Countless Christians have discarded the writings of the Old Testament, considering them to be outdated, irrelevant, and at times horrific. Pointing to a seemingly passive attitude towards evils such as slavery and polygamy, an apparent endorsement of violence and unfair treatment of women, many have concluded that the God of the Old Testament was harsh and unloving.
So how do we reconcile the notion of a good, wise and loving God with the difficult reality that even among God’s chosen people, evils prevailed which in modern Western societies are clearly denounced? I must confess that as a pastor, I have also been troubled with similar questions. It is undeniable that God through Moses regulated, rather than abolished slavery. The same can be said of polygamy. Instead of forbidding this evil, God accommodated the practice of Israelite men having multiple wives, calling upon them to treat their second wives fairly, not “diminish[ing] her food, her clothing, and her marriage rights” (Ex. 21:10).
I’d like to share with you a key that has helped me resolve this challenging question. It’s found in Jesus’s answer to the Pharisees regarding divorce. “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for just any reason?” they asked Him. Jesus’s reply appears to contradict Moses. He points his interrogators back to the Creation story (ironically also found in the writings of Moses) and concludes by saying, “Therefore what God has joined together, let not man separate” (Matt. 19:6). Not happy with His answer, they replied, “Why then did Mose command to give a certificate of divorce?” (vs. 7). Denying that this was ever a command, Jesus answered them, “Moses, because of the hardness of your hearts, permitted you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so” (vs. 8).
The Pharisees saw the practice of divorce as a command, while Jesus saw it as a permission because of “the hardness of your hearts.” Could it be that we have failed to see the above mentioned practices (slavery, violence, polygamy, etc.) in the same light? Doesn’t Jesus’s words, “from the beginning it was not so,” also apply in these cases? Was it not because of the hardness of people’s hearts that God allowed Israel to have a king (1 Samuel 8)? Could a superficial reading of the stories of God choosing Saul, David and Solomon as kings of Israel have led some to conclude that He was in favor of a monarchy in Israel all along? So how do we make sense of all this in the light of God’s character. The answer is God’s forbearance.
Speaking of the apparently slow process of reform following the centuries of darkness during the Middle Ages, Ellen White captured this principle very well:
God permitted great light to shine upon the minds of these chosen men, revealing to them many of the errors of Rome; but they did not receive all the light that was to be given to the world. Through these, His servants, God was leading the people out of the darkness of Romanism; but there were many and great obstacles for them to meet, and He led them on, step by step, as they could bear it. They were not prepared to receive all the light at once. Like the full glory of the noontide sun to those who have long dwelt in darkness, it would, if presented, have caused them to turn away. Therefore He revealed it to the leaders little by little, as it could be received by the people. From century to century, other faithful workers were to follow, to lead the people on still further in the path of reform.—The Great Controversy, p. 103
In the light of this beautiful picture of God’s character, yes, found even in the Old Testament, the following questions face us: Are we as patient with others as God has been with humanity? When others fail us, do we err on the side of mercy or justice? Has a superficial reading of the Bible led us to mistakenly conclude that some practices permitted by God (for example, drinking alcohol) were in fact endorsed by Him?
If we want to understand God’s ideal for us, we need to (as Jesus said) go back to the beginning. If we want to understand how God would have us treat erring people, we need to follow God’s example of forbearance with Israel in the Old Testament.