One of the things anyone who reads the entire Bible must wrestle with is the divergence of the character of God in the Old and New Testaments. In one we get a god who is at times petty, vengeful, violent, or jealous. He consents to the rape and destruction of entire towns and commands genocide.
Things are different in the New Testament, where Jesus, the distinct revelation of God in the world, demonstrates radical love, inclusion, and healing. The dichotomy almost moves one to sympathize with the Marcionites and Gnostics in rejecting the god of the Old Testament as some sort of demiurge bent on subjugating humanity; however, seeing the Old Testament this way is a bit of a caricatured view of the Old Testament, for that volume of scripture contains poignant stories of God’s tender love for humanity, beautiful poetry, and stories of redemption. There is a lot of beauty in the Old Testament.
So, along those lines I’d like to share a beautiful portion of text I ran across as part of my scripture study recently. It’s in the book of Hosea, which is a poetic and prophetic call for Israel to remember God’s redemption from Egypt and return to God. In Hosea 11:1-9 we read the following:
When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son. The more I called them, the more they went from me; they kept sacrificing to the Baals, and offering incense to idols.
Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk, I took them up in my arms; but they did not know that I healed them.
I led them with cords of human kindness, with bands of love. I was to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks. I bent down to them and fed them.
They shall return to the land of Egypt, and Assyria shall be their king, because they have refused to return to me. The sword rages in their cities, it consumes their oracle-priests, and devours because of their schemes. My people are bent on turning away from me. To the Most High they call, but he does not raise them up at all.
How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, O Israel? How can I make you like Admah? How can I treat you like Zeboiim? My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender. I will not execute my fierce anger; I will not again destroy Ephraim; for I am God and no mortal, the Holy One in your midst, and I will not come in wrath.
The imagery of the text is one of a tender, loving parent who values a child. God first called Israel from Egypt, giving birth to the child through the waters of the Red Sea (a symbol upon which the sacrament of baptism draws, as we too are called out of our “Egypt” to be reborn as God’s child), and redeeming them from slavery. God loved Israel, yet Israel has turned away from God and to its own wisdom. Israel is returning to the slavery of its old life.
Yet God loves Israel anyway. God cannot give up on Ephraim. He won’t willingly hand Israel over to the slavers of Egypt, and won’t let the fate of others befall his blessed child, Israel. God loves as no mere mortal can, for he is the Holy One in their midst, and he will not visit them in wrath, but rather in love.
We mortals rarely love unconditionally. Despite our best efforts there is a weakness to our love that can at times fail those whom we try to love – even ourselves. God’s love, however, is unconditional. Despite our rejection of God, our anger toward him, our slothfulness, or our shortsightedness, he loves us anyway. As we wander and waste our inheritance he still loves us, looking for us on the horizon so he can run to us and embrace us in his arms. To reject us would cause his heart to recoil. This is true no matter what we do. In all cases he loved us first and his love never fails. It is this unconditional love for us that brings me incredible hope when I struggle; when the forces of this world grasp at me and pull me down, for I remember that Christ has defeated them, promising to love me as he sees me.