Why Does God Sometimes Act So Temperamental?

Temperamental toddler throwing tantrumIf God never changes, then why does he seem so different in the New Testament than the Old?

Everyone sees it. Readers new to the Bible are disturbed by it. Experienced Bible readers develop reasoned explanations for it which seem sound in general but which tend to become strained when looking at specific texts.

I’m talking, first and foremost, about the wrathful, vengeful God of the Old Testament vs. the loving, forgiving, grace-full God of the New Testament.

The reasoned explanations point out that both are qualities of God and both can be found in either testament. “The LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness,” is a statement found numerous places in the Old Testament (Exodus 34:6; Numbers 14:18; Jonah 4:2, plus many others). And in the New Testament John the Baptist thunders, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”

So it’s all there in both, it’s just a matter of emphasis, with the Old Testament accentuating God’s wrath and the New his grace.

But…I think what gets people is not just God’s wrath, it’s something more. We understand righteous anger, and rather expect a God of justice to be angry at injustice.

There’s a difference, however, between righteous anger and being temperamental.



Which, if we’re honest, he sometimes appears to be.

Take Exodus 4, for instance. God has appeared to Moses in the burning bush and prevailed upon him, over Moses’ considerable objections, to go to Egypt to free the Hebrew people from Egyptian slavery. So Moses packs up his wife and sons and starts off toward Egypt, just as God had told him.

And then God tries to kill him.

Moses is only saved when his wife quickly circumcises him and then touches their son with the foreskin.

(Let’s leave for another time how an all-powerful God can merely try to do anything. “I gave it my best shot.” How does that happen?)

If circumcision was such a big deal, you’d think God would have given him a warning first. “Hey, before you take off for Egypt, you might want to do that circumcision thing. I’m kinda big on that.” But no, he just comes after Moses.

Something very similar happens in Numbers. God gives the prophet Balaam permission to go to Moab to prophesy for King Balak, telling him to only say what God tells him to.

So Balaam takes off—and God gets angry that he does! God sends an angel to prevent him. The angel has drawn his sword and is ready to hack Balaam to death if he doesn’t stop, but, ironically, this “seer” can’t see him.

He is saved only because his donkey sees the angel and has the sense to refuse to move forward in spite of Balaam’s beating and cursing.

Again, why tell him to go and then try to kill him when he goes? But it gets even more confusing. Balaam apologizes for not seeing the angel and for being so mean to his donkey, and says that he will turn around and go home since it’s obvious that God doesn’t really want him to go.

And the angel says, “Naw, go ahead and go. Just don’t say anything God doesn’t tell you to say.”

We’re right back where we were before! What was that all about?

If it were anyone but God we would say that this person is mercurial, erratic, and volatile, and if they were to claim that they were merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, we’d say that their behavior is inconsistent with the claim.

We see the inconsistency, but because it’s God we try to defend him and come up with explanations which are consistent with grace, righteousness and, well, sanity.

So we read things into the story which really aren’t there. In effect we change the story. Rather than deal with the story the way it is, we try to make it something it’s not.

In order to let God be God, we don’t let the Bible be the Bible.

I think there is a better way, which I’ll lay it out tomorrow.

Photo by © Can Stock Photo Inc. / txking

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