The Character of the God of the Old Testament

Claude Mariottini
Emeritus Professor
of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

Today’s post was written by Vanu Kantayya, one of my students at Northern Baptist Seminary. Vanu wrote a research paper for the course “Old Testament Theology: The God of the Old Testament,” in which she seeks to demonstrate that the God of the Old Testament is the same God of the New Testament. Her paper is titled: “The God of the Old Testament and the God of the New Testament.”

This post is the sixth and the last installment in this series of studies on the God of the Old Testament. For previous posts in this series, see the links below.


Claude Mariottini
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary


A Legalistic God?

In Numbers 15, a man is found gathering sticks on the Sabbath and brought to Moses and Aaron. The LORD instructed Moses that he was to be stoned to death outside the camp (Num. 15:32-36). Is this a severe sentence for an innocent-looking task? Not so!

The importance of keeping the Sabbath holy had been made very clear to Israel repeatedly and that violating it would result in death (Exod. 31:15; 35:2-3). God himself had set an example when he rested on the Sabbath after the work of creation was completed. It was a sign of Yahweh’s covenant with his people. The Sabbath was also established as a form of justice, to prevent the oppression of slaves, who were not to be forced to work on the Sabbath (Exod. 20:10; Deut. 5:14). Further, God had provided an extra portion of Manna for the Sabbath so that the Israelites would not need to cook.

This incident, interestingly enough, is narrated between the refusal of the people to enter the promised land (Num. 14) and the rebellion of Korah (Num. 16). The Sabbath was a provision of rest and meant to be a blessing. This man’s blatant disregard of God’s commands, provision, covenant, deliverance and creation was an act of rebellious disobedience in front of all Israel. Everyone knew that this man’s sin was not a chance occurrence. For the sake of justice, Yahweh is forced to take action to prevent a precedent from being set for disobedience. This story is not a portrayal of a legalistic God. Yahweh is a just God whose hand has been forced by an individual’s willful actions.[1]

Divine Deceit?

There are two narratives in the Old Testament where God is portrayed as endorsing lies and deceit. One is the story of Micaiah in 1 Kings 22 and the other is the story of the census ordered by David recorded in 2 Samuel 24 and 1 Chronicles 21. In 1 Kings 22, Ahab, King of Israel, asks Jehoshaphat, King of Judah, to help him attain Ramoth-Gilead from the King of Syria. By this stage of his life, the evil character of Ahab is well established so the events that follow are no surprise. Jehoshaphat wants to consult a prophet of the LORD before going into battle which was customary.

Ahab’s prophets predict victory but Jehoshaphat is not satisfied and asks if there are no other prophets. Micaiah is summoned and Ahab warns the King of Judah that Micaiah has never prophesied good concerning him. The messenger asks Micaiah to prophesy something favorable to the king like the other prophets and Micaiah responds, “As the LORD lives, what the LORD says to me I will speak.”

Initially Micaiah tells the king that he would succeed in his mission. This is so unexpected that even Ahab is not convinced and orders Micaiah to tell the truth. Micaiah then proceeds to tell him the truth. In a vision Micaiah sees God enthroned, sitting with the divine council and a member of the council offers to be a lying spirit in the mouth of the prophets to bring about Ahab’s demise.

Why does God allow a lying spirit to entice Ahab to destruction? Even Micaiah is affected by the lying spirit initially, until Ahab commands him to tell the truth in the name of the LORD. Until then, Micaiah had only repeated what God had told him to say which was in accordance with lies through the mouths of all of Ahaz’s prophets. After that, he is compelled to tell the truth. Micaiah’s vision fits with the image of a war council where the King is seated on his throne surrounded by his army, drawing a battle plan to defeat Ahab in war.

The second story is that of David’s census in 2 Samuel 24 and 1 Chronicles 21. The 2 Samuel account seems to be in an odd location chronologically while the 1 Chronicles account fits better into the context. There are other minor differences as well between the two accounts, but the major one has to do with the first verse.

