If God Smites, Why Can't We?
How the wrathful God of the Old Testament had a change of heart.
This article first appeared on Beliefnet in 2002.
According to Proverbs 15:1, “A gentle answer turneth away wrath” (or, in the language of the King James Version, “a soft answer”). It's a nice sentiment, but at the beginning of life with his human creatures, God's answers are the very opposite of soft. When Adam and Eve confess that they've succumbed to the serpent’s temptation, God answers with a ferocious curse:
Cursed be the ground because of you;
By toil shall you eat of it
All the days of your life:
Thorns and thistles shall it sprout for you.
But your food shall be the grasses of the field;
By the sweat of your brow
Shall you get bread to eat
Until you return to the ground--
For from it you were taken.
For dust you are,
And to dust you shall return.
This scene is the birth of death. Until this moment, God’s first creatures--with God’s own breath within them--have been immortal. But at this moment, God makes death the defining feature of human existence--to the point that “mortal” will become a synonym for “human being.” It's a devastating beginning to our story, and it frames all the other action in the Bible. If the Iliad is the epic of the wrath of Achilles, the Bible is the epic of the wrath of God.
Was mercy possible? Why could God not have said, “You have sinned, but I forgive you”? The question is pertinent because the punishment goes so far beyond what Adam and Eve deserved, and because it harms God as well as them. The human couple's need for redemption, restoration, and repair is ultimately inseparable from his own.
The Bible exists, of course, in two editions--the Jewish and the Christian. Each has its own way of repairing the harm done that day, its own route back to paradise. Judaism achieves tiqqun ‘olam, or the repair of the world by Torah, God’s teaching for the world, as conveyed and embodied by his covenant people, Israel. The Christian route is more radical and unexpected in that it comes by way of an astonishing change in God's character.
What do we mean in ordinary English when we say of a man, “He is such a lamb”? We certainly don't mean that he has a fierce temper. We do not mean, “Keep out of his way, or you’re finished.” But Jesus--God Incarnate, according to the Christian edition of the Bible--was hailed at the start of his public life as the “Lamb of God.” Looking back on his life, death, and resurrection, Paul taught his followers to celebrate Jesus as God Incarnate turned into a sacrificial animal: “Christ, our Passover Lamb, is sacrificed for us” (1 Cor. 5:7).