How can a xenophobic God be loving?

Racist chants and actions on the Paris Metro and at St. Pancras Station; the rise of UKIP; the strength of the religious right in the USA; boat loads of desperate people crossing the Med and the seemingly never ending tide of xenophobia in Europe. Richard Dawkins would blame these things on religious people and especially Christians as he sees the God of the Old Testament as “xenophobic”. This is the context in which we look at love in the Old Testament.

At 39 books and 1400 pages (at least in my NIV) and with over 400 mentions of the word “love” in English the Old Testament is long. For this reason a reflection upon love in the OT is necessarily selective. So today I want reflect upon one passage in Deuteronomy.

12 And now, Israel, what does the Lord your God ask of you but to fear the Lord your God, to walk in obedience to him, to love him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, 13 and to observe the Lord’s commands and decrees that I am giving you today for your own good?

14 To the Lord your God belong the heavens, even the highest heavens, the earth and everything in it. 15 Yet the Lord set his affection on your ancestors and loved them, and he chose you, their descendants, above all the nations—as it is today. 16 Circumcise your hearts, therefore, and do not be stiff-necked any longer. 17 For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who shows no partiality and accepts no bribes. 18 He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing. 19 And you are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt. 20 Fear the Lord your God and serve him. Hold fast to him and take your oaths in his name. 21 He is the one you praise; he is your God, who performed for you those great and awesome wonders you saw with your own eyes. 22 Your ancestors who went down into Egypt were seventy in all, and now the Lord your God has made you as numerous as the stars in the sky.

Here we have a wonderful passage. Verses 12-13 are an ethical appeal to Israel to fear the Lord, to walk in obedience to him, to love him, to serve the Lord your God and to observe the Lord’s commands and decrees. In the literary centre of these five commands we have the call to “love him”. Love is demonstrated by fear, walking in obedience, service and observance.

Verses 14-22 are a potted theology of creation, election, ethics and salvation, with a demonstration of love for God and others central. God is the creator God of heaven and earth (vs. 14), he is the electing God for Israel (vs. 15), he therefore can command Israel to circumcise their hearts and be pliable to him (vs. 16).

He is the God of Gods and Lord of Lords who is righteous and is not “bribable” (vs, 17). What is more he shows that greatness by defending the orphan and widow (vs. 18a) and loving the foreigner (vs. 18b). These were the foreigners who lived within Israel’s gates. This orphan, widow and foreigner were a class of people who represented those with no advocate.  The orphan had no father to defend them, the widow had no husband to take care of her and the foreigner, simply had no one, so it is God who takes up their case.

In care of the vulnerable, the love for God of verse 12 becomes concrete in love for the foreigner (vs. 19). God provides food and clothing for the foreigner and Israel are to love the foreigner as well.

This love for the foreigner and love for God are linked. The foreigner would not be able to give back anything to the loving Israelite. This is God’s love, it is “disinterested love”. The foreigner was dependent upon others for their food and clothing so by loving the foreigner the obedient Israelite was loving God.

The reason that God gives is because of Israel’s salvation in the Exodus. “You were foreigners in Egypt and God saved you therefore you love the foreigner.” This is linked to “take oaths in his name” because the reason for this is that God prospered Israel in Egypt and fulfilled his promises to them in performing miracles on their behalf and, even in their time in Egypt, he made them into a “great nation” (Genesis 12:1-3).

Love in the Old Testament is based upon the character of God as creator, elector, lover of the weak, saviour and sustainer. So care for the orphan, the widow and the foreigner is the way Deuteronomy 10 defines how we love others.