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.
This is a staggering transformation, and it clearly took some getting used to for those who thought of themselves as God’s people. Thinking of Jesus as a prophet (among other things), his disciples thought of themselves as prophetic figures as well and on one occasion were prepared to kill, as centuries earlier the prophet Elijah had killed.
On that earlier occasion (2 Kings 1:12), sent by God to rebuke King Ahaziah of Samaria for consulting with the Canaanite god Baalzebub, Elijah soon found himself face to face with a brigade of Ahaziah’s army. the confrontation ended when Elijah called down God’s fire from heaven and burned the brigade alive.
Fast forward 850 years. In Samaria once again, James and John, two of Jesus’ disciples, face religious rejection. They ask their master if, like Elijah, they may call down fire from heaven on their opponents: “Lord, do you want us to bid fire come down from heaven and consume them as Elijah did?” But God Incarnate gives them a surprise answer: “He turned and rebuked them, and he said, ‘You do not know what manner of Spirit you are of; for the Son of Man came not to destroy men’s lives but to save them.” (Luke 9:54-55)
What's most striking about Jesus’ rejection of violence in this episode (parts of which don't appear in all New Testament manuscripts) is that Jesus roots his answer in the character of God. He says that his disciples don't know “what manner of Spirit you are of”--that is, what kind of God has created them.
Was Elijah then mistaken about God? It does not appear so. If God had disapproved of Elijah’s request for fire from heaven, he would not have complied with it. No, in Elijah’s day God was ready and willing to burn his enemies alive, but by Jesus’ day he is no longer willing. Has God then changed? In plain language, yes, he has. It is impossible to conclude otherwise. His hard answers have become soft. He has turned away his own wrath.
To this day, few of God’s creatures, including the vast majority of Christians, treat their enemies as Jesus treated his--allowing them to put him to death while praying only for their forgiveness, never for their defeat or their humiliation. But Christianity has never been able to suppress the scandal of how its version of the epic of God's wrath ends. It ends when the lion becomes a lamb, and nothing in the Bible, absolutely nothing, is more disturbing than this.