God has a reputation as an angry taskmaster who’s difficult to please. He has a bunch of rules and punishes anyone who falls afoul of them. He lives in a place called heaven. Everyone wants to go there, but it’s hard to be good enough.
A cursory reading of the Bible confirms this picture. A careful reading reveals an entirely different picture.
Actually comparing the Bible with other ancient literature confirms the truth: God is love. He prefers mercy to wrath and grace to judgment.
These days, too many people don’t even bother with a cursory reading of the Bible. They take other people’s word for it that God, if they’ll admit he even exists, is completely unreasonable.
If they read the Bible at all, they’ll only look for evidence that confirms their prejudice. They’ll read right past all the evidence of God’s love and mercy, because they’re not looking for it. That’s stinking thinking.
What happened in Eden?
God made the heavens and the earth from nothing. Then he created a man. Then he planted a garden for the man to live in. [Let’s not get distracted by quibbles over science. Let’s look at the Bible to see what it actually says!]
Notice the order.
The man not only observed the world becoming a nicer place to live. He gave names to all the beasts, and therefore got to help in the transformation.
In the process, God told him he could eat anything he wanted—except the fruit of one tree.
Now why was it unreasonable for God to reserve one tree for himself? No one has ever answered that question.
Once, when I started a new job, the boss told me I could go into her office, look through her desk, and take anything I wanted, with one exception. Looking at the personnel files was grounds for immediate dismissal. I’ve never encountered or heard of any boss allowing that much access to what was in his or her office. But that’s what God offered.
When all else was complete, God made a woman to be a companion for the man. Then he left them alone to enjoy the garden.
With God absent, the serpent came. He was more clever than all the beasts the man had named. It doesn’t say all the other beasts (although at least one very careless modern translation reads that way). The serpent wasn’t on of the beasts the man had named. Neither the man nor the woman had ever seen him before.
He was God’s enemy and immediately tried to seduce the woman to eat from that one tree God had forbidden.
Why the woman? Because the man had close fellowship with God during the entire time the garden grew. The woman lacked that experience. It’s always easier to deceive someone without experience.
So the woman ate. Then, for whatever reason, the man ate, even though we learn in another place that he was not deceived.
The consequence of an evil choice
We find in Genesis 5:2 that God’s name for both the male and female was Adam, the generic Hebrew word for human.
He warned Adam that the day he ate the forbidden fruit, he would die. And so the day Adam ate it, humanity died.
Not biologically, but divine life depends on close fellowship with God. And Adam had chosen to rebel and break that fellowship.
God made Adam for a purpose. Adam failed to fulfill it. God would have been justified to destroy him and start over. Here, for the first time, but certainly not for the last, God chose mercy over justice.
Instead, he expelled Adam from the garden and announced a plan of redemption A plan whereby he could rescue Adam from his allegiance to the serpent. It required God to become human like Adam but not rebel.
And that second Adam couldn’t survive in the world the first Adam had enabled through rebellion. God became human knowing that by human malice he would suffer a horrible death.
The death and resurrection of Jesus Christ made it possible to reunite Adam (humans) with God. But most people, hearing the news, have refused to believe it.
“And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. 4In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.”
Meanwhile, outside the garden, humanity began to suffer diseases and disasters. People started killing and stealing from each other. The strong oppressed the weak. The world became a miserable place to live.
Is that how God in his anger punished them? No. That’s the consequence of obeying the serpent. He became the god of human society. And all he wants to do is steal, kill, and destroy (John 10:10).
What about all those laws?
Someone has counted more than 600 laws in the Old Testament. A lot of them deal with sacrifices and dietary restrictions.
It seems boring, but Psalm 119 finds more than a hundred ways to express love for the laws, ordinances, and statutes. Not just respect. Love.
Let’s just look at the Ten Commandments. Are they the brainchild of some unreasonable taskmaster?
The first ones basically say, “Don’t obey the serpent, who wants to make your life miserable. Obey only the God who created you.” Or, in other words, don’t continue Adam’s rebellion.
