A couple of years ago, I found myself sitting in a room with a bunch of really bright individuals who were dreaming of putting together a daylong practical theology conference for women to be held on the campus of Trinity International University. I didn’t know most of them, but as we met to dream together a little more, then worked and prayed together, the unexpected bonus for me was getting to know the women on the planning committee. There is nothing like working on a project (like a big event, with a deadline!) to create a team out of a collection of individuals.
One of the women I got to know was Ingrid Faro. Ingrid was finishing work on her dissertation and was working at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School teaching Biblical Hebrew and overseeing the school’s field education program. Ingrid tutored me in Biblical Hebrew for a season, and as she listened to me stumble my way through Ruth 1, I had an opportunity to learn about her remarkable life story. This Wall Street Journal piece offers a nod toward a few components of her late-in-life return to seminary. She’s inspired me in my own tentative journey back to school, and has pointed me toward the Lord by word and example in other areas of my life.
Sometimes, she lets me have a peek at a bit of the academic writing she’s doing. She sent along the text of a speech she was working on, and I told her I would love to share a shorter version of it on my blog. For anyone who has ever wondered if the God of the Old Testament is different somehow than the God of the New Testament, the essay below offers a grounded and well-reasoned discussion on the subject. Before I turn this over to Dr. Ingrid Faro, though, I will show you one thing I learned during my time working at Trinity: the value of a formal academic introduction:
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Is God a Mafia Boss or Is God Good: Old Testament View of God, Part I
by Dr. Ingrid Faro
This summer, Sweden’s largest newspaper, Dagen’s Nyhetter, featured in their Culture Section: Classics to Avoid. The Old Testament was reviewed with two thumbs down, sporting the title, “’God’ is portrayed as an arbitrary mafia boss.” Although portions of the book are described from charming to bizarre, the main character, God, is critiqued as inconsistent and unpredictable. This depiction of God is not unusual in recent years, and even mild in comparison with Richard Dawkins often quoted rant that `The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction… a capriciously malevolent bully.’’
As much as people enjoy shooting arrows at heaven, and pat each other on the back for shaking their fist in the face of the God they deny, my most curious observation is the lack of progress people make in dealing with the problem of evil when the thrust of their energies is aimed at blaming someone, anyone, but themselves for the suffering in the world. It has become fashionable to blame God with crimes against humanity, while we absolve ourselves from either guilt or responsibility. Indeed, it is the very existence of pain that many use to deny the possibility of a powerful, loving, and wise God.
As objective as contemporary academia claims to be, we all are influenced by our backgrounds, life circumstances, and desires. Any degree of honesty admits that we all have beliefs. We all believe something about ourselves – whether humans are products of random selection or guided evolution, or uniquely created. We all believe something about a supreme being in our lives – whether that supreme being is ourself, an ideology, an eternity of nothingness, or in a unique transcendent intelligence. We each base our decisions and evaluate those of others, from some pinnacle of inner belief, that we try to support with knowledge and information, but tend to cling to with subjective tenacity.
So what happens when we meet someone or something new, strange perhaps – with a different culture, or background? When we encounter people or concepts that seem foreign to us, we approach them with our embedded beliefs and acquired knowledge. In this regard, we all wear glasses. These are the lenses through which we see. Although we may not be able to remove our lenses, when we approach someone or something new with respect and curiosity, our world and our vision can expand.
C.S. Lewis wrote that when we approach a text, “We must begin by laying aside as completely as we can all our own preconceptions, interests, and associations. …We must look, and go on looking till we have certainly seen exactly what is there. … The first demand any work of any art makes upon us is to surrender. Look. Listen. Receive. Get yourself out of the way.” In our world of sound bites and cynicism, when it comes to encountering a text like the Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament, it is not popular to approach it with patience, wisdom or respect. But what a loss – historically, culturally, and personally.
Recent developments in the news have caused even many Christians to look at the Old Testament with an anxious eye and wonder why there is so much death and destruction, wondering if the insults hurled at God are true, or if He really sees what’s going on, or if He is there at all. The Bible does not give a simple defense of God’s goodness in the face of evil and suffering. There are many principles at work in the agency of good and evil.
In this blog, I will focus on just one: the Principle of Action-Consequence. It first unfolds through the image of a Seed. Genesis 1 describes a truth that we can all understand: life come from seed. Somehow, life is contained in a seed. This is true for plants, fish, birds, animals, and humans. If the seed of an apple is planted in fertile ground it produces apples. If the seed of a bull is planted in a fertile cow it produces a calf. We know this principle metaphysically as well. We realize that actions have consequences, unless there is intervention to alter their outcome.
