The Morality of God in the Old Testament
By G.K. Beale
Greg Beale isn’t famous, but he should be. Author of many books on biblical theology, he is a New Testament professor at Westminster Theological Seminary (WTS) in Philadelphia. He usually writes for scholars, but The Morality of God in the Old Testament (2013)—a 42-page booklet in the Christian Answers to Hard Questionsseries from WTS and P&R publishing—is aimed at a general audience.
Was it right for God to command Israel to wipe out the Canaanites? How can the curses of the imprecatory Psalms be justified? Briefly, Beale argues that God is the supreme good. Everything exists for His sake, including the nations of Canaan. Besides, the conquest of the Promised Land was an historical intrusion of the ethics of the last judgment into history. Or, as Beale’s inimitable section heading has it, “God’s Command to Annihilate All the Canaanites Is an Anticipation of the End-Time Judgment of All People and Thus a Suspension of the Expression of His Common Grace to Unbelievers during the Epoch of Israel.” (Don’t worry, that’s not actually how he writes; he’s just determined to encapsulate the entire section in one sentence or less.)
In this light, the conquest and the imprecatory Psalms can be seen as a manifestation of the last judgment, when perfect justice will be executed on every human being. For those who, like the Canaanites, have not been covered by the righteousness of Christ, that reality is fearsome indeed—everything that breathes will die the second death.
If you want to understand how the whole Bible fits together, read Beale. He proves convincingly that the same God commanded “slaughter everything that breathes” and “turn the other cheek.” Both commands find their justification in the character of our God, who is perfectly just and perfectly merciful—always.
The Unfolding Mystery of the Divine Name: The God of Sinai in Our Midst
By Michael P. Knowles
“Show me Your glory,” pleaded Moses in Exodus 33. In response, God proclaimed His name: “The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, yet by no means clearing the guilty …” (Exodus 34:6-7 NRSV). Theology professor Michael Knowles has written a series of what might be called academic devotional meditations on the meaning of those 13 attributes, and their appropriation by Jews, Christians, and Muslims. The Unfolding Mystery of the Divine Name: The God of Sinai in Our Midst (IVP Academic, 2012) presents itself as scary to evangelical sensibilities (Knowles indicates that he applauds Karl Barth and approvingly quotes Brian McLaren) but is actually a perfectly orthodox book.
Knowles reminds Christian readers that Muslims call upon Allah as “Most Gracious, the Most Merciful,” and quotes from a wide range of Jewish literature in which God’s compassion is invoked. Nonetheless, Christian sources get (by far) the most coverage. Knowles roots God’s grace in His compassionate love. But fundamentally His love can be traced to His covenant faithfulness—“lovingkindness” in older translations, or “steadfast love” in modern ones. Because of this covenant love, “when God’s servants fail … the only principle more powerful than divine wrath or mortal fear of it is God’s adherence to His own gracious character.”
One imaginative Jewish source argues that God’s mercy is 250 times more powerful than His wrath, for He shows mercy to a thousand generations and only punishes four. Yet in Knowles’ capable hands, even this kind of “exegesis” is devotionally fruitful. Unfolding Mystery is ultimately not a dry list of attributes, but a warm-hearted look at the character of our God.