In 2 Samuel 24:1, the author refers to God inciting David to order the census and then unleashing his anger when he does so. In 1 Chronicles 21:1, it is Satan who stands against Israel and incites David to count them. Two opposing accounts which result in God’s anger and judgment executed through the plague and ending with David’s confession and repentance.

It is interesting to note that the plague is stopped just before the destruction of Jerusalem which eventually becomes the location of the Temple. God prevents the angel from destroying Jerusalem. Whether it is through Satan or God himself who incites David, why would God initiate an action that makes him angry? Is this a test for David? Has he become arrogant and relying on his own strength and power? Why does God cause David to sin?

Both stories raise ethical questions regarding God’s actions. Does God lie or deceive? The answer is found in Ezekiel 13 and 14 where God talks to Ezekiel about false prophets and what will happen to those who prophesy words not given to them by God. God is angry about the idols and abominations that Israel has resorted to and says that he will turn against them and make them a sign and a byword. He goes on to say that God himself would deceive the prophet and destroy him (Ezek. 14:8-9). The reason God gives for his action is to draw Israel back to himself after the punishment and to be their God (Ezek. 14:11). Ahab led Israel astray with idol worship and all kinds of abominations against Yahweh. He also surrounded himself with false prophets, refusing to listen to Yahweh’s true prophet. Divine deception is at times necessary to rescue Israel and bring restoration. It is said of God in 2 Samuel 22:26-28:

With the loyal you show yourself loyal; with the blameless you show yourself blameless; with the pure you show yourself pure, and with the crooked you show yourself perverse. You deliver a humble people, but your eyes are upon the haughty to bring them down.[2]

Can we reconcile a God who deceives with one who is trustworthy, truthful, reliable and a promise keeper? Chisholm points us to a character of God that he says is often overlooked. He believes that God gives sinners over to judgement and at times uses deceit to facilitate the process. When someone is already well down the path of evil and disobedience like Ahab, or Saul and at times even the Israelites, God’s patience comes to an end. He gives them over to their evil ways by inciting them to commit deeds that bring down the divine judgment and destruction they well deserve.

God is faithful with those who are faithful and punitive toward those who are not. His actions are consistent with his just nature. Those who are obedient can trust God to be truthful and faithful to them but justice awaits those who are disobedient and sinful.[3] Lest we believe that this aspect only pertains to the Old Testament God, 2 Thessalonians 2:9-12 clearly indicates that this characteristic is equally relevant to the New Testament God.

Divine Vulnerability and Suffering

God’s actions are easily explained when his intimate involvement with his people is considered. Copan sees in God’s words and actions a divine vulnerability (Isa. 5:4; Jer. 2:21; Zeph. 3:7; Isa. 66:4). The more Yahweh reaches out to his people, the more they reject him. Yahweh longs for Israel to return to him. Copan portrays the Old Testament God as a wounded lover who is reluctant to bring judgement, who desperately desires a restoration of relationship.[4]

Fretheim considers divine self-limitation and grief as necessities for maintaining the ‘covenant of peace” when God is faced with human rejection. Fretheim agrees with Copan that God cannot remove his involvement from his people and for precisely this reason, Yahweh suffers. He suffers over Israel’s disobedience and the broken relationship. He finally gives them up to judgment when they refuse to repent but enters into their suffering in exile and bondage.

God’s presence continues with those who suffer (Ps. 91:15; 23:4; 16:8). God also suffers for his people (Isa. 42:14). The sentiment of God’s suffering for his people is carried to its ultimate fulfillment through his son Jesus in the New Testament. Jesus is the suffering servant, who takes on himself the suffering of God to death, so that the evil forces of this world can be defeated.[5]

From Copan and Fretheim, we get the picture of a God who waits patiently for his people to repent and return to him. This long-suffering God finally gives them over to judgement and then waits eagerly to restore them into relationship with himself once again. This is not the picture of an angry, violent God who exults in destruction and annihilation.