The opening chapters of Genesis establish that the seed of thought planted in the fertile ground of the mind produces corresponding actions, and these actions bear consequences. This principal of action-consequence is embedded within the Hebrew language of the Old Testament. What is commonly viewed as ’divine retribution’ – the mafia boss or bullying concept of God – is most often, simply the Principle of Action-Consequence.
In biblical Hebrew, the consequences of bad choices come in “precise symmetry of crime and punishment.” The punishment fits the crime with lexical precision through double entendre – two meanings used for the same word. A series of Hebrew root words describe both an action and its consequence. For example, the words for guilt (‘asham)and iniquity (‘avon)are used to describe both the wrong of an action and its consequence in terms of punishment or, as a guilt-offering. The word for evil (ra‘ ) can be used for bringing misfortune. The word for violent deed (hamas) is also used for destroying (oneself).  The relationship between action and consequence is built into the system of natural justice. God works in concert with people’s freely made choices, because this is just and right.
This is seen in the language of the Flood narrative. Genesis 6 begins with an ancient evil going on through the puzzling Nephalim. Some believe these to be human, others believe them to be superhuman or demonic, or demonically contrived. Whatever they were, they had moved away from the good in the created order. But God was patient. He first gave a warning: He shortened the lifespan of humanity from hundreds of years down to 120. But humanity did not respond to the warning. Instead, the creatures of earth continued to degenerate. Gen 6:12-13 tells that the whole earth had become corrupted because all living things upon the earth had corrupted it. God then explains to Noah, the one morally upright man, that since the earth had become corrupted through violence, or utter lawlessness, therefore, their own corruption would be brought about in the earth. The root word for the corruption done to the earth by all living things is the same used to describe the consequence. What the living things had done to the earth, would come upon them, translated as the destruction. The heavens and the earth would open up with floods of water and wash away the corruption. The symmetry of crime and punishment in terms of consequence is clear.
God is not described anywhere in the Flood narrative as wrathful. There is no mafia boss here. No. God is described as mournful over what became of His creation. The same word is used to describe the pain God felt in His heart, as humanity’s pain in Gen 3:16-17. Our God suffers with our suffering, and He is grieved.
The ‘’sentence of death by flood for humanity’s social and ecological violence is also a legal decision. It is based on the illegality of violence, which is textually grounded in creation.”The legal precedents for God’s judgments are rooted in the relationship established between Creator and humankind. To harm God’s creation is to strike at God himself. Life is precious. Taking life must therefore be accounted for.
Daniel Block takes this a step further in finding that the land itself is witness to God’s covenant, and itself responds to violations by those whom God appointed as earth’s caretaker and steward. Nature itself, as God’s witness, responds to humanity’s lawlessness.A relationship is shown for the cosmic connection between moral evil and natural disasters.
Randomness in denied.
The first principle of action-consequence, pictured by the seed, is rooted in law and justice. But the Old Testament speaks of a greater principle at work, which intervenes and overrules the first: the Principle of Mercy and Grace. God gives mercy to the repentant, and grace to the faithful.
There are other principles at work as well. For we live in a conflict zone. There are non-human adversarial agents at work to destroy the harmony and good that God intends. These malevolent forces are introduced in Genesis, lurking mostly in the shadows of texts in the Old Testament, not coming out into full exposure until the Light of the World came into our scene, fully visible, illuminating the conflict clearly, and eliminating the ancient authority of the powers of darkness.
The biggest problem of evil we face is not resolved by shaking our fist at God, at our neighbors, at strangers, or at fate. The primary source of evil in this world is found by first looking within, at our own thoughts, choices, and behaviors. There is nothing arbitrary about God. He is clear. He is just. He is consistent. He is good. He is generous. He is kind. He is wise. He is merciful. He is gracious. And He expects the same from us.
The next Principle of Mercy and Grace will be covered in Part 2. The third Principle of God’s Royal Representative will be covered in Part 3.
(Note from Michelle: You guys. Part 2! Part 3! Stay tuned!)
Begins chapter 2 – ”The God Hypothesis” p. 51 of 2009 printing
C. S. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press)18-19.
J. P. Fokkelman, Narrative Art in Genesis, 36, 37, 41.
Fahlgren, K. Hj. “Ṣedaka, nahestehende und entgegengesetzte Begriffe im Alten Testament.” PhD diss., Uppsala Universitet, 1932; Klaus Koch, “Is There a Doctrine of Retribution in the Old Testament?” 75, 77. (Koch’s work is rightly criticized, because he provides too simple a theory. Other principles are not taken into account.)
Knierim, Task, 430, 432.
Daniel I. Block, “What Do These Stones Mean? The Riddle of Deuteronomy 27,” JETS, 56, no. 1 (2013): 23-24, 27n76, 29: see also James Bruckner