In Priestly Atonement, by the Numbers, when I mentioned the apparently harsh measures (such as plagues) which God took to make sure the Israelites did His will, I acknowledged how “difficult it may be for us to grasp the importance of teaching the Israelites in this particular way”. Some readers responded by asking whether I could make God’s ways under the Old Covenant easier to understand. I can only do my best.
Misconception 1: The God of wrath vs. the God of mercy
To begin, I should clear away two common misconceptions. The first is that God is a God of wrath in the Old Testament and a God of mercy in the New. This mistake can be triggered by some of God’s apparently harsh actions under the Old Covenant, but I suspect it owes more to the legacy of certain myopic Protestant sects which focused far too much on the wrath of God. For the Old Testament is also chock full of lyrical passages reflecting God’s unsurpassable love. The most striking example, of course, is the Song of Songs. But the prophets and the Psalms are also marked by many such passages.
This misconception also suggests that a certain harshness is completely lacking in the way Our Lord deals with us under the New Covenant. Yet denouncing hard-hearted Jewish leaders, lamenting those who lead others into sin, rebuking the wealthy, condemning hypocrites, and foretelling disaster for unbelieving communities: These were all part of Our Lord’s effort to wake us up. Consider:
Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. But I tell you, it shall be more tolerable on the day of judgment for Tyre and Sidon than for you. And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to heaven? You shall be brought down to Hades. For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day. But I tell you that it shall be more tolerable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom than for you. [Mt 11:21-24]
Finally, we must not forget the decisive separation of the sheep from the goats—those who will be sent into eternal fire. In reality, the chief difference between the Old and New Covenants in these matters is that God often taught the Jews through immediate material consequences while Our Lord was able to build on the Old Testament foundation to develop a more perfect, interior and spiritual understanding of the total incompatibility between sin and