Justice is black and white, but Mercy is the color of love. Part 2: Justice and Mercy in the presence of the Living God.

This conversation started by acknowledging that there are passages in the Old Testament that, on first reading, seem difficult to reconcile with the concept of a loving Heavenly Father that Jesus proclaimed in the New Testament. But we know that that difficulty cannot mean there is a contradiction because the God we are talking about has already told us He does not change. The things that were right and wrong back in the Old Testament were still right and wrong in the New, and are still right and wrong today. That is a logical requirement of believing in an Eternal God that created everything, including thought, logic, and all moral laws.

It is a losing proposition to say you believe in Jesus but then at the same time say you don’t agree with the actions of the God of the Old Testament. The reason such a position is self-contradictory is that to believe in Jesus means to believe He is the Son of that very same God, as He told the Pharisees many times.

John 8:54-56 Jesus replied, “If I glorify myself, my glory means nothing. My Father, whom you claim as your God, is the one who glorifies me. Though you do not know him, I know him. If I said I did not, I would be a liar like you, but I do know him and obey his word. Your father Abraham rejoiced at the thought of seeing my day; he saw it and was glad.”

To believe in Jesus, you have to believe in the God of the Old Testament. Jesus gives us no other alternative. As I pointed out last time, He made it clear in the Sermon on the Mount that He did not come to overthrow the Law but to fulfill it. In fact, a meticulous reading of the Gospel shows that Jesus’ claim to authority, His claim to be the proclaimer of the Truth, was exclusively based on the word and the will of the God of the Old Testament. John the Apostle says it in one of his letters in the form of an “if and only if” statement:

1 John 2:23 Whoever denies the Son has not the Father either; he who confesses the Son has the Father also.

So, if you cannot accept the God of the Old Testament, you misspoke when you said you believe in Jesus. What you meant was that you admire Jesus. And you are free to do that.

But I do have to point out that you are admiring a person, based on a record (the Bible) that you do not consider trustworthy.

What else is different between the Old and the New Covenant?

Last time, I pointed out that there was a change in our universe as the story of humanity crossed from the Old Testament to the New one. It was a change God had planned all along. A hallmark of the New Covenant is that, today, all mankind, every person in the world, can hear and recognize the voice of God.

That is not the way it was in the Old Covenant. Only certain people, the prophets, got to hear – audibly – the word of God. But there is another difference that is more important: Those people had no doubt of the reality of the Living God.

And recognizing that is crucial to the question at hand. Because if we are to evaluate the words and deeds of the God of the Old Testament, especially as they relate to right and wrong and Justice, we have to do so in the context of what the people of that day believed. Just as we cannot put our words in the mouth of a witness testifying in a trial, we have to let those people testify in their own words to us. They are the only ones that have a right to tell us whether they thought the actions of God were Just or not.

(I am not advocating a relativist view of Justice. I am just pointing out that the difference between our modern worldview today and that of those ancient people may cause us to miss some of the context necessary to fully understand the argument. In other words, the fact that we are steeped in our modern viewpoint, which some might call progress, would probably make us seem rather ignorant to those people.)

Justice in the presence of THE Living God

The people of the Old Covenant differed from the proverbial “man on the street” today in one very important aspect. Today, at least in our country, the definition of “Faith” or religious belief is very fuzzy. In a 2018 Pew poll of self-described Christians, 26 percent of mainline Protestants and 28 percent of Catholics claimed not to believe in the God of the Bible. Such a statistic would be unimaginable among the Israelites of the Old Testament.

Why? Because they had seen with their own eyes incontrovertible evidence of the reality of the Living God. As Moses prepares them to enter the Promised Land, he reminds them of this:

Deuteronomy 4:1-8 And now, Israel, hearken to the statutes and to the ordinances which I teach you, to do [them], that ye may live, and go in and possess the land which Jehovah the God of your fathers giveth you. Ye shall not add to the word which I command you, neither shall ye take from it, that ye may keep the commandments of Jehovah your God which I command you.

Your eyes have seen what Jehovah did because of Baal-Peor; for all the men that followed Baal-Peor, Jehovah thy God hath destroyed them from among you; but ye that did cleave to Jehovah your God are alive every one of you this day.

See, I have taught you statutes and ordinances, even as Jehovah my God commanded me, that ye may do so in the land into which ye enter to possess it. And ye shall keep and do them; for that will be your wisdom and your understanding before the eyes of the peoples that shall hear all these statutes, and say, Verily this great nation is a wise and understanding people.

For what great nation is there that hath God near to them as Jehovah our God is in everything we call upon him for? And what great nation is there that hath righteous statutes and ordinances, as all this law which I set before you this day?

