I still remember the painful lesson I learned many years ago when email first became a popular communication tool. Another person and I had a disagreement about something and exchanged a series of emails back and forth about it. Though most of the emails were cordial, toward the end of the exchange the emails got a little tense. In frustration, both of us sent each other some very short, very curt emails near the end of the “argument.” If a person had read the entire exchange of emails, they would have understood the flow of conversation and the effort that had been made to correct the situation. But if a person only read the last emails either of us sent, it sure made us look like really rude people. Sadly, my friend chose to share my last email with a number of other people, without sharing the rest of the conversation, and indeed it made me look bad. Though we eventually got it all worked out, it took a long time and I learned a valuable lesson about how easy it is to take something out of context if one does not read the entire conversation.
I was reminded of this experience yesterday when a young man asked me a question about a Bible verse that he was struggling with. This young man has an intense faith and is far more emotionally and spiritually mature than most young adults his age. Because of his intense faith, he has been willing to tackle some spiritual questions that others would prefer not to think about. The particular issue he was struggling with was how God judged people in the Old Testament. Many of the episodes of God’s wrath in the Old Testament seem harsh when lifted out of the context of the entire Old Testament narrative. The Old Testament narrative covers a historical period of nearly 4000 years. During that time a compassionate and gracious God revealed Himself again and again to a people that often ignored His overtures of love. God sent prophets, priests, and kings to lead the people the right direction. God used miracles, both small and large, to demonstrate that He was real and could be trusted. In the Old Testament, God was long suffering in His efforts to draw people to Himself. Yet, at certain points during that time period, God judged the evil behavior of those who had rejected Him. This often led to a large number of people changing their behavior and following the Lord again, though not always. If we only focus on those moments of judgment, the God of the Old Testament seems harsh. Perhaps even evil. But if we read the entire conversation, we see a love story between God and the people He is trying to draw to Himself.
Much like the email “argument” I had with my friend so many years ago, if one only reads the last email, one gets a messed up picture of the author. But if a person reads the entire conversation, the final email makes more sense. If we approached our study of the Old Testament the same way, we may find far more nuggets of truthful love than we realized in those ancient texts.