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Making Sense of a Vengeful God


PUC theology professor Jean Sheldon offers a preview of her presentation at the upcoming Adventist Forum conference; two different models of atonement explain why the Old Testament God of violence contrasts so strongly with Jesus, who taught his followers to turn the other cheek.

Question: You will be presenting at the upcoming Adventist Forum conference with a theme of "non-violence and the atonement." What is the main message you will bring to the conference?

Answer: The issues involved in the theme of “non-violence and the atonement” are both timely and basic not only to our relationship with God but our relationship with others. My presentation, titled, “Babylon and the New Jerusalem: Two Models of Atonement” will examine two sets of contrastive models for how relationships operate and for repairing broken relationships (atonement). One of these two sets of models, non-violent in nature, stems from creation and is exemplified by Jesus’ life and teachings; the other set of models, violent in nature, derive from ancient Mesopotamia and are featured in Assyro-Babylonian culture. 

To the extent that people insisted on the Babylonian way of thinking, forcing God to communicate with them in language they would understand, the Old Testament reflects Babylonian constructs and thought forms. It was this tendency to lean toward Babylonian ways that was to shape formative Judaism during and after the Exile. Jesus counters Babylonian modes of thinking and social constructs in ways that led those in Jewish leadership whose preoccupation with Torah and oral law (that eventually became the Babylonian Talmud) to reject Him and His message.

In examining Jesus’ trial, we can find evidence for borrowing from Babylonian ritual and judicial processes so that in one sense, we can attribute His crucifixion, in part, to Babylonian influences.

You have studied the atonement in the Old Testament in some depth, I believe. Did you study issues around the atonement as part of your graduate studies in theology at Berkeley? Or where and how has it been in your research sights?

I studied for the Joint Ph.D. in (ancient) Near Eastern religions. This program allowed me to choose my own areas on which to focus. For my major, I chose “Ancient Near Eastern and Biblical Law,” which allowed me to study legal matters from their earliest beginnings. For my two minors, I studied “Sumero-Babylonian Religions” and “Theodicy in the Context of Cosmology.” These two minors allowed me to familiarize myself with Babylonian texts dealing with atonement issues as well as cosmology. In the end, I brought together law and cosmology as the two sides of debate in the book of Job for my dissertation. 

Regardless of the rigors of such a doctoral program, the field is vast, and as my Beginning Akkadian (the ancient Assyro-Babylonian cuneiform language) professor said in class one evening, “We have too many tablets!” 

Consequently, I have continued researching both the Bible and ancient Mesopotamia, particularly Assyro-Babylonia in an effort to understand the unique contribution that the Old Testament makes to that part of the ancient Near Eastern scene, including the area of atonement.

How does the Adventist understanding of the atonement differ from other churches?

I must confess that this is a loaded question because there’s more than one view within the Adventist Church! As I began my formative years, I was taught that Jesus came to give us an example of obedience to the law. 

When I was twelve, I encountered for the first time the view of the atonement that I believe comes close to the current preference by a majority in the Church. The pastor of a church that I sometimes attended gave a series on the death of Jesus and how His death satisfied the claims of the law and divine justice. 

That same year, I also encountered for the first time the concept that Jesus came to reveal the Father. Since I had difficulty understanding the pastor and making sense of what he said and found the notion of Jesus having revealed the Father attractive, that is where my path led me. I believe that the pastor’s views are very much in harmony with a stream of Adventism that prefers the theory of forensic atonement and is also in harmony with evangelical Christianity. 

Perhaps the reason I never could embrace this view was that, in the way it was presented, Jesus became a legal means to an end: satisfaction of a penalty, and not a person who loved people, what that love meant, how Jesus revealed that love, and its significance. Of course, I was taught that God loved the world and sent His Son, but His love seemed to have little to do in actuality with why Jesus died or what His death signified. 

I actually found Jesus to be stern and unapproachable at times as a child. When I encountered personally the love of God experientially culminating at the foot of the cross, everything changed for me. Jesus and His Father became dynamically persons I could trust, and love and that view has influenced my lifelong journey since. 

So back to the question of the difference between Adventist atonement and that of other churches, it depends on who you talk to. But if we truly keep the seventh-day Sabbath, and worship the God who celebrated a finished creation as the same God who cried, “It is finished” and then rested on Sabbath in death, our views of atonement should harmonize cosmologically, from a divine perspective, as non-violent demonstrations of the character of God as the embodiment of His descriptive law of love. The Sabbath points us to a unique view of atonement in relationship to evangelical theology.

Are there things we are not clear about when it comes to the character of God in the Old Testament? Maybe you have kind of answered this already, but lots of people want to know: How can we square the vengeful God of Noah and Moses and Jeremiah with the loving God of John and Paul?

Yes, thing are not clear about God in the Old Testament. Two students came to me separately to tell me that the Old Testament God is the biggest deterrent to their peers’ having a close relationship with Him. 

