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The God described in the Old Testament can be violent and vindictive and seems to hold to a different set of moral rules than the God we see in the New Testament. How does the Catholic church explain these differences?

A few of the better known examples of the more violent nature of the Old Testament's God are:

  1. God asks Abraham to sacrifice his son (Genesis 22:2)

    2 And he said, Take now thy son, thine only son Isaac, whom thou lovest, and get thee into the land of Moriah; and offer him there for a burnt offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell thee of.

    This is then revealed to have been a "test" of Abraham's faith (Genesis 22:12)

    12 And he said, Lay not thine hand upon the lad, neither do thou any thing unto him: for now I know that thou fearest God, seeing thou hast not withheld thy son, thine only son from me.

    Since, by definition, the God of the Judeo-Christian faith is omniscient, this is not a test that could have provided Him with new information. It seems like a particularly horrible thing to do to a father. It is also at odds with the loving God of the later Christian faith.

  2. The story of Lot (Genesis 19). Two angels have visited Lot's house and he treats them as honored guests. The men of Sodom ask him to let them "know" them:

    5 And they called unto Lot, and said unto him, Where are the men which came in to thee this night? bring them out unto us, that we may know them.

    Lot wants to protect his guests and so, instead, offers up his virgin daughters:

    8 Behold now, I have two daughters which have not known man; let me, I pray you, bring them out unto you, and do ye to them as is good in your eyes: only unto these men do nothing; for therefore came they under the shadow of my roof.

    This is treated as a perfectly natural offer. Any father who would offer up his daughters for rape today would be considered the lowest of degenerate criminals, yet Lot is portrayed as the only righteous man in Sodom and the only one, along with his family, who is spared by God.

    The story of Lot also has two other examples of the extreme violence that the Old Testament God was capable of. The very smiting of the, presumably, hundreds or even thousands of inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah, and the turning of Lot's wife into a pillar of salt for the rather innocuous sin of looking back at her home while it was being destroyed:

    24 Then the Lord rained upon Sodom and upon Gomorrah brimstone and fire from the Lord out of heaven;

    25 And he overthrew those cities, and all the plain, and all the inhabitants of the cities, and that which grew upon the ground.

    26 But his wife looked back from behind him, and she became a pillar of salt.

    24 Then the Lord rained upon Sodom and upon Gomorrah brimstone and fire from the Lord out of heaven;

    25 And he overthrew those cities, and all the plain, and all the inhabitants of the cities, and that which grew upon the ground.

    28 And he looked toward Sodom and Gomorrah, and toward all the land of the plain, and beheld, and, lo, the smoke of the country went up as the smoke of a furnace.

  3. As a final example, the scourges of the Pharaoh. Each and every one of them is an action that does not square with the forgiving, loving and fundamentally good nature of the Christian God, but the following is particularly cruel (Exodus: 11):

    5 And all the firstborn in the land of Egypt shall die, from the first born of Pharaoh that sitteth upon his throne, even unto the firstborn of the maidservant that is behind the mill; and all the firstborn of beasts.

    This is a kind and loving God who will kill innocent babies. What's more, His wrath is not restricted to the children of those, like the Pharaoh, who oppressed his people but extends to ay and all Egyptians and even goes so far as to include their animals. Clearly, a sheepherder living out in the middle of nowhere who has never seen any of the Jews living in Egypt cannot be blamed for their oppression under the Pharaoh. Yet, even this innocent shepherd is not spared God's wrath.

Now, I imagine that all of these examples has been extensively debated and there will be various interpretations and apologetics for each. My question, however, is whether Catholics believe that the nature of God has changed between the Old and New testaments. Jehova seems to be a very different God from the one described in the New Testament, how is that dealt with in the Catholic faith?

PS. I have restricted the question to the Catholic church so it is not too broad bu welcome answers that also mention the positions of other denominations.

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Actually, the God of the Old Testament is a God of great love, compassion, mercy and forgiveness. The God of the New Testament is also a God of judgment. You could actually ask exactly the opposite question and provide verses to support your case. But if you look at all the evidence, it can be seen that God does not change. – Narnian Jul 31 '13 at 18:21
Please see the links. God promises judgment and condemnation for sinners in the New Testament--not on this earth, but in eternity. It would seem that eternal punishment would be much more severe than temporal. Jesus actually spoke about Hell quite a bit. Weeping and gnashing of teeth. The worm does not die. 1 Thes. 1:8-9. The Lake of Fire. – Narnian Jul 31 '13 at 18:31
@AdrianKeister absolutely, if my premise is wrong please demonstrate it, by all means. "You have missed the entire point" is a perfectly valid answer as long as it is supported by decent arguments. – terdon Aug 1 '13 at 5:31
@terdon - the account of Lot's daughters does not indicate God is not good: it showcases desperation and sin on the part of them and their father. – warren Aug 1 '13 at 13:24

3 Answers 3

Let me answer the question in general - ie, the answer to the subject. I will not deal with specific examples as this would take way too long.

According to catholic theology, God slowly revealed Himself to man, slowly revealed his nature, slowly teaches us.

Like when we teach our children - we teach them obedience to our rules, first via punishment, in simple terms, in fear so to speak. As they grow, we explain the reasons for those rules and hope for them to choose the good.

Same with God. We grow in our understanding of God, and God slowly teaches us.

One may wonder why we are not capable of learning as adults. Like Jesus's answer on marriage - "Moses allowed you to divorce your wives because of the hardness of your hear". In other words, it is our fallen nature that makes us like kids in my metaphor earlier.

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The Catholic church deals with them as separate events, each with its own answer.

