Even as a child, I loved the stories of Jesus: Jesus raising the widow’s son from the dead, restoring sight to the blind, inviting children to come to Him, preventing a woman from being stoned. I was drawn to his messages of love and his story-telling pedagogical style. I liked the way he ministered to those that needed him, even the unappreciative and undeserving. His message was truly good news, and he was a God that I would follow happily.
On the other hand, whenever I would endeavor to follow the “Read Your Bible
Through in a Year” plan that was frequently distributed and encouraged at my church, even when I managed to struggle through what was to me the painfully disjointed and generally incomprehensible legislation of Deuteronomy and Leviticus, I became hopelessly mired down when I came to the books of the prophets (both major and minor). While I did have a few favorite verses scattered throughout, verses like “I know the plans the Lord has for you, … ” and, “He will rejoice over you with singing, …” most of the texts seemed to be an endless litany of condemnation filled with piety and of abandonment and punishment, and imprecations designed to play on the guilt and fear of a people who never seemed to measure up to the standards demanded by a God whose holy character could settle for nothing less than perfection. The God of the prophets seemed to be perpetually offended and angry, constantly stirred up by a jealousy and wrath that threatened to overflow like a Hawaiian volcano certain to destroy all that it touches.
In short, the prophets seemed to be the bearers of consistently bad news of a forthcoming visitation from a God determined to annihilate a people for not meeting impossible standards of purity. I understood Thomas Jefferson’s impulse to take a pair of scissors to the Bible and pare it down considerably. In short, Jesus I loved, but the prophets disturbed me greatly.
Viewed as a whole, the gap between the God of the prophets and the message of Jesus seemed as wide as the Grand Canyon: consequently, I understood those who rejected the God of the Bible even while they admired Jesus and his ethic of love. But my friends’ comfort with an easy rejection of the “Old Testament” God as a reflection of a less evolved stage of religion or a more primitive understanding of the nature and behavior of the gods and their conclusions that one could focus on Jesus while ignoring the God he claimed to represent did not answer some of my most fundamental questions concerning the cohesiveness of the Bible or clarify the relationship between the God of the prophets found in the Hebrew Scriptures and Jesus’ identity and the practices he held to be binding. And so, I was left to grapple with the text and those troublesome prophets.
The questions that grew out of this tension between the God of Jesus and the God of the prophets remained: “Was the essence of God love or the anger that the prophets proclaimed?” “If the Law was love, why the constant threats of destruction?” “How was the Law a transcript of God’s character, and what did that have to do with Jesus’ witness of God’s unrelenting love and grace?” To me, my final question was the most personally critical of all: “Why did the tender and compassionate Jesus seem to have no problem with the God of the prophets, or the prophets’ messages depicting an angry God?” This last question was further complicated by the fact that Jesus consistently used God as the final explanation of his own processes and actions: he would say, “I and my father are one,” and, “I can only do what I see my father doing,” and condemned his contemporaries’ antecedents’ rejections of the messages of the earlier prophets. Clearly, to get any meaningful answers to these questions, I had to go back to the text, listen to those doom-saying prophets, and re-assess what they were saying and what that said about God.
And so, I went back to the text. Much to my amazement, I met the prophets at work almost immediately and was forced to revise my assessment of them. To be sure, a closer reading did not dispel some of the more disquieting facts about the prophets, an eccentric group by any measure. The more I studied them, the more the prophets assumed the form of individuals of passion, alarmed by the impending fate of the communities they loved, committed to deliver God’s message of warning and redemption, however dear the personal cost. Unanimously, the prophets were distressed by the future that awaited their communities if present trajectories were not altered. And so, each summoned every ounce of his physical, mental, spiritual, and emotional energy to deliver God’s message, knowing that salvation or destruction awaited the community’s response, the choices they made after hearing the word.
