This is one of the most difficult and complex questions a person could ask. Especially since Christians believe the God of the Old and New Testaments is the same God.
Eye for an Eye? – In 1,400 B.C. this law was given by the God of the Old Testament: “But if there is serious injury, you are to take life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise.” (Exodus 21:23-24) So, this law has been on the books for 14 centuries and then Jesus comes along and says this: “You have heard that it was said, „Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.‟ But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.” (Matthew 5:38-39) What happened here? Did God change his mind? Nope. Was God like a teenager filled with rage in the Old Testament era and then 1,400 years went by and he matured and mellowed out? Is that was happened? No again.
God’s Idea, Not God’s Ideal – Prior to the “eye for an eye” law given by God, the law of the land was “a life for an eye.” Escalating violence ruled the day. So, if you struck my eye and made me blind, I would turn around and kill you. And if I killed you, your brother would kill my entire family. That was the law of the land. One act of violence led to more and more violence. With this in mind, God‟s law is not as barbaric as it sounds. In fact, his law was all about mercy. It put an upper limit on what one person could do to another when he was wronged or hurt. While the law was far from God‟s ideal, it was one step in the right direction. It was a step closer to God‟s ideal. The reason God didn‟t given them his ideal law back in 1,400 B.C. was the culture was so depraved, they would have rejected it outright, much like a toddler would reject calculus if you tried to teach it to him. God is patient and he knew the goal he wanted to achieve. So, he introduced incremental laws throughout the centuries that continuously moved people toward his ideal. Finally, when Jesus came he revealed God‟s ideal all along. God knew they were finally ready for it. Of course, this does not mean they would follow the law perfectly. But, it does mean they advanced morally enough to hear God‟s ideal without rejecting it altogether.
Analogy of a Cave – Brad Cole provides this useful analogy on how to harmonize the law God gave in Exodus with what Jesus taught in Matthew: “There are two ways of looking at verses like this. One is to be offended that God would seem to allow for something that is so far from the ideal. Another way to view verses like this is to be amazed that God would condescend so dramatically in his attempts to bring his people out of moral darkness one step at a time. And how do you bring someone out of a deep dark cave that has been there for many years? Do you bring them out into the noonday sun, or do you bring them first out at night and let their eyes adjust to the stars and the moonlight?”1
For Further Study
Brad Cole – “Scary God or Scary People?” (podcast available at www.godscharacter.com)
Greg Boyd & Paul Eddy – “Wrath and Love Q&A” (podcast available at www.whchurch.org)
Alden Thompson – Who’s Afraid of the Old Testament God?
Gary Meadors (ed.) - Four Views on Moving Beyond the Bible to Theology
1Brad Cole, “Scary God or Scary People?,” http://godscharacter.com/staticpages/index.php/selected_topics (Accessed May 23, 2010).