  1. Let's take the story of Abraham in Genesis 22. You talk about it as cruel. But how did Abraham see it? He simply expected God to raise Isaac from the dead. He believed in a great God who would keep His promises made earlier about Isaac. From Abraham's perspective, it wasn't cruel. He did not make any saying or response of the event as it were cruelty. He continued to walk with God and trust Him. Continue ready Genesis and you'll see it is so. Does that sound like someone who finds God cruel? No; so you are not seeing the way it really happened. If you want a Catholic reading on this:

  2. Read Genesis 19 carefully and answer this: DID Lot give his daughters to the men? Here is a Catholic answer: Lot kept talking in order to buy time. We don't know if he really meant to give his daughters because the angels stepped in. Nothing happened to his daughters.

Who said Lot's wife turning back to look was a sin? Your adding words to the narrative that aren't there corrupt the message and your objectivity. :)

  1. You point out what God did regarding Pharaoh, but you don't point out that God spelled out exactly what He was going to do in advance. Pharaoh was warned over and over and still hardened his heart. His own servants were imploring him to give in - they were smarter than he was! It's just like today - many in prison were warned by their mothers or police and kept up their lives in crime until they were caught. Commentary hosted at a Catholic site:

In conclusion, regarding later events of God meting out punishments on Israel, read the law carefully which God handed to the Israelites and which they agreed to obey. In it are all the punishments God said He would do to them if they turned from Him. All the punishments on Israel throughout the OT, which you assume are all capricious and cruel, are all recorded there. God did to them exactly according to the law they agreed to. How can God be at fault when the Israelites agreed that the law was good?

Lastly, a red flag goes off in my mind every time someone speaks of a loving God and talks about a harsh act with it. God is not a one-dimensional character any more than you are. You love and you hate, and you find reasons for both. An earthly judge can be kind and loving to his family, but stern to the men who have been convicted for horrible crimes by the jury. No contradiction there. Your argument is a straw man argument, that God is ONLY loving, and incapable of carrying out judgments.

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I have never found a satisfactory Catholic explanation of God's cruel nature depicted in the Old Testament, a depiction that is real enough for early gnostic Christians to believe the Old Testament God must surely be a different God to that of the New Testament. It seems this is an issue not discussed and, if it is discussed, only to the extent that the subject can be changed to a discussion of the occasional cruelty of the Israelites and finally an assurance that God is a God of love.

Let's be clear. When Exodus tells us that God sent ten plagues on Egypt, he hardened the hearts of the pharaoh and his people each time they were willing to let the people go. Forcing the Egyptians to undergo more hardship in this way can easily be seen as a sign of vindictiveness, as in:

Exodus 10:20: the LORD made Pharaoh obstinate, and he would not let the Israelites go.

According to the Book of Joshua, God ordered an excessive punishment for a minor transgression after the conquest of Jericho, saying that all Israelites who had taken booty from Jericho be put to fire (Joshua 7:15). Joshua had killed every single person in Jericho after its fall, so when God ordered Joshua to do in the city of 'Ai what he had done in Jericho (Joshua 8:2), he was ordering another genocide. In 1 Samuel 15:3, God orders yet another genocide:

1 Samuel 15:3: Go, now, attack Amalek, and deal with him and all that he has under the ban. Do not spare him, but kill men and women, children and infants, oxen and sheep, camels and asses.'"

Unlike many Protestant Churches, the Catholic Church has maintained that understanding the Bible correctly requires guidance because the modern reader can be taken aback, especially if he or she fails to take account of the many “dark” deeds carried out down the centuries, and also in our own day. This site ('Ask a Priest') says that we should be aware that the correct interpretation of these passages requires a degree of expertise, acquired through a training that interprets the texts in their historical-literary context and within the Christian perspective which has as its ultimate hermeneutical key “the Gospel and the new commandment of Jesus Christ brought about in the paschal mystery”.

Having counselled its readers not to attempt to understand the Bible unaided, 'Ask a Priest' responds to the question of how the Catholic Church reconciles the "wrath" "repentence" and violence supposedly perpetrated by God in the Old Testament by saying it is important to keep in mind that the texts of the Old Testament date back to a time when the culture and mentality of people was very different from our current situation. Otherwise the question is not really answered. I believe further that the person who would ask this question deserves a better answer than that we need to read the Old Testament in the light of the New Testament.

This site ('Catholic Stand: Living the Truths the Church Teaches') answers this question, rather dogmatically put by Richard Dawkins and more sensitively by John Beversluis, by saying that in the warlike world of the ancient Middle East, a God who did not smite your enemy was not really a God worth worshipping, and condemning the pagan gods as being equally warlike. The claims of a violent and vindictive God are entirely ignored and the author goes on to discuss the moral commandments of God.

The Evangelical Catholicism site sets out to answer questions of the possibility of God having commanded genocide. It refers to Dei Verbum promulgated by Pope Paul VI in 1965, quoting “The books of Scripture must be acknowledged as teaching solidly, faithfully and without error that truth which God wanted put into sacred writings for the sake of salvation,” but saying it does not teach that the texts are inerrant in faith and morals. The question is not at all about faith and morals and is therefore left unanswered.

None of the above speaks directly on behalf of the Catholic Church, which remains largely silent on the issue of the more violent nature of the Old Testament's God, especially in the Book of Joshua. Often the best answer to an unanswerable question is to studiously ignore it, and I believe this is the Catholic approach to this vexed question.

But the question is answerable and has been answered, even if not by the Catholic Church. Eric Jobe provides one answer in 'Understanding Violence in the Old Testament: Critical and Patristic Perspectives'. He says when we encounter violence in the Old Testament that unsettles us, we may take some solace in the possibility that these texts were never intended by their authors as reporting factual history. Rather, they reflect theological and ideological concerns as encountered by the communities that first read these books. Jobe is an instructor of Bible and biblical languages for the Orthodox Church in America.

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