There’s a common misunderstanding of how God appears in the Old Testament.God’s Tender Mercy in the Old Testament
There’s a common misunderstanding of how God appears in the Old Testament.
Many detractors of the faith claim that in the Old Testament, God is an entirely angry, vengeful, and judgmental being. This actually a heresy, known as Marcionism, and it goes back to the earliest times of the Church to a figure named Marcion, who lived in Rome in the mid-100s. According to Catholic Answers, “He saw the God of the Old Testament as cruel and vengeful, an embarrassment and a stumbling block in the evangelization of the Gentiles.”
This heresy continues to persist to the present. One notable example comes from the notorious atheist Richard Dawkins, who had this to say about the God of the Old Testament in his book, The God Delusion,
The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully (The God Delusion, 51).
We could probably devote entire articles to evaluating and rebutting each one of Dawkins’ charges. However, this article will take a shortcut approach: the problem with Marcion and Dawkins’ claim is that it simply isn’t true: the God of the Old Testament is incredibly merciful and tender. This isn’t to ignore instances of judgment and punishment in the Old Testament, but it is to say that focusing only on those parts leads to the kinds of wildly extreme distortions and exaggerations perpetuated by Dawkins and others.
God’s judgments are best understood from the perspective of His mercy. This article will take one step towards that end by looking at a particular expression of God’s mercy, His tenderness. As Pope Francis has said, “Tenderness can indicate precisely the manner in which we recognise the divine mercy.” Put another way, tenderness is the touch of God’s mercy in our lives.
There are three moments early in the Old Testament where we can especially see God’s tenderness in action.
The garment maker
The first is in the very beginning, in Genesis, after Adam and Eve have sinned and been sentenced to labor and eventual death. The moment comes at the very end of God’s pronouncement of judgment. Genesis 3:21 reports that, “The LORD God made for the man and his wife garments of skin, with which he clothed them.”
Behind this very must have been an incredible story. We can imagine Adam and Eve, guilt-ridden and now ashamed of their nakedness. It seems like they’ve lost everything—a life in paradise, their original innocence, the purity of their relationship with each other, and their connection to God. (Even though technically their expulsion from the Garden of Eden occurs after verse 21, it’s clear from God’s previous discourse that paradise as they knew it is over.)
God ‘made’ garments for them. We slide right over this simple word. But in the context of Genesis it’s a bit extraordinary. Consider how God had ‘made’ everything else. In Genesis 1, God ‘speaks’ and it is so. His Word is creative. But here it is different—not because God could not have spoken garments into being but because he wants to demonstrate his consideration for Adam and Eve.
Being the making of the garments was a great kindness. Despite all that has happened, including His own judgment of them, God still loves and cares for Adam and Eve and is with them. This tender act of compassion shows it in a most gentle way.
Closing the door
Another moment of tenderness is easy to miss a few chapters later in Genesis. It comes in Genesis 7, after Noah has built the ark, as commanded by God, and filled it with animals. As the storm is about to come Noah and his family board the ark as well. One last task remains and God is the one who performs it. Genesis 7:16 states that, after all are in the ark with Noah, “the LORD shut him in.”
St. John Chrysostom sees significance in this simple gesture: “Notice in this place too the considerateness in the expression … to teach us that he had ensured the good man’s complete safety,” St. John Chrysostom says in his homilies on Genesis (Early Christian Commentaries on Scripture, InterVarsity Press).
As with Genesis, God acted within creation, rather than simply commanding the door to shut itself. In this gesture, we see the faintest glimpse of God’s future incarnate intervention in His creation.
Finally, closing the door likely was completely gratuitous. Though the biblical account is short on details it is reasonable to assume that Noah did not design a door that he could not have closed himself. There is something incredibly kind and tender about doing something for someone that they can do for themselves. It’s a humble way of showing love for them. (For example, think ahead to Jesus washing His disciples’ feet.)
Intimately revealing His goodness
In Exodus 33, in the midst of his dialogue with God, Moses pleads with Him to show His glory. God responds by granting the request but not to the extent that it would put Moses at risk. Here is how it is recounted:
The LORD answered: I will make all my goodness pass before you, and I will proclaim my name, “LORD,” before you; I who show favor to whom I will, I who grant mercy to whom I will.But you cannot see my face,for no one can see me and live. Here, continued the LORD, is a place near me where you shall station yourself on the rock. When my glory passes I will set you in the cleft of the rock and will cover you with my hand until I have passed by. Then I will remove my hand, so that you may see my back; but my face may not be seen (Exodus 33:19-23).
God’s tender kindness is again evident in the sequence above. It can be demonstrated by thinking of the alternatives. Another god perhaps would have refused out of callousness. Or that same callousness could have led that god to show Moses all His glory, endangering him. God avoids both extremes and does it through tenderness—he ‘covers’ Moses with His ‘hand.’ Again, as with the garment making and door closing, God, in His greatness and majesty, stoops down to touch us in simple ways—that’s tenderness.
Tenderness: God’s Greatness in the Small Things
In the Old Testament, God’s greatness is so often on display. He is the God of Noah’s flood and the parting of the Red Sea, the God of the storm and fire, and the God of conquest and deliverance. The above three acts stand out because of their smallness. They show a God not only of power and justice but a God of love—a love whose face is kind and caring.
There is a special kind of greatness in these small gestures, as St. Augustine suggests in the City of God, speaking generally about God’s work of creation:
Now God is in such sort a great worker in great things, that He is not less in little things — for these little things are to be measured not by their own greatness (which does not exist), but by the wisdom of their Designer (City of God, 11.22).
Pope Benedict XVI built on this insight in his 2005 Christmas Mass:
God is so great that he can become small. God is so powerful that he can make himself vulnerable and come to us as a defenceless child, so that we can love him. God is so good that he can give up his divine splendour and come down to a stable, so that we might find him, so that his goodness might touch us, give itself to us and continue to work through us.
Though the pope was talking about the birth of Christ, his words could just as easily be applied to God’s crafting of the garments of Adam and Eve, closing the door for Adam, or covering Moses with His hand. As the pope said, “God is so great that He can become small.”
Put another way, we could say that God’s mercy is so great that it reaches out to us from across his throne in the ‘vault of the heavens’ (Isaiah 40:22), touching us, holding us, and embracing us with kindness and gentleness. The greatness of God’s mercy shines forth in its tenderness.