Notice how Moses appeals to the fact that they were eye-witnesses of Jehovah’s actions on their behalf. The Living God is no “absent watchmaker”. On the contrary He is a God that blatantly intervenes in human affairs and does so, not only for the good of His people (Israel), but also as a witness to the other nations around them.

Those are the people of the Old Covenant. To them, God was not a matter of opinion or guesswork or wishful thinking. He was real. Just as real as God was to Adam and Eve.

And just as Adam and Eve sinned in the face of a real undeniable God, when these people chose to sin, they did so boldfaced, knowing whom they had defied.

Can we then be surprised at this sequence of events?

( 1 ) God tells the people that in the Promised land they will face enemies:

Exodus 23:23 (NASB) For My angel will go before you and bring you into the land of the Amorites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Canaanites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites; and I will completely destroy them.

(The phrase translated “completely destroy” is also translated “devoted to destruction”.)

( 2 )  Then as Joshua prepares his army to attack Jericho he reminds them of the rules:

Joshua 6:18-21 (NIV) But keep away from the devoted things, so that you will not bring about your own destruction by taking any of them. Otherwise you will make the camp of Israel liable to destruction and bring trouble on it. All the silver and gold and the articles of bronze and iron are sacred to the Lord and must go into his treasury.”

painting by Tissot of the seven trumpets of Jericho
Painting by James Tissot: The Seven Trumpets of Jericho

When the trumpets sounded, the army shouted, and at the sound of the trumpet, when the men gave a loud shout, the wall collapsed; so everyone charged straight in, and they took the city. They devoted the city to the Lord and destroyed with the sword every living thing in it—men and women, young and old, cattle, sheep and donkeys.

The Israelites obeyed the command to destroy the city, to the letter. I almost have to say, How could they not? The fact that this was God’s purpose and battle was again made evident to all of them: the walls around Jericho, famous for their impregnability, sunk down into the ground right before their eyes. Would anyone in their right mind dare to disobey such a God?

( 3 ) Well… not everyone obeyed the command of keeping away from the devoted things:

Joshua 7:1 (NIV) But the Israelites were unfaithful in regard to the devoted things; Achan son of Karmi, the son of Zimri, the son of Zerah, of the tribe of Judah, took some of them. So the Lord’s anger burned against Israel.

Now, why does it say, “the Israelites were unfaithful”? Wasn’t it just this guy Achan? We are about to realize he did not act alone. You see, when he saw among the plunder “a beautiful robe from Babylonia, two hundred shekels of silver and a bar of gold weighing fifty shekels”, he coveted them and took them and buried them in the ground under his tent. You can’t do that without your family noticing it. His family knew about it… and they kept quiet. He defied the Living God; so did they.

If you have read the story, you know that soon after that, Joshua was faced with a small city called Ai and he went ahead and sent a small contingent to destroy it. It was a fiasco. They got chased away and lost 36 soldiers. Because God was not with them. The community had sinned. (I wonder how long a whole family can keep a secret.)

When Joshua complains about that lost battle to God, God essentially tells him, ‘What are you whining about?’ (Joshua 7:11-12) Israel has sinned; they have violated my covenant, which I commanded them to keep. They have taken some of the devoted things; they have stolen, they have lied, they have put them with their own possessions. That is why the Israelites cannot stand against their enemies; they turn their backs and run because they have been made liable to destruction. I will not be with you anymore unless you destroy whatever among you is devoted to destruction.

( 4 ) God then reveals the guilty party before the whole community, and then Achan confessed.

Joshua 7:22-26 So Joshua sent messengers, and they ran to the tent, and there it was, hidden in his tent, with the silver underneath. They took the things from the tent, brought them to Joshua and all the Israelites and spread them out before the Lord.

Then Joshua, together with all Israel, took Achan son of Zerah, the silver, the robe, the gold bar, his sons and daughters, his cattle, donkeys and sheep, his tent and all that he had, to the Valley of Achor. Joshua said, “Why have you brought this trouble on us? The Lord will bring trouble on you today.”

Then all Israel stoned him, and after they had stoned the rest, they burned them. Over Achan they heaped up a large pile of rocks, which remains to this day. Then the Lord turned from his fierce anger. Therefore that place has been called the Valley of Achor ever since.

There is a whole other sermon here, based on the fact that the whole community was required to be involved in the execution. But for the sake of this conversation, we just have to ask this question:

Do you think anyone in that community thought the sentence passed on Achan and his family was unjust?