Then one tells us to honor our parents. Then come prohibitions against murder, adultery, stealing, lying about people, and desiring what belongs to someone else. Who’d want to live in a society where people routinely practice those things?
Well, we do. Among other violations of God’s law, we live in a society where people routinely commit adultery and other sexual immorality.
Imagine, instead, a society in which men and women make a lifelong commitment to one member of the opposite sex. They wait to have a sexual union until the community endorses it. And then never have sex with anyone else as long as they both live.
Sex would enhance an already strong bond between them. Children would be born into a stable family and raised in love. Not the cheap imitation we see on TV shows, either. No one would ever feel cheated. No one would ever retaliate. There would be no sexually transmitted diseases.
Wouldn’t that be more pleasant for everyone? We sacrifice genuine happiness for momentary pleasure followed by various kinds of misery.
When you think about it, obeying the Ten Commandments benefits everyone.
But it gets easier. “He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8, ESV)
Some Bible studies
I said that a cursory reading of Scripture makes it look like God is intent on punishing anyone who doesn’t obey all the rules. And, in fact, no one but Jesus has ever kept all the rules.
But I also said that a more careful reading reveals a God of mercy, who wants to reconcile Adam to himself.
Read, for example the book of Joel. The first chapter talks about a plague of locusts. It has imperative verbs like weep, wail, lament, be ashamed, put on sackcloth, consecrate a fast. Verse 15 says, “Alas for the day! For the day of the Lord is near, and as destruction from the Almighty it comes.”
The book continues in that vein until Joel 2:12-13:
“Yet even now,” declares the Lord,
“return to me with all your heart,
with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning;
and rend your hearts and not your garments.”
Return to the Lord your God,
for he is gracious and merciful,
slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love;
and he relents over disaster.
Return to God, he says. Society had gone away and suffered the consequences. God is gracious and merciful. He will not take the occasion of people returning to him to punish them.
The rest of the second chapter urges the priests to pray. Then it promises a bountiful harvest. Israel faced a much greater threat from surrounding military enemies. The third chapter promises to vanquish them, too. Fulfillment of Joel 2:28-29 came 50 days after Jesus rose, as described in Acts 2.
Finally, let’s consider a brief passage from Deuteronomy. Moses is speaking to the children of the generation he led out of Egypt, He warns them against turning away from God to worship idols.
When you father children and children’s children, and have grown old in the land, if you act corruptly by making a carved image in the form of anything, and by doing what is evil in the sight of the Lord your God, so as to provoke him to anger, I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that you will soon utterly perish from the land that you are going over the Jordan to possess.
You will not live long in it, but will be utterly destroyed. And the Lord will scatter you among the peoples, and you will be left few in number among the nations where the Lord will drive you. And there you will serve gods of wood and stone, the work of human hands, that neither see, nor hear, nor eat, nor smell.
But from there you will seek the Lord your God and you will find him, if you search after him with all your heart and with all your soul. When you are in tribulation, and all these things come upon you in the latter days, you will return to the Lord your God and obey his voice.
For the Lord your God is a merciful God. He will not leave you or destroy you or forget the covenant with your fathers that he swore to them.
It says turning to idols would provoke God to anger. And that anger would result in exile and death. Then suddenly it says that God is merciful. What gives?
The book of Deuteronomy is written in the form of a treaty between an overlord and a vassal. Many such treaties still exist in the region. Some are hundreds of years older than Deuteronomy. Some are hundreds of years more recent.
And not a one of them makes any provision for a vassal to violate the treaty and then seek forgiveness. Human overlords one and all punished unfaithful vassals with unrelenting warfare. They executed them when they captured them.
The entire Old Testament describes how Israel disobeyed God continually. They suffered the consequences. They cried out for rescue. So God rescued them and restored them. Then they disobeyed again and the whole sorry cycle continued.
That’s why the Bible always calls God merciful. He wants to bless us.
We won’t let him. We can never be good enough to earn his favor. He gives us his favor, anyway. He woos us like a lover woos his beloved. And if we lay down our arms, he’ll help us become the kind of people he intended Adam to be in the garden.