The seemingly irreconcilable portrayal of divine violence and retribution in the Old Testament vis-à-vis Jesus’ commandment to love one’s enemies and example of suffering in the New Testament presents a perennial challenge. This is a complex and multi-layered issue, the various proposed resolutions for which hold serious implications, including the way our perception of God often becomes a justification for our own behaviour—either abusive, brutal and violent or compassionate, gentle and nonviolent. The following, therefore, does not claim to be a comprehensive settlement to placate all sides of the ongoing debate, nor does it present a “silver bullet” solution. Instead, I’ll outline a couple considerations from an Eastern Orthodox perspective that I hope will be helpful to the many who struggle to reconcile the ostensibly divergent portrayals of God in the Holy Scriptures. Perhaps more importantly, however, I’ll propose a realignment of our priorities that will hopefully help us transcend the many arguments on all sides regarding this issue or other theological issues like it.
First, it’s important to realize that God is revealing himself incrementally throughout the Old Testament, especially from Abraham forward. God cannot and did not inculcate his fullness instantaneously (perhaps a more modern Western binary and forensic understanding of salvation leads to this miscalculation), but he instead had to work with and gradually mold a Mesopotamian polytheistic polygamist tribal leader from Ur who implemented a well defined Semitic tribal legal code that was familiar to his kinsfolk. This is what God had to work with from the beginning, and so the Old Testament is important as a narrative of God revealing himself piecemeal, culminating in his full revelation at the incarnation as the “image of the invisible God” (Col. 1:15) in whom “whatever the Father does, the Son does likewise” (Jn. 5:19). Those who hastily accuse proponents of a more ‘Christ-like God’ of neo-Marcionism or nonchalantly throwing out the entire Old Testament might do well to affirm the gradual nature of “narrative” and acknowledge the constraints of breaking into time and space.
Jesus acknowledged that God in the Old Testament (with whom he is also pre-existent) revealed himself incrementally and therein gradually modified the more familiar Semitic tribal legal codes. A clear example of this is when the Pharisees tested Jesus by inquiring, “Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and to send her away?” to which Jesus responded,
“Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery” (Mt. 19:7-9).
So, here we have an example of God (since Christ is pre-existent with the Father) explaining that he gave certain dispensations in the past as a compromise because our hearts were hardened, expressed as clinging to outdated tribal legal codes without the desire or ability yet to receive God’s full revelation. This is precisely how, then, we evaluate (and don’t dispense with) the Old Testament narrative—by using it as a foil against which we compare and contrast the full revelation in Christ. That is, whenever Christ attributes the law to Moses in a positive light, it is because this does align with the full revelation of God and with the Gospel. This maneuver acknowledges, however, that there is much in the Old Testament that he doesn’t invoke as representative of this full revelation, but instead communicates its future anticipated fulfillment as the culmination toward which this incremental divine self-revelation was projecting.
This is also why acknowledging the role and precedence of Semitic tribal law over the Roman juridical model as our starting point is so important. It was the Semitic tribal legal systems that God painstakingly retooled over two millennia in his incremental revelation of himself until the full revelation of the self-emptying God in the incarnation of Christ, who models the divine operations (energeia) of humility, mercy, peace, co-suffering love and forgiveness within time and space in a postlapsarian world. Identifying this Semitic, eastern context is therefore not of secondary importance, but is instead vital if we are to track God’s incremental self-revelation faithfully.
A second point to consider is that the Old Testament was not merely written from a post-exilic vantage point after encounters with popular Babylonian myths and Zoroastrian cultic elements. It also presents a limited human perception of various ostensibly divine actions. These either align or are incompatible with their Semitic tribal legal systems—which, as dispensers of a limited revelation of God, they misguidedly (though not maliciously) attributed to God from their limited perspective. This affects their perception of God “in the moment” and as authors of their original perception “after the fact.”
This limited perspective of those to whom God incrementally revealed himself (including the OT authors)—where both the divine revelation and the human perspective are incomplete by necessity—begins in the events of Genesis 3. There “the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the LORD God” because they were afraid due to their collective disobedience. This postlapsarian impulse therefore exhibits a false impression of who God is as a direct corollary of their disobedience, where God is the one from whom we should hide rather than the one to whom we should come (Mt. 11:28). Moreover, the disobedience of original humanity and resulting fear prefigures the Archangel Gabriel’s announcement of “Do not be afraid” (Lk. 1:30) to the new Eve (i.e., the Theotokos as the “mother of all living” or “life-giver” from Gen. 3:20) who gives birth to the full revelation of God by her obedience. It is, therefore, this false impression of God from the beginning that necessitated his incremental self-revelation until its culmination in the incarnate Christ. The primeval misapprehension guarantees the relay of a false or incomplete impression of God by the Old Testament authors. This, then, is an issue of both human authorship and God’s self-revelation—i.e., of the distorted human perspective and commensurate divine strategy.