It was clear that whenever the prophets confronted their communities, they did so convicted that the situation demanded that their hearers embark on a radical shift of awareness: everyday, socially acculturated ways of viewing their lives and actions (what they perceived as pressing and important) must be suspended. The hearers must become fully present to the prophet’s message, fully engaged in reflection, fully receptive to the word from God, and fully committed to make and implement decisions that would shape their fate. Their future depended on which of two possible alternatives they selected. The first option involved viewing themselves as independent agents, accountable to no one other than their family and self, prioritizing the accumulation of material goods to ensure their private security, employing whatever means necessary to achieve socially defined success. The second possibility involved viewing their lives as defined and interconnected with God’s intention for them as human participants in His design, conduits of His grace and care for the flourishing of all, firmly embedded in God’s story of the redemption and restoration of shalom for the planet. As participants in God’s mission of healing, they were bound by a different set of obligations and actions than those who were merely striving to play a celebrated role on the world stage (or even in the local economy).
Aroused by the critical significance of the stakes involved, the prophets not only used their voices but also employed symbolic actions: even their bodies became props to arrest public attention and drive home their points. They smashed clay pots, broke bundles of sticks, and, yes, even paraded around naked in their determination to jar the sensibilities of the inhabitants of Judah and Israel in order to halt “life as usual.” As God’s messengers, they announced dire predictions of tragic futures, of the coming drastic changes if priorities were not altered. The very nature and structure of the planet precluded sustainability outside of conformity to its design. Unless humans chose to heed the intentions of the Creator, life was not sustainable. The prophets made it clear that the impending vicissitudes would not only disrupt the comfortable and the elite, but would touch the everyday laborers who simply strove to feed their families, pay their taxes, and survive the seasons: none would be spared. These were the visions that drove the prophets, and incited them to attention-arresting acts and long dirges of gloom. This deep threat to existence may clear the prophets and explain some of their more desperate acts, but how does their characterization of God’s lethal anger fit in with the God of Love?
I cannot say that I have come up with a satisfying answer to my questions, but I did receive one breakthrough while engaged in some research on early Adventist hermeneutics. Adventist pioneers were insistent that no verse, no section, and even no author of the Bible is to be understood without considering the full text of Scripture. It occurred to me that I had been trying to reach a conclusion before examining all the material. I needed to look again, to place the prophets and their remarks about God within the context of the larger story before I endeavored to ascertain their implications for a biblical view of God. It is only when viewed within the larger context of the narrative that the links between the nature of God and the outraged cries of the prophets can become decipherable. From the Genesis narrative to the final scenes of Revelation, the Bible provides a continual effort to supply glimpses of God that go beyond attempts to overwhelm mere humanity with visions of face-melting radiance, power, and omniscience, and instead furnish insight into God’s character. Clearly, the entire collection of stories had to be considered before judging either the prophets or their portrayal of God.
An adequate study must commence with the beginning, or at least with the initial information given, so I returned to re-examine the text as presented. The foundational scenes in Genesis reveal God at work creating an organized universe and a well-ordered planet, where humanity is placed within a system designed for shared flourishing: every aspect related, every significant and necessary, every element a wonder that has been gifted, blessed, and pronounced good. The creation is not only a work of art, but of love, a reflection of the very nature of God (Ps. 96: 10-13). Into this living organism of shalom, wholeness and delight, humanity, made in the image of God, is placed. Further, God’s ongoing concern for the creation is revealed as humans are assigned the care of the planet, given the ability to explore the nature of their world through the physical senses of their material bodies, granted the grace of companionship, and finally blessed with the wondrous gift of time set aside to celebrate their unity with each other, their world and their Creator. And all is, “Very Good,” because the created order reflects the heart and will of its Creator. But, although not originally disclosed, the system is fragile, only “good” and sustainable if its initial structure is respected. If the design is violated, it is subject to entropy, decay, and self-destruction.
