A God of Vengeance
O Lord, you God of vengeance, you God of vengeance, shine forth! Psalm 94:1
A jealous and avenging God is the Lord, the Lord is avenging and wrathful; the Lord takes vengeance on his adversaries and rages against his enemies. Nahum 1:2
There was a distinct face of vengeance put upon God throughout the Old Testament. God was often portrayed as a great punisher, one who would discipline those who did wrong and help gain revenge against those who offended or harmed God’s chosen people. Early faith was expressed in the belief in a vengeful God who punished those who behaved in ways that the scriptures or cultural norms defined as wrong. In the mostly tribal cultures of the Middle East, past and present, the people sought an advantage over other tribes, and the God of Israel was rendered as the difference-maker who would give the faithful an edge over the idol-worshiping infidels next door.
While we all want to believe God is on our side, and I believe that is an accurate assumption, it behooves us to carefully examine whether our side represents something that is Godly in nature. Would God really show preference for one group of people over those of other nations, religions, sexual orientations, or races? Granted, the Israelites claimed themselves as the chosen people of God, but was that actually played out in the Bible? It is clear to me that the Israelites had a relationship with God, which may or may not have meant God was willing to serve as a secret weapon against their enemies. Clearly, the Israelites were looking for security, and the face of God they felt they needed was one willing to be vengeful. God, however, seemed to have a different concept about what provided security.
When I compare the faces of God on display in the Old Testament with the face of God manifest in Jesus the Christ in the New Testament, I find some of the differences hard to reconcile. The prophet Nahum describes God as “jealous and avenging,” “wrathful,” and “rag(ing) against his enemies.” I find no similar traits in Jesus. The only people Jesus consistently showed displeasure with were the scribes and Pharisees – the religious elite who followed the letter of the law while dismissing the spirit in which it was given. His annoyance was reserved for those whose teachings were false or misleading to others (which should be a warning to those of us who pretend to any level of spiritual understanding). Otherwise, Jesus was non-violent and accepting of all – no jealousy, no vengeance, no wrath, no exclusion. Only love. Even on his final night on earth, as Peter drew a knife to protect him from the Temple police, Jesus told him to put away his sword because “all who take the sword will perish by the sword.” (Matthew 26:52)
Sir Isaac Newton’s third law of physics states, “For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.” In many tribal cultures, the norm is that you are either the attacker or the attacked. Little wonder that we see power passed back and forth, within and between succeeding generations. Could it be that the Israelites of old were simply experiencing the yet-to-be-named third law of physics? They would attack another nation and win. Another nation would attack them and Israel would lose. When they won, they praised their vengeful God for leading them to victory. When they lost, they attributed it to God’s punishment for their infidelity. What if God was neither helping nor hindering them in their violent exploits? What if God was simply allowing them to experience and learn from the natural consequences of their own decisions?
Clearly, it is difficult for me to square the person of Jesus with a violent, vengeful God. As I switch my focus in the coming weeks from the faces of the God of the Old Testament to the faces of God in the New Testament, it will become clear that, in the end, God’s face is one of mercy and forgiveness. I have to wonder if the vengeful face of God is a face created by us in our own image.
Note: this is the nineteenth in a series of Life Notes on the Faces of God.