Why is God Vengeful in the Old Testament?
I am trying to figure out something. I have a friend who seems to be searching. She reads the Bible a lot. But she seems to think God is a bigoted angry meanie in the OT & a nice softie in the NT. She even teaches a Bible study at her church! Bev is in Exodus. She cited 32:27. She asks me, "Why did God tell these guys to kill their own families? The law He just gave said not to kill & then He turns around & says to do it to folks that they love, not even in a war with or anything!” Sadly, I could not answer her. Stuff like this confuses folks.
Hoping for an answer,
Yes, this is something that many struggle with and are confused about. It is easy to misunderstand God’s actions in the Old Testament unless we understand a few things...
First, the Old Testament only gives a partial revelation of God; not the full and complete picture that we have because of Jesus. Hebrews opens by addressing this; "In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom he made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God's glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven” (Hebrews 1:1-3).
The law and the prophets communicated several things very well; God’s justice, His holiness, His righteousness, His faithfulness… but didn’t communicate other things very well like mercy, grace, forgiveness, etc. God ALWAYS possessed and exercised these qualities; but until Jesus they were never communicated or displayed perfectly, because the people displaying them were flawed themselves… like Moses, Elijah, etc.
Verse 3 says Jesus is the exact representation and likeness of God. We kept getting a skewed perception of God because of the limitations the OT had revealing God 100% accurately. Jesus changed this, in other words, God’s character and nature didn’t change… Jesus just made His full and complete nature apparent to us.
Even in the example you are citing we see God’s justice in the account. This is the breakdown of what happened and God acted justly in this situation. First, God gave the 10 Commandments directly to the Israelites; they heard it and were terrified of the scene unfolding so they begged Moses to intercede for them saying they would comply to what God said (Exodus 20:18-19). Then Moses goes up the mountain and they immediately turn away and break the first command; “You shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3). But they had already agreed to follow it, “Cursed is the man who carves an image or casts an idol—a thing detestable to the Lord, the work of the craftsman’s hands—and sets it up in secret.” Then all the people shall say, “Amen!” (Deuteronomy 27:15).
So when Moses comes down, he is literally holding the stone tablets with the commandments written on it (Exodus 32:15-16). This prove the Israelites guilt and these written commandments had the ability to bring this charge (death sentence) against them. Their agreement with God was based on obedience; and they knew what to expect if they disobeyed (Deuteronomy 28 outline the Blessings & Curses for obedience or failure of it).
But here’s the thing, First, Moses gives them time to repent and return to the Lord (vs. 26). That is God’s mercy and forgiveness. Secondly, to those who didn’t they stood condemned as lawbreakers. God WAS NOT breaking the law he had just given; he was acting as a Judge of the law. Which He has every right to do legally in carrying out the sentence for breaking it.
Your friend is making some wrong assumptions in this account. She is assuming that God is breaking His commandment by killing them. The opposite is true, He is just and cannot overlook what they did; and He is the only one who can judge this sin accurately and carry out the results of what the law demands. Then she is seeing God’s justice in action but failing to take into account His mercy in giving them time to repent. They knew when they were making the calf those things demanded death; but not everyone died… that is God’s mercy and forgiveness.
Now Moses acted as their intercessor but now we have Jesus. We can look at the things Jesus reveals about God to get the full picture. He changed everything and we have a new and better covenant based on Jesus’ obedience than what the Israelites had based on their obedience. God hasn’t changed; but how he deals with us has because of what Christ did on the cross.
Here are Some Articles that Explain the changes that came with Christ.
- Jesus is the Expression of God's Love Toward Us (Hebrews 1:1-2)
- Jesus Helps us to Understand God's Nature (Hebrews 1:1-2)
- Jesus is the Perfect Imprint of God's Nature (Hebrews 1:3)
- Paying Attention to the Message of Jesus (Hebrews 2:1)
- How Shall We Escape If We Ignore Such a Great Salvation (Hebrews 2:2-3)
- A Lesson from the Law (Hebrews 2:2-3)
- Hardness of Heart Affects Our Understanding of God (Hebrews 3:7-9)
- Heart Attitude Can Taint Your Perception of God (Hebrews 3:10-11)
- Lessons from the Israelites (Hebrews 3:10-11)
- Jesus’ Covenant Is Superior, Founded On Better Promises (Hebrews 8:6)
- God Found Fault with the People Who Did Not Remain Faithful to His Covenant (Hebrews 8:7-9)
- The New Covenant (Hebrews 8:10-12)
- The New Covenant Made the First One Obsolete (Hebrews 8:13)
- Jesus is the Image of the Invisible God (Colossians 1:15)
- Jesus is the Central Message (Colossians 2:4-5)
- Romans 3:26 – God is both Just and the Justifier
Thanks for contacting me with your question; I hope this helps to point you in the right direction as you continue to search for resolution.