I was reading this Updike review of a re-translation of the Pentateuch. The Old Testament Hebrew Tribal God seems like a petty, vindictive, unpleasant, and in many ways, all too intimately human diety.
How did the New Testament God come to be both more distant and abstract on one hand, and more immediately personal as our personal friend and therapist on the other? What was abroad in the landscape of ideas at the time, precedent to the emergence of Jesus, that caused or allowed this conceptual evolution the Old Testament to New Testament God?
Social and theistic evolution like this doesn’t occur in a vacuum. What were the sociological and phliosophical changes in the people and the pre-BC Zeitgeist from Old to New Testament times that enabled this to occur?
One thing to consider is that there is no sharp divide between the Old and New Testaments, either theologically, psychologiically, or even chronologically. The development may be episodic rather than continuous, but the division between “tribal” God in the Old Testament and “intimate” God in the New Testament is a matter of confused perception. Even if one chooses to view the Torah/Pentateuch portrayal as only “petty, vindictive,” etc. (a viewpoint that can be challenged in its own right), there are many other views of God as portrayed in the Prophets, in Ruth, in Job, certainly in the Psalms, and in other works. The prophet Hosea portrayed God as a loving husband who repeatedly sought to recapture the love of his wife who had left him to act as a whore–hardly the act of a judgmental tribal thunder god. The consolations offered in Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Jeremiah are every bit equal to the curses that those prophets uttered.
The Old Testament was compiled over a long period of time (regardless whether one accepts the traditional or the literary accounts of its development) and the human authors had a lot of time to consider God from a myriad of different perspectives which they included in their work.
The God of the Old Testament doesn’t seem all that human, unless being punitive is the standard for judging such things. If you want gods with human characteristics, go with the ancient Greeks, whose deities were truly jealous, bickering, stealing consorts etc.
The Old Testament dude still seems to be the most popular conception among Christians these days, by a considerable margin. Nobody respects a wuss.
Actually, the images of God as wrathful and loving coexist, uncomfortably for humans who tend to dwell on one or the other, all the way through both Testaments. I’ll forebear from giving a liberal dose of Bible quotes to prove that point, but God’s self-description in Exodus, much of the later chapters of Isaiah (thought by most scholars to be the work of Deutero-Isaiah), Micah 6:8, several of the Psalms, Zephaniah 3, all testify to a God of lovingkindness. Examples of a wrathful God are plentiful in the O.T. But the exact same thing happens in the New Testament – Jesus’s picture of a merciful Abba, Father and Paul’s descriptions of God’s love and grace sit alongside the Second Coming Smackdown material.
I agree with most of what tomndebb said, but it bears pointing out that what you have described above is a popular misconception, peculiar to our current time, culture, and place. If you actually read the New Testament, the book of Revelation describes God killing off large segments of the world’s population, and destroying churches that have been unfaithful. During the Crucifixion, Jesus cries out to God, asking why he has been abandoned, and God does not answer. If you accept that Jesus was God also, well, Jesus took a whip and beat moneychangers in the Jewish temple.
All of these are hardly the acts of a “personal friend and therapist.” That view is something that has been marketed (there is no better word) over the last several decades in an attempt to keep Christianity relevant and mainstream in American society.
Whether that is good or bad is a different question. But the Bible doesn’t really support the clear division you’ve made, or, as tomndebb pointed out, any other unique view of God.
OK so the New Testament still has (on occasion) an angry, punishing God.
Do any modern variants of non-fundamentalist Christianity support the notion of a bad ass, striking down, angry God being relevant to our day to day behavioral and moral choices in modernity?
Re current mainstream Episcopal, Catholic, Lutheran etc., non-fundamentalist faiths. Do any of them have room in their belief space for an angry, judgmental and punishing God in their day to day lives?
So, I read things like “an angry, punishing God” , “vindictive” etc. I guess it depends on where you stand. A thief or murderer going through the U.S. court system might use similar words.
