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Shadow Sides: God in the Old Testament – Eric Peels

October 25, 2015

SSsPeople compare the Old Testament God of wrath with the New Testament God of love. (Though, actually, there is much wrath in the NT and much love in the OT.)

The former seems alien and even frightening to the average reader. The God who hides himself in anger, executes revenge, and who in jealousy outpours wrath and judgement – Who is he? Can this God be trusted?

Many people do not know how to handle these shadow sides of the Old Testament revelation of God. They may become obstacles to faith. Is this the same God as the One who is our salvation, light, and life?

This book is written for all those who stumble over questions such as these. It encourages us to read the Bible ‘from within’ and shows that when we listen with an open mind to the message of the Old Testament, we can get new and surprising insights.

The author has no truck with a ‘trunc­ated’ canon, which was Marcion’s solution for screening the biblical image of God from any ‘shadow side’. Some famous German scholars like Friedrich Schleiermacher, Albrecht Ritschl, Adolph von Harnack, Friedrich Delitzsch and Emanuel Hirsch followed this approach and look how Germany ended up in the 1930s.

Nor does he like Kuitert’s approach to scripture as a kind of breviary – thoughts to ponder rather than the words of the living God.

Paul, or whoever wrote to Timothy, had no problem in referring to the Old Testament as inspired. Surely, revelation is progressive – in older times, people wrote about the god that their limited minds could understand; a bigger version of themselves with their loves and hates. A fuller revelation in Jesus makes for a more mature view. Peels suggests that we need ‘reading glasses’ like Paul’s to approach the Old Testament.

He points out that God ‘repents’ several times and that even though God has full knowledge of the future free actions of his creatures, he does not have full knowledge of all his own future free actions. Yet Paul admits, to the Church in Corinth, that we see only darkly, through a glass – there is more to be known when we meet God face to face.

God repented about creating humans when he saw Noah’s day and decided to send a flood. He repented making Saul king.

When Jonah brings his terrible message to the inhabitants of Nineveh and they actually repent, God is deeply emotionally affected by what he sees. On that basis, that is, on the basis of his mercy, he changes his mind and decides not to destroy the city. God knows his creatures  perfectly, so he did foresee that they would repent. But God did not foresee that he himself would be deeply affected and would change his mind as a result of that.

But the fact that God can change his mind does not imply that believers need to be in constant fear or that God is unreliable or capricious, because there are certain things, such as our salvation and other promises to his people, that God will not change his mind about because he is rational; his decisions are based on justice and balanced with love.

There are questions at the end of each chapter for reflection and discussion.

The author suggests that the ‘shadow sides’ of God in the Old Testament are necessary for a right understanding of God.


 In a Reformed interpretation of the Bible we cannot give up the principle that the Bible is more than human words. The great discovery of the Reformers of the living heart of the Bible was that it is the very word of God by which the Lord himself speaks. Today this is as relevant as it was in those times. Of course there are human experiences and insights in the Bible, but they are embedded in and taken up in God’s revelation. The God who speaks gives us a thorough impression of the mighty and all-embracing sal­vation in Jesus Christ, by the testimony given by the Holy Spirit. In this way we know from within that this word has authority. The way in which the Bible testifies about itself makes us accept that all Scripture that we received in this form is the word of God without any distinction. It requires a reverent and true openness to listen. The way in which the Lord Jesus and the apostles deal with the Old Testament points us in the right direction

There is a progress in his revealing himself and so there is a history of revelation. An important verse is Hebrews 1:1: ‘In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son…’ We can also think of the parable of the unfair tenants in the vineyard in Matthew 21:33-44. In the Old Testament itself the pro­gressive revelation is indicated, as in Exodus 6:3: ‘I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob as God Almighty, but by my name the LORD I did not make myself known to them.’ The concept of a progressive history of revelation figures regularly in Reformed confessional documents (e.g. Heidelberg Catechism, question and answer 19, and Belgic Confession of Faith, article 25).

We quote two theologians who explain the notion of the history of revelation in striking words, using the metaphors of an increasing light and a sculpture. John Calvin writes: ‘…at the beginning when the first promise of salvation was given to Adam (Gen. 3:15) only a few slender sparks beamed forth: additions being afterwards made, a greater degree of light began to be displayed, and continued gradually to increase and shine with greater brightness, until at length, all the clouds being dispersed, Christ the Sun of righteousness arose, and with full refulgence illumined all the earth…’ (Institution 11.10.20). The Dutch Old Testament scholar Theodoor Vriezen expresses this in the following way in his An Outline of Old Testament Theology, Oxford 1958: ‘Like an artist who works on his intractable material with his chisel and a steady hand and who sees the image slowly ( take shape and emerge from the shapeless mass of stone, God has worked on the “image of God” in mankind. In the Old Testament it emerges rather in the manner of some of Rodin’s sculptures where the work of art is still interfused with the material from which it has been cre­ated. In the New Testament the work of art is completed and the conception that God has of and for man, the Image of God, stands out clearly in Jesus Christ’ (p. 17).

