by William Deatherage, Executive Producer
“Fire and brimstone” is an epithet often given to the Old Testament. “Harsh,” “Brutal,” “Angry,” and “Cruel” are a few other choice words that modern readers might exclaim upon glossing over a few choice verses. However, I (and countless historians) argue that the God of the Old Testament is actually quite kind, loving, peaceful, and even progressive. Today, despite buzzwords like “tolerance” and “acceptance” pouring down on us across the digital landscape, Christianity is often immediately cast as outdated and irrelevant. Throughout this reflection, I would like to demonstrate that the message of our Faith has always been revolutionary and is needed for a truly progressive society today.
To understand the God of floods and fury in the Old Testament, we must immerse ourselves in the world of the Ancient Israelite. This was a time period of merciless tribal conquests and normalized human sacrifice. It was also an era of impersonal gods who used humanity as pawns and playthings for their own leisure, with humanity in return invoking their names to justify violence. If you knocked your adversary’s tooth out, you might repay them with your very life or the lives of your family. Thus, the concept of an “eye for an eye; tooth for a tooth” revealed in Exodus and Leviticus was rather astonishing for the time. In fact, the very idea that God sought a relationship with men (and especially women) was quite extraordinary. Of course the God of Abraham is sometimes described as angry and jealous, but this was the only way that the Israelites could understand Him, given their cultural context. Compared to other deities of the time, though, God’s commands were quite merciful, as I will detail in the following paragraph.
“You shall not bear hatred for your brother or sister in your heart […] Take no revenge and cherish no grudge against any of your people. You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” (Leviticus). These are just some of the directives that God issues in Leviticus, His book of laws and moral codes. “The Lord is kind and merciful” rings the refrain of today’s Psalm, as it details how the Lord is “slow to anger” and “abounding in kindness,” (Psalms). Throughout Old Testament Times, the Jews were well-known for their mercifulness and hospitality, guided by a God that who was distinct from His capricious and even childish Babylonian, Greek, and Roman counterparts.
At the beginning of this essay, I mentioned that Christianity specifically is quite progressive. This is because the teachings of Christ build on those of the prophets. Through Christ, we are transformed from people charged with worshiping God in the temple to people who have become the temple of God, ourselves, as St. Paul asks, “Do you not know that you are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwells in you?” (1 Corinthians). Such shifts in moral commands are directly highlighted by Christ, who declares “You have heard that it was said, An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. But I say to you, offer no resistance to one who is evil. When someone strikes you on your right cheek, turn the other one as well,” (Matthew). One might ask if such a statement contradicts prior laws of the Bible. However, Salvation History must be understood as a dynamic relationship, an unfolding, of God’s gradual self-revelation until He came to us incarnate as Jesus. Thus, God’s teachings grew in scope from a set of laws understood by a specific culture to universal laws that bear weight upon the entirety of humanity.
I would like to return to the notion of “progress.” I have already demonstrated the “progressiveness” of Old Testament laws relative to their time periods, as well as Christ’s explicit completion of said laws. Today, our world is incredibly distant from fulfilling God’s requests for a society driven by peace, love, empathy, and knowledge. Instead of yearning for true progress that stems from the Word of God, our world has become obsessed with sex and immediate gratification. Through the sacred tradition of the Catholic Church, Christ’s radical words have been preserved for their application to a vast array of historical situations that we will surely encounter. Armed with scripture and tradition, it is our duty to ensure the establishment of God’s Kingdom. Only then will we achieve true progress.