Why Punishment Doesn’t Work: A Few More Thoughts on God and Punishment in the Old Testament

old book pages

In my last post, I shared how and why Unconditional Parenting resonates with my understanding of God. (I’ve been talking about Alfie Kohn’s book Unconditional Parenting, and its implications for me, for a while now, starting here). I touched on the reasons I look to Jesus, rather than God as represented in the Old Testament, in order to understand God’s nature.

I thought I’d add a few more thoughts on the subject of God and punishment in the Old Testament.

One of Alfie Kohn’s more surprising insights, for me, was that punishment doesn’t work to produce good behavior in the long run (and often even in the short run).

I have never seen this truth played out more clearly than in the Old Testament.

(I explained in my last post that I believe that the Old Testament offers an incomplete picture of God. The stories in the Old Testament do, however, portray a painfully accurate picture of us.)

Over and over and over again, God’s people stray from goodness. They hoard, grumble, murder, rape, steal, bicker, and condemn one another. In the OT stories, God punishes them, they repent . . . and then, hardly skipping a beat, they turn around and start doing evil all over again. They go back to worshipping idols, fighting amongst themselves, and disobeying his laws.

Re-read some of these stories. It’s astonishing how little time it takes before they return to their evil ways.

Punishment seems to have no effect whatsoever on these disobedient, treacherous people.

Likewise, Kohn points out that rewards fail to improve behavior, and instead is often counter-productive.

We see this truth played out in the Old Testament, too:

God rescues the people of Israel from slavery in Egypt and lovingly guides them through the desert, providing miraculous sources of food, warmth and light; they turn around and build themselves a golden calf the second their leader isn’t looking.

God blesses David with power and riches; David goes and steals another man’s wife by having him killed in battle.

God rewards Solomon with wisdom and prosperity; Solomon goes and builds himself a harem, an extravagant palace, and a bunch of temples to other gods.

Clearly, rewards don’t work, either.

Finally, the Old Testament comes to a close, and it’s as if God declares, “All right: enough of this. Nothing I do can make my people love me or behave decently towards one another. I’m leaving it up to grace.

“Anyone who wants me can have me – freely. No strings attached.

“They don’t deserve it, but I don’t care. I love them too much to leave it up to them.”

And that’s where Jesus steps in.

* * *

If punishing and rewarding his people didn’t even work for God, I’m doubtful that it’s going to work for me in getting my kid to behave well. That’s why I want to parent like Jesus: unconditionally.

Image courtesy of le vent le cri.
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  1. Perhaps I should have saved my comment on your last post for this one…but yes. It’s astonishing how short the Israelite’s memories were. Until I remember just how short my own is, and how quick I am to “do the things I do not want to do.”

    I’m still sorting through in my head what this looks like for children between the infant, can’t-actually-do-anything-really-wrong stage and the old-enough-to-reason-with stage. And natural consequences of actions, I think, should always be enforced. But this little series of yours has clarified some half-formed thoughts in my head, Kathleen. Thank you. ^_^

  2. I really enjoyed reading this series, Kathleen! Now if only you could send it to Mr. Kohn and all those other people who are into this kind of thing and yet are oblivious as to the loving Lord you’re describing…
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  3. So, I don’t disagree with you, and I definitely parent my son with a New Testament picture of God in mind. I do believe that God does not punish us today, although there are many natural (and sometimes logical) consequences that take place when we choose routes other than what he asks of us. But – I’m still not sure how to view the Old Testament picture of God. If God chose to use punishment to teach his children, but it didn’t work – did God get it wrong? Did he not know it wouldn’t work? Because that doesn’t fit with what I know about him either. Why did he choose that route if it wasn’t going to be effective?
    These are questions I know I would be challenged on if I were to share this point of view with others, and I honestly don’t know how I would answer them.

    • I’ve struggled with these questions myself, and I’m far from having a definite answer. A couple of possibilities I’ve considered (and these are very simplified, watered-down answers) are:

      (a) Because God gave us free will, he had to open himself to not knowing exactly what we’re going to do. Free will doesn’t truly seem like free will if God already knows everything we’re going to do ahead of time, you know? In his infinite knowledge, God knows every possible choice we might make, from the beginning of eternity, but he doesn’t definitely know what choice we will make. So he had to witness our free response to punishment and reward to discover that we don’t respond very well at all. (This would be consistent with an Open Theology perspective, I think, which I know is not very popular).

      (b) Because the Old Testament records history with an incomplete picture of God, perhaps the authors misunderstood what God was really doing.

      (c) Because God meets us where we’re at, he had to stoop to that level, as the only way to communicate anything to such a violent and bloodthirsty people. But his goal was always to lead us to increased knowledge of who he is, and of how we can live in harmony with one another. He had to hold off in sending Jesus for a time when we were able to accept him.

      Or maybe some kind of combination of all of the above. This is a subject that interests me very much, and I’m anxious for Greg Boyd to finish his book on the subject, The Crucifixion of the Warrior God: A Cruciform Interpretation of the Old Testament’s Violent Portraits of God.

  4. I wouldn’t consider any of the “rewards” you listed as rewards. A reward implies that it is earned or given for good behavior. Rather all those actions of God you list as “rewards” I think are expressions of His grace and mercy to undeserving people – just as we see inthe life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

    Sometimes the purpose of a punishment is simply to communicate that a person is on the wrong path. There are times when we refuse to acknowledge or believe that something is wrong. The punisents serve to demonstrate how our hearts are turned against God. They show us that even though we may call something “good,” it doesn’t make it so. Punishments are often a wake up call. A “hey, you’re playing on the train tracks and a train is coming” sort of thing. The intent of God’s punishments were never intended to change hearts. Rather they were to show that the people had strayed again. To show that we are sinful and not righteous. Our righteousness is as filthy rags, to paraphrase Isaiah. We DESERVE punishment. Our hearts are hard against God. But in Jeremiah, God promises to give us a new heart. That is what the Holy Spirit accomplishes in calling us to faith in Jesus Christ.

    God is omniscient. He knew the human heart from the start. That is why He promised Christ right there in Genesis 3 after the fall into sin.

    There is a lot more I could say on this but I’ll stop for now. Needless to say, I disagree with your assessment of the Old Testament.
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    • That’s OK, Michele — I’m sure we still agree on more things than we disagree on. :) I’m interested in your interpretation and will meditate on it some more. I am FAR from being an OT scholar. These are just some of my reflections on the subject.

      Perhaps with David and the Israelites in the desert, God’s activity can be described more as grace than reward. I definitely prefer that interpretation. But with Solomon, the Bible seems pretty explicit: “The Lord was pleased. . . . God said to him, ‘Because you [did X], I will give you [X]'” (1 Kings 3:10-13). He adds, “And if you walk in obedience to me and keep my decrees and commands as David your father did, I will give you a long life” (14). This sounds like a reward-and-punishment system to me, and I believe it has been interpreted as such by most modern readers.

      I’m intrigued by your statement that “The intent of God’s punishments were never intended to change hearts.” I would imagine God would at least want to change their behaviour, if not their hearts, though I would also imagine he would want that even more. I thought that was the purpose of punishment. What good is it “to show that we are sinful and not righteous” if it doesn’t result in any change?

      Anyway, like I said, I’m not an expert, and I long to learn more.

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