Why God doesn’t mind that Christians rejected his eternal laws.
And if ye will not for all this hearken unto Me, but walk contrary unto Me; then I will walk contrary unto you in fury; and I also will chastise you seven times for your sins. And ye shall eat the flesh of your sons, and the flesh of your daughters shall ye eat. And I will destroy your high places, and cut down your sun-pillars, and cast your carcasses upon the carcasses of your idols; and My soul shall abhor you. And I will make your cities a waste, and will bring your sanctuaries unto desolation, and I will not smell the savour of your sweet odours.
Leviticus 26:27-31 (P source)
In the last couple of posts I have been discussing divine Bi-Polar Disorder, if you will; fallen man, created in the image of God, and the Almighty Creator of the Universe who checks my spelling. Nowhere is this whirlwind of contradiction more revealing (to me) than with the most delicious quirk of all.
I have found no one who says it more eloquently or respectfully than R. E. Friedman in his final chapter of “Who Wrote the Bible”, so I’m going to continue and close this foray with his words. I highly recommend the book for anyone interested in the history of the study of the Bible.
The most delicious quirk of all? I’m glad you asked. . .
-Justice and Mercy (from Chapter 14 of “Who Wrote the Bible”. R. E. Friedman)
There was another, even more paradoxical result of the union of the sources. It created a new dynamic between Yahweh’s Justice and his mercy.
Recall that P never once uses the word “mercy.” It also never uses the words “grace” or “repentance.” It never refers to the faithfulness of Yahweh. The priest who wrote it rather emphasized the divine aspect of justice. That is, you get what you deserve. Obedience is rewarded. Transgression is punished. There is no throwing oneself on the mercy of the divine judge.
J and E are virtually the opposite. They emphasize the divine aspect of mercy. Transgression can be forgiven through repentance. God is gracious and generously faithful to his covenant. In J’s depiction of the ultimate human experience of the divine, when Moses actually sees God on Sinai, Yahweh declares that he is
Yahweh, merciful and gracious God, long-forbearing, and abundant in faithfulness… Exod. 34: 6-7
The words that P never mentions occur about seventy times in J, E, and D.
It is not just a matter of vocabulary. J, E, and D also develop the idea of the deity as merciful through the stories that tell far more than P does. In the E story of the golden calf, Yahweh at first declares that he will destroy the entire people and start a new people descended from Moses instead. But Moses appeals to Yahweh’s mercy, and the deity relents. (Exod. 32:7-14) In the J spy story, the same thing happens. Yahweh says that he will destroy the nation and start over with Moses. Moses appeals again to his compassion, and again he relents. (Num. 14:13-20)
The author of P rejected this depiction of God. In his version of the spy story, Yahweh decides the people’s fate, and there is no further plea from Moses.
Again, it would be a mistake to draw the line too absolutely between the sources. J, E, and D occasionally can picture God as acting strictly according to justice, and P can picture his mercy. But, on the whole, the distinction between them is apparent and dramatic. P’s focus primarily is on divine justice. The other sources’ focus is on divine mercy.
And the redactor combined them. When he did that, he created a new formula, in which justice and mercy stood in a balance in which they had never been before. They are more nearly equal than they had been in any of the source texts. God was both just and merciful, angry and compassionate, strict and forgiving. It became a powerful tension in the God of the Bible. It was a new and exceedingly complex formula. But that was the formula that became a crucial part of Judaism and of Christianity for two and a half millennia.
The justice-and-mercy balance is more charged—psychologically as well as theologically—than the cosmic-and-personal balance. There is a constant tension in Yahweh between his justice and his mercy. They are not easily reconcilable. When should one predominate, and when should the other?
Everyone who has ever been a parent—or a child—knows the problem. The parent says, “If you do that, then you’re going to be punished.” But the child does it. And then the parent must decide what to do. Justice says: punish. But then there is also compassion. What happens in most families is that a balance develops between the two, a balance in which sometimes discipline prevails and sometimes forgiving. Probably few parents could name all of the factors that make them decide this way on one occasion and that way on another. The conflicting factors include, not least of all, the emotions anger and love.
In the combined biblical text, God is as torn as any loving parent. He makes a covenant with humans, and the contract has terms. When they break the terms, his immediate just response could be anything from termination of the covenant to the arrival of any of the horrible entries on the covenant curse lists in Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28. But his mercy nearly always delays and/or tempers his execution of justice.
The often-repeated image of the “Old Testament God of justice and anger” has always been only half of the real picture. It is as if those who say it have only read P and not the rest of the text. Ironically, this image appears to be based usually on the legal principle of “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” (Exod. 21:24; Lev. 24:20; Deut. 19:21) But that principle applies to human justice. In the biblical accounts, the deity almost always acts more compassionately than that.
And so the two religions developed around a Bible that pictured God as a loving and faithful but sometimes angry parent. To whatever extent this picture makes the Bible more real for its readers, to that extent the redactor was more successful than perhaps he even intended to be. To whatever extent the tension between God’s justice and mercy itself became an important factor in the Bible’s story, to that extent the Bible is, once again, more than the sum of its parts.
In a very real way, the Bible is greater than the individuals who wrote it.
– Who Wrote the Bible @ Amazon.com
-Interview with Friedman @ Beliefnet.com
-Dig This: Richard Elliott Friedman
Host Thomas Levy of the UCSD Anthropology Dept. welcomes Richard Elliott Friedman, one of the world’s foremost Biblical scholars and an authority on the genealogy of scriptural texts.