The relevance of perceiving the history of revelation

Why is the perception of the history of revelation so important for the comprehension of the Old Testament preaching about God? Because in this way readers of the Bible become aware of the fact that they should not just put all sorts of texts from the Old and the New Testaments on one and the same level. In an earlier stage of history we cannot expect the same sort of clarity we have in the New Testament. In his revelation God some­times joins in current opinions and insights (that is what Calvin calls ‘accommodation’). God may change these concepts, however — he ‘baptizes’ them, as it were, and later on in history he gives more insight. We will illustrate this briefly in dealing with three examples, con­sidering the issue of:

God and the gods

God and evil

God and suffering

God and the gods

From the whole of Scripture we know that there is only one God. Polytheism is a human invention. Yet in the Old Testament there are all sorts of texts which suggest that the existence of other gods is a reality. Thus Jephthah tells the kings of Ammon: ‘Will you not take what your god Chemosh gives you?’ (Judg. 11:24)

The Hebrew word qin’ah

We start with a brief linguistic study. The word under review is the Hebrew word qin’ah. Hebrew has one word for the three words mentioned above: zeal, envy and jealousy. In each case we must determine from the con­text which nuance is relevant. The translation may vary as well. Qin’ah as ‘zeal’ may sometimes be translated as ‘commitment, passion, ardour, energy, fierce emotion’; qin’ah as ‘envy’ may sometimes be translated as ‘jeal­ousy, grudging, rivalry, belligerence, competition; qin’ah as ‘jealousy’ may sometimes be rendered ‘suspicion, dis­trust’. In the Old Testament the word qin’ah (with its derivatives) occurs 85 times and proves to be applicable to various areas: marriage, economics, politics, religion. Still, for all the variation in usage, there is a common underlying notion, because in all the texts the reference is to an intense, energetic and vehement emotion which urges to action and results in actions.

The enormous speed at which the process of secularization has developed is linked with the spiritual and moral disorientation of a society which gave itself too much in terms of a materi­alistic way of living and a scientific way of thinking. Furthermore, the world is disillusioned because of the two World Wars which took place and perhaps the threat of a third one in the future. Potential environmental dis­asters are ticking like time bombs. The optimism of the nineteenth century has long since vanished. More than ever, humankind is aware of the chaotic and capricious nature of the history of nations and humankind and of the amazing amount of injustice and meaningless suffer­ing on earth. Last but not least, we must remember the advancing power of unbelief (cf. Lk. 18:8). Doubting God and his hand in history, doubting God and his hand in nature, doubting God and his hand in suffering — all these things (and much more) have deeply imbued our culture and society. No wonder that many complain about the lack of an experience of God.

The issue is not new

The experience of the absence of God is, however, not a novelty. There have been periods before in the world’s his­tory in which humans asked in despair: ‘Where is God?’ We may think of the so-called ‘insane’ fourteenth century, full of massive destruction, socio-economic chaos and spir­itual undermining, when Islam advanced, and the pesti­lence mowed down like a scythe a third of the European population. There was also despair in the time of Augustine at the decline of Rome as capital of the empire of the world. For centuries Rome had been the heart of an inviolable empire which reigned over the earth. Yet the Eternal City turned out not to be everlasting when Alaric and his Goths captured it in AD 410 and when the Vandals led by Gaiseric plundered the city in AD 454. We may even return to earlier times. In the Bible, particularly in the Old Testament, people frequently ask for God, who seems to be absent and who hides himself.

In the first place the prayer for revenge or for a curse must be set against the background of the Ancient Near Eastern tradition of cursing. By ‘curse’ we do not, of course, mean blasphemy, but a curse put on someone. Mankind in ancient times had a totally different opinion about these things from our own view today. We think a word is ‘just a word’. In the ancient world, however, a word was a reality, something which was active. The seriousness and the reality of a curse were dreaded. It was more than ‘just a word’.

In all sorts of areas of life curses were used as a normal thing. The oath was a form of self-imprecation (cf. the expression in 1 Sam. 14:44: ‘May God deal with me, be it ever so severely, if…’). In court the curse was used as a means of affecting the unknown guilty. Thieves, people who were dishonest and did not bring back what they had borrowed, defilers of a grave: let them be cursed! In the Ancient Near Eastern laws there are series of curses in the same way as we have penalty clauses. Curses were added to treaties and covenants as a way of sanctioning the demands on the parties involved. Curses were writ­ten on graves, on buildings, on boundary stones to secure them, etc. In everyday life curses were used: to protect things, to safeguard them, as a guarantee. The expressed curses were often very conventional and stereotyped.