Finally, it is important to understand God’s wrath / judgment as handing us over to the consequences of our own sin, a dynamic that we see in John 3:17-21, wherein the Son came not to condemn the world, but to save it. And, more specifically, Christ does not directly condemn those who don’t believe, because to do so implies mutability or a shift away from a consistent co-suffering love. Rather, they have instead already received a sentence through their own self-condemnation, expressed as the painful interior sensation when they encounter divine mercy as an inherent consequence of their incompatibility with divinity to the extent that they have not been transfigured: “And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil” (Jn. 3:19).
So, God’s judgment / wrath is the divine, Unapproachable Light (as several church fathers describe it), as the immutable merciful love of God, where judgment is when (s)he who is incompatible with divinity, “hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed.” But “whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God” (Jn. 3:20-21). It is, therefore, important that we cooperate with divine grace by becoming “transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another” (2 Cor. 3:18) so that we can encounter this Uncreated Light “with unveiled faces,” as Moses did on both Mt. Sinai and Mt. Tabor.
Similarly, commenting on the episode of the three youths in the fiery furnace, St. Basil of Caesarea underscores the element of self-condemnation for those who felt its heat on the outside (Dan. 3:8-30), concluding that “those worthy of the fire will feel its caustic quality and those worthy of the lighting will feel the illuminating property of the fire” (Hom. 13: On Psalm 28).
And yet, as tempting as it may be to use such visceral tactics, this discussion cannot be resolved through rational discourse and hermeneutical refinement alone. The full revelation of God in time and space also suggests a full revelation of God interiorly, as built in to the nature of narrative literature itself (which is intrinsically a process). This is to say, I have arrived at the view that all human beings are microcosms of the Old Testament, in which each of us absorbs the incremental revelation of God only piecemeal until Christ is fully revealed in our transfigured selves. Only when the image and likeness of God has been restored, will we be able to stand with Christ on Mt. Tabor (sufficiently compatible with the divine for union with Christ) along with Moses (law) and Elijah (prophets) rather than fall on our faces out of paralyzing fear, as did the “immature” apostles.
It is therefore only through this ontological transformation—becoming like him as we “partake of the divine nature” (2 Pt. 4:1)—that we can intuitively “know” God as the full revelation of Christ incarnate rather than an incomplete piecemeal divine self-revelation from the Old Testament. That said, I’d further caution that knowing this dynamic only rationally (as described above) is much different than “knowing” this in one’s heart or nous (which is far rarer).
Indeed, as St. Athanasius wrote in the midst of the Arian crisis of the early 4th century, “God became man so that man might become gods” (St. Athanasius, De Incarnatione, 54:3). There’s a paradox though: when we consider the kenotic (self-emptying) maneuver of the Logos incarnate, it is precisely our humanity (if embraced properly and attentively) that reveals the extent to which we have “partaken of the divine nature.” This is to say, when the pre-existent Logos took on the flesh of the Theotokos, he revealed the divine virtues that are intrinsic to him—humility and love—but contextualized in time and space within a postlapsarian world. That is, the divine nature is translated as mercy in a postlapsarian world that now needs mercy, compassion in a world that now needs compassion, patience in a world that now requires patience, peace in a world that now needs peace, etc. This is co-suffering love, but a love that can only be expressed quintessentially when God and we embrace his and our humanity.
So, the incarnation is an expression of empathetic solidarity, but also a revelation of the divine virtues of humility, love, peace, compassion, mercy, meekness, and patience—all intrinsically divine, but revealed only in Christ’s “lowly” incarnation. This divine humanity is also that which we ingest (in imitation of his gestation in the Holy Virgin’s womb) and what courses through our veins at the Eucharistic encounter. To the extent that we partake of the divine nature, this divinity decodes the usefulness of our humanity as the anthropological condition that enables us to grow in these same virtues of humility, compassion, mercy, etc. in a postlapsarian world. This is our salvation; this is how “now is the day of salvation” (2 Cor. 6:2) and how the corporeal world, in which God and we participate, is our salvation.
An illustration: in a postlapsarian world, my passions might drive me to impatience if I am in a hurry to get from point “A” to point “B” (and even pride if it’s somewhere important). But my physical limitations are a gift, as they provide me with the opportunity to cooperate with divine grace to grow in the virtues of patience and humility. The physical world is therefore our salvation and is just as divine—touched by and with its source in God—as the spiritual and bodiless world.
This is also why, as the vow of a monastic is her or his salvation, my commitment in marriage is my salvation: since I cannot (theoretically) run away from difficult circumstances in my marriage that have the potential to breed the passions and vices in me, I can choose instead to use these circumstances as opportunities for growth in the virtues of humility and patience so that I have the ability to “make it work” and exhibit the union between Christ and the Church. This union, however, requires the Church to partake of the divine nature in order for her to be compatible with the divine. With its many scenarios that invite transfiguration, my marriage too, then, is my salvation.
