It’s a good question, one that many have wrestled with.
And I think the problem isn’t entirely resolvable other than in relational terms. For example, as a parent, while I want my children to feel loved and learn to love, there are times when I play the role of ogre to get the results needed.
My kids are grown up now, but we used to have a young man living with us, not my son, who had ambitions of becoming a youth minister. His parents had divorced and he kind of moved in with us. April 1 was the deadline for college applications, and he hadn’t filled his out. My wife and my sons — his de facto brothers — urged him to turn in his form over and over and over. But he was 18 and unmotivated. I told him — and meant it — that if he didn’t get it turned in on time, I was taking his house key and kicking him to the curb. And so he filled out his form — and I wound up being his “father” at his wedding and he just got a job as a pulpit minister.
So I was a mean, demanding, rules-based, demanding ogre, because that’s what he needed at that moment to grow up a little bit more.
So like a good father, God sometimes hugs us and sometimes threatens to take our house key. We need both.
Sometimes God’s harshness is a result of our not reading the text closely enough.
Nadab and Abihu were evidently drunk. And they’d been told to use the fire from the altar lit by God himself. And here they are in front of the Israelites, as priests, representing God to the people, and behaving like spoiled frat boys. What would have happened if God had done nothing? What if God had allowed his priests to be slobbering drunk in front of everyone?
Immediately, the text plunges into a warning to Aaron and his sons about the evils of intoxication while ministering in the house of God. Surely, some link is present, or vv. 8–11 are left dangling with no context or setting. … No wonder, then, that older Jewish commentators thought there was a connection, and Nadab and Abihu had drunk wine to excess. In their view (and ours), this circumstance provides the occasion for the warning found here in vv. 8–11.
Walter C., Jr. Kaiser, “The Book of Leviticus,” in General Articles; Genesis-Leviticus (vol. 1 of New Interpreters Bible, Accordance electronic ed. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994), 1071.
Sometimes we’re reading Ancient Near East machismo, and we don’t recognize the idiom of a foreign culture. Hence, “on your descendants forever” probably is hyperbolic, that is, not intended literally.
There are cases where a nation is said to be destroyed in total, men, women, and children, and yet they show up again in a later chapter. For example,
(1 Sam. 15:18-20 ESV) 18 And the LORD sent you on a mission and said, ‘Go, devote to destruction the sinners, the Amalekites, and fight against them until they are consumed.’ 19 Why then did you not obey the voice of the LORD? Why did you pounce on the spoil and do what was evil in the sight of the LORD?” 20 And Saul said to Samuel, “I have obeyed the voice of the LORD. I have gone on the mission on which the LORD sent me. I have brought Agag the king of Amalek, and I have devoted the Amalekites to destruction.
But we read about David attacking the Amalekites later in 2 Sam 1:1.
Just so —
(Deut. 3:6-7 ESV) 6 And we devoted them to destruction, as we did to Sihon the king of Heshbon, devoting to destruction every city, men, women, and children. 7 But all the livestock and the spoil of the cities we took as our plunder.
But later we read —
(Jdg. 11:19 ESV) 19 Israel then sent messengers to Sihon king of the Amorites, king of Heshbon, and Israel said to him, ‘Please let us pass through your land to our country,’
We cannot judge God by human standards. We may not murder. Why not? In part, because we don’t know the consequences of our actions. Who knows what children might have been born, what repentance might have occurred? We don’t know the consequences of doing something that is utterly irreversible.
God does. He knows how the world would be if takes a life and doesn’t take a life. He knows whether he is, on a net basis, doing good or harm. Perhaps if a nation had been allowed to continue, that nation would have committed far greater atrocities, many times over. Maybe they would have destroyed Israel entirely, preventing the coming of the Messiah from among the Jews. Who knows?
God has access to information we don’t. We can only trust that he uses his superior knowledge wisely.
Regarding Gehazi in particular,
Menken says: “It is the full, strong expression of excited, deep, yet holy and just feeling, which dare not and will not lay its words upon delicate scales, and which, to express the fulness of its abhorrence or its admiration, of its curse or its blessing, seizes upon a formula of the vulgar dialects of the country, even though it may not apply, in syllable and letter, to the case in hand.”
John Peter Lange, Philip Schaff, W. F. Bähr, Edwin Harwood, and B. A. Sumner, A Commentary on the Holy Scriptures: 2 Kings, (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2008), 56.
As God said to Job (I paraphrase), “Until you are able to create your own universe, you have no right to judge me, your Creator.”
(Job 38:4-5 ESV) 4 “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. 5 Who determined its measurements– surely you know! Or who stretched the line upon it?”
As Paul says in Rom 9 (I paraphrase), I made you out of nothing. You have no right to even exist. If I decide to end an existence I created, why shouldn’t I be able to do that?
(Rom. 9:18-24 ESV) 18 So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills. 19 You will say to me then, “Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?” 20 But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, “Why have you made me like this?” 21 Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use? 22 What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, 23 in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory– 24 even us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles?
Because we live in this age, we tend to think that what really matters is this age. Life and death are “this age” concerns. Eternity is infinitely more important. If we get there a little sooner than expected, it’s not a big deal in the grand scheme of things. Eternity plus or minus a few years is still eternity.
God can kill someone in this life and give that person eternal life. God took the life of the first baby born to David and Bathsheba to punish David for his sin. That doesn’t mean the baby is in hell. The baby may well have a free pass to heaven. We see that as terrible — God killed a baby! — but the baby gets instant eternal bliss.
We are too mortally minded.
Pascal argued that the best imaginable world may not be the best possible world, and perhaps God has given us the best possible world.
My children, when they were young, imagined worlds in which they spent all their time playing video games and eating chips. That was, to them, the best imaginable world. But it was not the best possible world. So I made them go to school, do their homework, and otherwise prepared them for the world as it is.
Maybe when we ask why God allows a famine or tornado, we don’t realize what worse things might happen if there were no famines or tornadoes. It’s called the “butterfly effect.” We don’t know what even worse things might happen.
Satan is alive, well, and active among humans. Until he is defeated, humans will make bad decisions and the creation will suffer from the futility described in Rom 8. God’s solution is to send Jesus, die on the cross for us, give us God’s Spirit, form us into the church — and all this is part of a cosmic battle against demonic powers at war with God. Until that war is over, there will be damage to innocents and suffering by people who don’t deserve it. Our proper response is not to sneer at God but to join God is bringing God’s shalom to this planet.
God charged us to fix things as his incarnation on earth. We are the body of Christ, charged to continue his mission. We’ve preferred to do other things. And then we blame God for what’s our fault.
Among the powers and principalities arrayed against God are wicked cultures and worldviews that bring misery to their adherents. Removing a wicked worldview and culture from the planet sometimes requires extreme measures. But only God has the wisdom to say when or how. If he wanted Israel to destroy the wickedness of the Canaanites (who, among other things, offered their children to idols by burning them alive as babies) by war, perhaps it was the only way to defeat that particular evil.
Likely, the truth is some combination of the above. There are likely different combinations for different questions.