The unforgiving, unrelenting God
Nahum 1:2-4, Genesis 18:20-32
1st UCC Carlisle 11/17/19
In recent months, I have found myself speaking to a variety of people and speaking about their perspective on god. This has occurred within the life of the church, as well as out in the communities: at dinner parties, at community outreach events, and even regular events such as Theology Pub. It is amongst these conversations that I have occasionally encountered a specific opinion about God and God’s position on the world. This particular viewpoint espouses that God is full of judgement and condemnation. This perspective strives to address how some people believe how God approaches relationships with humans, with little to no divine grace available. One of the coallaries to this way of thinking is as follows, that there are people who are beyond the realm of redemption, and there will never be any no hope for them, today or in the future.
I understand to a point where some of this perception of God comes from. People usually attribute it to the Hebrew Bible, otherwise known as the Old Testament. There is a common reaction to regarding the books found in the Old Testament, that these books and texts are full of violence war and destruction. Correspondingly it is thought that the God of the Old Testament is hellfire and condemnation, with no evidence of grace or compassion amongst these verses. This same perspective suggests that whereas grace and love can be abundantly found in the Gospels as well as the books of the New Testament, this is not the case for the Old Testament.
I have to tell you, however, that what I read from the Hebrew Bible does not lead me to the same conclusions. Certainly, there are instances of divine judgement occurring within the pages of the Hebrew Bible. But this is not the end of the story when condemnation occurs. In the New Testament as well as in the Old, God does offer hope and love to all who wish to approach God. With this viewpoint, I believe that no one is beyond reach of God and God’s love. Here are times of punishment and traumatic consequences for the Israelites and others, but their lives do not end up with misery and no hope. The God we are in relationship with is not solely full of bloodthirsty judgement and righteous anger, but presents righteous love and gracious compassion.
Unfortunately to make this point about grace and compassion being evident within God, the book of Nahum is not one of those Biblical books that can help make this point. It is one of the few if not the only book of the Old Testament that does not seem to have any hope or future restoration promised to the people who are facing judgment and punishment. So in a little while I will be looking elsewhere shortly to make my point. I would like to talk a little bit about the Book of Nahum for now. It is a short book, only three chapters. It is located among the minor prophets of the Hebrew Bible. And the one geographic location that is the focus of what Nahum has to say is about the city of Nineveh. This is the capital city of Assyria. The first chapter of Nahum speaks of the declaration that this city was to be destroyed. The second chapter describes what is to happen in the destruction of Nineveh.
And the third chapter talks about how much Nineveh has done wrong in the eyes of the Lord and so the entire city has warranted this destruction. Nineveh has been found by god to be a place of violence and hate, a place where people are making terrible choices, and do not have their priorities in order.
Something that is worth noticing is that Nineveh is the same city that the prophet Jonah reluctantly preached too and this listened at that time and the entire city repented. So Nineveh did listen to the words of Jonah at the time, but in time the city turned away from God and pursued a life away from God and God’s word. An approximately timeline is that Jonah proclaimed to the city of Nineveh the need for them to repent in approximately 760 BCE, and Nahum was prophesying to them around 660 BCE. So while Nineveh at one was able to listen to God and able to redirect their faith lives, they had gone to far this time. It appears as though God was so upset with this society that when the city was destroyed, it was never rebuilt, and according to academic sources the remains of this city was not found until about 2400 years later. The only hope that is even remotely discerned from this book is for the people of Judah. There is mention of protection and deliverance of Judah in this time that Assyria is to be destroyed. It does not exactly occur as it is stated in the verses. The impact of the Assyrians on the community of Judah does lessen, but the people of Judah do not necessarily take the time to follow God and adhere to the call God placed before them. God has found this city to be full of evil people and individuals who are doing wrong
So the Book of Nahum does not help my point of God’s gracious nature. But there are examples elsewhere which point to the compassion and love God offers to the people of the world.
There are regular intervals of grace and forgiveness within the passages of the Old Testament. Each of the prophetic books of the Bible speaks on the judgement God is going to demonstrate, but almost every prophet (except Nahum) details the grace and forgiveness and restoration that is going to happen. The same is found within the Book of Judges (how many judges in the book of Judges). There are a number of instances found with the Old Testament that speaks about the Israelites community straying from the covenantal relationship with God, and there is the cyclic journey of God punishing the Israelites for theirs sins and wandering from the intended path of faith, them realizing the wrongs they had committed
The verses I want to highlight come from the book of Genesis. They are from the 18th chapter of Genesis (while I read them earlier I want to revisit them). This is the passage where Abraham has the audacity to bargain with God for the fate of a city. Abraham was humble and kind in his conversation, but he began with asking God if God would change this decision to destroy a city. Abraham had the gumption to challenge God in a moment of justice and judgement, and ask that the possibility of grace be considered. Abraham invited God to consider sparing the city of Sodom if there were 50 righteous people found. God consented, but then Abraham kept talking negotiating and reducing the number of righteous people found in Sodom to only 10. And God agreed to this negotiated proposal.
The notion that our God is rigid and absolute and unforgiving and relentless falls apart with these verses alone. A human invited the Creator God to change a divine decision of vengeance and justice to the mercy and compassion of a select number of righteous people in the city of Sodom. God listens to Abraham and accepts his words and suggestion. Our God is not one of absolute decisions. Our God is a divine being capable of being in covenant with people and listening and interacting with people, today and always. Judgement does happen with our Creator, sustainer and Savior God, but it is not the defining characteristics of Yahweh. Judgement is not something to focus or prioritize. God does not call us to be judge or jury for other people. Rather we are to be disciples of God’s only son, who came into to the world to live and love and show God’s compassion and grace to the people and the world.
There may be the perception that God is a God of criticism, condemnation, and judgment. But the love that god has shown us, through the events in the Bible and the situations in our lives needs to point us toward a different conclusion, that god is welcoming and loving God, inviting into relationship. And with this bond with God we are called to live in the world, demonstrating the same level of care and affection to the people around us. We are not to be focusing our attention on judgment or self righteousness, but rather a gracious life, living for our relationship with God and for others.
Thanks be to God and may the people of god say together amen