: The Old Testament gives a consistent message but does the New Testament follow suite?