Genesis depicts a great beginning, yet the story takes a sudden turn as the children of God reject their assigned brief and chose to utilize their agency to attempt to abandon their given humanity in favor of an ascent into divinity. An enticing idea had been introduced: by taking the fruit of the tree that had been denied to them, they might shed the limitations of their humanity like an out-grown skin and become more than what they were devised to be. They might become as wise and knowing as gods, with all the freedom that implied, rather than remaining confined within their restrictive roles as the simple caretakers of the planet, bound to the task of nurturing its life, learning its secrets so that they might insure its continuation in balanced wholeness. With the grasping of the fruit that did not belong to them, they chose to take into their own hands the prerogatives of God: to hold the knowledge not only of the good they were intended to contain, but also enlarge themselves to hold and weigh the possibilities of evil: a different role indeed. According to the text, with little apparent struggle the first couple relinquished God’s designation for them and replaced his assignment with their own determination of their role on the planet. Laying aside God’s intention that they would gradually mature into the fullness of their image-bearing capacity, reflecting the compassionate Source of the Universe, they ingested the fruit of desire for wisdom and power, and as it entered them it became an integral and inseparable part of them. Thus, God’s purposes for humanity and the blueprint for the earth were disrupted, the shalom of the planet broken, and humanity alienated from all that they had once experienced as part of themselves. Who knew that one could become less than one had once been? Or that love and unity, once experienced, could be lost? Or, most ironically of all, that in the endeavor to seize a superior status, one could lose the very qualities that had set one’s unique value and potential to begin with?
At this point, the text offers another glimpse into of the character of God as he reacts to the shattering of his shalom. As is so often the case, we gain a more accurate perception of character when of an individual’s plans are frustrated or dashed than when everything falls into place. Thus, we gain critical insight when we observe that His response to the breach is met by His immediate action to reduce the sudden gulf between Himself and humanity. Even though the pair is alienated by their guilt and fear, He is with them, working for them, revealing Himself even more fully. There in the garden, He initiated contact with the estranged pair, drew them into dialog, and guided them as they began to examine the implications of their recent choice. He confronted them with the sad truth of their situation: things had changed and they were no longer who they were before, not within themselves, and not to each other or their surroundings. Of everything, only God remained constant, although even their ability to relate to Him had altered. While they have already known Him as Creator, Benefactor, and Friend, here He presents Himself in a new role: that of a prophet, addressing their current situation and outlining what will follow as a result of their choice.
Here we see God assume the role of the prophet, the first in a long line of prophets who will subsequently seek God’s wayward children to remind them of their heritage and to call them into accountability. The text presents God as He describes what will come from living outside of His blueprint: the unbearable pain of broken relationships in every dimension of their lives; the loss of oneness with each other, the earth, and even Himself. He sketches a future of struggles for dominance and power where previously there had been unity and harmony. The net effect: their unfettered love and friendship would be replaced by oppressive domination and an inexplicable indifference to the growing calculus of suffering caused and the tragic loss of oneness.
The sketch He gave would have been crushing if the narrative ended with that vision of brokenness and loss: but like the prophets He will send subsequently, He does not stop there. In His compassion, before leaving them, He extends the promise of redemption, that they might have hope. He gives to them his reassuring word: though they now encounter the first pangs of mortality, and will indeed experience death, the inconceivable loss of perceived connection with the universe of which they were created to be an integral part, there remains more to the story. Death will not be the necessary conclusion of their experience. God lingered with the bereaved couple a to disclose a cosmic mystery: in the end, Love is stronger than death. Love will have the last word, for God is Love, and He is both the Alpha and Omega. Whatever else may be true, Love, the designer and sustainer of the universe, will stand between them and the fate they brought upon themselves, if they will but choose to trust in Him instead of turning to other systems. He will be their Redeemer.
Until such a time as He performs the final intervention in the fate of the planet, the quality of their relationships is in their hands, determined by their choices. Although in grasping the fruit they chose self-aggrandizement, the way of destruction, they can choose again, and keep choosing, to live in the model of love and service for which they were designed, and life will follow. The alternative choice is to continue down the path along which they had started: acting as the lords rather than the caretakers of the earth, living and dying with the consequences of that hubris until the drama is played out to its conclusion.
