Understanding Old Testament Wrath

What do I teach on Sunday nights? Well, basically the Bible. But I thought I'd let you know what I taught earlier this evening. Currently I'm teaching through the Old Testament books of 1&2 Samuel. 1 Samuel 15 details the God-ordered genocide of the Amalekite people. Not a very seeker-sensitive, "God is love" message to teach about. There are usually a few different ways Christians handle a text like this: you can ignore it, you can explain it away is irrelevant to modern life or you can accept it and then ignore it.

My approach is to take it and rub it in people's faces.

You see, I'm of the opinion that if I'm going to embrace Christianity, I should take it for all it is, not just what I prefer it would be. Ironically, King Saul, who disobeys God's command in 1 Samuel 15, took the "what I prefer" route. He decided to accept God's commands as far as it was convenient to him which led him towards self-idolization and, eventually, contributes to his downfall.

So back to the Amalekite genocide, it's tough for people to synchronize these kind of texts with Christianity. In researching the topic this week I read one person dismiss this story stating, “The writers of the Old Testament often use their medium as polemic to justify ungodly things.” In short, they think Old Testament writers made up the narratives to make themselves look holy while committing this slaughter. Such people arrive at this conclusion because they believe it conflicts with the message of Jesus. Therefore, they assert, the Old Testament texts are contrived because they object with what Jesus said.

That's all well and good except that Jesus himself believed the Old Testament to be true [for examples of this, reference Matthew 5:18, Matthew 15:6, and John 10:35]. If you truly follow Jesus' teachings, you are forced to wrestle with what to do with these texts. It is not easily explained as Old Testament = God of Wrath, New Testament = God of Love.

So was God just ticked off and felt like opening a can off whoop *** on people? Well, it's more complicated than this. Understanding the history of the Amalekites, who tried to annihilate the Israelites, is a good starting point. Understanding that war in the Ancient Near East was primarily waged in order to gain plunder and God commanded that they take none also helps to understand this. And even understanding the strict, unparalleled guidelines found in the Torah that dictated how war was to be waged is critical. But the most important principle to observe here is this: God’s character is consistent thoughout history but the manner by which he unleashes both His holiness and His wrath varies.

While some assume that the wrath of God declined from Old Testament days until now, this is not the case. The ultimate refutation of this is hell. Hell would be the unequalled unleashing of the wrath of God which would be realized at the end of the world. So the greatest example of his wrath has yet to occur.

So you can't pull out 1 Samuel 15 and let it stand alone in order to critique Christianity because it fits within the scope of the Biblical narrative. There are numerous instances throughout the Bible where God unleashes his wrath on his own people. And therein lies the heart of the Christian message: all of us humans actually deserve the wrath of God, but by his grace we are enabled to avoid it.

This is why I love teaching through the Bible chapter-by-chapter: it forces me to deal with topics I would normally skip over. If I choose to avoid certain texts because they're difficult or unpleasant I'm cheating myself out of the opportunity to really grapple with my faith.

The podcast of this teaching will be up in the next week or so. I go much more in depth than I did here, so if you want to see where I went with this.