We often think of the Old Testament as frequently being about this angry and wrathful God who takes great delight in smiting people who have broken the rules. To be fair, that’s what we’ve been taught either in church directly or by what we hear and see otherwise. If you read certain sections of the Bible without considering how the story fits into the entire story of the Bible it can certainly appear that way.[audio http://www.buzzsprout.com/33052/325209-the-fear-of-god-it-s-not-what-you-think.mp3]
And why not? Threats of violence can be a great motivator for different behavior. If someone threatens to punch you in the snoot because you’re doing X, how likely are you going to keep doing X? The threat of violence can get us to modify our behavior.
The trouble with violence as behavior modification is that it doesn’t really modify behavior. It may interrupt the action in the moment but nothing is really changed. It is a temporary modification built on fear.
Fear makes us do all kinds of crazy things. And after we get used to one level of fear it takes another level to get our adrenaline pumping. There was a time when all a scary movie had to do was play the right music and have a monster pop around the corner and everyone screamed. Now? Well, what is shown in scary movies has moved to a different place, hasn’t it?
Eventually we get to the ultimate level of fear:
I’m gonna put the fear of God into that kid.
The fear of God? What is THAT about?
Well, I think it is in part related to a narrow reading of the Old Testament combined with an institutional approach to getting what the institution wants. Churches used to use the fear of God to convince church people to toe the line. Some still do, more’s the pity.
Coming to church on Sunday was a fear of God thing wasn’t it? If you don’t go to church on Sunday you’re going to hell. And then a guilt thing? If you don’t go to church on Sunday you’re a bad Christian AND you’re going to hell. Because nothing says the body of Christ in community like the fear of God with a dash guilt, does it?
Giving generously to the church, or good stewardship, was also frequently about the fear of God and guilt, wasn’t it? If you don’t give the church a lot of money God won’t like you and bad things will happen to you or the church, or both? Because nothing says the body of Christ in community like the fear of God with a dash of guilt, does it?
But watch what happens to the idea of the ‘fear of God’ here in Hosea. God is speaking through Hosea but it is God’s voice speaking to us. In the first two verses God refers to the Israelite nation as his child, the child that came out of Egypt. We know that part of the story, from our reading and discussions about the book of Exodus. God rescued the Israelite nation from slavery in Egypt. God names this out of the gate in today’s reading, “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son”
You can hear the warmth and pride in God’s voice, “My child, my child, my wonderful and loving child, O Israel”! Right?
You can hear the hopelessness and despair in God’s voice, “The more I called them, the more they went from me”! Right?
You can hear the anger and vengeance in God’s voice, “They shall return to the land of Egypt, and Assyria shall be their king because they have refused to return to me.”! Right?
There is a literary arc going on here in the 11th chapter of Hosea. Kind of sounds like this:
My wonderful children!
My wonderful children that ignore and hate me!
I should smite my wonderful children that ignore and hate me!
There’s a familiar ring here. If you’ve ever been a young and rebellious teenager, had a young and rebellious teenager in your house, been around a young and rebellious teenager or have heard stories about young and rebellious teenagers, this story probably sounds familiar.
It’s a familiar ring but the story doesn’t end there. In the end of the reading today you can hear love and compassion in God’s voice, “I will not execute my fierce anger; I will not again destroy Ephraim; for I am God and no mortal, the Holy One in your midst, and I will not come in wrath.”
The fear of God may modify behavior temporarily but it is the love of God that transforms our lives. For God is the holy one in our midst and will not come in wrath.