It would have been enough for me to know that God the prophet left them with hope as well as accountability and a clear summary of where the two trajectories would take them, and that His lament was for what they had lost and what they still stood to lose if they continued to reject their original design. But it was not enough for God, not enough of a revelation of His character. The story of God continues in the text. The God in the Hebrew Scriptures appears again and again: protecting a murderer from vengeance, salvaging remnants of creation for a new start when the original was saturated with corruption, calling an elderly man and woman on a mystifying journey into an impossible future where their descendants would be led from slavery to freedom, given God’s design for their mutual dignity and security, and God’s assurance of his continued covenantal care.
The bulk of Hebrew Scripture focuses principally on the descendants of Abraham, through whom God had promised to bless all the earth, and the people with whom they had contact. The stories record God speaking to and working through men and women whose hearts were open to Him. In these stories, God moves throughout the homes and camps of both Gentiles and Hebrews, bringing children to the barren, raising the dead through his prophets, healing the incurable, and giving a future to those who could anticipate nothing beyond the loss and the bitterness they knew. The stories reveal Him as the God of hope for the hopeless, the One who blesses those who lack money or price, the Restorer of shalom. Present in unexpected forms and places, He leaves evidence that He is indeed a God of Love, many of his actions anticipating those of a young Jewish rabbi who will make his appearance centuries later. For those who have eyes to see, the connection between the two is not hard to trace. Yet, the clear evidence of God’s love does not negate nor explain the prophets’ messages of his anger and coming retribution.
Additionally, it is quite possible to miss the footprints of God throughout the collection, especially as the stories themselves so often center on the actions of faulty human beings. The collected stories document the way many of Abraham’s descendants, although selected by God to be singularly blessed, chose arrogance over obedience. Although Israel’s mission, as established by the covenants made in the wilderness, was to reveal the Creator-God to all nations, and serve as a model for the way to structure and administer a just and compassionate national life, the stories recorded give witness to continual rejection of that mission (Jer. 22:11-17). The chronicles of Israel are filled with accounts of both individuals and kings who chose against God’s law and embraced their own gods of wealth, pride, lust, or covetousness. Their pride was in their own strength and wit, and they celebrated their success while justice was denied at their gates. And then, in came the prophets to remind Israel and Judah that the God they served was a God of justice and compassion. In the universe He had created, any violation of that design tore the fabric of existence and could not be sustained. A nation built on oppression and indifference to the needs of the vulnerable would eventually crumble under the weight of its own pretensions. In love, God sent these prophets to call them back to the covenant, back to modeling for the nations around them that true strength and security comes from a national life that includes all within the circle of care.
Further, prophets like Amos and Isaiah made it clear that no number of public displays of religiosity dedicated to Yahweh, and no amount of sacrifices presented at His altars, could balance Israel’s negative account created by their individual and corporate acts of injustice (Amos 8: 4-12). Mighty choirs singing songs of praise, purified priest garbed in sacred garments, braziers offering precious incense, and great assemblies bowed low before the Holy Throne did not suffice to qualify Israel as celebrants of the Creator (see Is. 58). Only those who carried within them the marks of the Designer, a zeal for inclusive compassion and justice were bona fide worshippers of God (Ps. 41:1-3). Love demanded that the prophets remind those who were caught up in the performances of the designated religious elite or the celebrations of national pride, as praiseworthy as these functions were in their rightful place, they can surreptitiously replace God as the ultimate object of affection, the sin known as idolatry, and that that the final destination of those who bowed to other gods was destruction and death.