What should be the penalty for sinning against THE Infinite God? You see, when you sin against me, I am a man just like you. I am a sinner just like you. I can’t really rile on and on about the injustice of your actions because I know I too have sinned. I can, however, call on Justice and Justice will have a verdict proportionate to the injury. But how do you measure a sin against the Living God who made you, who gave you and your family life, who promised you a future and proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that He would carry it out?

What was the penalty exacted of Adam and Eve? Death, at the time of God’s choosing. That is the penalty Achan paid.

Justice is black and white: Do the crime, pay the price.

Mercy in the presence of THE Living God

As I pointed out last time. Mercy has been right there next to Justice from the very beginning. In this same story there is an amazing story of Mercy and Grace.

We have to remember that Moses and Joshua had already told the people that when they came against these cities that God had devoted to destruction, none of them would surrender or seek terms of peace. The cities would choose war and reap the Judgment that God had decreed against them almost a thousand years earlier (see Genesis 15:7-16. The Amorites had 1000 years of warning: to either repent of their sins or continue in them from bad to worse. God told Abram they would choose the latter).

Furthermore, to prevent the Israelites from being seduced by the false gods of the Canaanites, they were forbidden from marrying any of them (Exodus 34:11-15). Justice has drawn the lines.

But now, when Joshua sends two spies into Jericho to scout its defenses, they end up at a brothel managed by a woman named Rahab.

Joshua 2:2-3 And it was told the king of Jericho, saying, Behold, men have come hither to-night from the children of Israel to search out the land. And the king of Jericho sent to Rahab, saying, Bring forth the men that have come to thee, who have come into thy house: for they have come to search out all the land.

It is clear from this, that Rahab was not the only one that recognized them as Israelites.

Joshua 2:4-7 And the woman had taken and concealed the two men; and she said, Yes, the men did come unto me, but I knew not whence they were; and it came to pass when the gate had to be closed, at dark, that the men went out: I know not whither the men have gone. Pursue after them quickly; for ye shall overtake them. But she had taken them up to the roof, and secreted them under the stalks of flax, which she had laid out on the roof. And the men pursued after them the way to the Jordan, to the fords; and when they who pursued after them had gone out, they closed the gate.

So, why did Rahab do this?

Joshua 2:8-11 And before they had lain down, she went up to them upon the roof; and said to the men, I know that Jehovah has given you the land, and that the dread of you has fallen on us, and that all the inhabitants of the land faint because of you. For we have heard that Jehovah dried up the waters of the Red sea before you when ye came out of Egypt; and what ye did to the two kings of the Amorites that were beyond the Jordan, to Sihon and to Og, whom ye utterly destroyed. We heard [of it], and our heart melted, and there remained no more spirit in any man because of you; for Jehovah your God, he is God in the heavens above and on the earth beneath.

Here we have a Canaanite, and a prostitute at that, who testifies that she knows Jehovah is THE God of Heaven and Earth. And she knows the sentence that has been passed on her and her people: that they were devoted to destruction. And she knows they have no hope of preventing it.

You see, it wasn’t only the Israelites who believed in the reality of gods. Those other people believed in gods too and they knew how to reason. And here in the face of eyewitness testimony, this Canaanite had reached the same conclusion Moses expected of all Israel: Jehovah is the Living God. So, what does she do?

Joshua 2:12-13 And now, I pray you, swear to me by Jehovah, since I have dealt kindly with you, that ye will also deal kindly with my father’s house, and give me a certain sign, that ye will let my father live, and my mother, and my brethren, and my sisters, and all that belong to them, and deliver our souls from death.

She cries out for mercy. And note that she didn’t have to be the only one to do this. Other people had seen the spies, other people knew of the same eyewitness testimony. But those other people decide to trust in their king and his city walls to defend them.  But Rahab threw herself at the feet of the Mercy of the Living God.

rahab helping the spies escape Jericho
Escape from Rahab’s House: Woodcut by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld

Joshua 2:14 And the men said to her, Our lives shall pay for yours, if ye do not make this our business known; and it shall be when Jehovah shall give us the land, that we will deal kindly and truly with thee.

If you have read the story, you know how it ends. God honors the words of the spies, even miraculously. Rahab’s apartment was on the wall itself. So, when God sank the walls of Jericho into the ground, one sliver of wall remained standing up, its window declaring with a scarlet rope, to all who could see it, the faith of that Canaanite woman, and the Mercy of the Living God.

And the story does not end there. This Canaanite woman became part of the community of Israel. In fact, she married Boaz, an ancestor of King David, and became part of the lineage of the Messiah. (See the genealogy in Matthew 1.)

Justice may be black and white but Mercy is free to color outside the lines. I, for one, am not going to complain about it.

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