The sun had risen on the earth when Lot came to Zoar. Then the Lord rained on Sodom and Gomorrah sulfur and fire from the Lord out of heaven. And He overthrew those cities, and all the valley, and all the inhabitants of the cities, and what grew on the ground. But Lot's wife, behind him, looked back, and she became a pillar of salt. - Genesis 19:23-26
Pretty harsh, right? She simply looked back at her home being destroyed by fire, and a punitive God turned her into a pillar of salt. Nowhere in the text do we see her being warned not to look back. We only know that she was punished for her, seemingly justifiable, curiosity. We don't even know if she died instantly or if she was aware of her body of salt eroding over time.
Numbers 31 tells us that God had Moses lead the Jews to kill all the Midian men, enslave the women and children, plunder their; cattle, sheep, and other goods; and burn their dwellings. In Deuteronomy 2:34-37 God has Moses and the Israelites kill the entire population of Heshbon and occupy their cities outright.
The Old Testament is filled with stories of a punitive, even cruel, God. Then Jesus began his ministry and started preaching about forgiveness, tolerance, and mercy.
"Judge not lest ye be judged," "Turn the other cheek," and "Let him who is without sin among you cast the first stone," are among Christ's greatest hits. Jesus was all about forgiveness, rather than punishment. It was his thing.
Forget retribution, the rules were different from pre to post Jesus. I gave a few examples of the rigid laws the Old Testament Jews had to live by in a previous blog. Such laws dictated what they could wear, what they could eat, how they had to prepare the food, when they could touch their wives, how much work they could do on the Sabbath, and every other aspect of their lives.
Fast Forward to the time of Jesus Christ, and Jesus was healing people on the Sabbath, picking grain on the Sabbath (Matthew 12:1), associating with tax collectors and prostitutes, and challenging the notion of strict adherence to rigid rules.
In the end, Jesus only commanded two things. He commanded Christians to love one another and put our faith in God, through Jesus. OK, He wanted us to be charitable and do good works, but those are by-products of loving one another.
So what changed? How did a God of rigidity and punishment become a God of mercy and forgiveness?
Some people believe in the theory that we're reading about two separate Gods, a God of creation and a God of love. The idea reminds me of the old cartoon where the wolf and sheep dog stop in the middle of a chase and clock out. Then a new wolf and sheep dog clock in and continue the chase mid-stride. Buzz, nope, but thanks for playing. I have a hard time picturing the Universe running on a schedule of shift changes. Nor, can I picture the world as a football being handed from quarterback to running back.
I think the answer is far more simple. We are God's children, literally as well as metaphorically. When parents raise their children they have to be strict early on. The child can't have a cookie before dinner. They have to eat all their broccoli, go to bed at 8pm, clean their room, go to school, and under no circumstances should they cross the street by themselves.
The rules aren't imposed to be cruel. They're enforced to keep children safe and healthy until they can develop their own higher reasoning skills. Perhaps God was working under the cosmic equivalent of the same child rearing practices.
When humanity was a proverbial toddler we needed a strict rule book to guide and protect us. Over time we grew to equally proverbial adults who could go to bed at midnight and have Oreos for dinner if we want to.
OK, the last metaphor was a little tongue in cheek, but you get the idea. The more we've grown, dare I say it, evolved, the more slack God has given us to find our way. I know what you're thinking. You're looking at the world and thinking, "What a mess. Maybe God should have held the reins a wee bit tighter and longer."
While that's certainly a valid way to look at it, perhaps the opposite reaction is more accurate and helpful. If we accept the premise that God doesn't make mistakes, then we have to accept the idea that God, through Jesus, relaxed the law at just the right time in our development. In other words, He knew the road would be bumpy, but as long as we love one another and put our faith in God He knows we have the tools to withstand the bumps. And that's GOOD NEWS.