If you’re like me, you have at one time or another considered God to be like the gentle grandpa who always has a gentle word that fixes the problem because nothing fazes Him and because He’s so “loving,” everyone except Hitler goes to heaven. Unfortunately, that’s not God at all! If you read the stories in the Old Testament, God is terrifying. There’s no hint of Him being this gentle grandpa; He’s a king who casually says, “Off with their heads.” In the story of Job (he was so important, he had his own book), in the last couple chapters God gives a speech where He basically says, “I’m God; who are you to question me?” He then doubles everything Job lost at the beginning of the book because of his faith (God really values faith). If you read it, it feels a bit disjointed, “God just reprimanded Job and now He’s giving Job gifts because his faith made God happy even though there was no hint of happiness in God’s speech. Okay… my human brain is lost… which I guess is the point – I’m not God.” It’s a strange sequence, but it definitely doesn’t suggest God is passive or even slightly gentle. He’s pretty straightforward with a “deal with it” and “suck it up” kind of attitude.
In my devotions, I’ve been reading the story of Moses leading the Israelites in the dessert after they escaped Egypt, which puts God at a whole new level of scary. After God had freed the Israelites from Egypt through the use of ten plagues (which included lots of murder), parted the Red Sea (more murder), gave the Ten Commandments in a grand fashion that terrified the Israelites (including a rule against murder), fed everyone everyday with manna and quail (the opposite of murder), and was leading the people with a cloud by day and pillar of fire by day so His presence was very obvious, the people complained – not smart (He likes murder). Remember this is God’s “chosen” people. So what was His response? To lovingly correct them like Mr. Rogers? Nope: “he sent a fire to rage among, and he destroyed some of the people in the outskirts of the camp.” (Num 11:1b) Huhn, that was drastic; that’s not what Mr. Rogers would do at all. Shortly after that, some of the Israelites complained about dinner and did God share His heart with an “I feel” statement like we teach in therapy? Nope, God sent a plague with the food He gave that killed a bunch of the Israelites (Num 11:33). Shortly after that, a man was gathering wood on the Sabbath day and God told Moses to gently correct him… wait, sorry; my mistake. God commanded all the people to kill him by whipping stones at him until he died (Num 15:35) (so more murder).
Once again, it wasn’t long before the Israelites were whiney again and three men started a rebellion against Moses, which was an indirect attack on God. God’s response? Laugh off their silliness and do a magic show? Nope, He had Moses have the three men and all their family members stand outside their tents, and in front of all the witnesses, “The earth opened its mouth and swallowed the men, along with their households and all their followers who were standing with them, and everything they owned. So they went down alive into the grave… The earth closed over them, and they all vanished from among the people of Israel… Then fire blazed forth from the LORD and burned up the 250 men who were offering incense [on the rebels behalf]” (Num 16:33-35). God is terrifying!
You’re probably thinking the Israelites must have learned their lesson after that, but as any parent knows, a whiney child is eventually going to whine, and whine they did, but this time God sent poisonous snakes that wiped out thousands of people. When the people begged for help, God had Moses make a staff with a serpent on it, and if someone was bitten and looked at it (an act of faith) they would be saved. God didn’t remove the snakes; He let them be a reminder of what going against Him meant and that He was their only option to be saved. Fun fact, this area is still known today for having poisonous snakes although I’m pretty sure they have a different approach to dealing with the poison.
This disregard for human life isn’t just in this story (or Noah’s Ark). In the story of David, from David and Goliath, after a lifetime of praising David for being a man after His own heart and making David king of Israel, in a confusing short story at the end of his life, God has a messenger say to David that He was angered and David had to choose between three punishments: “Will you choose three years of famine throughout your land, three months of fleeing from your enemies, or three days of severe plague through your land?” Not to ruin the ending for you, but David chose the three day plague and God killed 14,700 Israelites.
Can you see why I believe that God is terrifying? He has no problem with killing people, and as He said in Job, who are we mere mortals to question Him? God is powerful and we shouldn’t mess with Him.
This adds to the incredible nature of the Good Friday moment. Instead of God sending a plague and killing thousands of people like He did so many times before, He allows His Son to die a brutal death at the hands of these mere mortals He could easily wipe out. God goes from extreme punishment to extreme grace.
These earlier stories also point out that we need to be careful not to take God and the Easter story for granted because He’s still that same God who opened up the earth and swallowed three entire families without a hint of guilt. If He can do that, why would we ever think that being a “good” person is enough for us to go to heaven? Maybe we should take our eternity a little more seriously.
Bonus: This “God is gentle” belief is particularly easy to think when we confuse Jesus with this passive guy who healed everyone He met and taught impressive lessons like an educated, doped up hippy incapable of having any real emotion. According to records, Jesus was a passionate man who cried, got scared, and got intensely angry at injustice. He was straightforward and even called out religious leaders as being hypocrites. That’s not what a conflict avoidant person does. He also only healed people who asked and believed He could do it. He regularly let people suffer and He never asked anyone to let Him help – “You don’t want help? Okay, that’s your bad choice. I’m going to find people who do.” Even the act of dying on the cross was the total opposite of weakness as it was the ultimate demonstration of self control. At the beginning of Jesus ministry when He was in the desert being tempted by satan, satan acknowledged that Jesus could call on a legion of angels to save Him, which He could’ve easily done while on the cross. Jesus’ death wasn’t about weakness – far from it. It was about doing what He knew would ultimately win the battle. It was like how Ironman died in the Marvel movies… but Jesus came back to life. Ironman wasn’t smart enough to know how to do that.
This Easter season, may you realize (or rediscover) God’s power and grace.
Rev. Chad David, ChadDavid.ca, learning to love dumb people (like me)