Sadly, as one reads through the history of the chosen people, it becomes clear that despite the best efforts of the prophets, life within Israel varied little from that of its neighboring nations. Israel enlarged its tent through conquest and control, taking pride in its accumulation of wealth for the few and its growing reputation among the nations. Imitating the ways of the surrounding societies, Israel chose to establish a hierarchy over them instead of acknowledging God as their only King. And like the societies that preceded them, and those who grew up beside them as contemporaries, they chose to profit from injustice, to seek material security and accumulation over compassion for the needy, and entrust their future to political alliances and military strength rather than to trust in God and His ways (Micah 7.3). Once established as a prosperous nation, the rich reclined at banquets and slept in beds of carved ivory, while the poor went hungry and found little justice. And so, a large section of the Scripture became the story of God sending his prophets with words of warning and rebuke, lamenting Israel’s decisions to turn away from the paths that lead to peace and clarifying the consequences.
In short, Israel refused the way of the Lord and adopted the self-destructive behavior of Sodom, a rich city destroyed for its wickedness long before Israel was established. Its violent ways and violent end had become a byword among the nations, and so served as a terrible reference point for Israel. As the prophet Ezekiel noted in his rebuke of God’s people, underscoring the universal requirement for care for the vulnerable, ”Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned: they did not help the poor and needy,” (Ezek. 16:49). Indifferent to the needs of the poor, the stranger, and the needy, Sodom acted as if her prosperity came by her own merit rather than as the gift of God, and responded violently when strangers needing food and shelter presented themselves at her gates. So determined was she to send a clear message to all that outsiders’ requests for shelter and aid were to no avail, and would be rewarded by a violent assault at the hands of her citizens, that she did not recognize the visitation of angels at her gate. Little did she guess that her efforts to safeguard her accumulated riches for her own would not bring security, but instead bring death upon herself and all who united with her under the banner of self-centeredness that she had chosen over that of hospitality. When she chose to ignore all she knew of obligations to the stranger and those in need, she ensured her own destruction.
It is a grave day when the richly endowed determine to meet the strangers at their gates with threats of death by public humiliation. How long can social order be preserved when the outsiders know that the rich within the walls would chose to feast while the children of the poor were dying of starvation and preventable disease? It does not require the status of a prophet to feel angry that the richly endowed could demonstrate such callous indifference to those in desperate need, nor does it require heaven-sent visions to reveal that such a society is ultimately unsustainable. Sodom’s show of disregard for either the customs of hospitality accepted as normative for a desert people or the teachings of God, was offensive even at this early point in biblical history.
How odious then was Israel’s later indifference to the situation of the poor and the oppression of the stranger, considering the plethora of specific instructions given by God through Moses concerning the appropriate response to those in need? How incongruous Israel’s disinterest in the plight of the alien and needy was, given her own experience as foreigners and slaves in Egypt, strangers in need of care, rescued and ministered to by God.
Israel’s neglect of the stranger, the alien, the poor, and the vulnerable was especially intolerable when one considers God’s repeated interventions on Israel’s behalf when it was defenseless and vulnerable. Additionally, God had made a covenant with Israel to continue to stand as her shield and protector, her benefactor and redeemer, if she would only agree to extend the graciousness to others that He had extended to her, that all nations might desire to serve Him as they observed His nature through the behavior of His people. And He had given Israel careful guidance on the necessity of caring for the vulnerable poor and aliens so that He would be known as the God of all.
From the tables of Law and the instructions given by Moses to create a structure of just and compassionate relationships that stand as a safeguard against systems of permanent oppression and poverty, God had been the advocate for those least able to care or provide for themselves, a group whose existence is a reality in any society. Taken as a whole, the laws of God protected the poor and the vulnerable (the indebted, the widows, orphans, aliens, and strangers), and created structures (including local judges, cities of refuge, and Jubilee years) to curb the tendency for some groups to grow in strength and power at the expense of the more susceptible.