In conclusion, the God of the Old Testament and the God of the New Testament are one and the same. God’s character does not change. He is loving, faithful, long-suffering, merciful and just. Yahweh has entered into a covenant relationship with Israel in which moral actions are stipulated alongside promises of favor and blessing. He has promised lavish blessing for those who obey his commands and severe punishments for those who disobey (Lev. 26; Deut. 28-30).[6]

A God who is holy cannot be indifferent but must overcome the evil present in his creation in order to be faithful to his character.[7] The truth is that wrath and love are inseparable. Yahweh is active in the lives of his people and fights for them when they obey and against them when they disobey. Holy warfare is seen through the physical battles of the Old Testament and the spiritual battles of the New. There is a final battle anticipated in which evil will be overthrown and Jesus will return to take his rightful place as King. The Old Testament displays the grace and love of God and his righteous wrath becomes necessary in defense of the defenseless and to keep his holiness and covenant relationship with his people intact. These realities become clearer in the New Testament.

God’s love and wrath are never more visible than at the cross.[8] God’s redemptive purposes for his creation will continue through history until consummation when heaven and earth come together as a new creation. Both Testaments offer an enthralling vision of the new creation, one to which we may look forward with glorious hope. A superficial look may make the Old Testament God out to be a moral monster or a merciless judge who exhibits disturbing behavior. However, a closer study of his word establishes his character as a holy, loving, faithful, suffering, merciful, and just God, one who yearns for an intimate reconciled relationship with us.

Vanu Kantayya
MACM Student
Northern Baptist Seminary

Other Posts In This Series:

The God of the Old Testament and the God of the New Testament – Part 1

The God of the Old Testament and the God of the New Testament – Part 2

The God of the Old Testament and the God of the New Testament: Divine Warfare

The Acts of God

The God of the Old Testament: The Instant Executioner


[1]. David T. Lamb, God Behaving Badly: Is the God of the Old Testament Angry, Sexist and Racist? (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2011), 125-126.

[2]. J. J. M. Roberts, “Does God Lie?: Divine Deceit As a Theological Problem in Israelite Prophetic Literature,” Supplement to Vetus Testamentum: Congress Volume (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1988): 219.

[3]. Robert P. Chisholm Jr., “Does God Deceive?” Bibliotheca Sacra 155 (1998): 28.

[4]. Paul Copan, Is God a Moral Monster? Making Sense of the Old Testament God. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2011), 37-38.

[5]. Terence E. Fretheim, The Suffering of God: An Old Testament Perspective (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984), 112-148.

[6]. James L. Crenshaw, Defending God: Biblical Responses to the Problem of Evil (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 130.

[7]. John K. Roth and Frederick Sontag, eds., The Defense of God (New York: Paragon House, 1985), 45.

[8]. D. A. Carson, “God’s Love and God’s Wrath,” Bibliotheca Sacra 156 (1999): 390.

Claude Mariottini
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

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If you are looking for other series of studies on the Old Testament, visit the Archive section and you will find many studies that deal with a variety of topics.

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5 Responses to The Character of the God of the Old Testament

  1. Pingback: Resources for 2 Samuel 22:26 - 28

  2. Professor, would you please give us a comment on the word ADONI, my lord. How do we know the difference between this and ADONAI, Lord God. Adoni is not a divine title, obviously and in the days before the Massoretic pointing how did they know the difference between these two words of which the consonants would be the same ADNY.
    Thank you


    • Claude Mariottini says:


      I will write a post next week and discuss the meaning of Adonai in the Old Testament.

      Claude Mariottini


  3. Blair says:

    Do you mind if I quote a couple of your articles as long as
    I provide credit and sources back to your blog? My website is
    in the very same niche as yours and my visitors would definitely benefit from some of the
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    • Claude Mariottini says:


      Of course you can quote me. Just place a link to my blog.
      Thank you for sharing my posts with others.

      Claude Mariottini


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