Michelangelo Buonarroti, God in “Creation of the Stars and Planets,” fresco,
Sistine Chapel, Vatican, 1511.
For many readers the book of Joshua presents a challenge. From our childhood through this Sunday’s homily, we are accustomed to hearing that “God is love,” so it is jarring when we read in Joshua: “When the trumpets sounded, the people shouted, and at the sound of the trumpet, when the people gave a loud shout, the wall [of Jericho] collapsed; so every man charged straight in, and they took the city. They devoted the city to the Lord and destroyed with the sword every living thing in it—men and women, young and old, cattle, sheep and donkeys . . .. Then they burned the whole city and everything in it . . .” (Joshua 6:20-24). And so the pattern continues throughout the conquest and settlement of the Promised Land, with God encouraging—indeed, commanding—slaughter.
I must say that many people are profoundly disturbed by this, and many ask: “How do we square the God we meet in Joshua with our understanding of ‘God is love’ in the New Testament?”
When we first meet God in Genesis 1: 1 he is called Elohim in Hebrew, a plural noun of majesty. In Genesis, God forms man out of “the dust of the earth,” and he interacts with him, walking with him in the “cool of the garden.” Genesis 1 & 2 portray the relationship between God and man as intimate and tender. Once sin enters the world in Genesis 3, however, God seems to distance himself from such intimate contact with humanity, preferring to stand afar and send messengers (i.e., angels: Hebrew, melech; Greek, angelus) as go-betweens. Later, as the plan of salvation unfolds, God takes on a seemingly different character as he commands the Israelites in Joshua to “totally destroy” the people who inhabit the Promised Land, and he is quick to punish with instant death any disobedience on the part of the Israelites if they fail to carry out his orders.
As our story progresses, God brings a fearful judgment on Judah for its disobedience by using Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, as his instrument of punishment. In a fearful siege, the Babylonians raze Jerusalem, kill thousands of people and carry the survivors into captivity. Jeremiah, who witnesses the siege from within the walls of Jerusalem, cries out: “Look, O Lord, and consider: Whom have you ever treated like this? Should women eat their offspring, the children they have cared for? Should priest and prophet be killed in the sanctuary of the Lord? . . . You have slain them in the day of your anger” (Lamentations 2:20, 21).
As we study through the entire Bible verse-by-verse, we do not enjoy the option of reading only those stories we like or only those that make us feel good. Nor can we indulge in oversimplification and say that we have a “God of wrath” in the Old Testament, but a “God of love” in the New. Such thinking is not only sentimental, but it is incorrect. God tells us plainly in Malachi 3: 6, toward the end of the Old Testament: “I the Lord do not change.” According to God himself, we meet the same God in Joshua and the Babylonian Captivity as we meet at the foot of the cross and the empty tomb.
So, what are we to make of this God who seems at once loving and angry, patient and petulant, tender and wrathful?
As we read through the linear narrative of Scripture, we find twenty-one separate comparisons describing God, each one indicating some aspect of his character. Here’s the list: God is—
1. “A consuming fire” (Deuteronomy 4:24)
2. “God” (Deuteronomy 7:9)
3. “Gracious and compassionate” (2 Chronicles 30:9)
4. “Mighty” (Job 36:5)
5. “Exalted in power” (Job 36:22)
6. “A righteous judge” (Psalm 7:11)
7. “My Rock” (Psalm 18:2)
8. “King of all the earth” (Psalm 47:7)
9. “Our refuge” (Psalm 62:8)
10. “The strength of my heart” (Psalm 73:24)
11. “A sun and a shield” (Psalm 84:11)
12. “Greatly feared; he is awesome” (Psalm 89:7)
13. “Holy” (Psalm 94:9)
14. “My salvation” (Isaiah 12:2)
15. “Righteous” (Daniel 9:14)
16. “Truthful” (John 3:33)
17. “Faithful” (1 Corinthians 10:13)
18. “Just” (2 Thessalonians 1:6)
19. “Living and active, sharper than a two-edged sword” (Hebrews 4:12)
20. “Light” (1 John 1:5)
21. “Love” (1 John 4:8, 4:16)
To view God solely as “love”—his final attribute in Scripture—is to diminish radically the infinite nature of who he is. It is to turn God into a caricature of our own fancy or wishful thinking.
All people are complex creatures, and entering into an intimate relationship with another person reveals his or her complexities. So it is with God. As we come to know God in Scripture, we begin to understand the complex nature of a just, holy and righteous God who sees us clearly in all of our grotesque sinfulness, yet who sacrifices his Son that we may live. Such a God is far more than “love,” even in the highest sense of the term: he is a God of infinite holiness, of profound justice and of fathomless depths.
A very good UCLA colleague of years past, Dr. Jack Miles, published a brilliant book titled, God, a Biography (New York: Alfred Knopf, 1995), in which he writes “about the life of the Lord God as—and only as—the protagonist of a classic of world literature; namely, the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament.” Jack does not attempt to analyze God as an object of religious belief, nor does he attempt to view God as an extra-literary reality. His perspective is purely that of a literary critic. Yet, his insights into the nature and character of God are dazzling.
In 1996 Jack’s book won a Pulitzer Prize and it has since been translated into fifteen languages. It is well worth reading for any Bible student seriously grappling with the character of God.