The law itself provided insight into the heart of God as it expressed God’s inclusive love. The law of love dispensed justice not for the insiders, the elite, the wily, the wealthy, the cunning, and those naturally gifted at improving the material well-being of their families, but for those who could not speak adequately for themselves and had neither natural advocates nor the means by which to employ others to take up their case for them. For these, the ill equipped who comprise the generally discarded, scorned, or ignored of society, God gave protective laws and pledged Himself to argue on their behalf Proverbs 22:22-23). In the nation that claimed the protection of the Holy One, the king was pledged to champion the vulnerable. Just as God had protected Israel, when it was the least among nations, He would stand watch over the least in the house of Israel. He would be known by His concern for the “little ones.” And so, His people, which were known by His name, were to do likewise as they walked the path of life that He had laid down for them; the path of justice, compassion, and humility (Micah 6:8). Yet, it can be difficult to be humble enough to submit to God’s design for personal and national life, especially when the desire for fame, wealth, and power are part of our very nature.
The refusal of Israel to administer compassionate care for the vulnerable, to mirror what God had done for them, translated into a refusal to comply with the stipulations of the covenant to which Israel had agreed. Any Mid-Easterner would have understood that such refusal was grounds for the loss of God’s protection and favor, and invited a god’s heavy retribution. The gravity of the offense and the God’s clear stipulations in His covenant established more than an adequate basis for the distress of any messenger who loved his people. And so I felt moved to call a truce with the prophets, who indeed did have a reason to express the need for a different response from God’s people if they were to survive.
Which brings us to today. While we love to sing of God as, “King of Kings, and Lord of Lords,” the pages of scripture reveal Him as much more besides, demonstrating that He is the “Advocate for the Vulnerable, the Voice for the Voiceless.” Those words do not slip quite as easily off the tongue, nor leave us with as quiet of a feeling; but the prophets remain. Whichever prophet you read, at the core of his harangue, he asks the questions: “Are you, or are you not, the child of your heavenly father? And, is as is expected of any good son (offspring), are you modeling your actions after those of your Father, bringing honor and glory to Him through your respectful imitation of his values, commitments, and actions?”(Prov. 14:21, 31) “Do you conduct your life as a conduit of compassion, caring for the vulnerable, seeking justice for the alien and those without a defender?” (1 John 3:16-18). “Have you chosen to accept the place on the planet that God has assigned you?” “In short, is your life story an extension of God’s story, the continual effort to restore shalom to the planet by working for peace and justice?”
And herein lies the heart of the matter: God has spoken, but it is up to humanity to respond, to accept or reject the path that leads to life. The prophets made it clear that Israel could claim to be the people of God only if they actually reflected God in their internal and external dealings with others. Their ability to be the witnesses to all the earth of God’s sovereignty and righteousness depended upon their actions accurately reflecting His nature and will. Only then could they be counted as His faithful representatives. No wonder Jesus had so little problem with their message: it was always a word of truth driven by love, love frustrated that its beloved is headed toward death and will not turn around. When viewed as a coin, anger is only the other side of pain. Of course God is angry (in pain) that His beloved creation is bent on self-destruction.
This deliberation on the relationship between the dire warnings of the prophets and Jesus’ God of love does not address what are sometimes referred to as, “the strange acts of God” recorded in the Hebrew Scriptures. That is another discussion worth careful study and reflection, reserved for another time, and as such the questions they raised are left untouched. That does not bother me at this time as much as what seems to be a much more pressing concern; the relationship of the warnings of the prophets and those who call themselves God’s people today. Are we worthy sons and daughters of the God of Jesus and all the prophets who went before him? (Ps. 99:4). How will we fare as individuals and nations at the end of days when the Creator stands to present the case of the vulnerable, the alien, the poor? (Ps. 113: 5,9). Will we be invited to stand by His side as their co-defenders, or will we be left sitting among those who chose apparent security over compassion and justice? (Ps. 146: 7-9; Matt.25: 35-45; Is. 10.1). Scripture is clear: God, the Alpha and Omega, is the Law of Love, and the God of freedom of choice. Our future still remains in our hands.
Dr. Ginger Hanks Harwood, who has taught religion at Pacific Union College, Walla Walla University, Loma Linda University, and La Sierra University, has retired to Northern California.
Photo courtesy of Pexels.
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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/9771