The salvific function of the corporeal world in which we participate is why we fast (with the fasting “rules” externally selected in the same way we don’t pick our own sins that we must battle against), why we give alms and why we pray—as the three pillars of the Church (Mt. 6:1-18). This is the sacramentality of the world that we all—Christian or not—are forced to participate in and contend with without reprieve. Every minutiae of everyday life—if we are attentive or watchful (cf. nepsis)—every day, hour, minute, second and nanosecond is a gift and invitation to salvation as the cultivation of the divine virtues of humility, compassion, love, patience, temperance, self-control, sobriety, mercy and peace. This is why Orthodoxy teaches the faithful to be thankful for all things and to regularly meditate on the Akathist of Thanksgiving called, “Glory to God for All Things.” Difficult circumstances—more than the easy seasons of our lives—are the ones that induce salvation and give opportunities for growth in the virtues.
Further to our typology above, it is precisely through the combined actions of the new Eve and new Adam that we can have access to divinity, as Christ’s humanity (via the new Eve) allowed him access to death through his crucifixion (as the new Adam) in order to conquer it by the power of his divinity. More specifically, the old Eve’s “pain in childbearing” (Gen. 3:16) that she endured because of her disobedience prefigures and is sacralized by the new Eve (Theotokos) who bore Christ incarnate in her womb without being consumed because of her obedience. In this manner, the Theotokos is also prefigured by the burning bush that also bore God without being consumed and is the visible Theophany of an invisible God in the Old Testament much like Christ is the “image of the invisible God” in the New Testament. So too, the old Adam who toiled among “thorns and thistles” and by whose “sweat of your face, you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground” (Gen. 3:18-19) prefigures Christ’s anguish in Gethsemane (sweat), suffering (thorns), crucifixion (bread), entombment and resurrection (ground). The original curse of death from the original act of disobedience has therefore been conquered through the new Eve and new Adam’s obedience, with the Tree prefiguring both the cross of obedience and the Chalice of authorized—even encouraged—consumption.
It is therefore by Christus Victor—or “Christ the conqueror”—that death has been removed as the obstacle between us and the divine. Likewise, “IC XC NIKA”—“Jesus Christ, conqueror”—is stamped on the prosphora (the bread of Holy Communion) that we place and “offer up” (anaphora) on the diskos, which represents the Holy Virgin’s womb and the tomb simultaneously. Therefore, with the removal of death as an obstacle, we may now “partake of the divine nature” so that “we all, with unveiled faces, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another” (2 Cor. 3:18) as the prerequisite for union with Christ. This is the full revelation of God—after his incomplete, incremental self-revelation—facilitating the full revelation of the divine image in us as microcosms of the Old Testament in transit toward the New.
And, if we delve a bit deeper, Adam and Eve’s disobedience also led to excessive and wrongful consumption from the Tree. This dynamic is recapitulated in reverse by Mary’s obedience toward God’s messenger when she declared, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word,” which allowed her to conceive the Word-made-flesh in her womb. It is also recapitulated in Jesus’ obedience in the Garden of Gethsemane when he prayed, “Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done.” This acquiescence, then, cleared the way for the Word-made-flesh to eventually offer his body and blood in the Chalice (i.e., Cross / Tree), from which we now consume rightfully. Moreover, rather than excessively consume from the Tree, humanity now offers up (anaphora) the wheat and grapes—“Thine own of Thine own we offer unto Thee, on behalf of all and for all” as the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom says—that are changed (metanoia) into the body and blood of Christ incarnate in the new Tree (i.e., the Chalice). These Holy Gifts we can now, again, consume rightfully as the “medicine of immortality” (St. Ignatius of Antioch, Epistle to the Ephesians, 20:2).
This grand narrative, then, is instructive, as it reveals that the way to “know” God is to tread the path cleared by Christ’s conquest of death. This allows us access to the divine nature so that we may partake of it, be incrementally transfigured (even infinitely – cf. “epektasis”), and “know” God intuitively by what we become. This is the alternative to parsing ancient texts in order to “know” who God is only rationally. While we may begin to acknowledge divine consistency in the Old and New testaments through a rational understanding of God’s incremental self-revelation that culminates in the Word incarnate, this mere cognition is useful only as a description of that to which we aspire ontologically through our own transfiguration. In this sense, learning to be attentive when confronted with the minutiae of everyday life so that we may grow in the virtues that God exhibited through his self-emptying is the way to transcend arguing about who God is by instead becoming who God is. This is the lofty and daunting telos, perfection, or maturity to which Christ calls us all and—although as gradual and protracted as God’s incremental self-revelation—is the only sure way for us or our fellow interlocutors to know who God is not only by understanding the words in Holy Scripture, but by intuitively “knowing” the Word who reveals himself in our nous or heart, or “the spiritual center of man's being, the human person as made in God's image [and] the deepest and truest self, the inner shrine to be entered only through sacrifice and death” (Ware, The Orthodox Way, p. 115).