Friday, October 15, 2010

God's Love and Compassion in the Old Testament

I just read through a new book America’s Four Gods: What We Say about God--& What That Says About Us by Paul Froese and Christopher Bader. At some points it was a very helpful book with interesting, if not troubling, statistics about Americans and their views on God. At some point, I would like to interact with some of the book in some blog posts. For now, I will content myself to make a comment on an extended quote that Froese and Bader reference.

From America’s Four Gods:
In God: A Biography, Jack Miles examines how God is depicted in the Hebrew Bible. He makes a surprising discovery. Miles finds no evidence that God feels love for humanity in the early books of the Old Testament. It is not until God declares his “everlasting love” for Israel in Isaiah (54:4-8) that God’s capacity for such emotion is revealed in the text:
“Until this point in history, the Lord God has never loved. Love has never been predicated of him either as an action or as a motive. It is not that he had no emotional life of any sort. He has been wrathful, vengeful, and remorseful. But he has not been loving. It was not for love that he made man. It was not for love that he made his covenant with Abraham. It was not for love that he brought the Israelites out of Egypt or drove out the Canaanites before them. (Miles, 237)”
If we were to extend Miles’s analysis to the New Testament, we would quickly discover a God consumed by love for humankind. (Froese and Bader, 14-15).

It is unclear to what degree Froese and Bader agree with this analysis. In the most charitable reading they may simply be illustrating that concepts of God are different over time and space. In fact, they go on to tell us for Americans a God without love is “almost entirely foreign” to our religious mind.

I want to interact with the Jack Miles quote as it stands (unfortunately, I do not have access to the book itself at this point). It is also entirely possible that Miles is dependent upon a historical critical dating of the text that puts much of the early history of Israel written at a late exilic or post exilic date. That will not concern us here, rather we will consider the time frame as the portion of redemptive history that text reveals regardless of when finalized compositions might have been finally circulated. Regardless of when texts were finalized, Israel understood one of YHWH’s attributes to be love and compassion particularly in the redemptive historical dealings of her God with His people. The Jack Miles quote itself as it stands is utterly false to say that God has or shows no love in the Hebrew Bible until Isaiah 54:4-8.

Let’s read Isaiah 54:4-8.
Isaiah 54:
4“Fear not, for you will not be ashamed;
be not confounded, for you will not be disgraced;
for you will forget the shame of your youth,
and the reproach of your widowhood you will remember no more.
5 For your Maker is your husband,
the Lord of hosts is his name;
and the Holy One of Israel is your Redeemer,
the God of the whole earth he is called.
6 For the Lord has called you
like a wife deserted and grieved in spirit,
like a wife of youth when she is cast off,
says your God.
7 For a brief moment I deserted you,
but with great compassion I will gather you.
8 In overflowing anger for a moment
I hid my face from you,
but with everlasting love I will have compassion on you,”
says the Lord, your Redeemer.

It would be another argument, albeit still slightly flawed, to say that until this point in the Bible we do not see the intensity of love, or the depth of raw emotion. Perhaps we could even say we see new depth to the mercy and grace of love as He promises to bring Israel back from exile and restore them to a relationship with Him even after all their sins. But this is a covenant relationship He already had with them by which He brought them out of Egypt and gave them the land of Canaan. To say that God never loved until this point is patently false.

To make this case in brevity, I want to simply look at the two key words from Isaiah 54: “compassion” (riham) and “love” (hesed, often translated ‘steadfast love’).

Exile and Restoration in Deut. 30.
First, and I think most important: Isaiah is not saying anything new about God. Israel already knew that if she broke the Law she would go into exile. Moses prophesied that she would indeed do that because he knew she could even be faithful to God at the very moment when God was making the covenant with her. At their marriage ceremony of sorts, Israel was prostituting with a godlen calf god.

Yet look at what Scripture promises:
Deuteronomy 30:1 “And when all these things come upon you, the blessing and the curse, which I have set before you, and you call them to mind among all the nations where the Lord your God has driven you, 2 and return to the Lord your God, you and your children, and obey his voice in all that I command you today, with all your heart and with all your soul, 3 then the Lord your God will restore your fortunes and have compassion on you, and he will gather you again from all the peoples where the Lord your God has scattered you.
While to covenant lays out clear blessings for obedience and curses for disobedience, it was not Israel’s obedience that would establish her and bring her back. Rather, it was the compassion that the LORD would show upon His people. In fact, Deuteronomy 30 is the textual background behind Isaiah 54. It is simply false to say that Isaiah is the first place we see YHWH’s compassion when Isaiah’s words are reflective of God’s earlier promise.

Some Uses of Rehem
When Solomon dedicated the Temple, he makes specific mention of the compassion of God. This text also shows echoes of Deuteronomy 30. The Book of Kings itself was probably finally compiled during Israel’s exile. As such the prayer while representing the voice of Solomon (ipissima vox) is probably couched in such a way to remind those in exile of the need to repent with specific reference to the exile now upon them. Nevertheless, Solomon understood before the time of Isaia that the Lord was a God would showed compassion:
1 Kings 8:46 “If they sin against you—for there is no one who does not sin—and you are angry with them and give them to an enemy, so that they are carried away captive to the land of the enemy, far off or near, 47 yet if they turn their heart in the land to which they have been carried captive, and repent and plead with you in the land of their captors, saying, ‘We have sinned and have acted perversely and wickedly,’ 48 if they repent with all their mind and with all their heart in the land of their enemies, who carried them captive, and pray to you toward their land, which you gave to their fathers, the city that you have chosen, and the house that I have built for your name, 49 then hear in heaven your dwelling place their prayer and their plea, and maintain their cause 50 and forgive your people who have sinned against you, and all their transgressions that they have committed against you, and grant them compassion in the sight of those who carried them captive, that they may have compassion on them 51 (for they are your people, and your heritage, which you brought out of Egypt, from the midst of the iron furnace). 52 Let your eyes be open to the plea of your servant and to the plea of your people Israel, giving ear to them whenever they call to you. 53 For you separated them from among all the peoples of the earth to be your heritage, as you declared through Moses your servant, when you brought our fathers out of Egypt, O Lord God.”
During the days of Jehohaz and around the time of the death of Elisha we read:
2 Kings 13:22 Now Hazael king of Syria oppressed Israel all the days of Jehoahaz. 23 But the Lord was gracious to them and had compassion on them, and he turned toward them, because of his covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and would not destroy them, nor has he cast them from his presence until now.
This is important because Miles claims that it is not out of love that God made his covenant with Abraham but what we do see is that it is out of compassion and love (hesed) that God remembers His covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and in turn shows love and compassion to Israel.

