As I work my way through Exodus again, I come to this verse: “Keep far from a false charge, and do not kill the innocent and righteous, for I will not acquit the wicked” (23.7). It’s only a small example of what runs rampant through the Torah–commandments and consequences. God warns his people about serious offenses, and spells out the inevitable results of bad choices.
And I think to myself, well, this is the problem right here. Fair warning from God, but no immediate consequences. Imagine the kind of parenting that says to your kids, “If you turn on that television before your homework is done, no more TV for the week” and then, the kids slyly waiting until dad is out of the room, pushing that power-on button. Stranger Things is playing out its slimy tendrils while the algebra rots in the backpack. Dad comes back in, observes the “choice,” huffs and puffs a bit, and goes back to making dinner. Nothing happens. What have we learned? That we can pretty much delay any consequences until they’re “negotiable.”
God gives rules for family, communal, and national justice for his people, and those rules have consequences. He puts all the power into the hands of his people: choose. The people of God indeed do choose: they choose to ignore God’s rules with impunity. The prophets enumerate the many ways God is going to exact punishment, blasting and bellowing their righteous rage at the seemingly gleeful nose-thumbing God’s people do over the centuries.
Idolatry? You shall have no other gods before me. “We will not listen to the message you have spoken to us in the name of the Lord! … We will burn incense to the Queen of Heaven and will pour out drink offering to her just as we and our fathers, our kings and our officials did in the towns of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem” (Jer 44.16-17).
Murder? You shall not murder. “Joab said to Amasa, ‘How are you, my brother?’ Then Joab took Amasa by the beard with his right hand to kiss him. Amasa was not on his guard against the dagger in Joab’s hand, and Joab plunged it into his belly…” (2 Sam 20. 9-10).
Adultery? Do not have sexual relations with your neighbor’s wife… “‘Isn’t this Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah the Hittite?’ Then David sent messengers to get her. She came to him, and he slept with her” (2 Sam 11.3-4).
Marriage with non-Israelites? When the Lord your God brings you into the land you are entering to possess … do not intermarry with them. “King Solomon loved many foreign woman …” (1 Kgs 11.1).
Child sacrifice? Any Israelite or alien living in Israel who gives any of his children to Molech must be put to death. “Manasseh sacrificed his own son in the fire…” (2 Kgs 21.6).
Sleeping with a sibling? Rape? Do not have sexual relations with the daughter of your father’s wife, born to your father; she is your sister. If in the field the man finds the girl who is engaged, and the man forces her and lies with her, then only the man who lies with her shall die. “Amnon son of David fell in love with Tamar, the beautiful sister of Absalom son of David … Since he was stronger than she, he raped her” (2 Sam 13.1, 14).
Cheating? You must have accurate and honest weights and measures … for the Lord your God detests anyone who deals dishonestly. “Am I still to forget, O wicked house, your ill-gotten treasures and the short ephah, which is accursed?” (Mic 6.10)
There are too many instances to count. It’s harder to find faithful, obedient people of God in scripture than it is to find the rogues and thieves and God-haters and idol worshipers and just plain mean and nasty people. For every Deborah or Elijah or Josiah there are dozens of vicious and petty people who happily ignore God’s ways. They are, as Paul describes them, wicked, greedy, and deprave; full of envy, murder, and malice; faithless, heartless, and ruthless.
And, in large part, they get away with it. Oh sure, it all comes tumbling down in 587 BC, but seriously, if God had just dealt with problems a little more predictably when they happened, maybe people would have learned. Sure, sure, someone eventually reaps the consequences. Manasseh was a wretch, but after 55 years of ruling, “Manasseh rested with his fathers and was buried in his palace garden.” It was Daniel and his generation that paid the price for Manasseh’s horrors.
This is not effecting parenting… so what is it? A soft, pansy sort of mercy in the face of hard-headed and hard-hearted human choices?
We are a generation largely nurtured on the compelling message that “God loves us just the way we are, not the way we should be,” and this is so, so true. But this is not the same message as “we’re fine just the way we are and we don’t have to become the way we should be.” And honestly, when I read some of the Old Testament, I feel like God is a beleaguered grandparent who just doesn’t want people to feel too badly about their poor choices, wants them to feel special, and thus lets them “get away” with as much as possible until he can’t tolerate it anymore, loses his patience, and throws all kinds of thunder down on the poor suckers who just learned evil from their parents and parents’ parents. They’re not really guilty; they’re just victims of generations of bad choices.
Something’s wrong here with my theology.
Fred Schmidt’s recent post, “The Problem(s) with ‘Harmonial Religion’,” enumerates the way we pick and choose what feels most encouraging, comforting, and compelling in the religious imagination. He points out the many incongruities between this belief system and authentic Christian faith and practice. He talks about magic, and how we try so hard to manipulate God and the world to get the outcomes that we want and think we deserve. I think my comments about the delayed justice of God is a form of magical thinking. God gave us “rules and consequences” and he is “up there” watching our choices. I expect to be rewarded for my docile behavior and I most certainly expect that foul creature next to me who ignores the rules to get the big divine slap-down. The slap-down of the nasty is nearly as important to me as the divine favor I hope to enjoy for my own goody goodness.
Is this not magical? God’s failure to act?? God should behave according to my sense of congruity, timeliness, and wisdom, because, after all, that’s what I would have done and, most importantly, that’s what is most logical and effective for my perceptions of what God should be trying to accomplish.
If God had snipped the life out of every incorrigible sinner as soon as he or she “crossed the line,” what kind of life would we be living? What kind of God would we be worshiping? Would this be the kind of God who would give himself to bear the consequences of our evil desires? Would this be the kind of God who grieved over the suffering we would face–suffering caused by our own choices, by the choices of others, and by the seemingly chaotic world we live in? Would this be the kind of God whose great hope is that we “turn! turn from our evil ways!” for he takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked.
You see, that’s the difference–we very much want the wicked to be justly punished, and we take great pleasure in it. God does not. He loves us wicked souls, just the way we are because that’s what he has to work with, but he wants us to have the goodness, holiness, and joy he has planned for us, because “just the way we are” isn’t life.