That oh so merciful Old Testament God
by: John Tyrrell
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Earlier this month, I allowed myself to be dragged into a fruitless discussion with someone who objected to my interpretation of the second commandment.
His prime concern was that I interpreted "visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation" as God punishing those generations, whereas he interpreted "visit" as something else - I'm not quite clear as what - perhaps it involves God dropping in for tea and crumpets.
Needless to say, he failed to convince me. And I still regard punishing grandchildren and great-grandchildren for the beliefs of earlier generations as evil. And I weighed that evil in assessing the moral value of the second commandment as zero.
However, a secondary issue raised by my correspondent was that I had failed to take into account the immediately following verse which is also part of the full version of the second commandment:
And shewing mercy unto thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments.
I have to plead guilty. I indeed totally ignored that verse in weighing the moral value of the second commandment. And yet, we see that God is indeed promising to show mercy to thousands.
Thousands? Not tens of thousands? Not hundreds of thousands? Not millions? No! - thousands is the very word used. And yes - we do find the larger numbers in the Old Testament. So it is reasonable to suggest that "thousands" as written actually means thousands, and not metaphorically, "a really, really big number."
Let's put that into context.
At the minimal interpretation, the Old Testament God is addressing these words specifically to those he brought "out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage." That number is specified as 600,000 men on foot (along with women and children, plus a mixed multitude -- none of which did God or Moses bother counting.)
So assuming God's promise of mercy applies to the 600,000 and no-one else (because women and children and a mixed multitude don't count), then their God is offering mercy to about 1% of them. A pretty stingy offer, in my view.
If we expand the audience to which God was promising mercy to all the Jews who ever lived - at a rough ballpark guess, 100 million individuals - the offer of mercy to thousands seems downright miserly.
However, if we take the standard Christian view that the ten commandments and God's mercy apply to everyone who ever lived, we are talking mercy given to several thousand out of approximately 100 billion. Mercy is offered to perhaps 0.00001% of all who ever lived. That offer of mercy is derisory.
Too bad about the remaining 99.99999 % of us. Somehow, I don't find the amount of God's mercy offered in the second commandment is sufficient to move my rating of the moral value of the commandment above zero.
The mercy on offer is so minimal it can be ignored, just as I ignored it when I initially rated the commandments.
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