So many people believe that God is up in heaven keeping track of how many wrong things they’ve done and waiting to punish them for it. Many people, even Christians believe that God changed between the Old Testament and the New Testament. They think He was mean in the OT and nice in the NT. Richard Dawkins, who is one of the most well-known atheists today said this 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, a homophobic, racist, genocidal, malevolent bully. The God delusion, 31
This is basically how many people feel about God. Where do these ideas come from?
To answer that question, we must understand covenants in the ancient world and the fact that God actually entered into the same covenants with Israel that were common in the world back then.
When God first took the Jews out of Israel He offered to them a covenant where they would’ve had direct access to God and would’ve experienced His grace and blessing. In OT times, when a king wanted to bless a group of people with no strings attached it was called a “grant covenant.” This is what you see offered in Exodus 19:1-6. All the Israelites had to do was say yes, and remain in the covenant. There were no mention of laws to be kept.
Something happened between Exodus 19 and 20 that caused things to change. From verse 7 to 19 we see the people preparing to meet with God to establish the covenant. However, in verse 24 we see God tell the people not to come near Him. What changed?
To understand what happened here you have to look at Deuteronomy 5:23-27. In that passage Moses explains in detail what caused this original covenant to never be established. Moses records in that passage that the people told him they were afraid of God because of the power and might He displayed. They told Moses they wanted him to be a middle man between them and God.
When they made this statement they were telling God they were rejecting the “grant covenant” he offered and would like to establish a lesser covenant, called a “kinship covenant.” This is a covenant where two people groups come up with a small set of obligations, written on tablets of stone on both sides. Sound familiar? This is what was going on when the 10 commandments were given.
In a kinship covenant each party was accountable to their God (or god) if they broke the covenant. This put God in an awkward place because not only was He the recipient of a covenant with Israel, but He was also their God who was forced to punish them for breaking covenant.
Written laws were not part of God’s original plan. In Exodus 19:5, when the grant covenant was offered He tells them that if they simply obey His voice the covenant would continue. But since they rejected that covenant, God established a lesser covenant with them because He was meeting them where they were. The 10 commandments I believe are things in God’s heart, but He wanted their obedience to be from intimacy, not fear of punishment.
One example of how things changed when the people digressed from the grant covenant to the kinship covenant can be found in Exodus 15:22-26 where the people grumble about water and God does not punish them, but gives them good water to drink. Then in Numbers 11:1-3 grumbling led to a destroying fire.
These types of punishments are what lead people to make statements like the one above by Richard Dawkins. People have no idea of what was really happening and they assume that God is a crazed maniac. He was only giving the people what they asked for, but it was never His desire.
If two kings were in a kinship covenant together and one did not keep it, when he died a new covenant would be established with the previous king’s successor. The whole book of Deuteronomy is God going over the history between Himself and the Jews. Chapter 27 shows the curse of this next covenant that lasted for the rest of the Old Testament.
The book of Deuteronomy lays forth the downgrade from the kinship covenant to the worst type of Covenant, which is a “vassal covenant.” Many people read Deuteronomy as though it is God’s will for people today, but it actually records some of Israel’s worst moments that God never intended.
What He intended was the type of covenant He had with men like Noah, Abraham and David. The covenant God had with them was based on faith and God’s goodness. This is the type of covenant that we have now in the New Covenant. There will never be another Mosaic covenant. Christ did away with it when He destroyed its temple in 70 AD. Now we have a better covenant with better promises (Hebrews 8:6).
In those Old Covenants one thing that was common was for the destruction of enemies to be included the covenant. God originally wanted the Jews to take His love to the world. This is why today we don’t destroy our enemies, but we pray for them and show God’s kindness to them no matter what.
A great resource is Dr. Jonathan Welton’s book “Understanding the whole Bible.” In it he lists many sources of information on this topic and many others.