Why Does God Seem Different in the Old and New Testaments?

Michael A. Rydelnik
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It’s fairly common to think that the God of the Old Testament was harsh and vindictive but the God of the New Testament, as revealed through Jesus, is gentle, loving, and kind. As a result, people often call out the “eye for an eye” concept in the Law of Moses as proof that the God of Israel was harsh. In the New Testament, the Lord Jesus seems to reflect a more forgiving approach, saying “He who is without sin among you, let him be the first to throw a stone . . .” (John 8:7). Nevertheless, the God who gave the laws through Moses is the same God who gave His one and only Son for the sins of the world. We need to take a deeper dive to better understand the alleged law of retaliation and what seems like two very different portrayals of God in the Old and New Testaments.

The Law of Retaliation

This law, frequently called the “law of retaliation” (lex talionis), is deeply misunderstood. The same “eye for an eye” commandment is found in Exodus 21:23–25, Leviticus 24:19–20, and Deuteronomy 19:16–21. This commandment is part of the Law of Moses, a document designed to be the constitution of the people of Israel living in the land of Israel. Therefore, this commandment is talking about governmental authority, not personal behavior. The Deuteronomy rendering of the law is as follows: “then both the men who have the dispute shall stand before the LORD, before the priests and the judges who will be in office in those days. The judges shall investigate thoroughly. . . . Thus you shall not show pity: life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot” (Deut. 19:17–18, 21).

In His holiness and justice, God demanded that all sin be punished, but in His love, He Himself provided the One who would take that punishment.

Judicial, Not Personal

The misunderstanding about this statute is that it is often perceived as vengeful and excessive when it was actually designed to restrain vengeance and excessive punishment. There are two reasons for this perspective. First, the law required that retribution was to be judicial, not personal. In Exodus 21:22, it states that fines should be paid “as the judges decide” while in Deuteronomy 19:18 it says that the dispute is to be brought to the judges who “shall investigate thoroughly.” The Law of Moses made no allowance for personal vendettas, vigilante justice, or individual acts of vengeance. Disputes and criminal actions were brought to judges and the government was to carry out punishment. This law did not mean that if someone hurt my eye, I was permitted to hurt his eye. Rather, the courts would determine appropriate justice, thereby avoiding longterm feuds like the Hatfields and the McCoys.

Equal, Not Excessive

Second, these laws required that punishment should be equal to the crime, not excessive. In other words, the punishment was to fit the crime. If someone was liable for injuring my eye, the punishment would not be the death penalty. The consequence had to be equivalent to the injury done. Moreover, the context of Exodus is about paying monetary fines (cf. Ex. 21:19, 22), so it appears that the “eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth” command was not to be taken literally but referred to the appropriate financial restitution for an injury. If these words were taken literally, then it would lead to a blind, toothless society. What good does it do for a sightless person to have the person who blinded him also become blind? Rather, the court was to determine the appropriate compensation to help the person who was disabled.

Capital Punishment

The only exception to the financial application of these laws appears to be the death penalty for deliberate homicide. Since people are made in the image of God, deliberate murder of someone required the courts to carry out capital punishment as the only appropriate justice. That’s why Genesis 9:6 says, “Whoever sheds man’s blood, by man his blood shall be shed, for in the image of God He made man.” Clearly the Law of Moses was not primitive or harsh. Rather, it provided for appropriate justice and restricted the sinful human desire for excessive vengeance and personal retaliation.

One last thought about this command: this idea is not limited to the Old Testament but a similar concept is mentioned in the New Testament as well. In Romans, Paul calls believers to be subject to legitimate governmental authority (Rom. 13:1–7). Moreover, he warns the person who does evil to “be afraid; for it [the government] does not bear the sword for nothing; for it is a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath on the one who practices evil” (Rom. 13:4). So governmental punishment was not just part of the Old Testament Law but included in the New Testament, even to the point of capital punishment. Note that Paul talks about the government bearing the sword—this would refer to using it to put to death, not to slap someone’s bottom.

The Same God

Just as God affirms governmental authority in both the Old and New Testaments, He is also portrayed as just and loving in both. Here are some ways God is both gracious and fierce in both Testaments.

The Lord Jesus died for our sins to satisfy God’s just anger at sin and then was raised from the dead.

A Loving and Forgiving God in the Old Testament

In the Old Testament, we see that God is loving and merciful as He forgives sin. For example, David, who committed adultery and set up the death of Uriah the Hittite, is shown mercy when David repents and God forgives him. In Psalm 32:5, David said, “I acknowledged my sin to You, and I did not hide my guilt; I said, ‘I will confess my wrongdoings to the LORD’; and You forgave the guilt of my sin” (NASB). The Old Testament describes God this way: “The LORD, the LORD God, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness and truth; who keeps lovingkindness for thousands, who forgives iniquity, transgression and sin . . .” (Ex. 34:6–7).

A Just and Wrathful God in the New Testament

And while we may see the sterner side of God in the Old Testament, those characteristics are evident in the New Testament as well. Throughout the Bible, God is a God of justice. He holds people accountable for their sin and sometimes exercises discipline in seemingly severe ways. For example, when Ananias and Sapphira lied about how much they were giving to the congregation, Peter rebuked Ananias first, saying he had “not lied to men but to God,” and then God struck him dead. The same then happened to his wife Sapphira (Acts 5:1–11), reminiscent of instant justice sometimes seen in the Old Testament. The New Testament also describes the end of days, when God’s judgment would fall on the earth at the hands of Jesus, the Lamb of God. This is how people will respond in that day: “They said to the mountains and to the rocks, ‘Fall on us and hide us from the presence of Him who sits on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb; for the great day of their wrath has come, and who is able to stand?’” (Rev. 6:16–17).

Final Thoughts

Here’s the main point to remember: God is always the same. He is perfect and infinite in holiness and justice and in His love and mercy. These attributes explain the very reason the Lord Jesus came to redeem humanity. In His holiness and justice, God demanded that all sin be punished, but in His love, He Himself provided the One who would take that punishment. The Lord Jesus died for our sins to satisfy God’s just anger at sin and then was raised from the dead. God did this because He loved the world and provided the means of our forgiveness and eternal life (John 3:16). In this way, God “would be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (Rom. 3:26). That is the essential message of the Good News: that the holy and just God redeemed us in love through Jesus the Messiah.

For Further Reading:

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