Is God presented as an inconsistent character and protagonist in regards to the relationship with the Israelite people?

Okay, everyone, it’s time to indulge the nerdy side of my English major brain that has spent far too many hours analyzing literary elements. I know, isn’t that just the most exciting prospect ever? Try to contain yourselves, please.

As I read Deuteronomy, a prevailing undercurrent in the text seemed to emerge to me: God as a character and a protagonist seemed really inconsistent in his actions and motivations, especially when viewed through the lens of his relationship with the Israelite people. We see an incredibly repetitive refrain of vacillating between favor and punishment, veering wildly between the two. The notion of accurate transcription and preservation of the original message is always an issue that has the potential to arise, but it does not seem to be the issue here. We are presented not with Moses as an unreliable narrator, but rather we find evidence that God’s own characterization seems somewhat inconsistent in the provided text.

To highlight these extremes, we can look to quite a collection of passages within Deuteronomy:

The God of the Old Testament seems to be much more wrathful in general, but this is highlighted especially with his relationship with the Israelite people. Hot and cold doesn’t even begin to sum it up, basically. At one moment, they are blessed and protected by God and their covenant with him; the next, he is threatening to destroy them and raise up a new group of people because of his displeasure with them. God comes across as a volatile protagonist who displays emotions and whims that are more fitting of a human than an omniscient, all-powerful being. We are given this image of an intolerant, wrathful God, who errs on the side of extremes with his attitude towards the Israelite people. It is also strange to see God reacting to Moses’ imploring and counsel; for God to be seen as an omniscient and omnipresent being, it seems strange that he would sway to the pleas of a flawed mortal.

moses5The entirety of Deuteronomy 28 deals with the consequences of obedience and disobedience. If the people disobeyed, it wasn’t as simple as falling out of favor with God. No, it was a promise to systematically torture and punish them with all manner of horrors, and then wipe them out. It even says that God would take delight in punishing and destroying them if they disobeyed him. I don’t know about you, but having that kind of threat hanging over my head wouldn’t make me feel like much of a Chosen People. Good to know God wasn’t a big believer in overkill, huh? In 30:1, Moses promises that God will return his favor to them and gather them together to be blessed again if they turn back to him. Later on it says he will take great delight in blessing them and making them prosperous. It all seems to be very hot and cold with the character of God presented in this text.

Harkening back to 10:17, that isn’t very consistent with the image of a God who is “not partial and takes no bribe.” Showing favor to a chosen people to begin with shows partiality, and the promise to destroy them so thoroughly if they disobey further highlights that bias. He commands the people to pursue justice and banish bias in regard to their decision-making and handling legal matters, yet in passages like 5:8, he says he will punish later generations for the sins of their ancestors. That doesn’t quite fall in line with the image of a God who is impartial. In fact, there is more contradiction on the guilt and punishment within Deuteronomy. As Contradictions in the Bible points out, there is a promise in 5:9 to visit “…the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and fourth generation.” However, 24:16 asserts that “Fathers shall not be put to death for sons, and sons shall not be put to death for fathers. They shall each be put to death through his own sin.” So which will it be? Is each individual responsible for their own sin, or will their iniquity be visited upon their children and future generations? It seems to be another inconsistency revealed through God’s motivations and relationship with the Israelite people.

Moses even implores the people to “be careful” to obey all of the commands passed down to them, which sounds more like a warning than a religious plea. Moses himself would not be allowed into the Promised Land, and he understood the consequences of not obeying those commands.

Promised-LandAll the while, the Promised Land seems to be held above them as incentive for their obedience. God had already said that the older generation who had disobeyed him would not be allowed to enter into the Promised Land, so there was that threat of losing out on the promised home for them if they did not carefully keep all of the statutes set before them. The Promised Land itself is yet another interesting facet of the view of God as a character and protagonist. As Contradictions in the Bible points out, we have seen in earlier in Genesis that God presented the vow of the Promised Land as part of that unconditional covenant with them. Yet in Deuteronomy, such as in 4:1, 4:40, and 12:8-9, the Israelite people are reminded that they have not yet reached the Promised Land and they must be careful not to err or be disobey so they will be able to inherit it. So which is it, according to God’s word? Is it an unconditional promise, or is it something that can be taken away if God was displeased with them?

All in all, it seems to present a rather inconsistent “character development” of God as the protagonist and within his relationship to the Israelite people. His vacillations between blessing and punishment, favored or shunned, and so much more present him much more as a figure led by humanistic whims and emotions and motivations than an omnipotent being.

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