January 18, 2022

Interpreting Old Testament Passages That Depict God as "Vengeful"

 By Archimandrite Iakovos Kanakis,
Chancelor of the Metropolis of Gortyna and Megalopolis

The study of the Old Testament for someone who does not have significant introductory knowledge of the holy books requires discernment. In other words, you can read the Book of Leviticus and be surprised by the expressions you will read. You are likely to misunderstand what you are going to read precisely because you need a substantial immersive, documented and subtle interpretive approach. So why does it use expressions that present a vengeful God? Or why are expressions used to indicate violence?

The science of history in general teaches us that in order to understand an event of the past we need to go back to the time when it took place or was recorded and examine the conditions, the circumstances, and the religious and cultural elements of the region. Theology is also an important science, which in fact differs from the others, because it concerns something intangible and something completely spiritual. For example, we will quote the passage: "But if you do not obey Me, and do not observe all these commandments,... I also will do this to you: ...I will bring a sword against you that will execute the vengeance of the covenant; when you are gathered together within your cities I will send pestilence among you; and you shall be delivered into the hand of the enemy” (Lev. 26:15-39). Reading such expressions raises the question of whether this God can be the same as the merciful Jesus Christ of the New Testament.

The answer is extracted with the help of the theological approach. In this particular passage, which exists in the Book of Leviticus (a book that contains a series of legal provisions for priests and believers) we should know the relationship that characterizes God and people. This relationship presupposes a covenant or agreement - a contract between the two. In order for the two "parties" to benefit from this agreement, they need to abide by what has been agreed upon. If even one of the two does not do so, then he will suffer the consequences of violating the terms. This model of agreement existed in the time of Moses, who wrote the Book of Leviticus. Thus these harsh expressions existed and were well-known and standard contracted formulations of the time and only in this way should we interpret them. So it is not that God is presented as angry or with a different face, but the author of the text uses the expressions known for his time, as was customary.

We therefore need to pay attention to how we interpret the Bible and especially the Old Testament, in order to reach the correct interpretation. For the study of the Bible, we urge the interested reader to study the New Testament first, then the Old Testament and then read again the New Testament. Also, it would be good to study some "Introduction" before studying these Holy Texts. They exist for both Testaments. In this "Introduction" you will read the important information and references about when, where, who wrote each book and of course to see in general the theological issues that are answered in each. The interpretation of biblical texts in particular, is an important task, which must be done by experienced theologians, spiritual people. Certainly the Fathers of the Church belong to this category of experts.

Source: Translated by John Sanidopoulos.