“How can I reconcile impressions of the nature of God from the Old and New Testaments?” Ensign, July 1979, 20–21
H. Dean Garrett, Tempe, Arizona, Institute of Religion For me, the answer starts with: “For thou art an holy people unto the Lord thy God: the Lord thy God hath chosen thee to be a special people unto himself, above all people that are upon the face of the earth.” (Deut. 7:6)
This scripture sets the basis of God’s relationship with the house of Israel and those who join it and undertake its mission. That relationship is a special one, different in type and intensity from his relationship with his other children who have not entered into covenants with him. It is through Israel that all the rest of God’s children will be blessed. It is through them that the people of the world will come to know him and his ways.
As we examine incidents in the Old Testament, such as Lot’s wife being turned to salt because she looked back at Sodom (Gen. 19) or the destruction of Achan, his family, and his possessions because of disobedience (Josh. 7), we should keep in mind this special relationship between the covenant people and God. We must remember that the Lord was working with a select group of people who had weaknesses, trying to purify them to be a covenant people with covenant responsibilities. Therefore, some of his actions, viewed through our perspective, might seem harsh, but viewed through the eyes of eternity would not be.
President John Taylor illuminated this topic in explaining the Lord’s commandment to the children of Israel that if brother, son, wife, or anyone wished to lead one astray, that “thou shalt surely kill him.” (Deut. 13:6–9) Why? “Because in forsaking God, they lose sight of their eternal existence, corrupt themselves, and entail misery on their posterity. Hence it was better to destroy a few individuals, than to entail misery on many. And hence the inhabitants of the old world and of the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed, because it was better for them to die, and thus be deprived of their agency, which they abused, than entail so much misery on their posterity, and bring ruin upon millions of unborn persons.” (The Government of God, Salt Lake City: Zion Book Co., 1971, p. 53)
Because the Lord had to deal with the house of Israel on their spiritual level, he may appear to some to be rigid and unloving. But if the children of Israel had deported themselves more righteously and had accepted the higher law offered when Moses came off the mountain the first time, the Old Testament might read much differently. As it was, the “school master” to bring them to Christ from their spiritual level—not his—was very strict.
We get a more balanced look, though, if we consider the Book of Mormon, part of which covers some Old Testament times but most of which shows him in the same light as the New Testament. In the New Testament, he is merciful but also unyielding. He works patiently with the honest seekers and believers, but rebukes the Pharisees and Sadducees as hypocrites, chastizes those who would stone the adulteress, and drives the money-changers from the temple. In the Book of Mormon, he wanted Laman and Lemuel and their offspring to succeed as well as Nephi and Sam. He had the prophets plead with them and pray for them over the centuries. The ultimate destruction of the Nephites was not a catastrophe engineered by the Lord but the inevitable consequence of their own wickedness. His mercy had limits. Although the scope was broader than in the Old Testament and the principles involved were on a higher plane, the punishment for disobedience was just as inevitable if they did not repent. Thus, reading the New Testament or the Book of Mormon as a chronicle of endless forgiveness is simply a misreading. Furthermore, teachings of God’s love and forgiveness and patience appear throughout the Old Testament. One notable example is taught by Hosea, comparing his unfaithful wife to wayward Israel and his own patience to the Lord’s long-suffering. Gomer was unworthy even before he married her, but Hosea was patient, kind, and loving with her. Still Gomer abandoned her husband and children and “played the harlot” with other lovers. But Hosea offered her kindness and forgiveness. The Lord then drew an explicit parallel between Hosea and Israel:
“When Israel was a child, then I loved him, and called my son out of Egypt.
“As they called them, so they went from them: they sacrificed unto Baalim, and burned incense to graven images.
“I taught Ephraim also to go, taking them by their arms; but they knew not that I healed them.
“I drew them with cords of a man, with bands of love: and I was to them as they that take off the yoke on their jaws, and I laid meat unto them.” (Hosea 11:1–4)
Remember too that “the first and great commandment” was quoted by Jesus from the writings of Moses in Deuteronomy 6:5 [Deut. 6:5]; the “second … like unto it” was quoted by him from Leviticus 19:18 [Lev. 19:18].
Thus, the Old Testament is not as unmitigatedly harsh as it might first appear, nor are the Book of Mormon and the New Testament endlessly patient. First Nephi 10:18 proclaims truly that God “is the same yesterday, today, and forever,” [1 Ne. 10:18] and Acts 10:34 corroborates: “God is no respecter of persons.”
We must, therefore, be careful that we “do not judge that which is evil to be of God, or that which is good and of God to be of the devil.” (Moro. 7:14)