The earliest stories and beliefs in God centered around Him as a God of Justice, who rewards the good and punishes the wicked. If that makes him “vindictive”, so be it. In a lawless world, where each local petty tyrant can do as he pleases, the concept of a God of Justice was revolutionary. It was the concept that said that there is a Higher Law that will hold you accountable – even if you are Pharoah, the mightiest mortal ruler on earth.
Simultaneous with this was the notion that God was also a God of Mercy. The story of Sodom and Gomorrah is to the point – an evil city would be spared if there were ten good people in it. When there weren’t even ten, the only honorable family (by their standards) was spared.
Thus, God was seen as a God of Mercy and of Judgement. Yeah, justice involves punishment or vindictiveness, if that’s the way you want to look at it.
Later in the Christian Era, the notion of Justice and Mercy gave way to the notion of unconditional Love as God’s defining characteristic (at least, in Christianity.) It became popular to denounce Judaism in the terms that John Updike seems to have used, to pretend that the Jewish notion of God was somehow more primitive than this new concept of God as Love. And, of course, this argument was used as fuel for persecutions and pogroms.
So, is it an evolution in the perception of God? Perhaps. Perhaps we’ve lost the notion of justice and fairness in the broader concept of trying to love everyone. Loving everyone pushes aside courts and fair play, and says we should turn the other cheak. I don’t call that progress.
Astro, you might like to read **God: A Biography ** and especially Christ: A Crisis in the Life of God, by Jack Miles. In them, he examines the Bible not as history or as theology, but as literature, with God as the protagonist.
The central theme of **Christ: A Crisis ** is precisely this transformation of God’s character. Briefly, in order to renew and fufill God’s broken promise - the covenant with Israel - God must become human, with unexpected consequences.
Polycarp do you have any bible cites for a vengeful, nasty God from Mathew, Mark, Luke or John?
My personal view, is that the God of the Old Testament was no more accurate in portraying God than the Greek Zeus, or Hindu Vishnu. Jesus brought a much more accurate vision of God, and just happened to have been born within the Jewish tradition.
Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword.
11 And I say unto you, That many shall come from the east and west, and shall sit down with Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, in the kingdom of heaven.
12 But the children of the kingdom shall be cast out into outer darkness: there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
12 And on the morrow, when they were come from Bethany, he was hungry:
13 And seeing a fig tree afar off having leaves, he came, if haply he might find any thing thereon: and when he came to it, he found nothing but leaves; for the time of figs was not yet.
14 And Jesus answered and said unto it, No man eat fruit of thee hereafter for ever. And his disciples heard it.
15 And they come to Jerusalem: and Jesus went into the temple, and began to cast out them that sold and bought in the temple, and overthrew the tables of the moneychangers, and the seats of them that sold doves;
16 And would not suffer that any man should carry any vessel through the temple.
17 And he taught, saying unto them, Is it not written, My house shall be called of all nations the house of prayer? but ye have made it a den of thieves.
18 And the scribes and chief priests heard it, and sought how they might destroy him: for they feared him, because all the people was astonished at his doctrine.
19 And when even was come, he went out of the city.
20 And in the morning, as they passed by, they saw the fig tree dried up from the roots.
21 And Peter calling to remembrance saith unto him, Master, behold, the fig tree which thou cursedst is withered away.
The combination of Vengeful God and the Merciful God is much like a child’s view of their parent. The same person that kisses them is the same person that punishes them. The child often does not understand the parent’s motives, the same way God’s motives are not always understood.
The screenplay wasn’t quite right in the first drafts, so they brought in new writers to spice it up. Polls indicated that the audience wanted a more personal, romanticized movie.
Seriously? My answer is because the bulk of the OT (Jewish) god was stories passed down written by scholars between (excuse my generalization) 1100 - 300 BC, and wasn’t even finalized by the time Jesus came around. The NT, however, is mostly a collection of first-hand letters from a specific time period dealing with a specific person (largely). Their message was much different than the one of the Jewish scribes 1000 years before them. They also lived in a much different time than most of when the OT was written. Well, not MUCH different, but still different.