The curse in Israel

In Israel the situation was no different. The Israelites evaluated words of curse and blessing in a very different way from the ways they are understood to in the Old Testament had real power and dreaded. It can be compared with a mortar directed precisely and explodes on the de where it causes immense chaos. It is a power of corruption and destruction, a power to scorch The conviction that a word of curse was pc realistic; read for instance Leviticus 5:1; Jul the law on jealousy in Numbers 5. Yet the idea that it is a sort of magical conviction (as if the curse should automatically have a particular result) is incorrect. Israelites knew very well that the curse is a divine weapon and that God will execute it (cf. Judg. 9:57; Det.

They were not startled when they heard curse in the psalms, for they were too accustomed to the use of cursing expressions in daily life. Still less did they consider it to be an immoral utterance o feelings of revenge. In Israel the curse worked as an efficient means in the context of economy, Read for instance Genesis 24:41; Ezekiel 17 5:3; Deuteronomy 27:11-26; 29:12,14; 1 Kings 8:31-31

Love in the Old Testament

Furthermore, we need to realize that the Old Testament forbids revengefulness and orders us to love our neigh­bour; read in particular Leviticus 19:18 (and the exten­sion of the command to love in verse 34). Compare Exodus 23:4-5; Job 31:29-30; Psalm 7:4-6; Proverbs 17:5,7; 24:17-18; 25:21-22. Striking is the way in which David, the author of many prayers for curses, acts towards Saul, who is the Lord’s anointed. David does not want to lift a hand against him (1 Sam. 24:13,18). David sings praises to the Lord when Abigail prevents him from getting charged with blood-guilt and settling his own case (1 Sam. 25:22-26). We cannot play off the Old Testament as the one of justice against the New as the one of love.

Wrath in the New Testament

The New Testament speaks even more seriously about God’s wrath, judgement of sin and animosity against him, and about the battle against the powers of darkness. In the New Testament preaching there is even the possi­bility of eternal doom (2 Thes. 1:9). Even in the New Testament we can read a ‘prayer for a curse’, as in 1 Corinthians 16:22: ‘If anyone does not love the Lord ­a curse be on him. Come, 0 Lord!’ Also powerful is the repetition of words in Galatians 1:8-9: ‘But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally con­demned!’ We mentioned earlier the prayer of the souls under the altar (Rev. 6:10). We may think of Jesus’ curs­ing the fig tree in Matthew 21:19 and Peter’s words to Simon Magus in Acts 8:20: ‘May your money perish with you…’ Full of warning and threat are the ‘woes’ Jesus proclaims in Luke 11:37-54.

The prophets declare God’s anger as a result of social injustice all over the land (Amos 5:7-12), or of their stubborn disbelief in politics (Hos. 7:11-12). Disdain for God’s laws, the breach of his covenant and the violation of his name all stir his anger.

When God is angry with the other nations, this may be for several reasons. Some nations are so involved in blood and violence that God wants to stop it. Jonah is ordered to preach to Nineveh: ‘…because its wickedness has come up before me’ (Jon. 1:2). Whenever a nation which is used by God as an instrument for discipline prides itself, like an axe which raises itself ‘above him who swings it’ (Is. 10:15), then the ‘Light of Israel will become a fire, their Holy One a flame; in a single day it will burn and consume his thorns and his briers’ (Is. 10:17). Woe to him who violates the apple of God’s eye: ‘Pour out your wrath on the nations that do not acknowledge you, on the peoples who do not call on your name. For they have devoured Jacob; they have devoured him completely and destroyed his homeland’ (Jer. 10:25).

The proclamation of Jeremiah 31 can be understood along the same lines. God has loved his people with an ‘everlasting love’ (v. 3), as verse 9 says: ‘…because I am Israel’s father, and Ephraim is my firstborn son.’ When Ephraim humbles itself (vv. 18-19), God cries out (v. 20): ‘Is not Ephraim my dear son, the child in whom I delight? Though I often speak against him, I still remember him. Therefore my heart yearns for him; I have great compassion for him…’ The Hebrew word for heart literally means ‘intestines’, and the word ‘yearn for’ is something like ‘to be restless’ (KJV reads: ‘my bowels are troubled for him’). It means a violent inner movement within the Lord. His forgiveness is based on what lives deep within him.

A government which proclaims humanity but at the same time does not try to stop criminal behaviour is a failure. Love and justice, revenge and forgiveness, may both be expected in the policy of a good ruler. How much more is this the case for the heav­enly King, but with him in perfect manner.

Finally this brings us to the cross on Golgotha. All that is said about God’s revenge and his forgiveness, about the Lord who is a God of righteousness and love, comes together in the cross of his own Son. It is beyond description what happens when the light of the world is hang­ing in the darkness of Golgotha. We see the fierce anger of God, in which he shows at the same time the strongest, most powerful love for us. We remember the question: ‘Who is like you?’ Golgotha shows who God is for human beings like us. And in that place we may begin to understand part of the wonderful Old Testament preaching of the supremacy of God’s love. This does not diminish his punishing righteousness. ‘Hear, 0 Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one’ (Deut. 6:4).

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