As I see it, God was forced to communicate His character to people who believed whole-heartedly in violence. So violent ways of dealing with human relationship and violent ways of making wrongs right seem acceptable in the Old Testament. Had God talked more gently from Sinai, tried reasoning with the people from our frames of reference, He would have been ignored or rejected. A vengeful god who would retaliate against abuse and bring retribution on one’s enemies (which in the ancient Near East, as in the Middle East today, were many) was a god that people anciently felt they could trust. In fact, in some ways, I find evidence in the Old Testament that God was slighted for other gods because these gods were gods of power and Yahweh was viewed as too “weak.” 

Sometimes in my classes, I use Kohlberg’s stages of moral development to help my students understand God in the Old Testament context. According to Kohlberg, a person on a particular stage cannot comprehend more than one stage above their own. Once a person gets to stages five and six, the stages of altruistic love and moral principles, they can comprehend every stage. What this means is that Israel starts as a nation pretty much on stage one (power). Because the Israeltes cannot understand stages five and six, God meets them within their preferred context of violence.

More recently, I have acquired a new tool for understanding the Old Testament view of God. I have chosen to read the Old Testament as Jesus does in His treatment of divorce in Matthew 19. Jesus notes two principles: 1) the people of the Old Testament were allowed certain things because they had stiff necks and hard hearts but 2) in the beginning it was not so. This allows us to hear two voices in the Old Testament—the voice of God’s preferred will, which is tied to creation and which is often first in a narrative sequence; and the second voice of God’s will acquiesced or adapted to the will of the people. Most of the Old Testament I find to be in the second voice, a voice that Jesus counters in the New Testament, speaking predominately in the first voice.

You have been teaching at Pacific Union College for 21 years. What classes do you teach? What do you most enjoy about teaching theology there? What are the biggest challenges?

For the first 10 years, I taught ethics and theology (outside of my field). Due to changing departmental needs, I shifted to my field of Old Testament and Hebrew language courses. I have also taught by Independent Study Aramaic and Beginning Akkadian to about three students. As of this coming year, due again to changing departmental personnel, I am voluntarily shifting to biblical studies and ethics. So I have taught and am teaching a broad range of courses: Books of Moses, Kings and Conquest, God and Human Suffering, Introduction to Christian Ethics, etc.

What are your main areas of research interest?

Almost anything biblical and ancient Near Eastern, but occasionally I delve a little into church history.

You were ordained as an Adventist minister in 2013. How did that recognition make you feel?

I think it provided me with a lot of hope for the future of women in ministry in the Seventh-day Adventist Church, at least in some regions. The support of those who attended and those who knew was affirming and reassuring as well.

Were you disappointed by the ordination decision at the General Conference in San Antonio? How do you see things changing for women pastors in the Adventist church in the future?

I was deeply disappointed, but not really surprised. What disappointed me the most, I think, was the way in which it happened and the implications for the future of the Church, both in retaining the next generations, and for what it portends for its theology. Many women pastors have suffered from the fallout of that event and the spirit, and decision in San Antonio may lead to wider and wider division within the church.

What keeps you in the Adventist church? 

After serving outside North America for three years, I came home weary and discouraged with my church because of the legalism that I found where I had served. I told my mentor, a theologian well-known for his views on the atonement, that I could just as easily walk away from the Church as to stay. He looked me straight in the eye and referenced something I’d mentioned once in one of his classes from Zephaniah 3:3-5 (NRSV). After describing scenes of violence done to people and to the law, the prophet says, “The Lord within it is righteous; he does no wrong. Every morning he renders his judgment, each dawn without fail.” My mentor said, “And where do you think God would be if you left the Church?” His question, bringing back to my memory my own use of these verses, stayed my thoughts from ever leaving the church. 

If we keep going the way we are as a church, the question, “Where would God be?” may have to be answered, “On the cross.” But I would rather stay with Jesus through His darkest hour than to walk away in disillusionment. One of the things that keeps me in the church is that I have a strong appreciation for its history, the development of its theology, and have found its message anew in the Bible, in revitalizing language and thought forms, by careful study.

What inspired you to study theology? Is being an Adventist theologian like you thought it would be? What advice would you have for Adventist theology students today?

In Andre Hall, room 325, as a college student at Pacific Union College, in May, 1977, God called and anointed me after the manner of the Levitical priests to be a theologian. Though I questioned the nature of that call (what did God mean by “theologian”?), though many tried to block the fulfillment of that call, I am currently a testimony that when God calls, if we cooperate, He takes on the responsibility of ensuring that the call is fulfilled. Back then, I didn’t imagine much that I would find theology in such conflict. I did know at some point that the way might not be easy for me. But at the same time, teaching college students remains my joy, privilege, and pleasure.

My advice for Adventist theology students today is to seek to know God for yourself both intellectually and experientially in the Bible and learn to question everything you are taught and to test it for yourself, using the Bible. Do not let anyone do your thinking for you. Rely on the Holy Spirit who is the Spirit of freedom. That will keep you from forcing your views on others. Finally, nurture a strong personal relationship with God and a strong sense of personal mission for Him. This will keep you focused, without letting controversies consume you, and will ensure that God can use you to make Him known.


You can register for the Adventist Forum Conference at which Jean Sheldon will be a respondent by following this link.

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