Lesson 2: A View Too Small: Punishment
I grew up in an environment where I was taught to fear the Lord, His righteousness, and His judgment of the world — in short His ability to punish the wicked. It wasn’t that any of that was wrong, but since knowing Gidon, and since spending more time studying the Jewish roots of our faith, I realized my view was a bit too small. To that end, I would like to share three examples of a larger view.
Example #1. Gidon Speaks of God’s Restraint
I remember hearing one of Gidon’s teachings on the morning prayers. He was covering the prayer of praise, Pesukei Dezimra which is based on Psalms 145-150. In one of his lessons he translates the Jewish prayer written about Psalm 145:8 as saying:
And He is compassionate, will atone for sin and not destroy, and very much refrains His anger, and will not awaken all of His rage. (From Pesukei Dezimra, translated by Gidon.)
Gidon went on to say that his ability to refrain from all the anger that is justified, is evidence of God’s power and might! When God has the ability and the right to do something, and He restrains Himself from doing it, it shows His power because He is able to restrain Himself!
This can actually be frustrating for the righteous. Solomon declares it:
In my own brief span of life, I have seen both these things: sometimes a good man perishes in spite of his goodness, and sometimes a wicked one endures in spite of his wickedness. Ecclesiastes 7:15 (TIB)
It seems to me that in His delay, God is giving time for the wicked to repent, and ultimately laying the groundwork for a righteous judgment in which the wicked, having been given every advantage in this life, will be without excuse in judgment.
Example #2. The Torah Punishes us Harshly?
But interestingly, the Torah commands quick punishment in certain cases.
You shall keep the Shabbat, for it is holy for you. He who profanes it shall be put to death: whoever does work on it, that person shall be cut off from among his kin. Exodus 31:13 (TIB)
And Numbers 15:32-36 tells the story of a man found gathering wood on the Shabbat, and the Lord told Moses that he was to be put to death by having the entire congregation stone him with stones. Indeed there are other death penalties listed in the Torah, such as:
If anyone insults his father or his mother, he shall be put to death; he has insulted his father and his mother—his bloodguilt is upon him. Leviticus 20:9 (TIB)
First, let me hasten to say that according to Jewish tradition, and unbeknownst to most Christians there simply is no record of death penalties being carried out in the years following Sinai. I mention this because many Christians have assigned to the Jews a desire for handing out severe punishments. This is simply not the case.
Nevertheless, the man who gathered wood on the Shabbat was stoned. Why did God tell Moses to do it? Why did God require it? Where is God’s restraint?! Where is His compassion? Is this an example of the God of the Old Testament acting in judgment while the God of the New Testament acts in mercy? NO, NO, NO!
The answer came to me in my year of reading all the footnotes and commentaries in the ArtScroll Torah. After looking at all the commands and seeing everything together, I saw a fascinating possibility! (And I’m not saying this hasn’t occurred to many others already!)
What if the man who is put to death in such a case, is not intended to be shamed and sent to hell? What if God’s intention is that he repents and accepts his punishment before God as an example to everyone else? In such a case, could not that man’s “work on earth” continue on even after his death? Would not the God of compassion assign to his eternal credit every instance in which his death inspires an Israelite to keep and safeguard the Shabbat?
In case my Christian readers cannot “track with me” on this, I’ll invite you to read the case of Ananias and Sapphira who both died for lying in Acts 5:1-11. Their case taught a powerful lesson to those who came after. Perhaps we need to remember them with appreciation rather than pointing fingers!
Example #3. Edom is Punished?
We Christians do not think too kindly of Esau and his kingdom of Edom, do we? Starting with their harsh refusal to let the Children of Israel pass through their land, continuing with the prophet Malachi, requoted by Paul in Romans 9 reminding us that God says, “Esau I have hated,” and ending with the still-to-be-fulfilled sweeping judgements pronounced by the prophet Obadiah over all Edom, we would like to keep Edom far, far away from us.
Gidon was the first person to ever tell me that the Jewish sages consider Edom to be the greatest foe of the Jews, (as brother struggles against brother). But then later I learned that Jewish sages see Christianity itself as coming from Edom!
Note: To be specific, the claim is that Rome was founded by one of the sons of Edom (see Midrash Esther Rabbah 3:5 and Ken Spiro’s Islam course on Root Source.) I have studied that claim and now agree with it. And once you agree with its accuracy, it is completely understandable why Christianity (i.e. Roman Catholicism) is seen as coming from Rome, which is from Edom.
But this idea easily riles up Christians. Edom will be punished! (Please remember the previous Studio See article about our need to be unoffendable!) But, let’s be honest. We as Christians want to have nothing to do with such a claim, because God hates Esau, right?
But, what if I were to tell you that the Bible also gives great honor to Edom?
Don’t believe it? OK, you are right in this sense: God does not give great honor to all of Edom, but He gives an honor to a remnant of Edom. And even more than that, the honor was completely deserved because of two amazing stories of two men from Rome in the New Testament. Care to guess who? If you need a clue: they were military men, but I’m not talking about Pontius Pilate. Let’s read about the first one.
- In Matthew 8, Jesus praises a centurion in Capernaum, who had more faith for the healing of his paralyzed servant than anyone Jesus had met in all of Israel. Jesus then exclaims to all: “I say to you that many will come from east and west, and recline at the table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven” Matthew 8:11.
- Then In Acts 10, we see the second praiseworthy centurion: Cornelius, who feared God, gave alms and prayed, and was even “well spoken of by the entire nation of the Jews,” (Acts 10:22). It was this man who would become the first Gentile follower of Jesus.
Both of these men were well-honored by God with supernatural miracles at the time, and deserve our respect even today. However, there is still one last piece to the puzzle.
In Acts 15, in the famous Council at Jerusalem, where the requirements of new Gentile Christians were determined, after hearing all the evidence, including retelling the specific story of Cornelius (Acts 15:8), James takes his justification from the prophet Amos 9:11 saying:
In that day I will raise up the fallen booth of David, and wall up its breaches; I will also raise up its ruins and rebuild it as in the days of old;
But don’t stop there! Continue reading the very next verse:
That they may possess the remnant of Edom, and all the nations who are called by my name. Amos 9:11-12 (NASB)
In other words, the remnant of Edom is the very first of all the nations to come into the rebuilt Tabernacle of David! A remnant of Edom, descendants of Esau whom “God hated,” is honored by God as the first nation who “gets in!”
And one last point. If you consider the fact that Edom is primarily east of Israel, and Rome is west of Israel, the east/west comment by Jesus makes even more sense: “I say to you that many will come from east and west, and recline at the table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 8:11). The remnant of Edom is in fact coming from not just the east, but the west as well.
In summary, I am wondering if our view of God’s punishment is still too small.
- We do not give God enough credit for His restraint in punishing the wicked.
- We do not give the punished enough credit for restraining sin in the righteous.
- We do not look hard enough to find the beautiful remnants in the horrific stories of a nation that will be punished.
In all these things, and many more, may God give us eyes to see a larger view of Him, and a larger view of His plans and purposes on the earth.