Is the God of the Old Testament Different From the God of the New?
I find it very interesting how different God is portrayed in the OT vs. Yeshua in the NT. I am a devoted follower of Yeshua and believe strongly in the inerrancy of the original communication of the Bible to Man. I wonder if Man misunderstood the communication of YHWH and the testimony we hear in the OT is mistranslated. For instance, how could the God of Justice in the OT order the slaughtering of non-believers that perhaps never heard the Word and in the NT, Yeshua turned the other cheek. This dichotomy is very difficult to resolve. How do you resolve it?
Thanks so much for writing. I appreciate your desire to better understand the Bible and how God's actions can be reconciled with his nature. This question actually comes up quite frequently when discussing the nature of the Bible. Skeptics will point to passages like Joshua 6:17 - where the Lord commands Joshua to destroy the city and all its inhabitants - to show how the Old Testament portrays God as cruel and merciless, completely at odds with Jesus' teachings of the New Testament. They then draw the conclusion that Christianity is obviously false, since the nature of God seems to be in contradiction. However, upon closer examination, we can see that not only is this charge false, but there are good reasons we read about God commanding different actions in different situations.
1. Personal Admonitions Versus National Interests - First Understand the Context
Before we get too far into examining whether the Bible portrays God inconsistently, we need to first understand the context in which the individual passages are given. This is an important point to remember in trying to understand any difficult portion of Scripture. We must always interpret the verse in light of the context in which it was written since that can drastically color the meaning the passage takes on.
When we look at Old Testament passages such as Joshua 6:17 or Judges 20:43-48, one point we note is that the commands of God are addressed on a national level. Here God is instructing Israel as a forming nation. Christ's command to turn the other cheek and pray for those who persecute you are directed to individuals on how they should deal with other individuals who offend them.
So we must note that trying to draw a comparison between these passages is strained from the outset. They are addressed to two totally different audience types (a political government versus individuals) and two different sets of circumstances (establishing a new nation versus dealing with a personal wrong).
Another point we note is that the commands given to Joshua and the people of Israel were for a single circumstance where God was instructing them. They were to destroy all of the inhabitants of Jericho, but that command did not extend beyond them, and it was to only happen during that timeframe. This command of God did not give the Israelites license to just wipe out anyone who they deemed as in their way.
The instructions of Jesus, however, are general admonitions for life. They are guidelines for how we can be more loving to our fellow human beings and they help instill a spirit of selflessness in our individual characters. Also, they are not to be taken as hard and fast rules. When Jesus Himself was struck on the cheek by an officer of the Sanhedrin, He did not turn to offer His other cheek, but challenged the officer who had struck Him (ref. John 18:22-23).
In all, we can see that comparing these kind of passages and claiming they are contradictory is flawed right from the outset. However, this doesn't quite get us out of the woods yet. Your question also focuses on the nature of God. If God is all-loving, then how can He command the wholesale destruction of an entire population?
2. Guidelines for Protecting an Infant Nation
As I pointed out above, many of the Old Testament passages brought up in this are limited to a specific period in Israel's history - one in which Israel was just starting to establish itself as a new nation. And we must remember God had a very specific plan for the nation Israel - it would be the nation that would give the world God's word (ref. Rom. 3:2), and even more importantly, it would be the nation out of which the Messiah would come (Matthew 2:4-6).
Because Israel was to provide the very elements from which all the people of the world would be saved, the survival and protection of the nation was paramount. Therefore, God gave the infant nation a special measure of protection when establishing it in the land of Canaan. This is entirely consistent with God's character.
As a parent myself, I have given my children different rules for the different times of their lives. When they are toddlers, I limit their exposure to things that may be dangerous for them. For example, my four year old isn't allowed to cross the street by himself. However, my twelve year old can play ball in the street. Is this being inconsistent? No, it's merely recognizing that certain protections are necessary and those rules will change when that maturity level of the individual increases.
Similarly, Israel, as an immature nation with a very new religious system needed to be sheltered from the idolatry of the Canaanite nations, who would have corrupted Israel's worship of the true God and garbled its message to the rest of the world. (1)
3. Different Aspects of God's Character are not Contradictory.
Beyond the protection God provides to Israel, another reason God would command such action is simply to apply His justice to a wicked nation. In Genesis 15:16, Abram first asks about possessing the land, God tells him that the time is not yet right "for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet full." In other words, God was going to give the nations of Canaan additional time to repent ant turn from their wicked ways. When they didn't, God chose to se Israel to bring His judgment upon them. Similarly, God used Assyria and Babylon to judge Israel later in its history.
Although the punishments of God may appear to some as out of character with His mercifulness and love, it is not true that these are contradictory attributes. Justice is necessary to show love to the victims of evil. If God did not punish those who perpetrate evil, we would not only consider Him unrighteous but uncaring as well. When reading some of these isolated instances in the scripture, we are not privy to the extent of their actions and why God feels they should be judged, so we tend to think of the judgment as unfair. But God is God; He is in the position to judge His creation and because of that He doesn't need to justify His actions to us with an explanation why a nation deserves judgment.
Throughout the Bible, God is portrayed as not only loving and long-suffering, but also a righteous judge who will come to punish the unrepentant and the wicked. This is as true in the New Testament as in the Old. The Book of Revelation specifically speaks about God's judgment on the nations and His wholesale destruction of nations. Similarly, the Old Testament highlights instances where god reached out to sinning nations and gave them unusual grace. The Ninevites were extended a chance to repent in the book of Jonah, even though their deeds were wicked. So the character of God remains consistent throughout the Bible.
I hope this discussion has helped reconcile some of the divergent perceptions that one can draw from different aspects of God's character. God acts in a loving way when He protects an infant nation in order to bring salvation to the world. He acts lovingly when He metes out judgment to a wicked nation. Those who may clam these are contradictory in nature can't support their position with instances such as these. It would be unloving for God to act in any other way.
1 This in fact did happen to the extent that not all of the nations were vanquished. The very next book, Judges, demonstrates the danger Israel faced in this regard