Some Uses of Hesed
While it is true that on a surface reading of the text, God does not come to Abraham and say “I am calling you because I love you.” Certainly, it is for God’s purposes that God calls Abraham. In our day we do tend to believe that God’s only or at least His ultimate motive for doing all that He does is love. In other words, rather than a God-centered view of all creation-fall-redemption, we have man centered view where God becomes needy of us. This is not true. The primary calling of Abraham is to (1) establish the vice-regency that Adam was given in the garden; and (2) fulfille His redemptive promises inititiated in Genesis 3:15.

But God’s chief end in all that He does is His own glory. This will invariably also lead to a demonstration of His love. So while we are true in saying it is not only for love or even primarily for love that God redeems Abraham and Israel, it is also not in an absence of love that God does these things.

Nevertheless, the notion of hesed or covenant steadfast love is found in the making of the covenant with Abraham. It is this love that Isaiah reflects in Isaiah 54.

Here are a few passages:

God’s rescue of Lot is an act of favor and lovingkindess.
Genesis 19:19 Behold, your servant has found favor in your sight, and you have shown me great kindness(hesed) in saving my life. But I cannot escape to the hills, lest the disaster overtake me and I die.
Abraham’s servant say God’s hesed (lovingkindess) upon Abraham:
Genesis 24:12 And he said, “O Lord, God of my master Abraham, please grant me success today and show steadfast love to my master Abraham. 13 Behold, I am standing by the spring of water, and the daughters of the men of the city are coming out to draw water. 14 Let the young woman to whom I shall say, ‘Please let down your jar that I may drink,’ and who shall say, ‘Drink, and I will water your camels’—let her be the one whom you have appointed for your servant Isaac. By this I shall know that you have shown steadfast love to my master.”
Genesis 24:27 and said, “Blessed be the Lord, the God of my master Abraham, who has not forsaken his steadfast love and his faithfulness toward my master. As for me, the Lord has led me in the way to the house of my master’s kinsmen.”
Given the subsequent events, we see that God does indeed have and show love to Abraham.

Jacob had experienced God’s lovingkindness:
Genesis 32:10 I am not worthy of the least of all the deeds of steadfast love and all the faithfulness that you have shown to your servant, for with only my staff I crossed this Jordan, and now I have become two camps.
Joseph experiences this love from God:
Genesis 39:21 But the Lord was with Joseph and showed him steadfast love and gave him favor in the sight of the keeper of the prison.

God’s redemption of Israel in the Exodus was because of his hesed.
Exodus 15:13 “You have led in your steadfast love the people whom you have redeemed; you have guided them by your strength to your holy abode.
There are a few more incidences that we could look at but suffice it to say God shows Himself to have hesed, covenant love.

We really have not probed the range of meaning that the word hesed has. It is usually best translated ‘steadfast love.’ It is not merely emotional love or erotic love but it does describe a kind of love that has overtones of loyalty, faithfulness and covenant bonds. It is indeed love. It is the kind of love in Isaiah 54 and we see is well established prior to Isaiah.

God and Israel’s Affliction
One passage that we wish to just briefly mention here is Exodus 2:23-25 and 4:6-9. While the Hebrews words ‘compassion’ and ‘steadfast love’ are not used in these passages, it is clear that the Lord is a loving God who hears the afflications of His people. He hears their cry and remembers his covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. This is a demonstration of love, specifically what is elsewhere called hesed. God is not merely wrathful, vengeful and remorseful as Miles states, He is indeed loving and compassionate.

Exodus 32-34
Finally, one of the most important revelations of who God is comes on Mount Sinai, particularly as God reveals Himself to Moses. In this passage we do not just see a wrathful God but a loving, merciful and compassionate God.

The highpoint, where Moses sees the ‘back’ of God is the description of God:
Exodus 34:6 The Lord passed before him and proclaimed, “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful(rahum: compassionate) and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, 7 keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.
This incident is right after God spares the Israelites because of the intercession of Moses. The LORD would have been well justified to judge Israel’s harlotry to an idol and yet He shows His compassion and hesed. Now in Exodus 34, He clarifies it as fundamental to His character.

It is a common fallacy to argue that in the Old Testament God is hateful and in the New Testament God is only loving. One claim is that God’s love as an idea does not develop until late in the unfolding revelation of God. It is certainly true that the climax of God revelation shows the depth of God’s love by how He sends His own Son. Love’s revelation reaches new depth in the cross of Christ. However, it is simply false to say that God’s love is not demonstrated in the early books of the Old Testament. In fact, part of God’s own self-revelation is that He is compassionate and has steadfast love. These attributes are then on display repeatedly in the unfolding drama of redemption that is the Old Testament.

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